Holly Goldberg Sloan, PIECES OF BLUE

Holly Goldberg Sloan, PIECES OF BLUE

Zibby speaks to feature film writer and New York Times bestselling author Holly Goldberg Sloan about Pieces of Blue, a compelling, humorous, and bighearted page-turner about a family attempting to restore a ramshackle beachside motel–and their own lives! Holly describes the conversation that inspired this novel, her childhood of international moves, the theme of loss in her stories and her life, and all the difficult, tragic moments she has experienced that have filtered into her writing. She and Zibby also discuss memories and how fascinating it is that we all remember things differently.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Holly. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Pieces of Blue, your latest novel, and everything else about you.

Holly Goldberg Sloan: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. I have watched your explosion — there’s no other way to say it — onto the book scene. The first thing I want to say, calling it “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read” is brilliant. If there’s anything as a mom — I have two adult sons — that you must do when you’re raising them is, you must find time to read. Even if it’s twenty minutes a day, fifteen minutes a day, you have to escape. I think television is an escape. It’s wonderful. I write television. There’s something about reading where it activates your imagination. You get to be the casting director. You get to imagine what the set looks like. It’s more on you. When you’re a mom, you need to do that too. You can’t just read Give a Mouse a Cookie. That’s beautiful, but it’s nice to make something that nurtures yourself as well.

Zibby: Laura Numeroff was just in my store, actually. Yes, that is good advice. I have found reading to be a sanity check for myself, something that grounds me and can change my mood faster than anything else. I’m with you.

Holly: In your case, I’m going to say this. Be careful what you wish for. Now you probably have stacks of books around you at all time that you either have to read or read the synopsis for. The, probably, only vacation for you would be to go somewhere for a week and not read.

Zibby: A vacation would be having a week to read a book. Would be really nice. That would be really nice.

Holly: The whole half hour a night thing…

Zibby: Okay, your book. Can you please tell listeners about your latest book, Piece of Blue?

Holly: My book?

Zibby: Yes.

Holly: It’s a podcast, but we’re also recording video, so I’m holding it up. It’s called Pieces of Blue. It is my first novel intended for adult readers. I have a lot of adult readers. I have seven or eight other novels, but they were written primarily for young adults or a younger audience. My book, Counting by 7s, has a very, very large adult readership. I don’t understand, even to this day, why a book is put in a certain category. I guess I understand it a little bit more. Because I also write film and television, you don’t do that with film and television. You wouldn’t release a movie, for example, and say, you should go see this movie if you’re in third grade and sixth grade. After seventh grade, I don’t know about the movie. It’s because it costs too much money, and so everything has to have a broad appeal. I wrote Angels in the Outfield. I wrote a movie called Made in America. I wrote a movie called The Big Green. I just try to get a wide audience. That’s what we’re taught and told to do. I think that about my books. I even think kids in high school would like Pieces of Blue, but what do I know? It’s not the intended audience.

Zibby: I used to read all my mom’s books growing up. Who cares what the labels are?

Holly: So did I. My dad gave me hideously inappropriate books as a child. That says something about how he was picturing me. He always saw me, even when I was very tiny, as just an adult in a very shrunken body. I couldn’t understand many of the things. He was a professor. He’s still alive. I wanted so much to connect to him. That was the way we could connect. I read Catch-22. I was eight, however old I was. Books connect us.

Zibby: I was reading Judith Krantz romance novels and all this stuff. That’s how I learned everything, is from all these multigenerational sagas of families in crisis.

Holly: It’s funny. You could say, everything I know about life I know from Judith Krantz.

Zibby: Funny. I know. Probably, somebody’s written that book already. I think reading what our parents read or having them recommend things — books are all about connection anyway. I think that’s one early way that big readers try to — you try to foster that same connection with your kids if that’s the way you know to connect with other people. It’s a shorthand, even if it might be the wrong book.

