It's been a quarter of a century since Peter Hedges graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a period that's seen him become an enormously successful screenwriter, director, playwright and novelist who's worked with some of Hollywood's biggest A-list talent.
But he can still recall the midnight runs to the Krispy Kreme and the smell of Winston-Salem tobacco in the morning in the place that made him become a writer. "I remember driving through Asheville to get to the school and thinking it was the most beautiful place on Earth," he says in a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn Heights. It's why he specifically requested a stop in North Carolina on the tour for his new book, The Heights, which he'll promote at Quail Ridge Books & Music on March 11.
Hedges' screenwriting career began with adapting his novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape into a 1993 film starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio before progressing to his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Nick Hornby's About a Boy and his own directorial efforts, Pieces of April with Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson, and Dan in Real Life with Steve Carell (the latter, he says, was almost filmed in North Carolina, but Rhode Island won out).
Despite his Hollywood success, Hedges swears that his new novel, The Heights, set in his current home, wasn't written with a movie in mind. Hedges spent more than a decade working on this tale of a married couple whose interactions with a wealthy new neighbor open up a new world that threatens their marriage and their values.
The shadow of 9/11 and changes to the economy—not to mention his other writing and directing commitments—meant that the story of The Heights altered as the book was being written. "These were people who I wanted to spend a lot of time with," Hedges says.
"I related to them, to their desire to give their kids better than what had been given them, and I liked writing about a good marriage that gets tested. When I understood what that test would be, I knew I had to tell that story. The best chance a writer has to surprise his readers is to be surprised when writing."
The Iowa native originally attended UNCSA with the goal of becoming an actor but soon found himself frustrated in the competitive environment. "The joke I had in school was, the harder I worked, the better everyone else got."
His father, a minister, talked him out of quitting in the middle of his junior year by suggesting he do something positive to overcome his unhappiness. He wound up writing a short play for his freshman roommate, which got him a small grant from the Creative Arts Fund and helped kick-start his playwriting career in New York. "It turned out I was more honest as a writer than I could be as an actor," he says. "Once that play, Oregon, was done, I knew my purpose was to be a writer."
Though he now works in multiple mediums, Hedges feels that his different works all share a common goal in their storytelling. "What I want in a story is to see moments where characters who feel believable to me make decisions where their lives are changed irrevocably, where nothing will be the same thereafter," he says. "In different media, the only thing that's different are the tools you use to achieve those moments. At its core, though, is the goal of understanding what those moments are. It's made for a more interesting career as a writer, because I get to switch up the forms I work in."
Though their childhoods as self-described Army brats took them throughout the country, sisters Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce have a special place in their hearts for the Triangle. "It just feels like home," says Natalie, who writes the nonfiction supplements for Mary's best-selling series The Magic Tree House.
The sisters and their siblings all attended UNC-Chapel Hill, from which Mary graduated in 1971, while Natalie left after a year. It would be several more decades before Mary began the Magic Tree House series in 1992.
Eighteen years and 43 books later, the series has sold 65 million copies worldwide, spending a total of 214 weeks on the New York Times best seller list and even displacing Harry Potter at the top of the best sellers in 2006. The sisters will celebrate the 44th book in the series with two days of appearances in Durham (where Mary's twin, Bill Pope, still lives) and Raleigh.
The series, which stars Jack and Annie, two children who are sent on magical adventures throughout history, is hugely popular in elementary schools around the world. Mary writes the stories, and Natalie helps with the research, composing educational guides that fill in the historical and cultural context of each tale.
The series is only a few years away from its 20th anniversary, meaning that the sisters have seen a generation of fans grow up with it. "When I think now that children who first read it are adults, it's so shocking," says Mary. "All the children I've met in the past are children to me forever, and I can't believe they get older and grow up. But there's always new children popping up, so there's a sad side and a joyful side to it."
Adds Natalie, "The ones I love are the teenagers who come and look sheepish and go, 'I haven't read these in so many years, but could you sign this?'"
The sisters maintain a close relationship with their young fans through bookstore appearances, where they often solicit advice on what title is best for an upcoming book or which sketch should be the final cover art. "I find kids around ages 6, 7 and 8 are so curious and confident that you can have a wonderful relationship with them through books," Mary says.
Despite the books' success, Mary has turned down all offers for film and TV adaptations of the series, though her husband has put on a stage musical and a "Space Mission" show that runs exclusively at Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill. "We want kids to choose reading over technology," she says.
After all this time, the sisters have no plans to stop the series. "I think I'd be really bereft without it," Mary says. "I'd still be writing Jack and Annie stories, even if no one would read them."
Peter Hedges will appear at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 7:30 p.m. on March 11. Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce appear at Quail Ridge at 1 p.m. on March 13, and at 2 p.m. at the Regulator Bookshop on March 14.
Corrections (March 11, 2010): The print version of this story incorrectly stated that Mary Pope Osborne dropped out of UNC-Chapel Hill; she graduated in 1971. Also, Bill Pope of Durham is Mary Pope Osborne's twin, not Natalie Pope Boyce's.