Author Talk: September 2006
Patricia McCormick is a journalist and author best known for her young adult novel CUT, about the struggles of overcoming the need to self-mutilate.
In this interview, McCormick discusses the chance encounter that inspired her to write her latest work of fiction, SOLD --- a poignant and heartbreaking story about a 13-year-old girl from Nepal who is sold into prostitution by her own stepfather. She also describes her month-long research trip to India and Asia, shares the difficulties of writing about such a grim topic, and offers ways to help increase public awareness about these tragic events taking place today.
Question: What inspired you to tell this story?
Patricia McCormick: In the past year or so, the trafficking of children has gotten a good deal of media attention. But nearly five years ago, when I had a chance meeting with a photographer who was working undercover to document the presence of young girls in brothels overseas, I knew immediately that I wanted to do what no one else had done so far: tell this heartbreaking story from the point of view of one individual girl.
I believe that young adults want to know what's happening to their peers on the other side of the world, but that media accounts, by their very nature, cannot usually go beyond the surface. To me, there is nothing more powerful --- or permanent --- than the impact of a book.
Q: What did your travel to India and Nepal bring to your story?
PM: I spent a month in India and Nepal tracing Lakshmi's steps --- going from a poor, isolated village in the foothills of the Himalayas all the way to the teeming red-light district of Calcutta. Trained as an investigative reporter, I took notes and photos observing the sights, smells, foods, sounds, and the customs --- details to give the book authenticity. I also interviewed women in the red-light district, girls who had been rescued, and a man who had sold his girlfriend in exchange for a motorcycle. It helped that I was a foreigner in the busy streets of Kathmandu and Calcutta, because I was as bewildered and awestruck by these places as Lakshmi is in the novel.
Q: What were the challenges of bringing Lakshmi's story to life?
PM: Perhaps the biggest challenge was not to let the sadness of the situation overwhelm me. When I first came home from India, I fell into a despair unlike anything I'd ever felt before --- something I now understand was a delayed reaction to the suffering I'd witnessed. Moreover, I felt inadequate to the task of doing justice to the stories the women had entrusted to me. But when I thought about the young girls who might be recruited to take their places as the women became ill or died, what I felt was urgency --- urgency that their experiences be known and understood by the outside world. And I began to write.
It was also a challenge to keep the book from being too grim, and to keep Lakshmi's humanity alive in a believable way. It was important to remember that, in even the grimmest of situations, there is kindness as well as cruelty, terror as well as boredom, and even, surprising as it may seem, humor.
Q: Why did you decide to tell the story in a series of vignettes?
PM: I started writing the book in small scenes because, initially, it was too daunting to imagine that I could tell Lakshmi's entire story. Once I had a handful of these scenes, the book began to take shape. Eventually, vignettes seemed to be the right way to tell a story that is inherently so fractured --- if not shattering. I also think the "white space" between vignettes calls on the reader to engage his or her imagination in the story-telling process to fill in the blanks.
Q: How can we help?
PM: Educate yourself by visiting the Web sites in the Links sectionof [my] web site, then work to raise awareness among your friends and family members, your church or school. Write an essay for your school paper or a letter to your local paper or your congressman. Organize a student group at your school, then show a film about trafficking, invite a speaker, and raise or donate money. The cost of living in countries where trafficking takes place is very low; one week's allowance, for instance, could go a long way toward providing medicine, toys, or books for the children of the red-light district, or could contribute to the work of organizations that stop trafficking and provide safety for victims.
As Eli Wiesel said, "Let us remember: what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander."
© Copyright 2006, Patricia McCormick. All rights reserved.