Holly: Right, exactly. It’s sort of saying, this is what we do at night in the dark, or in the case of a kid that’s kind of precocious, in the day when they’re yelling at you, go outside. You nod, and then just take your book and go back and sit on the couch and read.

Zibby: Are you that precocious kid? Was that you?

Holly: I did love to read. I did like the outside too. I grew up in Oregon primarily, in Eugene, Oregon. There’s a lot of rain there. It’s funny the way we saw rain. We saw the rain the way Eskimos see snow, which is, there are a hundred ways to say it’s raining outside. It’s only drizzling. It’s spitting, we used to say. My mom would always say, “That’s vegetable mist.” come out of those sprayers. At night, the weather person would be standing in front of the map saying so many different things. We will have showers in the morning followed by rain in the afternoon, drizzle in the nighttime. It was raining, but nobody could just say that and make a living, so you had to parse it. I think cold climates, climates with bad weather, I’m going to say as a generalization, foster readers.

Zibby: Interesting. In your book, it starts off in the rain and in Oregon. Then off you go to — actually, I guess it starts as they just get to Hawaii.

Holly: And it rains.

Zibby: And it rains, yes.

Holly: It starts to rain. Hawaii has so much rain, has so much sun as well. It’s funny how we don’t really know the things that are our emotional connections. Maybe it takes some years of living, which I have, to realize what they are. I’m very, very attuned to the weather. I live in Southern California now. It rained twenty-eight inches this year. The regular rainfall is thirteen inches. It actually was an incredible gift to all of us because we were in such extreme drought, but the modern condition is that no matter what happens, you complain. We needed the rain so much. Then we got the rain. Now we should be complaining about the rain. The LA Times, every day, the headline — I pick it up every day — is all about the rain in some form of catastrophe. The flood’s coming. The dams have broken. New lakes have appeared that were never there before. Not to say that journalism is alarmism, but maybe that sells. I don’t know. In a podcast, is it alarmism? Should I think of something alarming to say to you? I got off track of my book. I wrote a book. It’s called Pieces of Blue. It starts in Portland, Oregon. It’s about a woman who has lost her husband and fell on pretty hard times and finally got her insurance money. She took this money very capriciously, wasn’t really thinking it through, didn’t visit the place — she went online. She saw a piece of property on the North Shore, or just, actually, slightly east of the North Shore, of Oahu. She buys a rundown motel and takes her three children and moves there.

Zibby: Where did that idea come from?

Holly: I have no imagination at all, so everything —

Zibby: — I find that very hard to believe.

Holly: Yes and no. I can take any fact that’s happened and embellish it and make it into fiction, which is alarming for people in my life. I had a friend — we were doing a movie together in Australia. We’re in the van. When you’re in the van, you sort of drive forever. It was in preproduction. We’re driving in the van. We’re all talking. It’s crazy how many intimate things you find out in a movie van. This producer is a UPM as well. He told us that his father died very unexpectedly when he was young. It’s funny, in my mind, when he was telling the story, I imagined him ten or eleven. That’s always what I thought he said. Recently, I saw him. I think he said, “I was fifteen.” Every fact of his story, apparently, I have not remembered in the right way. Anyway, we’re in the van. He says his father died. His mom got some life insurance. She had two choices. In her mind, she had two choices. She could buy a boat and try to do charter salmon fishing, or she found a property in Hawaii. It was an old rundown motel. When we’re in the van, he says, “My mom took the boat. We did salmon fishing. We didn’t know how to salmon fish. We didn’t even know how to drive the boat. We smashed the boat all the time.”

