An Interview with Holly Goldberg Sloan
- By Ilana and Tyler Cymet
- December 15, 2020
The screenwriter/author most wants to make her young readers feel things.
In addition to writing feature films and TV shows, Holly Goldberg Sloan is also a bestselling author. Her books — including Counting by 7s, Short, I’ll Be There, and Just Call My Name — feature children as central characters but deal with adult themes. They should be required reading for middle and high school students and their parents.
In Counting by 7s, the main character, Willow, loses her adopted parents in an accident. In Just Call My Name, Sam gets taken out of school and away from his mother. And in Short, the protagonist is, well, very short. Are your characters experiencing uniquely extraordinary challenges, or does everyone have challenges?
I do think we all have our challenges. That's not just a modern condition, but what it means to be alive — to be human. I put my main characters in extreme situations, which I hope can be personalized by the reader. But I have a strong relationship to the people I write about, even if they are fictional. My sons went to a school for gifted children, and I saw some of the challenges those kids faced. I had a friend who tried to help a boy who had been essentially kidnapped by his father, as is the case in I’ll Be There and the follow-up book, Just Call My Name. In my novel Short, Julia looks two years younger than the other girls in her grade. That was the situation I found myself in during grade school. In junior high, I grew six inches and went from short to average to almost tall!
Your characters are mostly happy despite their situations. Does happiness come from doing what you like, or can people learn different ways to be happy?
I'm not sure I'd say my characters are happy, but I try to show balance. I remember being heartbroken at a funeral. I had been crying for days before I attended. There was someone at the service taking pictures, and there is one of me, and I have just put my arms around a friend and I'm smiling. When I saw the photo, I was at first horrified. I'm smiling on one of the worst days of my life. And yet, I later found the picture to mean that even in the worst of times, someone or something can bring a flicker of joy or hope. And in this case, it was that I saw my friend who had traveled from very far to be there that day. I didn't know she would be coming, and my face shows the duality of feeling two things at the same time: I'm so happy to see her even if we are there because of great loss.
Why do so many of your characters learn how to act, go to acting school, or get involved in plays?
It is true that I write about acting. The first reason for this is that I loved theater as a kid. I was in plays and I remember those experiences in such a good way. But the second thing is that I'm not just a novelist. I'm also a screenwriter and a film director. I work with actors. I'm the first woman to direct a live-action movie for the Walt Disney Company. I wrote and directed a movie called “The Big Green.” It's a sports movie about a group of kids playing soccer. I wrote the movie “Angels in the Outfield,” and I loved being there when it was filmed. It is interesting that you've pointed this out! Not many people make the connection. In my latest book [To Night Owl from Dogfish], co-written with Meg Wolitzer, the two main characters end up, halfway through the book, at a theater camp. We had a lot of fun with that.
Your books draw out emotions in your readers. Which is more important to you: to bring out feelings or to share a lesson?
I write in hopes of making the reader feel things. I write because I want people to be more empathetic. We live in very divisive times, and I write to find ways that we are similar.
In your books, you give lots of clues about all the different places we can find love. How important are pets as a way to find love?
I think that how we treat animals says so much about who we are. I grew up with dogs. At one point, we had a cat and a goat. Our neighbors’ dogs came into our house as if they lived there (this was in Oregon). We woke up one night to find a horse standing in the back yard eating the lawn. There were wild turkeys and pheasants in the park next to our house. The next-door neighbors had a pet squirrel that ran up and down the curtains, leaping through the air onto our shoulders. It was a mid-size town, but I felt very close to the natural world, and even though today I live in Los Angeles, I still feel that connection. When my kids were little, I'd tell them to close their eyes if we drove by a place having a pet adoption. But we could never resist. All of our dogs came to us that way!
Ilana Cymet is an avid reader and ice skater in Owings Mills, MD. Her father, Tyler, is a concrete-thinking science type who’s learning to appreciate and enjoy fiction through his daughter’s excitement for reading stories.