Bookshelf talks with Patricia McCormick about her new novel, Sold (Hyperion).
You've tackled many tough subjects for young adults before—including cutting and substance abuse. What led you to write about the topic of sex trafficking?
Five years ago, I was on vacation and chatting with a photographer, and he said he was documenting girls in brothels. And I thought, "I have to tell that story from the girl's point of view." I think if there's a theme in any of my work, it's that I give a voice to situations where the people who are experiencing [them] don't have the voice yet. So I was just absolutely drawn to that topic. I'm a survivor of sexual abuse myself, so I think I brought a lot of my own experience—even though [the situations are] not at all comparable—to the book. I felt it's a huge leap to pretend that you're a girl from another culture, so I had to do all the research to feel confident that I could impersonate [Lakshmi], somebody whose experience is so far from my own.
How did you conduct your research for this book?
As soon as I finished talking to this guy, I jumped on the Internet and started doing research. It was surprisingly easy to find NGOs and government agencies that are doing work all over the world. People directed me to Nepal and India because so much progress has been made in those two countries and because English is a language that's spoken a lot in India and somewhat in Nepal. So I just started emailing people over there and set up a bunch of interviews.
Then I got there and everything went wrong. The people I was supposed to interview didn't materialize. I took a bus to a rural village and the bus right in front of mine was blown up because they were still in the grip of a Maoist insurgency. The guard at the shelter in Katmandu —that was key, to go meet the girls [in the shelter for sex trafficking victims]—would not let me in. Every three hours, I would walk by and plead with him. Finally I brought all these miniature shampoos from my hotel room over in a bag and I gave them to him and he let me in.
Then the shelter director [also] allowed me to go out into the villages with the girls. [They] are trying to educate people way up in the mountains, where they have no contact with the outside world, about what's really happening to their daughters. The villagers are largely illiterate and so the girls in the shelter put on a street drama to show [the villagers] what happens when they think they're sending [their girls] off to good jobs in the city.
From there I went to Calcutta and spent a good deal of time in the red light district. I did not get access to the locked situations, like the girls in my story. People who run a brothel where the girls are locked away are very wary of strangers—certainly anybody white and female and American wouldn't get access to those buildings. But there's a huge red light district in Calcutta and Bombay and you can get on a tour bus and go see [it]. I was able to find a women's organization that goes to the brothels on a regular basis to provide women with condoms and information about health care and schools for their children. An aid worker took me and acted as my translator. At night they [the women in the brothels] would shoo us out. They pull the shutters down on the doors and people pull their kids in off the street and it's transformed. You could see this commercial neighborhood turn into a brothel.
The sex trade seems so widespread; how did you choose to focus on Nepal and India?
I never name the city in India. It could be either Calcutta or Bombay, and [Lakshmi] wouldn't know. You or I would know where we were, but she wouldn't. I felt like to name the city would take it out of her frame of knowledge.
[I chose Nepal and India] because the aid workers had told me that enough progress had been made there that I could find shelters that were set up for the women, and that I could find aid organizations that were doing outreach in the rural communities in India. Also, there's an incredible political will among the people of India and the people of Nepal, especially the women of Nepal, to stop this. Rather than [sex trafficking] being cloaked in shame, they really welcomed me in to look at the situation and to spread awareness of it. I thought that was incredible. There are a lot of countries, possibly even our own, where we just don't want our dirty laundry known to the outside world. And so the structures were in place to get access to shelters, to aid workers and to the brothels.
You conducted interviews with women who had similar experiences. Did any of those real-life stories end up in your fiction?
The character Lakshmi is very much a creature of my imagination. But there are little bits and pieces of all those women present in her. The character Shahanna is named after an aid worker who brought me around in the brothels in Calcutta. She was not only a translator and a guide, but a protector and a really wise woman who was so kind to me. Together we witnessed some pretty horrible things. In one situation, a man was beating a woman in the room a few doors down from us. I started to jump up, and she said, "You can't do anything, because he'll take it out on her even worse. You could be injured, and I won't be able to come back. We just have to sit here and endure this." I just sat there and cried. Eventually, another man came out and beat up the first man and so it stopped. It was a really horrible experience. But there was so much wisdom in her stopping me. She knew the rules of the jungle there. Shahanna in the book plays that role with Lakshmi so that was a way of honoring and thanking the real Shahanna.
