Linda Sue Park is the Newbery-Award winning author of A Single Shard and other acclaimed novels and picture books. Her forthcoming book, The Long Walk to Water, profiles two young people in the Sudan—one based on a real Lost Boy, who was forced to flee his village, the other a fictional girl who collects the water for her village.
What inspired you to write The Long Walk to Water?
My inspiration came directly from the protagonist of the book, Salva Dut, who is a family friend. It was my husband who got to know him first in 2004. And then in meeting Salva several times, I just was so amazed by his story. I kept telling everyone I knew about him, and it finally dawned on me that if I wrote this story I could tell a whole lot of people at once.
How did you research this book?
Salva’s part of the story is based on his own memoir. He wrote down the things that happened to him as a young person and in his early adulthood. And Salva’s English is perfectly competent but he’s not a writer, so his document was mostly kind of a list of events. So that’s what I relied on for the plot. I did things like imagine dialogue for scenes. I rewrote them in such a way that there was a narrative line to the story. So that was my first source and it doesn’t get any better than a first-person source.
I also had access to Salva himself, so whenever I had any questions I could ask him directly. For example, the opening scene in his memoir was just a sentence: “The war came and I had to run away.” It seemed like such a dramatic statement and yet there were details missing ,so I would interview him to get more information. That enabled the one line to become the whole first chapter of the book. There are now several books about the Lost Boys’ experience, such as What Is the What by Dave Eggers. And so I read everything I could find about the Lost Boys.
For Nya’s part of the story, which is basically a contemporary story about how Salva’s organization comes into her village and builds a well, my husband went on a trip with Salva in 2008. I was supposed to go, as well, but the political situation in the Sudan is not stable, so the charitable organization limited the size of the group to keep it more manageable in case they needed to evacuate. I was one of the people who got kicked off the list. I sent my husband with lots and lots of questions. He’s a journalist himself, so I told him what I needed to know and he took hundreds of pictures. And then another person on the trip was a videographer who took hundreds of hours of video footage, so I had access to all of those materials when I wrote Nya’s story.
It was not as good as being there. It is the first and probably the only time I will write a book about someplace I haven’t been. Normally that would be a deal-breaker for me. But I felt so strongly that I wanted to tell this story, and because I had the best first-person memoir that I could get, I felt that it was okay. Sometimes I even felt like I was a typist transcribing Salva’s story.
How did you become friends with the real Salva?
My husband first began reporting on Salva’s activities with his organization, Water for the Sudan. And my husband was so taken with him. Salva is a very modest, humble, soft-spoken person who can also command a room. When he speaks he doesn’t raise his voice at all and yet everyone listens to him. He’s a very unusual person. So my husband said I met this really cool guy and I’m doing some articles on him. And we give an annual holiday party so I asked him to invite him to the holiday party. So that’s the first time I met him. Subsequently he became a friend and we would see him whenever we could when he was here in the United States, because Salva now spends half his time in the U.S. raising money for his organization and half his time in the Sudan digging wells for Water for the Sudan.
What gave you the idea to craft two parallel stories in your book, one about Salva, a member of the Dinka tribe and a Lost Boy in 1985, and Nya, the Neur girl who collects water in 2008?
It seemed to me that the most compelling parts of Salva’s life were when he was 11 and when he was 30—his escape from the war and that incredible journey that he had to make. Then his experience in the refugee camps, which I’m sure had its moments, but mostly comprised soul-deadening monotony were just awful. And then his arrival in the United States, which could have made very interesting reading but in many ways was a very typical immigrant story: learning a little English, a few funny stories about adjusting to life in America. But the beginning of the story and then the end when he goes back were utterly compelling. So I needed to figure out how I was going to tell those stories that had such a big time span between them. Then it occurred to me that the important part of the fact that he drills wells in the Southern Sudan is not so much about him but about the people he impacts. And that was how the idea for the parallel stories emerged, that I was going to be covering both ends of Salva’s life. As soon as I had that, I thought in the next second that I’m going to do a little girl who lives in the Sudan now and then I thought their stories will merge at the end.
Did you encounter any difficulties in writing this story? Emotionally or culturally?
I worried a lot about the fact that I had never been there. I worried that I had never been through anything close to what Salva went through. I worried was I going to be able to render it and give readers at least some idea. It really is unimaginable for me, the things that an 11-year-old child went through, so I worried quite a lot about that. And one decision I made was to write the story in a very straightforward way. For the most part the prose is simple. The sentences are not long. I just felt that the horror needed very little elaboration. So that was how I ended up trying to give just the facts, ma’am, and to set out the events in a plain way and to let the reader imagine. If you’re trying to write about very strong horror, very strong fear or very strong emotion it’s easy to overwrite it. So I just held back from that and chose to tell it as plainly as possible and to let the reader fill in for themselves and to trust the reader to do that.
How did you strive to balance the tragedy of the Sudan with hope in this novel?
I would say that that comes down to Salva again. Once you meet him, you think, how could he go through the things that he went through and not be a horrible, bitter, twisted person? And instead he’s so calm and gentle and loving. And so the balance was in him, that a person could go through all these terrible things and still be so loving. But always feeling that Salva must have had some kind of special resolve in him, whether than came from his family or something unique in him. He’s such a survivor so that every bad thing that happened to him is balanced by hope, because he just keeps going.
What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
I want all my books to provoke some kind of response in the reader, to make them think something or feel something or both, and for that to become a part of them and work into their own lives. So I do not expect readers to march off to Africa and start doing good works. But maybe one reader will think about Salva when they’re going through their own tough time. Or maybe another reader will think, well, I can’t go off to Africa and drill wells but I can make my corner of the world a tiny bit better. So different people will hopefully get different things. But I think that his story can transcend so many boundaries, cultural and time, and especially because it’s all written around water. You can’t get more of a human universal than water.
How do you choose your themes? Do you consciously seek to write about socially relevant and important topics?
It’s been different for every book. For example, with A Long Walk to Water, I’m sure some people will see that as a socially relevant book, but for me that was definitely a book about Salva. Other books I have made different decisions. For example, with a book called Keeping Score, I really did want to write a book about the Korean War, because I felt that it is the least understood war in the American cultural imagination. So I set out with the idea that Americans didn’t know much about the Korean War and that I was going to try to fix a tiny bit of that. I do think that part of literature’s job is to comment on and participate in the social issues of the time.
What are you working on now?
I am very, very excited about a picture book that I have coming out next fall. It’s called The Third Gift, a holiday story about a boy learning to harvest his father’s crop. It has a surprise in it which I want readers to find out for themselves.
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Clarion, $16 Nov. ISBN 978-0-547-25127-1