“I found writing it and I hope readers find reading it, a hopeful story because it’s really about what happens after perhaps some of the worst possible things happen to not just yourself but to your whole family and how do you make it through that?” Author Robert Kolker discusses his book Hidden Valley Road with host J.T. Ellison on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Robert Kolker is the author of Hidden Valley Road, a nonfiction instant #1 New York Times best-seller and selection of Oprah’s Book Club that was named a Top Ten Book of the Year by the New York Times, theWashington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Slate; one of the year’s best by NPR, the Boston Globe, the New York Post, and Amazon; the #1 book of the year by People; and one of President Barack Obama’sfavorite books of 2020. His previous work includes Lost Girls, also a New York Times best-seller and New York Times Notable Book, and one of Slate’s best nonfiction books of the quarter century. He is a National Magazine Award finalist whose journalism has appeared in New York magazine, the New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, Wired, O, the Oprah Magazine, and The Marshall Project.
J.T. Ellison: Robert. Hi. Welcome to A Word on Words.
Robert Kolker: Hi J.T. I’m really glad to be talking to you.
Ellison: I am, too. I’m thrilled to have you here. I am fascinated by Hidden Valley Road. It’s an amazing book and I can’t wait to talk about it today. Where are you coming from for our at home version of A Word on Words?
Kolker: I’m at home in Brooklyn, where I’ve lived for 20 years now with my family. We all have a different Zoom in each room. I have two teenage kids and my wife works as well. So we meet up at dinner time, but we’ve been [settled] in for the year.
Ellison: We have that here as well. That’s awesome. So let’s talk about Hidden Valley Road. Tell me about the story.
Kolker: Well, this is a family saga, a multi-generational bond where you get to know everybody in a very large family. And it’s also a medical mystery because six of the 12 children do get a severe mental illness. It’s a story of survival because I focus on not just the mentally ill children, but the nondiagnostic, the well children and how they make it through the family. It’s a story about family secrets that get revealed later on. And, it’s about making it through trauma, frankly, in its strange way. I found writing it–and I hope readers find reading it–a hopeful story, because it’s really about what happens after perhaps some of the worst possible things happen to not just yourself, but to your whole family. And how do you make it through that? And you see several different ways that various people in the book do make it through. It really was an honor to work on and very complicated and a huge challenge given the number of people involved, but just an honor to be able to get to know this family better and introduce them to the world.
Ellison: So how did you come across the Galvins? What led you to them in the first place?
Kolker: We have a mutual friend. The two youngest siblings who are the only girls, for years have known a good friend of mine named John Glock, who edited me at New York Magazine for many years. So one day they finally came to him and said, we think our family story…the world ought to know more about it. And we think it ought to be a work of independent journalism. We don’t want to write a memoir. We need someone to be able to interview everybody in the family and to understand the science and to get to the bottom of what makes the family tick and what makes them significant scientifically. And my friend thought of me because I have a track record writing about families in crisis and people in crisis, and also tangled narratives that are complicated and involve science or the law.
It seemed like I’d be a good match for it, but I have to be honest, I was pretty skeptical. It was so sad, so tragic and so complicated that it wasn’t clear to me that even the family themselves would, would be able to really tell the story in a satisfying way, particularly when there’s so much stigma around mental illness. I thought that at least a few family members would be too shy to really talk about what they went through. But what I hadn’t predicted was that enough time had passed that people were really ready. Even the matriarch of the family who had resisted going public with what the family was going through for so many years, she was ready as well. And also there were some scientific breakthroughs accomplished by people who had studied the Galvin family for decades. So I knew there’d be a happy reward at the end. So that kind of propelled me into it as well. And, you know, I dip my toe in the pool and it took about a year of getting to know everyone. And then I went to work on the book full-time.
Ellison: That’s actually one of my questions because this is such an incredibly intricate story, how you’re balancing what’s happening with the family, what’s happening with the scientific world, the history of schizophrenia. I’ve read that you did a massive deep dive into it. Can you talk a little bit about how you balanced the story with the science and brought it together because it’s appealing both to lay people and professionals across the gamut, you’ve done an amazing job balancing them. I imagine that wasn’t the easiest thing to do.
