Glendy Vanderah is the author of the bestselling novel Where the Forest Meets the Stars—the story of Ursa, a peculiar girl who claims to have come to Earth from the stars to witness five miracles amongst humans so she can “graduate” on her own planet. Where the Forest Meets the Stars is a brilliant, heart-warming, poignant novel in which tragedy collides with triumph, intolerance with love, the mundane with the magical, factual with fantastic. It is a stardust-woven story that lures the reader in, grabs them, and drives them to the last page, where they realise how much they’ve fallen in love with the story and its characters.
Glendy’s debut novel is also my translational debut: Stilus, the publishing house, kindly offered me the job of translating from English to Croatian. It’s been a year since—and even if I never translate anything again, I will remember this magical adventure with starry eyes and nostalgia, with love. Of all possible books, I will not regret being given the honour of translating this masterpiece.
“I’m touched,” I wrote to her when I received the answers. “I didn’t expect this to be so… heart-to-heart, because rarely does an author open up like this. The readers will have to feel the connection with you and your characters once they’ve read the novel and all this, like I do—now even more.”
“Yes, I’m honest about my background in interviews”, she replied. “Where the Forest Meets the Stars was closely tied to the emotions and memories of my childhood. If I hid that I’ve struggled with adversity as a child and depression as an adult, how would that help my readers see a better future?”
Ms Vanderah: firstly, I must say that I’m thrilled to be speaking with you, and I’m immensely grateful to you for agreeing to answer a few questions for your Croatian readers.
Thank you for that great introduction, Luka, and for providing this opportunity to talk to my Croatian readers.
I’ll start with the simplest—probably the first from everyone: What inspired you to write Where the Forest Meets the Stars? How did the idea come to you? Was it cunning, so to speak, approaching you little by little, or was it a surprise, overwhelming you all at once?
The story came to me in parts. I had been writing fantasy for a few years (first for ‘fun,’ then trying to get published) when I decided to try contemporary fiction. I’d have to say the setting came first. I’d always wanted to write a book set in an isolated research house I lived in for a few years while I was working on avian research projects. The real house was similar to its description in the book. It was in the woods, next to a creek, and at the end of a rural road. There was even an old graveyard next to the house. The main idea for the book came to me after I saw director Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. I felt affinity with the idea of a child using fantasy to escape the violence and evils of war. As a child growing up in an unstable home, I used the nature of my wild-grown backyard to escape the traumatic events that were happening in my family—it was almost like a fantasy world for me. When I felt those deep connections, the book started to burst out of me!
Did you know what the novel would be like when the idea was still in the embryonic stage, or did it change as you wrote? What did it look like at its conception? What was at its centre? What came first—themes, and the shadow of the story that would soon be written, or the characters that would inhabit it?
I never know precisely what my story will be like at the end. I don’t use detailed outlines. When I get a story idea, I first create characters and their motivations, then I imagine what event would stimulate my plot. At first, I only rough out the storyline, though I generally know the ending. As I write, the plot usually changes—sometimes dramatically. And as the characters become real in my mind, they develop personality traits and backstories that are often a surprise even to me! For example, some of Gabe’s background surprised me as I wrote. For me, this story started out very much about how children deal with adversity, but it became so much more as the story progressed. The duality in Ursa’s alien/human self-perception mirrors Jo’s before/after cancer identities, as well as Gabe’s pre/post discoveries about his father. Those themes evolved as the story progressed.
What can you tell your Croatian readers about Ursa’s genesis? Is our genius little alien girl based on or inspired by a real person? Someone you know? Or did she just pop in your head the way she is written?
Ursa is certainly an outgrowth of how I remember my own difficult childhood. I decided her self-perception as an alien in a human body was an interesting way to show how children often feel when they experience trauma or abuse: the isolation, the sensation that they are standing apart from a ‘normal’ human world they can’t join. Some of my readers see Ursa as an actual alien, some see her alienation as a metaphor.
Many ideas for Ursa’s traits came from my three children. For example, one of my sons read words backward from a young age as a way of dealing with an excess of mental energy. Children are a lot more aware of what’s going on than many adults realize. I know this will sound biased, but I never ceased to be amazed by the brilliance I saw in my kids at young ages! Ursa is an amalgamation of all children I’ve ever known, including myself.
Which authors have influenced you as a writer? Which works have impacted Where the Forest Meets the Stars? Also, I can’t help but ask… William Shakespeare is Ursa’s favourite writer. Is there any special reason it’s him? Which Shakespearean play is your favourite and why?
Since I was a child, I’ve read eclectically—fantasy and sci-fi, contemporary fiction, scientific nonfiction—and I can’t really say one or a few authors strongly influence my writing. In fact, I don’t want them to!
As for Shakespeare, I think his writing is brilliant, especially for his time. I like to put references to his plays in my stories because his plots often hinge on strange or unlikely quirks of fate, and I’m intrigued by that: how one decision, or a few seconds of good or bad luck (an accident, a crime, a meeting) can change a person’s whole life. Putting Shakespeare’s plays in the story resonated with me because Forest pivots on this theme of fate, on how much control we have over it, and whether we have the strength to overcome tough fates once they’ve been dealt to us.
Shakespeare’s verse is gorgeous, but I think reading the plays doesn’t bring out the magic like seeing them performed. Two favourite performances: a magical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw many years ago, and a recent showing of Twelfth Night at a tiny playhouse where the audience essentially became part of the play.
In your novel, mental illness plays as important a role as physical. Do you have advice for people—especially youths—who are struggling with depression and anxiety, or mental illness in general? Furthermore, regarding Jo—who beat breast cancer—do you have advice for women, young and old?
