Author Robert Kolker takes us inside Hidden Valley Road, Oprah's latest book club pick
In many ways, New York Times best-selling author Robert Kolker is a cut above: He's a New York Times best-selling author, for one. His novel Lost Girls was adapted into a Sundance darling Netflix film. He's reported on embezzlement in public education, abortion-doctor assassins, Osama Bin Laden experts, and sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community. But there is one glaring trait that he shares with all of us: He screens his phone calls.
It's this very human reflex that provided with Kolker with a story for the ages when one Oprah Winfrey happened to be on the other end of a screened call, in an attempt to let the author know that she had selected his latest book, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, as her April pick for Oprah's Book Club.
"It came up as ‘No caller ID’ and I didn’t pick up, and there was no voicemail so I figured it was spam," Kolker says of the fated call, which came completely out of the blue. "[My publicist] sent me an email saying, 'I have a reporter who’s trying to call you, the next time your phone says ‘No caller ID,’ could you pick up?' And then the phone rang [again] and I picked it up and heard on the other end of the line, ‘This is Oprah Winfrey.’ And I completely burst out laughing, because I knew there could only be one reason why she could be calling."
Hidden Valley Road is a bit of a departure for Winfrey's rebooted book club, which has recently highlighted novels including Olive, Again; The Water Dancer; and the highly controversial American Dirt. (The club declined to choose a March selection after dropping My Dark Vanessa.) It's a nonfiction tale, part family saga, part investigation, part scientific history, following Don and Mimi Galvin, a Colorado couple who would eventually find six of their 12 children plagued by schizophrenia. Kolker's investigation into the family began with the two youngest sisters, Lindsay and Margaret — both of whom were spared the disease but not the emotional toll it leaves in its wake, nor the haunting survivor's guilt — and eventually expanded to look into the medical community's influence on schizophrenia as a whole.
On the eve of Winfrey's big announcement about Hidden Valley Road, Kolker spoke to EW about the way he came to the Galvin family story and what he hopes readers will make of it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The author's note at the end of the book mentions that a mutual friend put you in touch with the Galvin family. Can you elaborate on how you discovered this story?
ROBERT KOLKER: Margaret and Lindsay, the two Galvin sisters, had been talking about a book for decades and thinking about ways to tell their story. They thought about a memoir, about doing some reporting themselves, but at the end of the day they thought it would be best to let an independent journalist get involved. Four years ago, they contacted an old school friend of Lindsay’s who happened to have been my editor at New York magazine for more than 10 years — he thought of me because I had written about people in crisis before and talked to vulnerable sources before, so he thought it would be a good match.
At what point was it clear to you that you had a really good book at play?
I met the two sisters over the phone at first, and when they told me their story, I couldn’t believe that so much had happened to just one family. And I also wondered how they remained a family for so long, given all of the trauma and heartache. When they said they were interested in a book I was, at first, skeptical — I thought maybe there would be at least one sibling who might stand up and say, "No, I don’t want anybody to write about this." I suggested that we take it slow, and once a week I got on the phone with a different Galvin family member, starting with their mother, Mimi, who was still alive and about 90 years old. I just had open-ended conversations, seeing what they thought of a book like this. Lo and behold, everybody was interested and really up for it.
Was it a long process to convince everyone to be interviewed, and what did you do to ingratiate yourself to them?
I had not expected that enough time had passed, and that people would be ready to open up. But I think they were also really respecting the sisters, because they all agreed they had gotten the worst of it as the youngest members of the family — everything sort of trickled down to them. I ended up taking seven or eight different trips to Colorado to do face-to-face meetings with the family.
How did you decide the scope of this book? It spans about 50 years, including the family's saga and the story of a few researchers, but didn't necessarily need to stop there.
My first question was how to focus the book: Would it be about the sisters, would it be about the whole family? Would it be about the science of schizophrenia, or would it all be about childhood trauma? Some of my earliest interviews were with the researchers who studied the family’s DNA over the years, and I found that there were people who made advances based on their study of this family and families like them. That really settled the issue for me, that this could be both things: a multigenerational family saga and a story about the history of the science of schizophrenia… And I made some decisions early on, the first being to make sure that every mentally ill brother was painted with as much detail and nuance as possible so that it wouldn’t just be the six well siblings and the six crazy — I wanted them all to be people.
You're a very experienced investigative journalist, and handling serious or sensitive material isn't new to you, but most of your work has been in true crime. Did this subject matter, and working with a family riddled by mental health tragedies, present any new challenges?
Both Margaret and Lindsay made it easier than I thought it would be, because they both have such goodwill and such hope that other people could benefit, that they were really ready to answer any question I threw at them. So at no point did it get really touchy in that sense. Certainly, it’s hard to reconstruct events that happened decades ago, that happened to people who were very young at the time, and who were traumatized by it happening. So that was tricky, as a technical challenge. As a comparison, Lost Girls, a lot of that book was written about people as they were going through their experiences, which were horrible experiences but there was an immediacy there. Whereas here I was trying to recreate events from long ago. I wanted to be especially sensitive to everyone’s point of view.
There were two real saving graces here: Margaret kept some diaries and those were great jumping off points, and then Lindsay was very helpful in getting access to medical records that no one, including her, had ever seen before. There was information there that helped me recreate [brothers] Donald and Peter’s descent into mental illness that were just really really shocking and eye-opening and surprising to the family as well. As much as you can “break news” in a book like this, I was able to do that thanks to all those medical records.
Do you have any hopes for real-world implications in the wake of this book?
With true crime, certainly you hope that visibility gets raised and shakes something loose in the case. But more importantly, just like with this book, it’s about taking an extremely chaotic situation and putting it into a real narrative that actually brings a little bit of order to the chaos. There’s the famous Joan Didion line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In my view, we tell ourselves stories in order to understand things better.
What do you think readers will connect with most in this book?
If I had to predict, I would think that the stories of Lindsay, Margaret, and Mimi would be what readers would lock into emotionally, because they can look at them over decades and see how they change and how their outlook changes, and ask themselves, "If I were in this situation what would I do?" These are trying times and everyone’s being tested now, but this family was really tested and they all came up with different ways of coping. But I’m ready to be surprised, too, by what people see in it.
This is a difficult time to be publishing a book, mostly because the traditional ways of promoting (like book tours) are unavailable. What does it mean to you to see this book getting such meaningful early attention?
I’m thrilled that it’s getting some nice attention. I think there’s obviously more important stuff happening in the world right now, and the fact that it’s actually getting some nice reviews early on means that I don’t have to be that narcissistic bridezilla that you can be when your book is coming out. It means that during a great calamity I’m not walking around going, "But what about my book?" I can relax a little bit, as much as anyone can relax right now, which is not at all. And I’m thrilled for the Galvin family, because they really put themselves on the line to tell their story, so how nice that they get to see early on that it’s working out the way they’d hoped.
What kinds of pop culture are you turning to for your own distraction from quarantine?
Quite randomly, my wife and I started watching The Restaurant, which is this Swedish show that’s a little like Downton Abbey and a little like Mad Men. It’s on [Amazon] Prime and Sundance Now. It’s a family drama that takes place after World War II at a restaurant in Stockholm, and there’s a lot of sibling rivalry and double crossing and organized crime and politics, and romance. So that’s been a nice distraction.