Kolker: Yeah, it was complicated, but I will say that in a lot of my magazine stories and also in my other book, Lost Girls, I’ve gone to work knowing that there are two tracks to pursue. There’s the narrative itself, what happens to the people in the book? And then there are the deeper issues to explore in the book. And I never know going in, whether it’ll be, you know, 90% of the narrative and then 10% of the issues and the bigger ideas, or whether it’ll be the other way around. And so I just sort of go, I push, I floor it on both of those fronts. I prepared two different timelines, the science and history of schizophrenia and our thinking about it and the history of this family. And very quickly, it became clear to me that I wanted this to be a family story, that I didn’t want this to be a case study or a text, a science textbook that would have the family as evidence about the science of schizophrenia. I wanted the science to be in the service of the family story. For a long period there, I had to pretend I was writing two books and researching two books about two separate things, and then find a way to weave them together.
Ellison: You have a history in your family, your mom worked in this field. Did that help at all, bringing you to the page with this?
Kolker: I think the short answer is no. The long answer is that my mother for 25 years was—she died in 2018—she was a psychiatric assistant. She had a master’s and worked at the local hospital in the psychiatric division. She loved her career and was very happily helping out people who cycled through the hospital, either with chronic mental health conditions or with trauma. But she didn’t really talk about her work. She didn’t talk about Freud and Jung when she came home, either. She wasn’t a theoretician, she was just a good listener. And I think that…I guess the deeper answer is to the extent that I’m a good listener and that I’m very patient and open-minded, and nonjudgmental. When I talk to people in my work, I think I’m really taking a page out of her book in that way.
But in the sense of schizophrenia, there was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t know that the drugs that they’re giving people for this condition are pretty much the same drugs they’ve been giving for 50 years. I always assumed that there was a revolution in the treatment of brain chemistry around mental illness, that between Prozac and Lithium, that all sorts of psychiatric conditions now had new, relatively new and very effective drugs. But for schizophrenia, it’s the same drugs they’ve been using for 50 years. And that was surprising to me and that those drugs really aren’t cures at all. They just make the patients more manageable. That was just the beginning of my eyes opening about that side of this book.
Ellison: Let’s go back to moms for a second. And Mimi [Galvin], because I can’t even imagine what this woman has gone through. She holds together this family of 12. I mean, she has 12 children so already this is an extraordinary life. Six boys get schizophrenia, and she has to manage all of them and the family and keep everyone together. Tell me about this woman. She seems like a superhero.
Kolker: I think when I look at the book now that the first half of the book is kind of hard on her. She’s doing a lot to paper over what’s going on and she’s shopping for doctors to give her a good opinion so that the family doesn’t fall apart. And she puts the well children in harm’s way by keeping some of the sick children in their orbit. There’s lots that goes wrong and it’s happening at a time when mothers get a lot of blame for all sorts of things in the world of psychoanalysis. It looks pretty bad for her, frankly, but then I think Part Two opens up a little bit and the children themselves grow up and look back on their childhood. And they realized that this woman who they blame for so many moments of denial is really also the woman who kept it all together, who kept the family together. They can’t sit and condemn her outright. They have to understand her and reckon with her legacy and see what it is about her that they’d like to emulate themselves. And I thought that was one of my favorite things to explore when writing about the family.
Ellison: Well, and she’s a product of her generation as well. I mean, at that point [schizophrenia] is not something that is well-known, it is certainly not something that there is good medication for, or, you know, it’s not like it is now. I was wondering if she had her babies now and this happened, would this have been the situation, or would the stigma had been lifted just enough that she could seek out help the very first episode. Donald’s obviously having a problem. Okay. I’m going to take him over to Sloan Kettering and fix this. You know, or if they’d stayed in the East Coast, instead of being in Colorado. So many of the choices, I felt, forced her into the decisions she made, but yeah, she did paper over a lot of, it too.
Kolker: I couldn’t agree with you more. And as I was answering your last question, I could hear in my head several of the kids in the Galvin family saying, but she had no other options. You know, it was a time when parents were being blamed for everything, where there was no tried and trued way of dealing with this, that their stigma, as you said, was so huge that even to say that something was going on meant that you were essentially condemning the entire family to having a tainted future. And then you had other people in her life, including her husband, arguing that the kids should learn to grow up and fend for themselves and, and go out in the world and make their lives. Remember, these kids are getting sick when they’re in their twenties, not in their teens, but the big takeaway I think, and it’s something you just touched on is about early intervention.
