Sophia Gholz: InHERview
When considering authors for #inHERview, Sophia Gholz popped to mind, as our paths have intersected many ways. We were both once represented by the same agent. Our picture book debuts are published by the same house (Sleeping Bear Press) and edited by the same fabulous editor (Sarah Rockett). Her brother, Sean, served as my contract attorney when I signed with my agent. I serve as a judge on Sophia’s website, Rate Your Story. And we’re critique partners.
But even if we never shared a single connection, Sophia’s story is still worth the read. It’s relatable.
Running between carpool lines and packing for an imminent Disney vacation, Sophia and I chatted for an hour about growing up, making mistakes, love, loss, and, of course, writing. Down-to-earth, warm, flawed, and frank, Sophia is the kind of woman I’d most love to share a beer with.
I start with a typical question, though the usual “pivotal moments” structure is largely abandoned.
“So what makes Sophia…Sophia?” Sophia’s laugh is casual.
“Well, I grew up in north-central Florida in the 80’s, around swamps and forests. But my father traveled a lot because he was a researcher, so we had the opportunity to live in Australia for a brief period of time. We became close to people from all over the world—grad students and PhD students from places like Nigeria and Japan. We weren’t wealthy or rich; my dad was a university professor. But we lived a diverse life and were exposed to a lot. Cultures, stories, people. As a kid you think that’s how everybody grows up.”
“What did your mom do that also allowed her flexibility?”
“Well, at the time, she was a freelance journalist and science writer. This is pre-internet, so when Dad traveled or worked, she’d have me and two brothers by herself. When she went gallivanting off for a story, she’d take us. I remember one time she needed somebody to pose with gas masks on for a picture to go with an article.”
“Hold up – gas masks?” I’m guessing I’m not the first one to be shocked by this particular image.
“Yes! We didn’t think it was weird or different. We just thought it was cool that we got to be in the newspaper.”
“Your two brothers – older? Younger?”
“One is three years older, one is three years younger.”
“Did you all enjoy the traveling?”
Sophia’s Mom and Dad
“Oh, we had this magical early childhood.” Sophia’s voice oozes sentimentality. “Our parents were still married then, so we’d all be together in forests, camping, and hunting down stories with my mom. Even when I was seven and we were in Australia, Mom would take us to the outback to cover some random story. That was our norm, and it was awesome. That’s also how I was exposed to writing. My parents were strong literacy advocates, and well educated. We had a family bed and all read books together at night.” Sophia laughs as she recalls a memory.
“My dad read us Macbeth and Hamlet as kids. It gave me nightmares. But that was our entertainment.”
As a child of divorce myself, my next question comes gently.
“Would you call your parents’ divorce a defining moment in your life?” Sophia doesn’t flinch.
“That was definitely a defining moment for us. Mom and Dad were high school sweethearts. When they broke up, my dad eventually moved to DC to work for the National Science Foundation and my mom went through an interesting shift, as well. She had to work full-time, so my brothers and I often fended for ourselves or relied on Grandma.”
“How old were you then?”
“They separated when I was 9 or 10, but it didn’t really affect me too much, in my mind. We never had to swap houses or anything like that—they would switch out and let us stay in our home. When my parents remarried, we all remained close.In fact, our step-parents became a huge part of our lives. We even all vacationed together. Still, when I became a teenager, I went through a really wild period. I was always an avid fantasy and science fiction reader, so I was disappointed that reality didn’t mimic fiction. I was disillusioned and wanted to make life more exciting, to say the least.”
“What defines ‘wild’ to you?” I ask.
“Ha! Well, even though my brothers and I tested gifted, I had a hard time in school. I eventually dropped out of traditional high school after being involved in a bad situation, and went the untraditional schooling route. When I turned eighteen, I told my parents I was leaving. They gave me a beat-up station wagon and some travel money. My little brother, Sean, and I drove across the country, staying in youth hostels along the way. It was a defining moment in our relationship…it really bonded us together.”
“How long did the trip take, and where did you land?”
“I think it took about two weeks for us to get to LA.”
“How did you support yourself when you got there?”
“My parents helped, but I also worked as a waitress in Malibu. I hated being away from my family; I felt directionless. I’d been writing creatively to this point, but then my dreams were sort of crushed by a college English professor. I brought her some poems I was excited to share with someone who understood writing, but she just didn’t care. She told me my time would be better spent focusing on class. To me, in that moment, I read her reaction as, ‘You’re a terrible writer and should never share your work.’ I also didn’t understand how much of a craft writing was. I didn’t understand plot or pacing. No one ever gave me tools or told me people weren’t just born able to write.”