He tells this story. Then he says — I believe he says. He now denies saying this. “What if we’d had the motel in Hawaii, the property? Think about what that’d be worth today. She made the wrong choice.” I said, “But why did she do that?” He said, “Her family. Everyone thought that the Hawaii choice was the risky choice. They were from the Pacific Northwest. They knew about salmon.” I’m from the Pacific Northwest, so I heard that story, and all I could imagine was, get the motel. Get the motel. I then couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wrote about a woman whose husband dies unexpectedly. She takes her children and moves to a place she knows nothing about. Now here’s the other part about that. We moved every three years when I was growing up. My father’s a professor, as I said. My mom is an architect. My dad, he was a consultant to the Peace Corps. Then my dad was two times a Fulbright professor. I went to high school in Istanbul. I went to grade school in Holland. My dad taught at Berkeley. We always went back. We had a home base. That was Eugene, Oregon. We always went back. I think that I like the idea of what it means to be a new kid in school, what it means to be an adult in a really unfamiliar situation. Again, I have no imagination. I’m just tapping into everything that I can either relate to or conjure. There are no dragons or vampires or mermaids in the book because I’ve never met those people. Therefore, I can only write contemporary realistic fiction. That’s what I write.

Zibby: I like to think that takes imagination, a little bit, just a smidge.

Holly: Maybe.

Zibby: Maybe. I like how in the book you really have the kids, who would typically be fighting and all of that — there’s this one poignant moment where they think about how much their dad would’ve loved where they arrived in Hawaii. Two of the kids hold each other’s hands in that moment. You said something like, the sun normally would’ve pulled away, but instead, they sat there holding hands and thinking about their dad. It was so sad, beautiful, but so poignant. Tell me more about this feeling of loss of young people and just loss in general and writing about it.

Holly: Certainly, that’s somewhat of a theme in my work. In Counting By 7s, a young girl, much younger — in this case, she’s in grade school. She loses both of her parents in a car accident. I’m exploring how we get over grief, how we get over loss. I believe that loss is as fundamental as anything that we experience in life. All of us will have loss. You can’t prepare for it, but you can work through it. I think laughing and crying are so close. I try to make my books funny. Then when I tell them, “It’s about a kid who lost his parents. It’s very funny,” then I’m somehow deemed inappropriate. Pieces of Blue is about loss, but it’s also about found because life has so much balance to it. It also starts out to be somewhat one kind of story, and it turns into a different kind of story. That’s a metaphor for me. Life starts out as one thing. It can take a turn into something else. If we think that we knew where it’s all going, we’re wrong. The more we can not necessarily prepare for change, but at least embrace change, understand change, accept change — I’m not sure. Even the title, Pieces of Blue, when you are looking out on the sky, sometimes there’s clouds, but there is blue behind that. You can see it sometimes when it’s not even there if you know it’s there.

Zibby: You were talking about big life shifts and periods of change and all of that. Which parts of your life did you not see coming? What was something that fundamentally shifted the course for you?

Holly: I would say the first thing is, my parents’ divorce was a really big thing in my life. I was eighteen, but it was still very impactful. Then my own subsequent divorce after ten years of marriage when I had young children. In my own divorce, I had a sense of failure. I’m someone who’s felt that they’ve not necessarily succeeded, but that I’ve done what was expected. I held up my end. Then I got divorced. I’m remarried, very, very happily remarried for twenty-seven years now. My first husband, I was married to for ten years. We had a very successful divorce. That’s the part I want to stress to myself, to anyone who wants to listen. My parents had a very unsuccessful divorce. I had a successful one. My first husband ended up even, at one point, living across the street because the kids went back and forth. We really were there together for them in a fundamental way. My first husband, he had heart failure swimming in the ocean, and he died very suddenly in the ocean. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that the main character, Lindsey’s husband Paul, he dies swimming in the ocean. Once again, my lack of imagination. My first husband was on an island. He was in the British Virgin Islands. He went out snorkeling. He had heart failure and died in the water. I certainly understand what it means to have someone be alive one day and not alive the next.

