I approached Julia Hoban's Willow with a bit of trepidation after reading on several blogs about the title character's struggle with cutting throughout the novel. I read so much YA fiction for my column and honestly sometimes it all starts to strike me as one long digression into disease of the week territory. You know the drill - anorexia, bulemia, bipolarism, depression, bullying, promiscuity, alcoholism, steroid use, drug abuse, prescription drug abuse, drug addiction and on and on and on (and on...). Honestly it all gets to be a bit much for me as a reviewer and I wasn't sure that I wanted to know why someone cuts. But I gave the book a shot and what I found was that Willow is not really about cutting at all - or only peripherally. Willow is really a book about grieving and it is so powerfully written, so intense and honest and smart and sensitive, that it damn near blew my mind. I loved it so much that I fired off a quick email to Julia and asked if she could answer a few questions for the SBBT at very nearly the last minute. I'm delighted that she took the time to talk about her book with me and I hope that our exchange piques your curiosity and you will seek her book out as well. It's really wonderful and I can't recommend it enough.
CM: Between Willow and David I don't know which one I feel worse for. This book is about some serious raw grief and how hard it is to handle grief (at least that is how I'm reading it) and more than anything - how you can not deny your grief, you have to express it and let it out. How hard was it to write about such incredibly intense feelings for this brother and sister? I'm sure you did some serious research for the cutting issue but what about how complicated the grief is in this story? What was your inspiration for writing on that aspect of it?
JH: The processing of grief, or rather the inability to correctly process grief is most certainly a major theme of WILLOW. I love that you read it that way rather than focusing on it as an "issue" book about cutting. Cutting was the vehicle I chose to express that theme. As with all maladaptive behaviors (I am making a rather sweeping statement here) cutting is an attempt to deal with feelings that would otherwise be intolerable. The cutter feels that he or she is about to be overwhelmed by some emotion, and in an effort to impose control, transmutes that psychic pain into physical pain. As I learned in my research, inflicting that kind of pain on oneself releases opiates, and becomes chemically addictive.
Now, as to whether or not it was hard to write about the grief in the story, well most of the book was about the containing of grief, the difficulty of expressing grief, and I am sorry to say it was all too easy for me to write about how to deal with such feelings in an inappropriate fashion! The really hard thing for me to express was when Willow does connect to her pain in a healthy way, when she allows herself to feel all the anguish that she has been attempting to stuff down through cutting. I think that to some degree most of us have difficulty dealing with overwhelming emotions in a correct manner, I know I certainly do, and that as much as anything else was my inspiration.
CM: Willow and Guy are, among other things, a couple of serious intellectuals. These are kids who think very deeply and have some great conversations about the world and living in it. I almost felt like Tristes Tropiques was a supporting character in the book! ha! How did you find this book, when did you first read it and did you always intend to include it in the plot?
JH: You have no idea how much I would love to impress you and say that I discovered Tristes Tropiques in third grade or something equally precocious, but my relationship with TT has its beginnings in less than inspiring circumstances! When I was nineteen I was fixed up on a blind date with a man who, unbeknownst to me, was forty eight. A charming age, but not one that normally compels the nineteen year old heart to beat faster. I met this man at his apartment, and I must confess I was most disconcerted when I saw that not only was he old enough to be my father, but short enough to be my infant. We had less than nothing to talk about, but he did have a copy of TT on his coffee table. Although I had never read it before, I certainly knew of Claude Levi- Strauss, and seized upon it as a lifeline. I owe Claude Levi Strauss a debt of gratitude. Without TT as a topic of conversation I donâ€™t know how I would have made it through the evening! Although the date was a disaster, I will always remember it fondly. The next day I bought Tristes, read it in one sitting, and it remains one of the most life changing books Iâ€™ve ever encountered.
Now strangely enough, when it came time to chose a book for Willow and Guy to bond over, I didnâ€™t think of Tristes Tropiques at all! I was having a hell of a time deciding what book to use. There were certain criteria that I had, and nothing really satisfied them. The book had to be about Anthropology. It had to be a classic. I had to assume that many in my audience would not be familiar with whatever I chose, BUT, that choice still had to resonate in some way, even to those who had never heard of whatever book I did use. At first I considered The Golden Bough. Certainly a classic, and an extraordinary book, but it just didnâ€™t feel right. I didnâ€™t think that it would really speak to people. I was stuck for days on this issue, and then it hit me. Tristes Tropiques. As you mention in your next question, the title means â€œSad Tropics.â€ And yet, TT is the only book ever translated into English where the title wasnâ€™t translated. The publishers thought that the original was so evocative, that the alliteration was so poetic, that even if one had no more than high school French, one would immediately understand and connect with the title. No translation was necessary. Once I settled on TT everything just fell into place. Again as you mention below, there are a variety of levels in which WILLOW draws on themes in Tristes Tropiques, this was an incredibly fortuitous coincidence, and the day I decided that TT would be the book my characters would fall in love over, was one of the happiest of my writing life.