We live in a time now where that’s the big difference where a teenager who’s having some pretty severe difficulties can get a lot of care and attention now provided they have good healthcare in a way that a teenager in 1965, it would be swept under the rug out of shame and stigma and misunderstanding. And then, in case it wasn’t completely clear, let’s say you were really determined to find medical help for your son in 1965 or 1967, there would be at least four different places with four different approaches and four different diagnoses and no way of telling what the right move would be. It’s like sitting in a supermarket with a lot of choices and knowing there’s a supermarket across the street with entirely different food, too, that you don’t even know if that’s the better food. It must’ve been dizzying for them.
Ellison: Oh, completely. And, and I’ve heard, you mentioned that Colorado was sort of a hotbed of a very specific kind of psychiatric school of thought, and that’s the schizophreno… I’m not saying it right. You know what I’m talking about? The mother…
Kolker: The schizophrenogenic mother.
Ellison: That’s it! That’s another component of this, that, Oh, hi, I’ve got a problem. My children are having an issue and they’re like, well, you didn’t raise them right. If you would raise them differently, they wouldn’t be having these psychiatric issues. And you wouldn’t have to put them in Pueblo. I’m infuriated on her behalf. And on the behalf of mothers everywhere who were blamed for their children’s mental illness, when we know it’s something hereditary, and it may be environmental. Talk to me a little bit about that. And how the thinking on schizophrenia has changed across the years.
Kolker: I had heard about it before meeting this family. I had heard about “refrigerator mothers” with autism that, you know, back in the day in the fifties and sixties, doctors told mothers that they weren’t affectionate enough with their children. And that’s why they had what became known as autism. But I didn’t realize that there was something like that for schizophrenia, the “schizophrenogenic mother.” The term appeared first in the late forties, but it really dominated psychoanalysis and psychotherapy when it came to schizophrenia in the fifties and the sixties. And the doctors I interviewed for this book told me they still were hearing about it in medical school, in the late seventies and early eighties. And the idea was that family dynamics were what created, not just neuroses in mentally ill people, but severe mental illness like schizophrenia, was something the mother was doing. And it’s, I guess in hindsight, completely erroneous [and] seems ridiculous.
And the numbers don’t work out. There’s a very famous researcher, Fuller Torrey. He’s in his nineties now, but for the book, he told me if bad parenting caused any of these bad mental illnesses, we’d all be in a lot of trouble. You know? You have schizophrenia affecting 3% of the population. If bad parenting caused schizophrenia, you could imagine it would be 25% or perhaps even 50%. And yet that’s what researchers—not just any researchers, but the top of the field researchers, the family dynamics specialists out of Yale and other places in the sixties—they were saying, if someone has schizophrenia, remove them from their family, you know, cordon them off because the family is the toxic thing that has created this disease. And so that’s what Mimi and Don Galvin were dealing with when their boys started getting sick. They knew that, it basically meant ending the family to go public with this.
Ellison: Speaking again about the family. I want to talk about Margaret and Lindsey because they’re the two girls. They’re the only girls in this family of 12 kids, 10 boys, two girls, neither of them are affected by this directly in that they don’t have it themselves. But my goodness, these girls, they really do take the brunt of it. Can you talk to me a little bit about the family dynamic with them and how they’ve learned to cope? It’s very interesting to me how their paths are different and have intersected again.
Kolker: One of the luxuries of this being a big book is that I could go deep into issues that weren’t specifically about schizophrenia itself, or even about the sick members of the family, who I also interviewed and wrote about. But the sisters themselves, I mean, you could call it a subplot, but to me it’s really the heart of the book. How do you survive a family like this? How do you maintain your relationship with your family? Do you… I mean, I’ve said in a lot of interviews that the big question on my mind at the beginning was why didn’t Lindsey and Margaret just leave and never come back. Why didn’t they? You know that in my head, I thought, if I were them, I would have gone to Los Angeles and gone to law school and become a lawyer and sent the family a Christmas card every year saying here I am, I’m a lawyer, I’m fine.
