National Book Award finalist Patricia McCormick’s new book, Never Fall Down (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, May), is a haunting but hopeful YA novel about a boy who survives the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge by joining a band in prison camp. It is based on the true story of Arn Chorn Pond—who survived the Cambodian Revolution in the late 1970s and now works as an activist, musician, and speaker.
Which came first: the desire to write about Cambodia’s Killing Fields or a desire to tell Arn Chorn Pond’s story?
It very much came from meeting Arn. A neighbor introduced me to him and thought I should write about him. I was wary at first, because I’m always wary of other people’s ideas about what I should write. And I didn’t know much about Cambodia or the Killing Fields. And then I met Arn—and he is so charismatic and has such a fire about him. I was completely captivated by him.
Can you talk about your first encounter with him?
We had tea. Arn comes back and forth to the U.S. from his home in Cambodia and speaks in the U.S. I was struck by his passion and the difficulty of the trauma he suffered and how emotional these memories still are for him. He is so engaging, though his storytelling can seem fractured. The Khmer Rouge distorted reality so much that Arn can have difficulty piecing together some parts of his story. I knew I could help.
What inspired you to write about him?
Arn is pure forgiveness and conveys so much hope and love despite having faced these unspeakable atrocities. And I knew that he needed a more permanent record and that people needed to hear his story. And I knew that if I wrote a book his story could reach so many more people.
The thing about Arn is that he makes everything happen. Currently, Arn is working with Cambodian Living Arts and has found musicians who were not killed in the revolution and paired them with street kids who are learning to play traditional instruments so that the music can be saved. They’ve trained 500 kids. Next year they will be performing at Lincoln Center. Met, his music teacher, Arn, and the children will all be there. Here these children will come to one of the biggest stages in the world, and it really brings Arn’s story full circle.
How did you research the novel?
Arn and I spent hours and hours doing these emotionally draining interviews. Sometimes we had to pull back and stop after an hour because it was so difficult. And I did a lot of archival research. I read everything I could on the subject.
What was your trip to Cambodia with Arn like?
It was incredible. We traveled for a month. We went to his childhood home. We saw the town square where he danced for coins. Then we drove up to Wat Aik where he was held in the prison camp. We rounded up a couple of the fellow band members to travel with us. And I hired an independent translator to interview them as well. It was remarkable how well the stories meshed and how faithfully Arn told his story. If anything, what he left out was his generosity and daring risks he took such as when he stole food for other children. There were all these stories of kindness and interconnectedness despite the circumstances.
In the prison camp, it was as if he were experiencing it all over again. He would say, here’s the dirt path where they would lead people off to be executed. Here is where we would hold our concerts. I could tell it was like he was seeing ghosts. It was very powerful.
And then since we had the boy band all back together, they played the propaganda songs for me. At first they were nervous and then it was funny how silly the songs were. And it was such a release for them to make fun of the music.
Arn also found former child soldiers to talk to us and we visited a section of Cambodia that is still controlled openly by the Khmer Rouge. We were terrified to travel there, and there are still a lot of land mines. They [the former soldiers] also told me stories of heroism, things that Arn did that he didn’t remember.
Cambodia was both wonderful and very sad. It’s like an entire country with PTSD. The survivors are 50-60 years old, and they live next door to the Khmer Rouge. And they don’t talk about their memories. Arn is unusual because he speaks out. He speaks to the next generation. And this is inspiring kids to ask their parents about what happened.
Did you feel at all limited by the fact that Arn Chorn Pond is an actual public figure?
Very much so—it was terrifying that he was a real person. With fiction you have the latitude to create and to imagine, but in this case I felt so honor bound to tell his story with the greatest integrity. And Arn did not shy away from anything in his past, to his great credit. He was very brave and explored the darkest corners of his memory, which inspired me to bring my best game. But it was a much heavier responsibility.
You’ve tackled difficult subjects before, including sex trafficking, teen soldiers in Iraq, and self-injury. Did writing about the horror of the Khmer Rouge present similar – or different – challenges?
My son jokes with me that he thinks I Google the word ‘sad’ to come up with book ideas. All of my books carry a heaviness about them, but in this one I felt an increased responsibility to Arn and to the people I met that was greater than any project before.
Because of the weightiness of the subjects, I can only write two to three hours a day or it gets too dark. It can be an act of discipline to pull myself out and to step away from the computer. But within all this Arn is so radiant. He is so focused on forgiveness and hope. And he is so inspiring about how music saved his life, and so committed to saving this traditional Cambodian music, that it balanced the sadness for me.
Was your writing process different from your other novels?
It was different. I was intimidated by the responsibility of it. And the journalist in me came out and dominated the process. The first few drafts were so dry because I was hamstrung by the facts.
But I had been listening to Arn for a year, and his own voice is so poetic, alive, and quirky and I saw that that liveliness and quirkiness was missing from the drafts. I was afraid to write in that voice, afraid that it would miss his intelligence and wit. But then I was at the National Conference of Teachers of English, and a teacher suggested I give writing in his voice a try. And it was so freeing. I channeled the voice and it gained that life. The challenge became how to turn off sounding like Arn at the end of the day. I would sit down to write an email and it would sound like him.
How have people reacted to this novel?
Mostly the reaction has only been in-house at HarperCollins, but it has been very opening to people. They wanted to share it with their own children. I was worried that there was so much violence that people will recoil. I always worry about this – I worried with Sold and with Cut. A member of my writers’ group joked about Sold how trafficking into brothels really had bestseller written all over it. But it’s all in the telling. These impossible stories, if done well, find an audience. I am always amazed at the willingness of readers to explore dark topics and the experience of the human spirit.
I was also worried about the time period, 1975-1979, and that the topic of genocide wouldn’t be fresh. But I think readers realize that genocide is still happening right now. And what you can see with this generation is a belief that they can make a difference. reaction to the Kony video [a video by Invisible Children about the Ugandan warlord and his crimes against children in Central Africa] really demonstrates this. You see this outpouring of interest and commitment by young people. They’ve raised a fortune. And what you see with YA readers is that they are actually passionately interested in what other people their age around the world face and they believe that they can do something. They’re empowered by the Internet and by optimism. Whereas, I think adults often think they’ll leave it to NGOs or governments to sort out.
But, one thing that’s exciting is a Cambodian publisher is trying to have the book translated and given to every school child in Cambodia. This would be a huge first. It would be the first survivor narrative. These children don’t know the stories of their parents so this would be a powerful way to inspire conversation and healing.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I don’t actually think about that because if you’re planning a message it takes away from good old-fashioned storytelling. The power of storytelling is to free us from isolation, shame and whatever the situation. What you see with Arn is pure optimism, pure hope and the power of forgiveness, despite the unspeakable cruelty he faced. And he has devoted his life to spreading peace through music.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a historical novel about the Haitian Revolution of 1791 – the only successful slave revolt in the Caribbean. And it was inspired by a girl, who I think of as the Joan of Arc of Haiti, though she was never actually a soldier herself. At a voodoo ceremony she named the leaders of the Revolution. This led to the birth of the first black nation and almost nothing exists about her, which gives me great freedom to imagine her story.
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-06-17309-1