CM: I did a bit of reading on Tropiques and saw some themes that seemed to be in the plot - Willow mentions at one point that she feels like a tourist in her old friends' lives (which is why she is dodging Markie). Tropiques is about travel and the view of an anthropologist (and it's translated as "The Sad Tropics"!) so I know this wasn't a casual choice for you. It's almost as if Willow has become an observer of the life she will never have and views all of her classmates from the distant view of an anthropologist. (Or maybe I'm reading way too much into all this...please correct me if I'm wrong.) Do you think though that this is something we (as humans) get wrong about grief? We talk about finding closure and moving on but really, you need to mourn not only who you've lost but the whole life you would have had if that person (or persons in this case) was still alive. What do Willow & David (and their struggle to handle their grief) teach readers about moving on and how does Claude Levi-Straus tie into this?
JH: You are definitely not placing too much emphasis on the parallels between the themes of TT and the current circumstances of Willowâ€™s life. ( Although, you may be surprised to hear that while I consider TT to be a major character in WILLOW, the role I believe it plays is somewhat different than you may imagine.) Claude Levi Strauss is writing about a world that is about to be lost forever, and Willowâ€™s old world has been lost to her forever. She does tend to look at her classmates as an anthropologist might, and the line about her being a tourist in her old life was no casual throwawayâ€¦. Now, regarding grief, as you rightly say, we need to mourn not only the life that is lost, but the life we would have had with that person. That is something I had in my mind throughout the writing of WILLOW, and my feelings regarding that were really shaped, not by Tristes Tropiques, but by the beautiful play â€œI Never Sang For My Father,â€ by Robert Anderson. The play starts with this line: â€˜Death ends a life, but it doesnâ€™t end a relationship.â€ In many ways WILLOW is a book about relationships, and it is about four relationships specifically. The first of those relationships is between Willow and her dead parents. Willow (and David) must learn how they are going to be able to continue their bond with their parents, even though they are gone forever. This is a lesson that all of us must learn, and I do see this as something different than closure. It is a way of keeping the dead alive and vital in ones heart and mind. The second relationship in WILLOW is the fractured one between Willow and David. A large part of the book is Willow learning how to reconnect with her brother, how to mend that fracture, which will in turn help her to revive her relationship with her parents. What brings her back to David? What heals the rift between them? Her relationship with Guy, and her relationship with Guy develops because of their shared love of books. In fact I think of books, and the major characters relationships with books as one of the most important relationships in WILLOW. It is here that TT really comes into play. Willow and Guy fall in love discussing TT, which was her fatherâ€™s favorite book. The conversations the two of them have replace those that she once had with David. Willow further bonds with Guy when she buys him a book (and she does so only after failing to procure a book for her brother). And finally, it is Davidâ€™s discovery of a contraband copy of TT, one that Willow has stolen from their fatherâ€™s study to give to Guy, that breaks down the barriers between them, and enables them to start communicating again. In many ways, TT It is the glue that bonds everything and everybody together.
CM: I have to be honest - I often wonder when I read a book about a kid in peril like this (depressed or suicidal, etc.) I wonder if the books exist for readers who suffer from similar issues or for readers who have never felt this way. Its sort of the Lurlene McDaniels syndrome - a kid whose never had a serious illness likes to read about kids being all noble while they die of cancer. (I blame the Lifetime network and after school specials for this syndrome.) So tell me, if you don't cut for the same reasons as Willow (grief) would reading your book still be helpful? Is it a book that helps more a teen in Willow's situation or someone in Guy's or David's (the person who loves a teen in trouble)?