But they came back. They both came back in their different ways. And that was the most exciting thing to me to write about because you see two women who have been through intense traumas as children, and for people who haven’t read the book, this includes child abuse and sexual abuse. There’s clergy abuse and there’s [abuse] in the family. One member of the family has a murder/suicide. There’s one attempted murder. It just goes on and on and on. They make it through and they each come back in different ways to their family. One of them is setting up lots of boundaries. And the other one is really assuming the mantle of a caregiver. And I wanted to pursue that. Non-judgmentally as a reporter, I wanted to talk to both of them about their rationales. Why are they doing what they’re doing?
And that was an uncomfortable subject for them because it really pitted them against one another. They clash, the two sisters, they have different worldviews and different views of how to make it through the difficulties that they both have been through. And on one hand, that’s surprising to me because you think these sisters, they should stay together. They should be on the same page. They should help one another. And they do quite often in their lives. But then I realized that this is life. This is how this is how siblings experienced family. Everybody handles it a little bit differently. And I wanted readers to be able to look and wonder, well, would I have handled it like Lindsey? Or would I have handled it like Margaret? I heard the best thing from one reader who told me that she feels like she would do it one way, one day and another day she would do it differently. She feels like one sister sometimes. And sometimes another one. And that, I think, is very real too.
Ellison: And Lindsey, I mean, Lindsey ends up being the caretaker of the family. She fills Mimi’s role. She somehow manages to forgive and hold them together and hold them up and make her make sure her brothers are taken care of. And Margaret does the same, but in a completely different way, separating herself from this, which is the only healthy thing that she can do. And it’s fascinating how people… you know, these are two girls who truly are the only ones in the world that speak the same language, right? That must be incredibly isolating. And they’ve found a way to get through it. And they, too, are the stars of this and are the superheroes of this story.
Kolker: Right? Exactly. I admired them both greatly. And I think people have a lot to learn from both of them. And to me, the exciting thing about hidden Valley road is you can get to know them and get to know their mother and their father and their brothers. And so every decision they make has context to it. It doesn’t feel like it’s in a vacuum. You could say, Oh, wait a minute. That thing that she just did, that’s similar to what her mother did 40 years ago. And that is an exciting thing for readers to see, to be able to get their arms around the entire story.
Ellison: One of the more touching parts of this for me, I grew up in Colorado and I went to the Air Force Academy games around the time that Don was flying the Falcons. When I was reading it, I was like, Oh my gosh, I grew up just North of where they were, just on the other side of Monument Hill. So it was a very personal story for me because I knew all the landmarks and all the things, which was really interesting. But the falconry, I want to talk about that family hobby. It strikes me as just such a metaphorical irony that the family hobby is trying to tame wild things. Can you talk a little bit about their falconry?
Kolker: It’s a point of pride for the family. They’re excited about it. It’s not like it’s continued through successive generations, but their family legacy is falconry. Their father not only flew Falcons for the Air Force Academy, but their parents Don and Mimi were the ones who first suggested that the Air Force make the Falcon it’s mascot. And Don, in the early years of the Academy was on national television, flying Falcons at halftime at football games. It was the thing they were known for before they were known as the family with 12 children, Don Galvin was known as the Falcon man. And so I couldn’t not write about it. But then as you said, the metaphor is irresistible. You have a family that’s taming wild things. What I come back to is just from a very baseline level.
It’s a very interesting hobby to adopt. I mean, these are not native Coloradans. Don and Mimi came to Colorado in their twenties, when they just had three or four kids in the early 1950s, and they knew nothing about Colorado and nothing about falconry and they ran to it, they wanted to do this. It’s not like they said, well, let’s play golf. They said, let’s try and tame wild Falcons. And that shows just how optimistic and how in large and in charge they were as people, how, they were ready to take on the world and [were] confident that they could with enough hard work and faith. And that made me think of all sorts of family stories, where the family starts off with hopes and optimism, and then something unexpected happens and how do they deal with what’s unexpected? And so I knew I had to write about it in that way.
