From New York Times bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde, ALLIE AND BEA is a cross-generational story about two women and their struggle for survival and search for a place to call home.
Together, Allie and Bea must learn how to survive from dollar to dollar, gas station to gas station, sometimes paying for food and supplies through the generosity of others and sometimes through less moral methods. As they make their way to the coast, they are forced to wrestle with questions of right and wrong, their unspoken desire for family and people they can count on, and their growing attachment to each other. Throughout their unconventional road trip, Allie and Bea also discover the freedom and fearlessness that come from losing everything. It is only when their lives are stripped down to the bare essentials that they gain the courage to take risks and the wisdom to understand the intangible things that matter most in life.
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About the Author
The author of more than 30 books, including the critically-acclaimed novel Pay It Forward, Catherine Ryan Hyde challenges readers to confront the meaning of family, to consider the role we can and should play in each other’s lives, and above all, to look for the silver lining in the darkest of moments. ALLIE AND BEA is a novel that proves you’re never too old to start over, you’re never too young to give back, and the worst thing in the world may just be the thing that saves you.
Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of 32 published books. Her bestselling 1999 novel, Pay It Forward, was adapted into a major Warner Bros. motion picture starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, made the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults list, and has been translated into more than two dozen languages in 30 countries. More than 50 of her short stories have been published in journals, and her short fiction received honorable mention in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, a second-place win for the Tobias Wolff Award, and nominations for Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Award, and the Pushcart Prize. Three have also been cited in Best American Short Stories. Hyde is the founder and former president of the Pay It Forward Foundation. As a professional public speaker, she has addressed the National Conference on Education, twice spoken at Cornell University, met with AmeriCorps members at the White House, and shared a dais with Bill Clinton.
A Q & A with Catherine Ryan
Q: When readers are first introduced to Bea and Allie, both characters are at a point where they have lost everything. Bea has fallen prey to a telephone scam and has nothing left but her cat and her van, while Allie has been forced to live in a juvenile group home after her wealthy parents are arrested for tax fraud. There is a quote in the book about this that is particularly striking: “All her life Bea had felt fear, especially fear of the lack that seemed to hide around every corner, and all her life she'd been ruled by it. But now she had a new secret weapon: nothing to lose. And that was a freedom the likes of which Bea had never known.” In a way, it isn’t until they hit their respective rock bottoms that Bea and Allie are truly free. What do they each gain by losing seemingly everything?
A: It’s an interesting phenomenon, the freedom that comes from losing everything. It remains largely theoretical because no one wants to test it out if they can possibly avoid it. But I’ve had little glimpses into the feeling. I think most of us have. Our fear seems to stem from the idea that we have something that could be lost, and that we are nothing without it. But once we are in that “lack situation,” the one we once thought was nearly akin to death, we realize we’re still alive and our life goes on. And in some very basic way we continue to be “okay,” though the definition of that word might shift. I do think it changes us. Having faced our worst fears, the timidity we carried with us through the world tends to fall away. It’s one of those odd aspects of the human condition that are a novelist’s life blood.
Q: As the income gap between America’s rich and poor continues to widen, many experts suggest that we now live in an era of drastic economic inequality. Your novel brings together two individuals who come from either end of the economic spectrum: Bea, who was already living from Social Security check to Social Security check, is now penniless, while Allie is a teenager who is accustomed to a life of affluence and luxury until her parents are arrested. What made you want to pair these two characters together, and what were you hoping they could learn from each other?
A: Some of these themes were not as premeditated as people might think. I made Bea economically strained because the plot needed her to be. I knew I wanted a—well, I hate to say “dishonest” because I’m not sure that’s true in Bea’s heart of hearts—but let’s say an “honesty challenged” character. Then I wanted to throw that character together with a scrupulously honest one. Allie I chose to be more affluent, probably because that helped create the contrasts that make good stories—both between her experience and Bea’s and between her old life and the one in which she suddenly finds herself. And the things they (and I) learned from the pairing involved a few interesting surprises.
Q: So many senior citizens are targeted in scams these days. In fact, New York City currently has an ad campaign running in taxi cabs warning people about phone scams just like the one that Bea is a victim of. Did you have any real life inspiration for her situation or her character? Sarah Burningham.