When I was in college, my boyfriend and I had dinner with his father in New York. Then we got in the car. We drove back. He was going to Dartmouth. He got in the car. We drove to Dartmouth. We left really early in the morning. Now I’m not sure why. We had a rental car. We left at six in the morning. When we got to Dartmouth, the film professor — we both were in the film program. I went to Wellesley, but I’d gone to Dartmouth for one year. The head of the film program was sitting on the stairs in front. He wanted to talk to us. He took my boyfriend at the time inside and told him that his father had died of a heart attack at fifty-one running around the reservoir in New York. That was actually the first real time that I understood that there can be life-changing moments that there is no preparation for. There’s only the before and the after. There was the life before and the life after and what we do with that, how we still are able to find joy before and after in our lives. Maybe those kind of things have led me to write about it. I particularly think that we get emotions out by writing and by reading. I write, and then people read. I look for the positive in all my stories. Maybe it’s not saying happy endings because I want people to be bigger and better and find resolution and find ways to get by. I write about that.

Zibby: Wow. Thank you for sharing all of that. I want to say I’m sorry for your loss, but you say not to say you’re sorry for the loss in the book, so I’m not going to say that. My heart goes out to you and him.

Holly: Thank you. I talk at schools a lot. In the end, if I’m asked to have questions, sometimes a kid will say, why did you write about that? Has anything happened like that in your own life? I will answer. Yes, I’ve had some loss, unexpected loss. My first husband, we were divorced, but he died swimming in the ocean. I’ll be talking. Then I look up, and I realize I’m slightly crying. Can I tell you this? There’s nothing worse than doing that in front of kids. Then I have to do this weird smile, kind of like in Succession after she sees what’s happened, where you’ve got this smile, and you know you look like an absolute crazy person. We are conditioned to have certain emotions and certain reactions. One of the things, when people say they’re sorry for my loss — whatever they’re talking about or when I say it to someone else — I know if that’s sincere and genuine, but it makes the other person — we’re all characters in a play, in a way. They have to, at least for one second, step back and become their serious self and say, thank you so much. It’s inappropriate for them to say, yeah, high five. We’re all role-playing at all times. The more we understand that, maybe the more we don’t just do stylized roles. We find some authenticity in it.

Part of the book, Pieces of Blue, that I am maybe the most proud is, I’m interested in the inner lives of families and children, and so I tried to explore three different views of loss from a child’s point of view and three different views of found, how we recover from it, and how personal it is. Everyone has a unique relationship with a parent, with a sibling, with a friend. To think that we’re all seeing it in the same way — I have two brothers. The way they see our childhood isn’t even the same. It has commonality, but I’m not sure even the headlines are the same. I don’t know that they should be because you treat every child differently. As a parent, you think you’re doing it the same. Part of it is just because every kid isn’t the same, so you’re not reacting to the same things. Some things are easier to accept than others. It’s also about parenting, the book. What’s a good parent? What’s a bad parent? Is there such a thing? I don’t know.

Zibby: I was starting to say my brother and I recently had a talk about some interpretation of something that happened. We had completely opposite — I’m like, “No, no, no, this is what happened. This is what it was like.” He’s like, “No, no, no, this is what happened.” Ultimately, who knows? I guess it doesn’t really matter. We all take what we take out of every situation.

Holly: I think it’s interesting. When I talk to my friends growing up, we remember very different things. Recently, I was with my best friend, Amy, from childhood. She brought up a couple things. I have no memory of them at all. She thought they were interesting, fundamental things we did. I was embarrassed to say, wait, when was that? Then things I remember, they weren’t important to her. Maybe that’s the key to memory. You can only remember something if you continue to access it and remember it. Every memory is a memory of a memory of a memory. If it’s something either that made you uncomfortable or that you chose to not remember again, you somewhat forget it. Then when someone brings it up, you can remember it. What happens in remembering and remembering and remembering the photocopy of the memory, which happens over and over and over again, like any kind of copy, it becomes disintegrated every time it’s copied. It becomes, in the disintegration, changed. It becomes changed to fit how you are today, usually, because we’re all the hero of our own lives. We all want to believe that we’ve been making good choices and the right decisions. You take your memories, and you conform them to be what is your evidence, the evidence of your life. Part of the book is about Lindsey, the main character in Pieces of Blue, looking back. How did she marry the person she married? Why did she marry him? What happened in their marriage? There were some things that went wrong.