Depression occurs on a spectrum from mild to severe. I certainly know what severe depression looks like—my alcoholic mother had it. Mine was less severe, probably more ‘situational’ than ‘clinical.’ Though I wrote Gabe’s depression to be like my own experiences, I received criticism from some readers who felt his illness wasn’t written ‘realistically.’ I think it’s sad some people think all depression is severe and unbeatable. I wanted the story to show another side. Depression, especially milder forms, can improve. Finding joy in biology, nature, and writing, and stability in a loving relationship with my husband, helped me overcome more than I ever dreamed possible when I was child. Perhaps there is no ‘perfect’ happy ending, but there is plenty of hope and potential for healing. That’s the message I want to give my readers.
Like most of us, I’ve seen too many family members, friends, and acquaintances succumb to breast cancer. I’ve seen many beat it, too. I don’t have specific advice, other than preventive measures, because every case is different, as are the very personal decisions women make after diagnosis.
Your novel also addresses other serious issues, such as domestic- and child abuse. Do you have a message for the people struggling with such difficulties?
Every circumstance will be different. I believe the troubles of my childhood made me a stronger person, but I know that can’t be the case for everyone. One loving, stable person—a relative, a friend, a teacher, a neighbour—can make a huge difference in a troubled child’s life. Find those good people and trust them. Feeling less isolated is important. If you don’t have anyone you can trust, you must trust yourself. Love yourself. Don’t take on guilt that isn’t yours. Don’t turn to destructive behaviours that will only make your life more miserable (I did that for a few years). You can get through the bad days, and recover, and have a fulfilling life. Don’t ever give up hope. Ursa embodied this idea, that even an eight-year-old, through sheer force of will, can change her future for the better.
(spoiler alert) Now, for those who have read the novel only! Can you tell us what happens with Ursa, Jo and Gabe after the ending? We are desperate for more!
I don’t see the continuation as immediate happiness and sunshine. I think Ursa, Gabe, and Jo still have challenges ahead. But the strength they’ve found in their love for each other will be important for conquering those problems. I’ve been asked if I imagine Jo and Gabe’s wedding in the future. My answer is, yes—and who doesn’t?
How long did it take to write this seemingly simple yet rather complex novel?
I’m not sure how long because the writing was often interrupted. I have written books in less than 7 weeks, but this one took much longer because I had many issues going on. My dad was dying of advanced Parkinson’s disease and needed lots of care. His partner had dementia. Also, I shattered my arm in an accident and couldn’t write for a long while.
Which, say, five books would you recommend to fans of your work? Some compare Where the Forest Meets the Stars with The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey—would that be among your recommendations? As a guess, did it perhaps influence your writing?
As I’ve said, del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth—a screenplay, not a book—had a big influence. I read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey after I wrote Forest—because of the blurb by author Christopher Meades on the front cover of my book. I see the connections between the two stories, but I think they are quite different, too. I read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh shortly after my book was published, and I feel that book has more similarities than Ivey’s. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is possibly a book people would enjoy if they liked this story. Many readers compare my book to Delia Owen’s Where the Crawdads Sing, so that would be another story I can recommend. I’ll also mention All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a story about two youths who battle adversity during World War II.
You are a bird biologist, like Jo. When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
I loved writing poems and stories as a child. My fifth grade teacher once told the class, “Someday you will all read a novel written by Glendy.” That was an inspiring moment for me. Yet my love for nature and animals had a stronger pull, and I chose to study ecology instead of English in college. After I received an undergraduate degree, while I worked as a biologist, I took some writing and literature classes. But I went on to get my Master’s degree in biology. Then I met my husband, also an ornithologist, and we had three kids. I was too busy to do much science during that time. Once the kids were in school, rather than go back to science (I felt I’d been away from research for too long), I began writing. I was honestly surprised that I could write fiction when I first started!
Another big question: Can we expect a film adaptation in the near future? Please say “yes”! Ursa’s fans, including me, would be overjoyed!
The book has had some attention from a Hollywood representative, but so far no word of a movie. We’ll all have to send out some good quarks to make it happen!
What can you tell us about your next novel? Is it in a similar vein to your debut, or should we expect something entirely different? Are you still writing it, or have you finished?
It’s finished, and it has similar themes. It’s coming out in the spring of 2021.
I believe most readers of Where the Forest Meets the Stars thought it to be science fiction throughout; is that something we can expect in the next book? Does it have a title? If so, can you share it with us? (We promise not to tell. 😉)
Where the Forest Meets the Stars has been variously described by readers as contemporary fiction, literary fiction, domestic fiction, science fiction, and magical realism. I think it’s fascinating that the story ‘shape-shifts’ to different genres! My publisher lists the book’s genre as contemporary fiction, and my next book, The Light Through the Leaves is the same genre.
Phew, so many questions… but that’s on you for writing such a beautiful novel!
Finally, would you like to say something to your Croatian fans?
A message for my Croatian readers: I hope you enjoy Where the Forest Meets the Stars. I’m certain it must have been expertly translated from the original English, because the translator, Luka Pejić, has written these thought-provoking questions and a beautiful, perceptive review of the book. Thank you, Luka, for all the hard work you have put into bringing this story to Croatian readers.
It’s been a dream come true to see my first published novel translated into twenty-one languages. I’m thrilled that the people of Croatia will have the opportunity to read Where the Forest Meets the Stars. What more could an author want than to know her stories might touch the hearts of many people around the world? I hope to bring a translation of my next novel to you soon! Happy reading!