I love blogging, reading other blogs, and commenting because sometimes a book reviewer gets lucky and makes a positive connection with an author. When I left a comment on Swapna's review of Willow at S. Krisha's Books, Julia Hoban was kind enough to contact me with a question about the audio version of her novel. After exchanging a few e-mails, Julia and I agreed to do a short interview.
I posted my review of Willow yesterday (you can go read it, I'll wait). Today, I ask Julia three questions about her novel. Her answers gave me further insight into the book and the process of writing. Enjoy!
Three Questions with Julia Hoban
Beth Fish Reads (BFR): One of the things I really loved about Willow was the realism, from the timers in the scary stacks (I hated going into the stacks when I was at a large university) to the way Chloe needs a second opinion about a potential boyfriend. It was very believable to me that Willow would start to see herself objectively only when hearing comments about the girl with anorexia and not when she saw Kristen's scratch and wondered if she were also a cutter. Did you do any research in this area? Can you talk about why it is that we can sometimes see ourselves more clearly in someone who has different but parallel problems than in someone who has our same problem?
Julia Hoban (JH): It's always easier to see the neurosis and problems of someone else, isn't it? It seems to be a fairly universal phenomenon, that we can recognize when someone else's actions are less than ideal, but never notice when we engage in the same or similar behaviors.
Interestingly, the scene that you're referring to, in which Willow sees the anorexic girl, is the one readers have commented on the most. Their response is not dissimilar to Willow's, and really illustrates your point: We can't see our own self-destructive behavior as clearly as we can see that of others. Over and over again readers have said that they can't understand cutting, the idea of slicing one's flesh seems too horrifying, yet they can totally understand starving themselves. When confronted with the anorexic, something they can relate to, they realize that cutting is just a variant of self-abuse, different from anorexia to be sure, but stemming from many of the same internal issues.
You ask if I did any research in this area (of seeing oneself objectively). I'm sorry to say that while I did a great deal of research, none of my reading addressed this particular issue. I can tell you that the scene with the anorexic comes directly out of something in my own life. Several years ago I was seeing a therapist, although never a cutter, I've certainly struggled with many issues. In any case, one day I arrived early and happened to see the patient who preceded me. This was a young woman who was nothing more than a walking skeleton. I've never seen anyone with such advanced anorexia, it was truly horrifying. I was quite shaken and stammered out to the therapist that I couldn't imagine anyone doing such a thing to themselves. He looked at me and said "Do you really think what you do is any different? You just don't use food as your weapon." It was a lightening bolt moment.
BFR: As most (all?) teens, Willow sees her life only from her own perspective: She is to blame, everyone is talking about her, no one can understand her, her brother hates her. You did such an amazing job keeping the novel centered in Willow's world that it comes as a surprise when we learn of David's real feelings about her and their parent's role in the accident. It was appropriate that Guy, as wonderful as he is, is not the one to expand Willow's view; after all he too is a teenager. Can you talk a bit about why David had so much trouble expressing his feelings to Willow and why he couldn't reassure her earlier?
JH: You pay me the extraordinary compliment of saying that Willow is a very realistic book. That's certainly something I was aiming for, and I hope that David's behavior is part of that realism. People are endlessly complex, and while the reader may think that David's consoling Willow would be the most natural response in the given circumstances, it's not quite that simple. David may be ten years older than Willow, but at the end of the day, he's just a twenty-seven-year-old guy in some very new and frightening circumstances, and really very unsure of how to proceed. What he says to Willow is perfectly true: he's afraid to bring up what happened because he worries that it would be disruptive, cruel even, when she seems to be getting along so well. He has no desire to open the wound. He doesn't know what she's doing to herself, from his perspective it looks like she's found herself a wonderful boyfriend and managing to cope fairly decently. On top of that, his feelings are conflicted. He most certainly doesn't hate Willow. As he says, he still adores her, and always will, but that adoration, that love, is mixed with all sorts of feelings. His life has been upended as well, and he's struggling to come to terms with his own pain and newfound responsibilities. That makes it difficult for him to reach out to Willow.
BFR: I understand that you are a fellow foodie. If that's true, can you talk about your decision to make Cathy the take-out queen instead of making her a gourmet cook, even if only on the weekends? Food played a very small part in the novel.
JH: There were several reasons for this. On the most practical level, Cathy has a job and a newborn, there's not a lot of time for her to cook! But there's something else going on as well. There's a passage in the book that talks about how before Willow's parents died, spending the night with David and Cathy in their city apartment was glamorous and exciting, while after the accident it's uncomfortable, both physically and psychologically. It's the same with food: Before, having Chinese takeout was new and exotic, now it's a reminder of the nurturing that she's lost. (My husband, whose mother is a gourmet cook, often talks about how much he loved it when his parents went out for the evening . . . so he could have a Swanson TV dinner!!)
You may have noticed that food isn't the only thing I don't describe in the novel. There is very little description of any kind, including what the characters look like and where the story is set. (And there are some very specific reasons for that). It was actually quite a wrench for me not to go into detail over the meals and even more, the clothes. I absolutely love reading that kind of thing in other books. But . . . I don't know whether you know the movie Kiss of the Spider Woman. It's a movie that deals with the relationship between two men in prison in some South American country—we never know which one. All the extraneous details are stripped away, so that we can focus on the relationship. That's what I was going for here, something rather bare and sparse so that the relationships would be thrown into relief.
Having said that, I did write those details down for myself, it's helpful in getting to know your characters. For instance, although I never say so, I know that Willow's mother served Chicken Marengo at the dinner party she gave before she died. This is a dish that she would have learned from her own mother when she was Willow's age, and something that would appeal to her sense of history, since it was created by Napoleon's chef. It's also true that when Willow is in funds she shops at Urban Outfitters, I scoured their catalogs when working on the book. And although much too expensive, she loves the clothes at Anthropologie.
Thank you so much, Julia! Willow is the type of novel that makes you think and want to talk about it. It's the kind of novel you end up begging everyone you know to read so you can talk about it some more. I could have asked about a dozen more questions. Thus I'm so jealous of people in Indiana, because Julia will be at the Barnes & Nobel in Valaparaiso tomorrow, Saturday, September 12. If she ever comes to a store even remotely near me (here in central PA), I wouldn't miss the chance to meet her and to discuss the book!
I forgot to ask Julia if she was working on another YA novel. Maybe she'll answer that question in a comment!