Zibby: More rain.

Holly: Who’s responsible for that? Were they both responsible? Is he more to blame? What is blame? Is that just a way to make you feel better? Probably. Then what’s shame? Is that when you look back and you know that you did something that perhaps was not what you should’ve done or the right thing to do? I’m very interested in the idea of shame from an adult perspective. It’s something children feel a lot of. Children, because they are learning boundaries, they will feel ashamed. It’s not something you hear adults say. If they do, they always preface it. “I’m ashamed to admit…” Then something comes out of that in the same way that if someone says, “I have to be truthful,” you wonder, what were you doing before that? Were you, up until the point in the conversation, lying? “I have to be truthful” is usually when you deliver the punch. It’s the . “I have to be truthful.” Your arm has gone back, and you’re getting ready to hit. I don’t know what that has to do with my book. Probably, nothing, but there you go.

Zibby: It’s just awesome. I love how you think all the things through, your hilarious sense of humor. I could listen you to just talk about stuff and watch your mind go. It’s really fun, really super fun.

Holly: I want to tell you this funny thing. I wrote this book called Short. It’s sort of autobiographical.

Zibby: I saw that. I’m going to get it for my daughter. I’m 5’2″, and all my kids are short. They all are annoyed at me about it.

Holly: I was very short. From kindergarten to seventh grade, I was the shortest girl in the class. I was the shortest of anyone in the class. I was so sure I looked two years younger than I was. I have a younger brother. He was my size. People thought we were twins. Nothing worse, by the way. I could hear my parents talk about it. My parents aren’t short. I have a grandmother who’s very short. They were saying, “She’s like her,” and everything. The main character, Julia, who is short, she has a ton of personality because she has to make up for the fact that she might be the smallest one. She has a big voice. That’s sometimes what happens. The book is in her point of view. You listen to the ramblings of Julia, which are basically the ramblings of me. One of the things she says — she loves to read obituaries. She says even when you die, you’re still looking for praise. Everyone wants applause. That’s what she says. She says even in the afterlife, all you want is someone to tell you you’ve done a good job. That’s a child’s perspective, but it’s really my idea of the universe. We all want validation. We all want to be told we’re doing something right, maybe even when we’re doing something wrong, maybe except for Vladimir Putin. Maybe he’s the only one that doesn’t need all the praise. He can deal with the negative attention.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Holly, this has been so fun. I can’t believe that it’s been half an hour. We have to keep this up in person another time, and in the store and in LA. Actually, I should ask you — I’m doing a screening of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. this Sunday in Santa Monia, if you have any interest in coming.

Holly: I do.

Zibby: At five o’clock.

Holly: Maybe you can send me the details on that. I do want to say that I will be traveling for Pieces of Blue. In Cambridge, I will be at Porter Square Books with Professor Henry Louis Gates. In New York, I will be at Barnes & Noble Tribeca with the actor Richard Kind. I will be in Seattle, Washington, with Maria Semple, the novelist of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I’ll be with the poet Ed Skog in Portland, Oregon. I’ll be with the novelist Gigi Levangie in Nashville at Parnassus. I’ll be in Houston at Blue Willow Books and at Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Georgia. I’ll be everywhere.

Zibby: You’ll be everywhere.

Holly: Maybe people want to come to a bookstore and hear me talk about Pieces of Blue, which publishes on May 9th.

Zibby: Yay, congratulations.

Holly: Thank you so much for having me today.

Zibby: Bye. Thank you.

Holly Goldberg Sloan, PIECES OF BLUE

PIECES OF BLUE by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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