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Books Should be Both Mirrors and Windows

by | May 28, 2017 | Interviews

By Gayle Forman for Nasher

Gayle Forman is an award-winning journalist and #1 New York Times bestselling author of both young adult and adult novels. Gayle began her career as a reporter for Seventeen Magazine, where she gained recognition by focusing on young people and social justice, covering issues as diverse as child soldiers in the civil war in Sierra Leone to migrant teen farmworkers in the United States. In 2002, Gayle and her husband spent a year traveling around the world and published her first book about the experience: You Can’t Get There From Here: A Year On The Fringes of a Shrinking World. Upon returning, she turned her attention to fiction and in 2009, she published her breakout novel, If I Stay. That was followed up by a companion novel, Where She Went. Both books have spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list. Two years later, she published the bestselling series Just One Day and Just One Year, followed by the novella Just One Night.

Most recently, she has published the instant bestseller I Was Here and her first adult novel Leave Me. In 2014, If I Stay was turned into a major motion picture starring Chloe Grace Moretz. Her fiction has been translated into more than 40 languages.

Nasher interviewed Gayle Forman during her attendance of the Sharjah Children Reading Festival in which she was asked the following questions:

What was the idea that inspired you to write ‘If I Stay’ and how did you feel seeing it become a movie? Did you feel like the movie did justice to the book?

It was a very personal true story which happened many years before I even started writing novels – I was a journalist at the time. There was a family I knew very, very well – parents and their children, very similar to the family in the novel. They were our best friends and their kids were my godchildren. They were in Oregon, on the West Coast of the United States, where it doesn’t snow a lot, but on one day it snowed quite heavily. They decided to take a drive as the schools were cancelled. That night, I went home to a message on the answer machine saying that the family had all been killed in a car accident. It was terrible, tragic and heart-breaking but the hardest part for me was learning that the 8-year old boy I was so close to had been taken to a trauma center where he died. That was the piece that haunted me the most, the vision of this little boy alone while his family were dead. I could not help thinking whether he knew that they were gone and whether he choose to ultimately go with them? It is certainly a question that one can never answer and I never really thought of writing about it. I didn’t explore it that way. One morning around six or seven years later, I woke up and there was this girl in my head, she had dark hair, dark eyes and she played the cello, which was very new to me since I had no background in the cello or classical music at all. I knew she was going to answer this question; what would you do if this catastrophic thing happened to your family – would you choose to stay or go? So, I sat down and started writing and the book came out in a burst, as if I had sub-consciously been thinking about it all this time. And that’s how ‘If I stay’ came to be.

Yes, I thought the movie did justice to the book. There were definitely changes made to accommodate the transition from a novel to a movie, but other parts followed the book almost exactly. I think the emotional experience is like the book, I think you really feel the love Mia has towards her family and her friend Kim and the conflict with Adam. One thing that the movie does better than the book is the music. There is only so much you can do on paper when you’re describing the cello. The film, I thought, was really wonderful in that you really understand how music is important to the characters, you really feel that scene where Mia is auditioning and she plays as she has never played before. You also get to see the transition in Adam’s performance with his band. So I think they did a great job.

What do you think in general about books being made into movies? What do you think are the main elements that can make the movie do justice to the book and be successful?

Sometimes you can have a book that makes a fantastic movie and you can have a wonderful book that should never be turned into a movie. Just because there is a great book doesn’t necessarily mean it should be turned into a movie. So I think that the emotional stakes have to be apparent in the film, you need to feel them otherwise you get bored or you don’t connect.

I think there’s a lot to be said with talented actors. I have been previously told that a movie gets made four times. It gets made with the screenplay, it gets made with the casting, it gets made with the shooting and finally with the editing.

Since your novels have been translated into more than 40 languages, do you think translating novels into other languages can change their meaning? And do you think culture plays a role in how novels are interpreted or valued?

It must. Obviously, I can’t tell how good the translations are and I always have to wonder if a book does well in a particular country, is it because the translation is really good? Is it because that book has connected culturally in a place where it might not in another? I think it really is almost like writing the book anew because you can’t just do it word for word. You have to find new images, and a new way of description but you also have to find a way to translate an emotional experience. It’s almost the same as when you make a film.

You have traveled to more than 60 countries, did you travel for the purpose of writing about your trips or was it that travelling inspired you to write novels such as ‘You can’t get there from here…’?

A little of both, I had a traveled a lot. I took three years off before I went to college to travel. When I was living in New York as a journalist, I would take a trip for a month to go somewhere, report on a bunch of different things and come home.

My husband wanted to travel more. He said he wanted to take some time off work and travel for a year, but I didn’t really want to do the same thing again. I loved what I was doing as a freelance journalist, but then I realised I could take use travelling as an opportunity to write a book. It’s the kind of thing where you’re not really sure how it’s going to go until you do it – and it was great! That book gave me something to do beyond just seeing the sights. And one of the things I really love about journalism is that you find yourself in a world you would never thought you would be. For instance, I was in Tonga with a group of people who are ahead of everybody else in terms of their ideas about gender and society. Another time, I was in Zanzibar with hip-hop artists, something I would have never seen if I wasn’t writing that book. I wrote the notes as I went along and then came home and wrote the book. I believe books should be both mirrors and windows in that they show different varieties of people and different parts of the world.

Is there any feature you found special in SCRF?

I’m thrilled to see a civic-sponsored reading festival for children so well-attended. We have lots of children’s festivals in the U.S., but for the most part they are planned by authors or by communities. In the UAE, I have seen big civic festivals planned by government entities particularly for children’s reading. It is wonderful to see a lot of the families attending these festivals here.

I was also thrilled to know that the Arab youth read frequently in English and are familiar with foreign novels. When I received the invitation to attend SCRF, I thought to myself, they know me? They read my books? I was absolutely delighted to meet all of them and very happy to have received this invitation to join the SCRF.

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