One of the surprises for me was how many kids there were in the brothels. When Shahanna and I went to one of the brothels at 3:00 in the afternoon, there was a little girl who came home with special bows in her hair, and another had a special pen backpack. Any little bit of money they have goes to their children. This boy came home and, in the middle of this unbelievably dirty courtyard, he set up a cricket ball on a string and got out his paddle and practiced very conscientiously all night. All around him this horrific stuff was going on, and you could see he was just zoned in on this game and it gave him great pleasure. I think the image of him creating a life for himself in the brothel was what inspired the character of Harish.
This novel presents an unsentimental view of how these girls are exploited while also demonstrating the very real friendships formed in the brothel that help these girls survive. How did you strike that balance?
It was really hard because I was imagining a book about a girl who was trafficked but escapes without ever having to work in a brothel. And as soon as I got there I realized that was completely unrealistic, and that I had to write the hard book that you've just described. But I think that even in a really grim situation the range of experiences that you would have there are not unlike the range of experiences that you would have in other situations. So I wanted to make sure that the book wasn't so grim that it was unreadable and also that it wasn't unrealistic. I think that short form allowed me to have on one page terrible cruelty and then on the other page a little humor.
What were the challenges of writing about this subject?
The key challenge was to allow it to be as bad as it really is. To allow Lakshmi to be raped. To allow her to get a sexually transmitted disease. You love your character so much. So I think the challenge was to allow it to be as bad as it really is, and to balance the kindness and the humanity that exist side by side with the worst brutality. Once I got going I just wanted to write it as fast as I could. But to stick with that super condensed form was a slow journey. And I knew that that was the right voice for the experience. But it meant that some days two paragraphs was a big accomplishment; and when you're feeling this urgency, that doesn't feel like enough. Then I think the biggest challenge was getting over my sadness.
The novel captures the economic realities, both rural and urban, that prompt families to sell girls, and exposes the corrupt system that enslaves them. How did you seek to make this real and comprehensible to readers?
Part of that is the research and part of that is being there. When I was in the rural village one afternoon when we were going out door-to-door, the aid workers and I took a break and went to a hut where this man was selling tea. And it was so dirty. I had really been good about eating whatever was offered to me, but in this situation I just thought I'm going to get sick if I drink this tea. So I ordered a Coca-Cola, fully intending to pay for it myself. And I could see them kind of blink, as in wow, that's a big luxury. And the aid worker bought it for me, which was mortifying. She wouldn't take my money, and I felt like I'd really put her in a bad spot. But that moment gave me a sense of what a Coca-Cola represents way up in a village in the Himalayas.
And then in reading other research about trafficking and spending time in the brothels I started to get a sense of the economic reality there. I found out what it would cost to be with a young girl, then I took a cab back to my hotel room, and it was exactly the same amount of money. Of course, the girl is more expensive in the beginning than she is after she's lost her virginity and been around for a while. So I found out that the cheap tricks are 30 rupees and then I tried to think about which things costs about that much. And in Calcutta, that's what it costs to buy a Coca-Cola.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book? What do you hope it might inspire readers to do?
I hope that they come away with the same sense of urgency that I had after my experience. Once you're aware of something like this you're never quite the same. I don't necessarily mean that people have to go out and start having bake sales, but I do believe that right now there's a lot of political activism among young people. Kids are really aware of Darfur, for instance, and have really led the way toward raising money and creating effective protests. Same thing with New Orleans—they went down with church groups or on spring break or raised money. My hope would be that that kind of awareness and activism would translate.
My worst fear is that people would be flattened by it, that they would feel despair. And what has happened [in response to the novel] is that people feel energized by it. And they say, what can I do? Last spring I was starting to talk about it and I thought I would have to do Trafficking 101. But no, [teenage readers] are quite well read and aware of what trafficking is, and they are hungry to find information that a news story or a headline can't give them.
McCormick will be attending SIBA and Mountains and Plains this fall, and will visit several bookstores. In addition, she will do a satellite radio tour, and Hyperion has posted an audio excerpt and a discussion guide on its Web site.