Patricia McCormick has received much acclaim for the novels she’s written about important topics that people often find uncomfortable talking about. Her latest, Sold, tells the story of a young girl from Nepal who is sold into the sex slave industry in India. In Cut, she wrote about a young girl who cut herself to deal with feelings of guilt she has over her brother’s illness. And in My Brother’s Keeper, a boy covers for his brother who increasingly experiences problems as he travels further down a path of drug abuse.
Yet McCormick writes about these topics to enlighten, so reading her work doesn’t feel preachy. The topics she covers are often best discussed in a group, such as a mother-daughter book club, where readers can talk about their thoughts on the subject while discussing a character in her book. Recently, I spoke with McCormick about what she chooses to write about as well as how she came to be a writer. (From an August 2008 interview.)
How did you decide to become a professional writer?
PM: I had a job at a daily newspaper in New Jersey that I just loved. It was such a thrill to see my work immediately the next day and see that it had an impact. But then there came a point when I wanted more of a challenge. I tried business writing which was not for me. I was doing movie and book reviews and I found I didn’t want to be the person reviewing the books, I wanted to be the person writing them.
What made you want to write fiction as opposed to non-fiction?
PM: You can do a lot with journalism and you can do a lot with creative non-fiction, but fiction feels like the biggest canvas to tell a story.
Your books deal with very difficult subjects. Things that people maybe don’t want to talk about too much.
What’s the advantage do you see of talking about those things in a fictionalized way?
PM: If you have a conversation about a fictional girl and her mother, or a fictional girl and her father they are one or two or ten steps removed from your situation, but you can still see similarities. So I think it’s a much safer way to talk about things that people aren’t comfortable talking about. Everybody is affected when something happens like in Cut or My Brother’s Keeper. They don’t know how to talk about it. And, if you’re cutting, you might think you’re the only one in the world doing it, and it’s really hard to ask for help. But if you’re reading about it in a book it’s easier to ask for help. I’ve heard from so many kids who’ve said that they just went in and put the book down or made a point of letting their parents know they were reading this book as a way of saying, “that’s me, that’s what’s going on in my life.”
That must be very rewarding.
PM: Oh it is. I love when I hear from librarians who say, “I needed a book just like this for one of my kids,” or when they tell me it’s one of their most stolen books.
What draws you to the topics you talk about?
PM: My Brother’s Keeper is a story I kind of lived through. I lived with family members who have substance abuse problems, and my thinking there was the person who’s got the problem with substance abuse attracts a lot of attention, but there are so many other people affected by it who should have a voice too.
As for Cut, I was really fascinated by this issue and by the idea that somebody could be so hurt or angry or lonely or frustrated or numbed-out but couldn’t tell anybody so they take it out on their bodies.
With Sold, I heard about trafficking and I just couldn’t believe that people sold their children. There’s great journalism about trafficking, but I think when you turn it into fiction and when you really sink into the experience of another human being experiencing this, it calls on your empathy.
Did you hope to inspire people to action with this book?
PM: I very much had the idea of activating people. I had opportunities to intervene while I was doing the research, but I was thwarted in the things I wanted to do. Then I thought, “what I can do is write a book.” So I couldn’t write it fast enough. I wanted everyone to know immediately about this. I’ve been really amazed at the response. Kids of this generation tend to be very socially aware and care about issues of social justice and are activists. They want to raise money and they want to find out more. Even kids you wouldn’t anticipate having any kind of connection to an issue like this. I went to a juvenile facility, and I though, “why are these girls going to care about some girl in a mud hut?” But they were really moved. And I think it’s because they know what it’s like in some cases to be betrayed by a family member. Or to be sexualized inappropriately. Kids are really shocked that this is happening to their peers.
How do people best channel their desire for action?
PM: We’re physically far removed from the problem, so the best way to help is through our donations. The organizations I list in the back of the book really helped me, and I can vouch that the money really goes to help the girls. Five dollars can buy a girl her first new dress when she leaves the brothel. It’s such a huge benefit to her to put on something clean and modest. People can also talk about the issue. Trafficking happens here in the United States. Either with kids coming in from foreign countries or kids who run away here and are trafficked once they lose their bearings and run out of money.
You went to Nepal and India to conduct research for Sold. What was that like?
PM: I would collect information and I would think, “oh this is powerful, I can put this in the book.” But the other half of my brain would think,” oh my god look at what’s happening in front of you.” I tried to keep a professional screen between my feelings and the work I was doing. But I would go to my hotel room at night and I would just shake. I trembled with rage and sadness and frustration.
I could only write about it for a couple of hours a day. What made it more bearable is that I didn’t have to use graphic language. Because Lakshmi was a child, I tried to put it through her frame of reference, and she wouldn’t totally know what was happening to her. She wouldn’t use what we would consider offensive language. In some ways that made it more poignant.
What are you working on now?
PM: It’s a book about a soldier in Iraq. When you think about it it’s absolutely audacious that a 52-year-old woman in Manhattan could write about that experience. And I am really worried about getting it right and making it authentic, but there’s something that was so compelling to me about that experience that I could not, not write it.
Anything you’d like to share for readers at Mother Daughter Book Club.com?
PM: I’m so envious of people who have mother daughter book clubs. I have a 25-year-old daughter and we read a lot together and she is my first editor. I wish the idea had been around when she was younger. It’s so wonderful when people can talk about a book in an open non-judgmental way. A book is an amazing way to see an experience that’s not yours. I think so many kids think they have to figure out by themselves. But real growth comes from staying and working things out with the people at hand.