Peter Hedges in Real Life

The writer/director returns to his roots with new novel The Heights

Peter Hedges
Peter Hedges

It's been almost 20 years since Peter Hedges arrived on the scene with his McMurtry-esque first novel, What's Eating Gilbert Grape. He later adapted the novel into a movie starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. Since then, he's put in time in Hollywood, adapting novels by Nick Hornby and Jane Hamilton and directing two of his own scripts, including Dan in Real Life. He has built his reputation on small, character-driven films that strive for emotional honesty.

We chatted with Hedges as he prepared to set out on a book tour to support his new novel, The Heights, his first since 1998. It tracks a young couple in a posh Brooklyn neighborhood whose marriage is threatened by the arrival of a pair of glamorous outsiders. Hedges will be reading from the novel this Wednesday at BookPeople.

Austin Chronicle: This is your first novel that doesn't substantially involve Iowa as a setting and character. Was it time for a shift?

Peter Hedges: I guess it was. But I didn't start from the idea of "I need to get out of Iowa." A story started to come to me as I was sitting in Brooklyn, at a playground with my small children. It seemed like that was a good place to begin, and I guess I just kept going.

AC: You live in Brooklyn Heights. Did you find yourself borrowing details from your own life? More or less than in your Iowa novels?

PH: No, actually. My second novel, An Ocean in Iowa, is the closest thing I've written to my own life. There may be little details – descriptions of what's in a sock drawer, or the architecture of an apartment, the smell of a meal – but no, I was very determined to not write about the people in my neighborhood.

I saw a couple one day sitting on a park bench, and they seemed exceedingly happy and deeply in love, and they seemed to have it together in every possible way. And I thought, "What could happen to these people that would turn their lives upside down?" When you start running with that, it becomes its own story. But also – and I think this was not out of laziness, but maybe out of convenience – if I was sitting at a playground after a late night because of a kid's ear infection, I could look over at the way someone was dressed or the way light bounced off a slide and think, "Oh, I could use this."

AC: You've spent much of the past two decades directing and writing films. You've made it look easy, but how hard is it really to sell a character-driven story in Hollywood?

PH: It's insane. Right now, it's harder than ever, I think. We live in a world of blockbuster, CGI-drenched, special-effects-laden films, and every time a story is complicated, especially when it's both a comedy and a drama, not a genre film but a human film, made humanely, it gets harder.

But I think these things move in cycles. These kinds of stories will find their place again. I have to believe that.

AC: Would you be interested in turning The Heights into a movie?

PH: I wrote it as a book. If I wanted to make it as a movie, I would have made a movie and saved myself a lot of trouble. But if there was a way that I could make it so that it wouldn't be turned into something broad or silly, if the weight of the things underneath the book could be given their due, I would be interested.

My first film was What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which we filmed in Austin. That was a very happy experience for me. The book continues to have its life, and it's different from the movie, but the movie helped the story reach a lot of people. That's my model. If I could get close to that for The Heights, I would sign on.

AC: You've become a favorite panelist of the Austin Film Festival – this October will be your fourth visit. What draws you back?

PH: It's a festival that's about the writer. If you're a novelist or a playwright, the writer is foremost, but if you work in film, the writer is often relegated to the back of the bus. But here we have a festival that celebrates the writer. What writer wouldn't want to be at that party?

Peter Hedges will be at BookPeople Wed., March 24, 7pm.

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Peter Hedges, The Heights, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, An Ocean in Iowa, Brooklyn Heights, Dan in Real Life, Austin Film Festival

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