Ellison: What was the moment that you think the family decided, okay, we’ve hidden this for so long and it’s not helping, we’re going to open the doors and get involved in the studies. I had no idea that there were multiple families who have multiple children with schizophrenia that have been in studies for years and years and years. Can you talk a little bit about Dr. Freedman and Dr. DeLisi? Because I feel like her research in particular, if it had kept its funding at the right moment, maybe we would have had some breakthroughs a little bit earlier. I would love to hear how they got hooked up with her and with Dr. Freeman and everything on that and how they’ve opened the doors to help all of these families who are suffering from this.
Kolker: The book follows the science through these two researchers who both met the Galvin family around 1984, as their research was taking off and to families with large numbers of schizophrenia people. The family probably would have been ready for them years earlier. I think the worst that happened, the family’s real nadir was like 1973 or so, where there was a murder suicide, and that you just couldn’t hide anything anymore. And they were really looking for whatever help they could get. And Mimi was desperate to not just to help her kids, but also to prove that this was a genetic illness. This was not something that she caused. And so she looked at nutrition, she tested the water at the house. You know, she looked for environmental causes that weren’t about parenting and she was waiting for genetics to happen, but it took a while.
So the book is a little bit about that. Not just the schizophrenogenic mother, but other dead ends and detours and disputes that informed the march of science. It’s not just one day you cure polio. It takes, you know, years of working on polio for it to happen, and that’s what’s happening with schizophrenia. So the researchers are fascinating to me and they are characters in the book as well. Dr. DeLisi in particular, really steps in to study schizophrenia families at just the moment when the technology is starting to allow her to look at them at the DNA level. And she works on it for years. And she collects probably the largest, single researcher collection of DNA from families like the Galvins, and the Galvins are the largest family in that collection.
And, there’s a pharmaceutical company that’s interested in them. And then at some point, of course, the science passes her by and the human genome project promises to do all of this in a different way. And then for schizophrenia, that hits its own dead end and suddenly her work gets rediscovered. So, it’s a real drama with twists and turns, and she maintains faith throughout her career. And that to me is the most interesting thing, because I think if you’re building a career in scientific research, you know, some people would try to find the thing that seems promising, but not her. She bet on the long shot. She said, I want to study schizophrenia, even though I know that it may not be cured in my lifetime. So what kind of person does that and how does she interact with the Galvins? These were all questions I wanted to learn as I was writing.
Ellison: It’s fascinating. And Dr. Freedman’s Choline study, that’s fascinating to me as well. You mentioned in the book that when they have an idea, if it works, all of the scientists will be gone. So this is research that they’re not going to find out the true answer to. Talk a little bit about that and how it feels like we’re on the cusp of an actual breakthrough in schizophrenia and how to prevent it.
Kolker: We’re in a moment where we understand schizophrenia to be a vulnerability. It’s not like you have a gene that says two weeks after your 22nd birthday at six in the morning, you’re going to have your first psychotic break. Your genes are a blueprint. They aren’t destiny. So the blueprint says you have a vulnerability to developing an acute mental illness, but then [does] what happens to you in life matter? And the idea about Choline, which is, you know, it’s a nutrient you can buy at the vitamin shop or GNC. It’s nothing esoteric. The idea behind Choline is that it could be given to babies in utero. Mothers could take it as a supplement, as part of a prenatal vitamin, and it could strengthen brain health and help with brain development. So that if you are genetically vulnerable, if you do have a genetic predisposition to perhaps have a severe mental illness like schizophrenia, perhaps your brain will develop a certain resilience so that when your 22nd birthday comes around, you’re okay.
And this is something that you can only test on humans, and you can only do over time. And the children who are in the Choline studies are doing fantastic, but it’s early days. So as you said, it’s going to be decades before we know for sure. Meanwhile, the exciting thing, and what gives people a little bit of hope at the end of Hidden Valley Road is that the FDA is on board. That they’ve issued a recommendation saying for better brain health, expectant, mothers should take Choline. So that’s a hopeful sign.
Ellison: t is. And I hope that’s a message that we can help getting out because you know, this is a difficult and hard disease to manage. And it’s great that there is some actual hope, and this is a story of hope at its core. It is a very hopeful story. It’s difficult, it’s hard, but it is a very hopeful story and props to you for making that happen.