JH: That is certainly something only the reader can answer!! It would be truly presumptuous for me to say who would or would not be helped by WILLOW! I can tell you what I was hoping to get across, some things that I hoped readers would take away from the bookâ€¦. I never thought of WILLOW as a book about cutting. I thought of it as a book about a character who was self destructive, as many of us are. And I wanted to take that character from a place of self harm to a place of healing. I very much hoped that readers would take that journey with Willow, and in doing so take a second look at their own damaging behaviors, whether they were cutting, issues with food, procrastinating or even something as seemingly innocent as watching too much television. Thereâ€™s another thing that I very much wanted teenage readers to take away from this book, something that was very important to me. Just as I wanted to take a character from a place of self harm to a place of healing, I wanted to take a character, a teenage character, who starts out by dealing with her sexuality in a very disturbing, irresponsible way, and learns to treat her sexual self in a correct manner (Disclaimer, I am not advocating for teen sex here!)
In the YA literature, there tend to be two models of sexuality. The first ends in tragedy: abortion, leaving school, throwing your baby in a dumpster, and the second is completely glamorous and consequence free, letâ€™s call it the Gossip Girl model. (Please donâ€™t get me wrong, I adore Gossip Girl, the accessories alone are simply drool worthy!) But there are almost no examples of two teenagers who are deeply in love, and who have sex with appropriate birth control. Now, when Guy first finds out that Willow is a cutter, she offers to sleep with him in an effort to secure his silence. When I talk to teens, I tell them that when she does this she is being no less self destructive than when she takes a razor to her flesh. Now fortunately Guy rejects this offer, however they do ultimately end up having sex. Right before this happens, Willow runs into an old school friend, with Guy in tow, the friend (Markie) asks Willow who Guy is. Willowâ€™s reply is, to my mind, one of the most important sentences in the book. She doesnâ€™t say that Guy is someone she met at the library, she doesnâ€™t say that heâ€™s someone from her new school, she says â€œHeâ€™s someone that knows me, and someone that I know.â€
Robertson Davies said something rather beautiful about virginity. He said â€œChastity is the body in the souls keeping.â€ I wanted my characters to be embodiments of that, I wanted Willow to go from attempting to make a disastrous sexual choice, to making a healthy and respectful one. Now, I was worried when I did this that I would come in for some flak, not everyone like the idea of teenagers having sex. However I can tell you that I have had some very moving letters from momâ€™s who say that they want to save the book for when their daughters are old enough because they think it does (ultimately) offer an appropriate model of how to deal with ones sexuality. One mother said that my characters donâ€™t just have technical safe sex, but emotional safe sex as well, which is exactly what I was going for.
To be perfectly honest, not everyone reads the book this way. I have heard from some readers that they consider the sex and the love relationship to be a candy coated way of resolving some very deep issues. Their take away from the book is that I am saying, â€œMeet the perfect boyfriend, have sex, and poof! Your troubles are over.â€ This saddens me as this was not my message at all, and makes me feel that I have failed my readers. However this does lead rather neatly into your next question.
CM: How did you resist the need for a happy ending? Actually - the better question might be why did you resist it? Your ending serves the book (and the characters) perfectly and yet I know that it is rare to go for the hard ending, the not perfect ending, the one where the brother can't fix everything and the boyfriend is not a cure for what ails you and Willow is not transformed by her moments of truth and clarity. We are so accustomed to the happy ending - you sold the reader a hard one here and I'd love to know how you came to this conclusion and if anyone along the way (early readers/editors/etc.) thought you were making a wrong choice.
JH: Well first of all, thank you very much for that extraordinary compliment. Iâ€™m extremely pleased that that was your reaction to the ending. Now as to other peopleâ€™s reactions, I certainly never had anyone say it was a hard ending. As I mentioned above there have been some readers who think that the relationship between Willow and Guy wraps everything up too neatly. As to my own feelings about the ending, I neither see it as hard nor easy, but in fact literally spell it out. The last sentence of the book is â€œIf this is not a happy ending, it is perhaps, a happy beginning.â€
Look, if youâ€™re a member of the human race, chances are that at some point youâ€™re going to have the stuffing kicked out of you six ways from Sunday. The question isnâ€™t whether youâ€™re going to have your share of hard knocks, but how are you going to deal with whatever life hands you? Are you going to be thrown for a while like Willow, but ultimately come out on the other side? Iâ€™d like to quote from a UK review if I may: â€œThe essential and uplifting message of WILLOW is that not every problem can be solved, but there is no bad situation that cannot be improved.â€ Thatâ€™s really what I wanted to get across.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about WILLOW. Itâ€™s a real honor to explain some of the thoughts I had while writing the book, and ideas I was trying to express, and doubly so when the questions are so thoughtful and interesting!
[Post pics of book covers - plus "The Tempest" which also plays in to the story. And here's an interesting interview with Julia where she talks about favorite books and food. In case you were wondering.... :)]