A: Well, I live in the world, which I think is my real-life inspiration for everything I write. And while Bea is not based on anyone I know, I have certainly seen a reflection of her struggles in the real people all around me. My mother lived with me for the 25 years of her retirement, and I watched her struggle to understand the technological world in which we now live. I watched her collect her Social Security, wondering exactly how she would manage to live on such a small monthly payment if she didn’t have family. I think I’m most aghast at the “scam culture” that seems to have no heart—the catfishers who prey on the lonely and the financial scams that disproportionately affect the elderly. I don’t understand how anyone could rob another human being of the one thing they can least afford to lose. And anything I can’t understand is likely to come up in my novels.
Q: In addition to the differences in their economic backgrounds, Allie and Bea must also contend with the generational divides that separate them. You yourself are closer in age to Bea, although you write about both characters with a great deal of empathy, nuance, and believability. Was one character harder to write for than the other, and what are some of the unexpected benefits of spending time with people who are younger or older than us?
A: Both characters were easy to write for me, probably for the same reason that I am equally comfortable writing from the point of view of a male or female character. I try to get underneath the thin veneer of our differences and write from that deeper place in which we are all human. We all want the same basic things—love, safety, acceptance—and we all have the same basic fears (whether we admit them or not). Once you find that place, differences such as age or gender begin to seem quite trivial. Plus, when writing young characters, my own arrested development helps a lot! As to the benefits of spending time with people of different generations, the more we get over—or under, or around—what we think of as our differences, the more we see how much we all have in common. Life can only get better from there.
Q: At certain points in the novel, Bea and Allie are forced to resort to theft and deceit in order to pay for things like gas and food. Stealing and dishonesty don’t necessarily come naturally to either Allie or Bea, but the ways in which they wrestle with and justify these seemingly immoral acts is quite interesting. In what ways do you think fighting for survival can change the nature of “right” and “wrong”? How did you negotiate that tension as an author?
A: Some of this was unplanned when I began writing the novel. The original idea was that Bea had turned into a scammer and Allie was honest, and Allie would help Bea see the light. Seems almost laughably simplistic, looking back. This is not to say honesty is not good. Of course it is. But we have these seniors (and others) living in poverty. They were promised security if they played by the rules and paid into their government funds. The rich are getting so much richer, and so many people like Bea have next to nothing. Many don’t even have what they need to survive. Everybody has the right to assure his or her own survival, so to say to someone like Bea, “Now, now. No taking what isn’t yours…” well, it seems downright immoral. Why do we live in a system where the very stuff of survival is not within her reach? And Allie, she has to learn that it was naïve to be as staunchly prohonesty as she has been, because until now she has never wanted for anything in her life. As a novelist, these are the situations I thrive on. They refuse to be black and white, no matter how badly we want them to be. So this was a process of discovery for me, a series of happy surprises that sprang up as I went along.
Q: Allie and Bea’s journey together becomes something of an unconventional road trip. Were you inspired by any of the classic road narratives from literature while you were writing this book?
A: The road trip has always been a passion of mine, as long as I’ve been writing. My first novel, Funerals for Horses, is a road trip. As is Becoming Chloe, Take Me with You, to a smaller extent Chasing Windmills… and I may even be forgetting one or two. I’m sure I have enjoyed reading classic road trip novels in the past, but none spring to mind now. What comes up strongly is my own love of travel. I have driven and camped and hiked through so many of these places, and they have changed me and become part of me. I guess it was inevitable that they would spill out into the work.
Q: Can you tell readers a little bit about the setting for this novel and what this area of California means to you?
A: Part of it is my beloved home. I live in Cambria. San Luis Obispo, the place where Allie and Bea were thrown together, Morro Bay where they first had breakfast, that overnight in Cambria… the zebras on the Hearst property and the elephant seals just north of town… it’s all my backyard. And I’ve done quite a bit of traveling along the coast, once with my mother starting at the top of Oregon, once with just my dog Ella all the way home from the Canadian border. It’s a deeply familiar place for me, with such striking scenery that it was crying out to be the backdrop for a story.
Q: When they first meet, Allie and Bea are both technically homeless and have no real family to rely on. In what ways does their time together change their notions of what “home” and “family” can mean?
A: Family is a concept with a practical necessity. And it’s a concept that comes up again and again in my novels. We need community, we need the support of others. So what do we do when all of our “others” fall away, or can’t meet our needs? The answer seems to be that we find what we need in unexpected places. Allie and Bea are not exactly “made for each other.” Their relationship is a scratchy one. Then again, isn’t that true with most of our blood family? I think, more than anything else, they learn that if two people have the other’s best interest at heart, they can fill each other’s needs against almost any odds.