Kolker: The family took a real risk. There was a chance that a book about their family could be like a car crash of a book that you just can’t look away and it’s voyeuristic and they didn’t want that. They didn’t have control over the finished product, but they hoped that I would come at it with more of a spirit of goodwill and sensitivity to report intimately on their experiences. And I’m just over the moon and thrilled that it’s been so well received, that so many people have read it that way. Just really, really excited and gratified that it’s happened that way.
Ellison: I am, too. I think you’ve done an amazing job and they have to be thrilled with how this is working. Tell me about your background. How does being a journalist—I’ve got like a thousand journalism questions for you because it’s really interesting to me when journalists write books that are so well-received—so let’s start with something easy. How has life changed for you? You’ve got a movie in the works. You’ve got Lost Girls that has just been made into a movie. You’ve got another movie that’s out on HBO Max, you’ve got a number one New York Times bestseller and Oprah book pick—how’s your life changed this year? Is it any different than it was before?
Kolker: It’s very exciting. But to hear you say all of that out loud in one sentence, that doesn’t sound like a person I recognize, you know, it’s not like I look in the mirror and go that there’s the guy with two movies and a bestseller. Like it doesn’t look…it doesn’t seem like me. So I’m still, I guess you could say I’m still integrating it, right? I’m still figuring it out. But you know, I had a very gradual and very conservative career. I didn’t even try to write a book until I was 40. I was a working journalist in magazines, trying to get better and better at what I did. So these books are all big bets and they took a long time for me to build up a confidence to do it. So I’m not the person, the wunderkind who at the age of 22 said, I’m going to write the big mammoth project and that’s going to change the world.
I really worked at it slowly. So when I look in the mirror, I see somebody who loves to write as a way of learning new things and putting myself in places that I’d never otherwise be. I always loved writing, but I only came to journalism in my twenties because I saw that it was a chance to write about people going through things, to write about them in a narrative way. And that was really exciting to me. My friends who were interested in journalism wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein or foreign correspondence, or accountability journalists to bring people help, to help change the world in that way. But I never really dialed it into it that way. I was really writing about ordinary people, facing challenges that would, that we could relate to.
And then I fell in love with books like Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. These are books that…they do all those things, but they do them in places where readers will never go or may never go like the slums of Mumbai for instance, or the slums of New York city. It lifts the veil on a part of the world you never otherwise get to see. And I thought, well, that’s what I wanna do. I want to tell relatable human stories that help us learn about something you wouldn’t otherwise learn about and to do it in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re being made to eat your vegetables. Didn’t force you to do your homework or something like that. And there are a lot of models to go on. There are, you know, a zillion people who have done it beautifully, who I then started to obsessively read and try to become like.
Ellison: I feel like you’re a sort of literary version of Malcolm Gladwell, meaning you dive in and get into that depth, but it’s a little bit prettier.
Kolker: I come at the ideas second and the story first and, and, and he’s amazing, but the people I would more try to emulate would be like Lawrence Wright, who wrote Going Clear about Scientology and David Grann, who wrote Killers of the Flower Moon and, and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, who wrote Random Family and Katherine Boo, who wrote Behind the Beautiful Forevers. These are people who are parachuting into enormously complicated situations and trying to tell a very clear and compelling story that helps us understand something really important. And I just would…I love challenges like that.
Ellison: How do you decide when a story is big enough to be a book?
Kolker: That’s a really good question. And it often me personally saying no about 600 times until I finally say yes at the 601st one. I resist it until finally, somebody around me in my orbit, a friend or a colleague or an agent says, you know, this is a big deal. You should take it seriously. And I start to really think about it and get my feet wet. I do feel like I’m like a lot of writers that way where I’m very, very, very unconfident in the very beginning. I think, well, there’s so much I don’t know, why me? And then slowly but surely I start to build up a head of steam until finally I say, well, definitely, of course I’ll do this. That’s the way it’s happened with the last two books. For sure.
Ellison: You’ve talked yourself into it. It is really interesting that you say that, because I would imagine you probably do just as much work on a story as you do on a book. I mean, obviously you start living with it for years on end, instead of months on end, but the work you do on your stories, there is no less research. You do an amazingly deep dive on those as well. So that’s interesting that you talk yourself into it, and it sounds like you have some external influence as well.
