Thursday, February 25, 2010

'Gilbert' author Peter Hedges talks life in 'The Heights'

By Stephen Witt

He’s the writer from Iowa who didn’t go to the famed Iowa’s Writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa.

But Iowa’s loss is Brooklyn’s gain, and author Peter Hedges’ latest tome, “The Heights” (Dutton), offers up an often funny and captivating story that looks at contemporary life in Brooklyn Heights.

Hedges, who wrote the novel and the screenplay, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” got the idea for the novel in late 1997 while sitting with his young family on a park bench in Pierrepont Playground as he began imagining what could happen in the neighborhood.

“I thought it was a great place for this story to occur. I took notes for many weeks and locked onto the idea of writing about a good marriage, and wanted to have that marriage go through an unthinkable test,” said Hedges.

The novel, which took 12 years to write, was interrupted several times by screenwriting assignments on the films “About a Boy” and “Dan in Real Life,” but slowly began to take shape.

The story involves the middle-class couple, Tim, who teaches at the Montague Academy, an exclusive private school in Brooklyn Heights, and his wife, Kate, who get involved with the wealthy Anna. Then, their lives become unhinged by a secret invitation from an unlikely messenger.

“I was interested in an ordinary couple being swept up by an extraordinary encounter with people who are not so ordinary,” said Hedges. “So if you’re a person that lives really on the ground and the earth, what happens when you get swept up and are in danger of flying or floating or sailing off into space?”

While there appears to be some similarities between real places in Brooklyn Heights and Hedges’ own life, the author insists the novel is a total work of fiction.

“I took great care in creating Montague Academy and Oak Lane where the main characters exist by setting up a fictional school and fictional street,” he said.

Hedges said his wife is from Brooklyn and the couple decided to move to the borough after their children were born.

“I tend to be a nine to five type of guy,” he said of his writing habits. “It doesn’t feel like work, but I try to treat it like a job.”

This includes walking the 15 minutes from his home in Boerum Hill each day to his studio office in Brooklyn Heights.

Although originally from Iowa, Hedges attended college at the North Carolina School for the Arts, and then came to New York, where he wrote several plays before getting his big break with “Gilbert Grape,” which starred Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio.

He still sees the two actors from time to time, most recently running into Depp at the recent Tim Burton exhibition at MOMA.

Hedges said Brooklyn Heights as the setting for the novel is also a tribute to a great neighborhood where such writers as Thomas Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller lived and wrote.

He also is proud to count himself as one of the growing number of writers to now call the borough his home.

“Brooklyn is the place to be and live from an artistic standpoint and this is Brooklyn’s moment. It’s a very vibrant scene,” he said.

Hedges will be reading from The Heights at Book Court, 163 Court Street on Thursday March 4 at 7 p.m.


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