Elizabeth Robinson discusses The True and Outstanding Adventures of The Hunt Sisters
Where did your idea for the book originate?
My sister changed my life, and I felt compelled to tell the story of how she did that. I'd always been interested in questions of faith--how can you believe there is meaning in life, or in God when terrible things happen to people? Her defiant optimism, even in the face of lousy odds, was amazing to me, because I had always been pretty cynical and pessimistic, and that became the structure within which I began to write.
Since the novel is based on the true story of what happened to you and your sister, why not write a memoir, why write a novel?
I fictionalized the story because I have been a screenwriter for some time, and after the restrictiveness of writing screenplays, I wanted to be free to discover things and let the story lead me. So, for example, while I did work on a script of Don Quixote, it never got made. But the themes in Quixote echo what I wanted to write about, and it has been a historically impossible movie to get made in Hollywood. So I decided to make it the one the protagonist is trying to produce. I also chose to write a novel so that I could write things the way I would like them to have been--there was some wish fulfillment, like the nasty letters to annoying colleagues and arrogant doctors.
Have you always wanted to be a writer, and what led to the publication of this book, your first novel?
I wrote my first short story when I was eight, and I won some prizes in junior high and high school. In college I lost my nerve and my focus, and I became overly concerned with making money, which led me to study economics, and eventually to the movie business. But my heart was always in books. My first job in film was actually related to publishing--I scouted books for studios to adapt for the movies--and I loved reading four or five books a week.
The last movie I produced was based on a book, and after it was over I had saved enough money for a year. I finally decided to put everything into this long-deferred dream of mine--to show the same grit my sister showed. I decided if I couldn't sell this story in a year, at least I would have really tried, and at least there would be this testament to her fight. Near the end of the year I was in the process of preparing myself for waitressing again when I got the check from Little, Brown--I had $300 left in the bank at the time.
Why did you decide to write the story in letters?
Writing in letters was my biggest worry, because I know it is not exactly in fashion anymore, but I have always been a big letter writer. There is a special intimacy and anticipation in correspondence. It is a very focused dialogue between two people, and there is also built-in suspense. I was reminded of this when my mother sent me an envelope of old letters I had received when I lived in Paris in my 20s, and reading through them I became engrossed to find out what happened--the natural gaps between the letters became an inherent drama. Letters also offered a familiar modularity--in screenwriting I thought in terms of scenes, and in the novel, I thought in terms of letters, which made it manageable to me.
Since your book is based on such an important personal story, what are some of the things you hope to learn or take away from the experience of having written it?
The novel was my own wish fulfillment, not only to write the angry letters I had always wanted to write to doctors, etc., but also to create a character I would like to be more like in some ways. I wanted to create an intimacy with my sister and events, and to spend more time with her by writing about her. Ultimately I hoped to find something beautiful in the inexplicable tragedy of her life, and to believe that she felt this way too. Finally, for me it was a way of truly saying goodbye.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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