Holly Goldberg Sloan is the writer and director of family feature films, including Angels in the Outfield and Made in America. Her first middle-grade novel, Counting by 7s, is a New York Times bestseller. The following is a complete transcript of her interview with Cracking the Cover for her latest novel, Short.
Why do you write? Why specifically for young people?
I write for young people because that’s the ‘voice’ I hear in my head. It’s how I see the world. I find myself so often wondering how a kid would see something or say something. I had a very interesting childhood that involved a lot of travel (following my father, who was a professor as he took different positions at universities). I just find children often more interesting than adults.
You are a screenwriter. How does that play into writing novels?
I think the fact that I’ve worked in film and television is probably evident in my books. It’s not that they are dialogue heavy—in fact it’s amusing that I often have less dialogue. But I have spent three decades trying to tell stories where pictures—imaginary—is vital. I’ve also directed movies and they follow a format. They are called ‘movies’ because the pictures move and I try to write (for better or worse) in a way that keeps a story going forward. I also sometimes write characters thinking of specific actors. It’s just a shorthand for me to get a person inside my head.
Where did the idea for “Short” come from?
When I was in grade school I was cast in a production of the Wizard of Oz, performed by a semi-professional group, at the University of Oregon. And yes, I was short!
How did Julia’s character develop?
I wrote a novel called Counting By 7s and the main character, Willow Chance, is very gifted. I have two sons and they went to a school for gifted children. I was very influenced by the kids I saw there.
But all of us have gifts. And not everyone is focused at school. I really started from the point of wanting to express the inner voice of someone not like Willow Chance. I wanted to write about a girl who wasn’t great at math and who didn’t follow instructions well. Julia Marks was really born from that. I think Julia and Willow would be friends if they met. They would get a kick out of each other.
Julia develops relationships with a number of adults (Olive, Mrs. Chang, etc.) Why adults rather than kids her own age?
It’s summer. Julia has a lot of friends at school. Her two closest friends happen to be away for the break. Julia has no trouble socially with her peers, but adults have never singled her out as being that special. This is the opposite of Willow Chance who can’t relate to kids, but speaks the language of adults.
So again, I’m flipping some of those relationships in order to explore a different side of things. I’m close with a writer named Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette and Today Will Be Different). When she read the book she sent me a note and she said, “Your book is so pro-old people.” I really loved that observation.
“Short” opens as Julia is still processing the loss of her dog, Ramon. Why was it important to include this element?
One of the things I’m interested in exploring is how people experience and accept loss. I’ve had my share of that and I’m endlessly drawn to the emotions surrounding letting go. A pet is often the first true loss for a child. I still get emotional when I think about the big, black, poodle who was my constant companion growing up. I will never get over losing him.
Are you a theater fan? Would you ever agree to be a flying monkey?
I’m a theater fan! And I would be a winged monkey tomorrow if you pointed me in the right direction. Performance of any kind lifts up the performer and the audience. It can set a person free.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished a small movie that will be released by Warner Brothers home video. It’s about two young girls who want to be country singers. It’s called Pure Heart, and it will be branded as part of the Pure Country group of films. I wrote the script and it was very exciting to have Willie Nelson play on stage at the end of the movie.
Is there a book from your own childhood that still resonates with you?
Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary.