Holly Goldberg Sloan has had two novels published in the UK to date, both very well received. I’ll Be There is a breathlessly exciting teenage love story that demands, and rewards, belief in destiny; just out here, and already on the New York Times bestseller list in America, is Counting by 7s, another story of love conquering all in difficult circumstances, though this time it’s family love, rather than the romantic kind. Goldberg Sloan already has a large and growing following both here and in the US, readers who love her books for the skilful, satisfying storytelling, intriguing characters and heart-thumping adventures. In addition to the novels, she’s had a highly successful career in the movies, as screenwriter, producer and director. She wrote the baseball classic Angels in the Outfield, as well as the comedy Made in America, which starred Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Danson and Will Smith.
I met Holly at the start of a ten day promotional tour, that would take her from Suffolk to Doncaster, by way of the Hay Book Festival. It all sounded pretty exhausting, but Holly was looking forward to it. As anyone can tell from her books, she’s fun, very intelligent, great company, and, horrible cliché though it is, has a real zest for life. ’I had an interesting and wonderful childhood,’ she explains, ‘My father is a psychologist, he worked in many different capacities early on including designing tests for the astronauts’ programme – part of the programme was a psychological test to see if you could stay in a small, tight place and not flip out – from there he moved into aptitude testing. He spent his life trying to figure out if you can test for someone’s character, not just individual character, but national character. I think it’s interesting that as writer I’m obsessed with character.’
‘I think it’s interesting that as writer, I’m obsessed with character.’
Her professor father’s job meant that the family moved a lot – every three years in fact. They lived in California, the Netherlands, Turkey (Holly went to high school in Istanbul), Washington D.C. and Oregon. ‘The traveling really informed who I am’, she says. ‘I had a choice early on to let the world come to me, or to jump into the world. I chose to jump!’ Her experiences in Istanbul she thinks, were particularly influential on her development as a writer. ‘When we were in Turkey, I felt other – I stood out the way I looked, I had long blonde hair then, blue eyes… I went to Robert College, it’s kind of a famous school, and there were maybe five kids there who weren’t Turkish. Most classes were in English, but some were in Turkish, and I couldn’t follow it. It’s a really difficult language. So I would go to the library then, and there, for whatever reason, I read every book in the section African American literature: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston – I think the truth of it was, I very much identified with the outsider, because I was an outsider. I still today identify with the person in the room who doesn’t look like everyone else, which is ironic, because in America, I don’t look a bit out of the ordinary – but you can see that in every one of my movies, in everything I’ve written.’
Sam, the central boy in I’ll Be There, is very much an outsider, he’s been forced to be. He and his little brother, Riddle, live with their father, a petty criminal with a nasty, violent streak. He took his sons away from their mother when they were very young, and has since kept them both out of school. They move from town to town, have no friends, and very little contact with anyone. Is that a comment on her own childhood? ‘I think the moving made me, and I’ll Be There is very much about that – what would it be like if someone made you move.’ The idea for the book came from a friend, who met a boy in church, in similar circumstances to Sam, and tried to help him. ‘He told me a bit about it, and I fictionalised it. That’s one of the occupational hazards of having a writer for a friend!’
‘I had a choice early on to let the world come to me, or to jump into the world. I chose to jump!’
When she was in college, Holly’s father and mother divorced, ‘My father left my mother for one of his college students – not the greatest thing to happen,’ she remarks. She actually made a movie about it – she adds wryly, ‘maybe don’t make a move about your family life if you want everything to stay on an even keel’ – and feels that in all her books and her movies, she’s writing about families being taken apart and put back together again. ‘A lot of writing can be a way to heal things in your life. My husband (he is also a movie maker) is a great sportsman, he writes about competition, how one person gets one over on another – that’s something that interests him. I’ve written two sports movies and I think you can tell they’re written by a woman. Instead of being about what happens, what matters to me is that families come back together, they may be in a different shape or configuration to how they were at the beginning, but that’s what happens in life, nothing stays the same.’