I hear the frustration in her voice.
“So I gave up writing. During my second year in LA, a woman took some fashion photos of me. She was strong and creative, she knew what she wanted, and she knew how to craft this visual story through images. I was blown away. I asked how she figured it out, and she told me she went to a special photography school. Here, I thought she was just naturally talented! I was so inspired by her that I immediately went home and enrolled in a photography class. If I couldn’t create a story through words, at least I could create one visually.”
Sophia pauses. I imagine she’s lost in thought.
“So how did the photography class go?” I nudge.
“I ended up enrolling in the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara with a focus on fashion and interned with a photography agency in LA while still at school. Eventually, I moved from LA to Manhattan. It was one of the hardest moments of my life.”
“Why is that?”
“I thought I was this tough Florida girl, but New York has a way of smacking that out of you really fast. My wardrobe consisted of cut-off shorts and flip flops. I was so unprepared for the city. Before moving, I could cry and someone would pick me up. You cry in NY, and people will just walk around you. It’s sink or swim. I’d gone to the city because of a relationship, and when it ended, everyone told me to leave because there was nothing for me there.”
“Was your brother there with you to offer support?”
“No. Sean went back to Florida after our summer trip—he still had a year left in high school. After that, he enrolled in the army and ended up being deployed. It was horrifying. I had anxiety every time my phone rang. It was a weird transitional period of my life.”
I feel the ache behind her words.
“So did you end up staying or leaving the city?”
Sophia’s laugh is gritty.
“Oh, at that point, I was like, ‘Oh yeah? You don’t think I can make it here?’ I couch surfed for a while until Bonnie, the woman I’d interned with, called and asked if I knew how to assist on a photo set. I said, ‘Of course.’ But I didn’t have a clue. She arranged for me to assist this well-known fashion photographer, Jeff Olson, and I was the world’s worst assistant ever. He was annoyed with me all day. He’d just had knee surgery and could barely lift half his equipment—I couldn’t either! I was so intimidated, here was this big photographer who just had his first cover come out for Sports Illustrated, and I had no clue what I was doing. I thought he was a jerk and he thought I was useless.” She laughs.
“I ended up marrying him.”
“You wait…what?” I wonder how many bottles of wine we could share without ever repeating the same life story. “How did that happen?”
“I didn’t know it then, but Bonnie was trying to set us up. After the horrible shoot, she suggested to me that he was looking for a house sitter, so I called him and he hired me. He came home early from his trip and I came popping out of his bedroom one morning, and he was on the couch. He was such a gentleman and showed me around the city. Eventually, we started dating.”
I laugh along with Sophia as I envision the scene unfolding.
“So did you continue working for him?” I ask.
“No. I got a job as floor manager in a big photo studio in the city, where all my friends from art school were working. I met celebrities and attended big parties there, living the life in New York City. I was very poor, but I was doing it!”
Sophia asks me to hang on. I hear a car door open, and then a tiny voice asks for food. Sophia abruptly puts on her Mom Hat, offering more lunch and telling her almost-4-year-old son that she’s listening to somebody through her ear buds. Love spills from both voices.
When she returns to our conversation, Sophia details two other jobs in the field that helped prepare her to open her first business at the age of 25.
“I opened SGM Artist Management and represented fashion celebrity photographers, set designers, and fashion stylists and creative directors. Before long, my artists were shooting with Vogue and HBO.” When she noticed a gap in the industry, she opened SGM Productions.
“That way,” she explains, “I could produce all my photographers’ shoots.”
Within two years, her production company out-produced the agency, so she focused solely on production until the economy crashed in 2008. Having just married Jeff, Sophia explains that they decided to close her companies to prevent further debt.
“Jeff was still shooting, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Jeff had always encouraged my creative eye and suggested I pull on the photoshop skills I’d learned in photography school. Pretty soon, I was working as a senior retoucher with VIEW Imaging. I learned a lot about art and became a master of photoshop. I retouched a Beyoncé cover and did ads for Mercedes and Chopard. I could think while doing this job. That’s when I became more creative again. It felt like a weight had been lifted because I’d been filling that need, and I wanted more. So I took some online writing courses.”
“That’s a huge change,” I muse. “Was it hard to put yourself out there again?”