Kolker: I think what you said is really on point because I came to New York Magazine when I was around 30 and I didn’t get to work on my first book until I was about 40. And in those 10 years there, I was in a very privileged position. Being able to write on staff at a general interest magazine and really learn to get better and better at what I did and really write exciting things. But, um, there was a reverse snobbery about books. My friends and I at the magazine, we would go to the bookstores and look at books and go, well, that should be a magazine story. That too, that too. Like, it’s not, you know, why did that person write that book? It should have been so much shorter. You start to really raise the bar on what you think is bookwork.
Ellison: That makes perfect sense. Wow. That’s really, really cool. So this is our last one. How do you do the writing of this? How do you actually sit down on a day-to-day basis and make this happen?
Kolker: I had to really commit to the idea that I was going to write a very, very sloppy and imperfect first draft that I was going to then make tons of changes too. So, I would tell myself, just keep writing, just keep going, do what feels right. But just trust that you’re going to end up changing a lot of this, that it doesn’t have to be perfect right now. And then once I was done with the first draft, it wasn’t like I was halfway through writing the book. It was more like I was a third of the way through writing the book because I would sit down and read that draft. And it would be very humbling. Oh my goodness. Yeah, this won’t do. And then, the rewriting becomes a more secure place where you say, Oh, now I know what it needs to be. Now I know how to do it. And then it starts to get more and more exciting because it starts to look more and more like a workable book.
Ellison: When you had this story, did you go, okay, this isn’t going to be a story. This is going to be a book, or did it grow out of something you were already doing?
Kolker: It was a book first, but I, in the year that I spent getting to know the family, I would ask myself, maybe I should write a magazine story first. Maybe I should write a story about Dr. Freedman, and have the family be a part of that story just to get my feet wet in the material. And then at some point, with help from friends, I just said, why not just do it all? Why work so hard on one small piece of the pie when you can work so hard on the entire pie? And so that’s what I did.
Ellison: And it’s, it’s a wonderful, remarkable book. And I’m just so happy you wrote it and have raised the awareness. Maybe we can help change the stigma of this and fix the way people are thinking about it and find a cure at the same time. That would be awesome.
Kolker: I do hope families find something to relate to, and that’s been the exciting thing, to hear from various families over email in the last year.
Ellison: What’s next for you? Can you talk about what you’re working on?
Kolker: I have a magazine story in the hopper. That’s way too early to talk about. I’m hoping that people agree to talk to me for it. And then I have a bigger, bigger subject area that I’m researching for a book that I’m nowhere near figuring out what the book is in the middle of that subject area. And then there is adapting Hidden Valley Road for a possible mini-series. I’m part of that as well. So I kind of have three irons in the fire at the moment.I never feel good when I’m sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. I’m feeling much better when I’m doing something.
Ellison: So really quick. You did mention that this has been optioned. You are working on it as a show? That’s awesome.
Kolker: Yeah. I mean, I hope it happens. Every time I say it, I feel like I’m jinxing it. I feel like, you know, with Hollywood, it’s always going to happen until suddenly it isn’t going to happen. So I’m hopeful.
Ellison: I watched Lost Girls last night and I thought they did a really great job with it. It was tragic yet inevitable. And that’s exactly what you need from a story, right?
Kolker: Yeah. Their approach was something I never would have come up with on my own, to take a slice out of what was an ensemble book and really zero in on that, I thought it made a lot of sense and was brilliantly acted. I thought Amy Ryan and Gabriel Byrne were both so amazing. I felt really lucky that they did it at all. And Liz Garbus is an amazing director. So I was really amazed to watch and sort of cheer her on from the sidelines.
Ellison: Robert, I’m a big fan and I’m thrilled with all of your success and I’m watching and waiting for your next book and your stories. And thank you for what you do.
Kolker: J.T. Thank you. It’s a thrill to talk to you. And I’m so glad that you chose to talk about Hidden Valley Road here.
Robert Kolker Recommends
Mohawk ,by Richard Russo
Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
Moneyball, by Michael Lewis
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo