It Has to Be Real: A Conversation with Kim Purcell

So what is next for you? Do you not have this person in your library? Did today’s political climate inspire you to write about these themes? At the time, I read a news story about a modern-day domestic slave and I thought about my students and how vulnerable some of them were due to language challenges. So the research was tough, for sure. I think the bigger issue is that we need more books written by people of color. The current political climate had no effect on the writing since I started this book in 2011. How did you come up with the idea to write a novel on human trafficking? That is a great question, but hard to answer. I write a story that feels true to me. I don’t ever think about giving readers what they want. If you don’t see your own life reflected in the books in your library, are you going to want to read? Better to be holed up in a snowy cabin in front of a fire. Kim Purcell has been a leader in bringing a greater social consciousness to the field. KIM PURCELL: The research was difficult, but I come from a journalism background, so it was also fascinating for me. In This Is Not a Love Letter, I wasn’t deliberately trying to add in diversity, though the book naturally has a diverse cast of characters. ¤
BRIANNA BRANCH: You’re known for thoroughly researching the subjects of your books, including the harsh world of human trafficking. I write the story that I would want to read. Often, I go into a school that has a large African-American or Latino population and they haven’t heard of an incredible African-American or Latino young adult writer, and I’m like, what? JANUARY 12, 2019

IF YOU’RE A social media user interested in children’s and young adult books, you’ve probably come across a hashtag that is changing the face of the genre. At the time, people thought it was something that happened in other countries, but not America. It’s just part of the human condition. When I go to schools to talk about the book, I warn about red flags for human traffickers, like the older boyfriend. I started writing this book in 2002 when I was teaching English as a Second Language in Los Angeles. This is happening, but not fast enough. Not at all. As for the emotional scenes in the book, I was shaky after writing them. I used to live in Brooklyn, but now I live in Los Angeles, and all this sun, I don’t know if it’s nearly as good for writing. They don’t, but they should. The young adult genre has come in for its share of criticism due to a lack of diversity. How difficult was it for you to write Trafficked? I think the quality of the writing out there is stunning — that’s one good thing. But even though it’s a deeply personal book and not written in response to the current political climate, I am very glad it has come out at this time, in order to combat the hatred and bigotry in our society. I grew up in a mostly white mill town in Northern Canada and my friend was African-Canadian. What’s harder about writing YA, maintaining original content or giving readers what they want? Her debut novel, Trafficked (2012), follows Moldovan teen Hannah, who, after losing her parents in a terrorist attack, is trafficked by a family she thought she could trust. What inspires and disappoints you about YA literature in the 21st century? Without traveling to Moldova, I never could have written this book. I guess I see suffering as the overwhelming issue that strikes my heart: all the ways in which we suffer and how we overcome this suffering. #WeNeedDiverseBooks has inspired book lovers all over the world, encouraging writers and readers to become more socially aware. In this way, I think we redefine what readers want. For this book, I traveled to Moldova in Eastern Europe to get details about life there. So that can be hard. It was the middle of the night when our bus arrived in the Moldovan capital, and I had to run to get to safety. And I started thinking about my friend. There were no other young adult novels about this issue at the time, so I knew I had to write about it. How did you overcome that problem in your new novel, This Is Not a Love Letter? My biggest hope was that it could save one girl or boy from being trafficked. Which issue has struck your heart the most, and why? Her novels focus on complex social issues, including human trafficking, racism, mental health, and interracial relationships. Final question: What’s one thing you would give up in order to become an even better writer? I was living outside of New York City, doing a lot of long runs, trying to think of what my next book after Trafficked would be. This story led me to research human trafficking in America. You tackle a lot of social issues in your novels, including human trafficking, poverty, mental illness, and suicide. I’m writing a middle-grade project now — I can’t say too much, except that there’s a grizzly bear and a girl who feels very alone in the world. We all suffer. I write from the body, in a method-writing style, which means I feel the characters’ experience in my own body. ¤
Brianna Branch is an aspiring young adult author who spends most of her time studying for college exams and reading works of fiction that strike her heart. I spoke with the author about her inspiration in expanding diversity through her creative works. Were you afraid to publish Trafficked due to its subject matter? The novel not only spreads awareness of the cruelties of the black market in children but also delves into the complexities of global immigration. But I think we’ve got to publish more diverse authors and make sure there are more diverse books in school libraries. The lack of diversity in young adult fiction is real, and the problem can only be solved by lifting up more writers of color. It has to be real. I’d give up sunshine. At one point, I even became a target for a trafficker. When he went missing, there were clear signs of racial bias in the reporting and in the police investigation. It’s not enough for white writers to add in more diverse characters. And I think it’s made a difference. Many of Hannah’s memories are actually my memories from that trip. The novel was based on the disappearance of a close friend in high school, right before graduation. As a result, in this novel, I wanted to explore racism, bias, and white privilege, among other issues, such as mental health. At that time, I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend who went missing. And I guess I just feel so much compassion when I see this suffering that it makes me want to dive into it and see how the human spirit is able to triumph. We were on the cross-country running team in junior high, and we used to run a lot together. I also interviewed both survivors and potential victims of human trafficking. Purcell’s ability to pen realistically gritty YA fiction continues in her latest release, This Is Not a Love Letter (2018), which follows a pair of love-struck teenagers struggling to build a relationship in the face of entrenched racism. This led to an urgent desire to write him a fictional love letter, to help me figure out what happened to him, at least in my story.