“My mom encouraged me,” she says. “She’d gone the corporate route and had given up journalism, so the two of us decided to take an online writing course together and hold each other accountable. That was a big moment for me, because I started actually learning the craft.”
I nod as if she can see me through the phone. I relate.
“At the same time, Jeff and I were ready to start a family. We left the city in 2009, when I got pregnant. I could freelance remotely and Jeff just needed to be near an airport to travel for shoots, so we moved back to Florida so I could be close to my mom. It was the first time I could focus on writing.”
“So what got you into picture books?” I ask.
“After I had my daughter, Olivia, I met a woman named Corina, through the local La Leche League. She had a YA novel coming out and encouraged me to join SCBWI. So I did. Honestly, I started focusing on picture books because I was afraid to try anything longer, and I had an infant…so I was reading a lot in that genre. Plus, it harkened back to my youth and those magical times in Florida in our family bed. A spark ignited.”
“When was that?”
“I started focusing on books in 2010. Then in 2015, when I was pregnant with my son, Hunter, Miranda Paul decided to step away from Rate Your Story. Through the encouragement of another friend, I took over. I was hesitant because I hadn’t been published yet, but I’d been navigating the industry for years. I knew business.”
Hunter is hungry again, and Sophia takes a moment to direct the nanny, now that she’s back at home. During the pause, I think back on the photos that Sophia posts on her Facebook page. Many of them are of her father. I also know, from the “I-miss-you” captions, that he’s passed away. When she returns, I broach the topic with kid gloves.
“I know your dad was important to you. I’m guessing his death was a pivotal moment in your life?”
Sophia’s sigh is heavy.
Sophia’s dad and brothers
“Dad lived in DC while I was in NY, so we’d go down on weekends to visit him. My parents still vacationed together—the four of them at every holiday. Mom was my morning call, Dad was my afternoon call. We were all very close. Dad retired in 2016 and had a house in Ft. Collins, Colorado, where my step-mom works with the US Forestry Department. Dad was a rock climber.”
Sophia’s voice breaks. I wait.
“I lived with him in DC for a brief time during my teen years, and we’d go rock climbing every weekend. Dad was very cautious. That day, in September 2017, Dad went out with a newer climber. It was a beautiful morning at Rocky Mountain National Park. He was leading a climb, but he slipped…and there was too much slack in the rope.”
Her pain is palpable.
“How did you work you way through that grief?” I ask. Sophia half-laughs.
“I don’t think I have. My family is close, so that helps. The thing that brings comfort is knowing that what he believed in so much is being carried on. We established an endowment in his name (found here) with the Ecological Society of America to benefit the SEEDS program that my father championed. People came to his funeral from all over the world. PhD students, colleagues, former students, people from every organization…it’s nice to know his work has impacted so many people. But really, he was just my best friend.”
“Have you thought about writing a picture book about the things he loved?”
“In some ways, that’s what THE BOY WHO GREW A FOREST is. That story triggered in me the same feeling that my father’s work triggered. That’s how I grew up. When I read Jadav’s story, it felt like home. And this was a manuscript I shared with my dad, and I got to tell him I was going to be published. Then, five days later, he died.”
“I’m sorry, Sophia. It doesn’t get more bittersweet.”
“Most exciting and horrific moments of my life. I’d dedicated the book to my dad, but it was always meant for him. He and every other budding ecologist out there. To lose him and have this story was such a wild mix of emotions.”
“I can’t imagine. You’re a survivor.”
“I think we all are,” she says. “I think we have to be to make it anywhere in life. If you’re moving forward every day, then you’re a survivor. If I could instill words of wisdom, I’d say, ‘Don’t give in to politics or jealousy. We’re in this together.’ One person’s success really is all of ours. Helping someone doesn’t mean giving another a leg up. It’s lifting us all up.”
An appropriate message from a woman whose debut is about struggle, growth, and discovery. Like Jadav Payeng’s trees, Sophia’s branches have stretched far and wide. They are grounded in determination and love, and now, they are making a difference in the lives of all the little hands who hold her book.
They are making a difference in every life she touches.
“I still gain inspirational support from others,” Sophia says. “I just want to pass that on.”
Rest assured, Sophia…you are.
Sophia’s picture book debut, THE BOY WHO GREW A FOREST, is available for sale on Amazon. You can also find her online at www.sophiagholz.com, on Twitter @sophiagholz, or go to www.rateyourstory.org if you’re looking for a fabulous critique of your work.