“A novel set in Bakersfield is getting a lot of buzz lately.
We’re talking movie buzz. That may get some people to fire up the Kindle, or what not, and buy Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan.
But after the first few pages, it’s the characters that will grab you and hold you through the final sentence.
OK, so this isn’t my typical column fare, but I wanted to draw attention to the novel for its central theme: No matter how glaring our differences are on the outside, scratch the surface and we’re pretty similar inside. Considering the horrors we humans inflict one each other on a daily basis, I think that’s a nugget worth keeping close to the heart. Sloan’s main character, Willow Chance, is an oddball. So odd, she doesn’t have any friends, despite being perfectly nice and quite determined to find one. But she’s almost too smart for her own good. A genius, in fact. That makes people uncomfortable. And for all her smarts Willow doesn’t really know how to navigate complex human relationships. Willow is accused of cheating on a test, which sets a number of events in motion that are funny, sad, tragic and, ultimately hopeful. I met Sloan at Russo’s Bookstore back in December before it closed and she agreed to a Q&A. In keeping with the title of the book, I asked her seven questions.
Q1: Why is the book set in Bakersfield?
A: I think that Bakersfield, like Willow, is both overlooked and misunderstood. It’s not a flashy place. But it’s got soul. At least I think so. Bakersfield is a diverse community. There is more than meets the eye. I spent a few days in Bakersfield doing a commercial once and I was struck by the people. The place. The climate. The sky. I liked it. I thought it had stories and secrets and lots of hopes and dreams.
Q2: Each of the characters has his or her own story of loss, some very tragic. What do you hope readers learn from those stories?
A: I think that how we handle loss defines us. It’s the old saying about not knowing someone until you are in a foxhole. Watching how someone handles success or good news doesn’t tell you as much about a person’s character as seeing what happens when things fall apart. Everyone experiences loss. With young people that can mean losing a grandparent or a beloved pet. My characters face extreme loss. There is nothing more ground-shifting than for a child to lose a parent.
Q3: OK, the school counselor, Dell — how does his incompetence add to the story?
A: Dell is extreme. But all kinds of inept people somehow make their way into the system. I have nothing but respect for school counselors and I do not want to imply that they aren’t doing their jobs. But Dell isn’t. He wouldn’t do his job if he worked in an ice cream store. He’s not a motivated person. He’s had a lot of disappointment and not a lot of encouragement. He’s stuck.
Q4: Considering Willow has such a loving, stable family, why was it important to the story for her to have been adopted?
A: I wanted to make her even more alone in the world. I also wanted her to be very different from her parents. I wanted her special abilities to be something she didn’t share with them. They love her with all their hearts, but I wanted them to be from another world. Steve Jobs was adopted. He had loving parents who found ways to encourage him to follow his interests. Not everyone is that fortunate.
Q5: There has been some criticism of the ending in regards to money (trying not to give away too much here). Can you address why you ended it the way you did?
A: The end is based on reality. The situation, as described in the book, happened to someone and I know this because my husband served on a jury and the basis of the civil action had to do with something that occurred because of what happened to the person in a situation like Pattie. If you haven’t read the book, that sounds completely incomprehensible. Sorry. In the edition of the book published in the United Kingdom I answer questions at the end of the book in a short interview and I explain where the idea comes from and the fact of the matter is that someone in Pattie’s situation pulled this off.
Q6: There are so many ways that kids (and adults) can be labeled as outcasts or misfits, from their income status to the look of their nose. Why make Willow’s high-octane brainpower the thing that sets her apart?
A: We tend to be a culture that easily recognizes and separates children when they have athletic talent. I wrote the movie “Angels in the Outfield,” so I think it’s clear that I love sports. But I think that, often, having intellectual talent isn’t celebrated in the way throwing a fastball is. My kids went to a school for gifted children (Mirman in Los Angeles). I “borrowed” a lot from their experience there.
Q7: The main character’s name is not exactly common, Willow Chance. Any significance? A: Yes. Will or Chance?
What is determinative in life? Or are both things at play? I’m hoping to encourage discussion about community. Responsibility. Differences. I’m trying to ask how we move on from loss. I’m looking at how we are all so different, and yet all so similar. (I couldn’t resist and sneaked in one extra question:)
Q8: What’s next for Counting By 7s?
A movie deal? Filmed in Bakersfield perhaps? A: The book has been optioned for a movie. It would ABSOLUTELY be filmed in Bakersfield. And we are in talks right now with an established (known) actor for one of the parts. So stay tuned.”
— Lois Henry, The Bakersfield Californian