At this point, Holly was distracted by a crying baby, which prompted her to tell an anecdote about an experience she had, which surely one day should become a novel, but also is a terrific physical demonstration of her overwhelming desire to create families. Standing in the queue at an airport check-out, she was behind a woman with two toddlers, three and five years old. To the consternation of the check-in staff, the woman was trying to send them on the flight as unaccompanied minors! Their grandparents would apparently be waiting at the other end. As the discussions continued, Holly stepped up and simply said, ‘I’ll take the kids’ – and she did, despite her mother and airport staff who were all saying, ‘NO! Don’t take the kids.’ It was an eventful journey, but they all arrived, and Holly was able to hand the children over to their grandparents. A family put back together!
‘I try to write what I’m feeling‘
Willow, the central character in Counting by 7s is desperately in need of a family. At the start of the story, her adoptive parents are killed in a car crash, and she’s left alone. Willow is a very gifted child, but finds ordinary communication difficult. Luckily for her – fate plays an important part in Holly’s books – she’s made friends with an older Vietnamese girl at school. Willow is able to move in with Mai, her mother and brother and by the end of the book, she has assembled a new family, and changed the lives of nearly everyone she’s met.
Counting By 7s is driven by the loss of Willow’s parents, and Holly wrote the book in response to a particularly sad event in her own life. Her husband, the father of her two children, died suddenly three years ago. They had divorced after ten years of marriage, but remained very close, and his death was a great shock. ‘I try to write what I’m feeling, and I felt like a kid from an emotional point of view, I was feeling so much loss.’ The book was not an easy one to write, and she claims she actually tried to give up a number of times, but her publisher wouldn’t let her. They were right to make her persevere: despite the grief at its heart, Counting By 7s is a real feel-good book that readers of all ages will press on their friends; the characters are immensely appealing, and its story arc leaves them in a kind of recreated paradise.
Counting By 7s also allowed Holly to explore another theme that she’d been thinking about for a while: gifted children. ‘I spent ages trying to figure out how I could write a TV show about a gifted child – when I mentioned it at meetings in LA though I could see the eyes of the execs glaze over – but my father was a gifted child, he went to college when he was sixteen, and both my sons went to a school for gifted children. There was obviously something going on inside my head, I couldn’t stop thinking about the subject. I got really interested in Steve Jobs, who was adopted, like Willow. His real parents ended up getting married – they’re both professors – but it’s so interesting how he ended up with this family that couldn’t have children, who intellectually were not where he was, but who were loving and wonderful. He said all the time that he was who he was because of them. They didn’t get so angry with him if he didn’t go to school, so he quit college and took a calligraphy course – and then his taking that calligraphy course is the reason that Apple have all these great fonts, what differentiated them from IBM.’
Like Steve Jobs and his calligraphy class, Holly’s books are full of the unexpected repercussions of actions. In both I’ll Be There and Counting By 7s, small acts of kindness result in life-changing events for the characters. ‘I believe that all the small things in your life matter, that they count more than the big things. I tell kids in schools that what matters is the day to day, not the big thing like the school prom, these events that you spend so much time on, and which are over-emphasised. I tell them: find the seven people in your life that matter, and tell them that. It could make a real difference.’
There’s a kind of spiritualism to this, and though Holly seems uncomfortable at the thought, she admits that her husband says she’s the most spiritual person he’s ever met. ‘But I’m not religious at all, and it sounds really corny, but I just want everyone to think about everyone else.’
The sequel to I’ll Be There, Just Call My Name, will be published in the UK this autumn. Although she hadn’t planned on writing a follow up, Holly found herself thinking about the characters a lot, until it became clear to her that she wanted to write more about them. ‘It takes place about three months after the end of I’ll Be There. You think that things have worked out for them all, but that’s not life …’. For fans of the characters, this is sounds alarming, but they needn’t worry, as Holly says, ‘I was once asked, “Could you ever write something where things didn’t work out?” It was upsetting – that’s just not me! Why wouldn’t it all work out? Life works itself out, you struggle and you find ways to make it work.’
Holly’s books are published by Piccadilly Press
Counting by 7s 978-1848123823, £7.99
I’ll Be There, 978-1848122673, £7.99
Just Call My Name 978-1848124127 is scheduled for publication in September 2014.