Guest & Contest: Kim Purcell

The Importance of the Interview

Many people have said my debut novel, TRAFFICKED, feels so real, it must be based on one girl, an actual modern-day slave that I interviewed. However, my main character, Hannah, is not based on any one girl, but rather, she is based on years of experience teaching immigrants to speak English and over thirty interviews with Russian and Moldovan girls and women. All of the other characters except for Hannah are based a particular person I taught or interviewed, with a little bit of me mixed in. Even though Hannah is entirely made up, all the people who shared with me parts of their lives also helped to create her. It’s amazing what a collaboration a novel can be when you look at it that way.

Fortunately, I have a journalism background, so interviewing people came easy. I interviewed Russians, Moldovans and people from other parts of the former Soviet Union in Los Angeles, New York and Moldova. I interviewed aid workers and poor village girls in Moldova. In the capital city, Chisinau, I interviewed schoolgirls and teachers. In America, I talked to nannies and housekeepers working in Los Angeles and New York as well as people from anti-trafficking organizations – The Salvation Army and Safe Horizon. I went to the offices of the main anti-trafficking organization in Moldova and interviewed the head of La Strada there to find out what they were doing to combat the serious problem of human trafficking.

I prepared for my interviews by writing down questions, but then I let it flow like a conversation. That way, people relax and they share a lot more. Some of the people didn’t want to tell me things that were private and it took some time to get them to relax. I sat with one Moldovan woman in her apartment, surrounded by about fifty machetes and knives that hung on the walls, and we talked for three hours. She helped me so much with this book, but when I called for a follow-up interview, she didn’t answer my calls at first and finally emailed to say she didn’t want to share any more. I think she was embarrassed by what she’d revealed. Maybe she feared she’d be at risk in some way. Her boyfriend was mysteriously absent and he was the one with the knife collection. He’d “gone away” for a while, so I can only assume he came back.

Another Russian nanny told me about a terrible job she got when she first came to America when she couldn’t speak English. She was kept in a garage with asbestos and gradually got sicker and sicker without know why. They made her work horrendous hours without extra pay and held her wages for months at a time. Despite how they used and mistreated her, she wouldn’t be classified as a modern-day slave. Interestingly, I recently moved from Brooklyn and she told me these people live near where I currently live in Westchester, just outside New York City. I keep expecting to be introduced to them and I’m sure I’ll break out with something like, “You monster!”

In Moldova, I did one group interview with a class that was interesting. Can you imagine doing an interview with thirty kids? I asked them how many had a parent working out of the country. About three-quarters of the kids put up a hand. When I asked how many had both parents out of the country, it was over a third. At any one time, half the population is working out the country because they can’t find work in Moldova. Many kids are being raised by their grandmothers. As you can imagine, this is a situation ripe for exploitation.

That same day, I interviewed a smaller group of four girls and a teacher in a classroom after school. All the other chairs had been put on top of the desks around us. The school was quiet. I asked the girls about their family situations. One girl with straight dark hair and deep brown eyes said she hadn’t heard from her mother in over a year. She stared at the floor when she said this, like it was a confession. It seemed clear that her mother could be a trafficking victim, but her daughter was a victim too. There was absolutely nothing she could do. The other girls stared at her, their faces blank of emotion. They’d all been through too much.

This was the interviewing process. When that was done and I was writing, I didn’t look back at my notes. I trusted that the important information would make its way to the page and I really didn’t want to break the flow. Later, I’d look back at my notes and see if there were details that I wanted to put back. I interviewed many people after writing several drafts because I needed to check my facts. Every detail had to be correct, from the way you make pelmeni to the type of toilet paper Hannah would be accustomed to using.

I wanted Hannah to feel real because I think that’s what makes great fiction. This is a novel, but I hope, in some way, it reveals what is a true and tragic situation happening in many countries throughout the world. I hope people come to see Hannah as a friend and then relate to other girls in that situation in the same way and maybe they reach out to help. Or maybe some girl in another country will see herself in Hannah and when the traffickers contact her, she’ll say no.

* * * * *

Kim, a former journalist who while living in LA, helped a young woman get out of a situation, also spent time interviewing girls from Moldova who’ve been involved in similar circumstances. Kim has also taught English as a Second Language both here and abroad. She now lives in New York with her husband and two daughters.

Kim’s website can be found at http://www.kimpurcell.com.

Contest details:

  • Kim’s publicist is offering up 3 print copies of Trafficked for our readers.
  • The contest is open to US residents only.
  • You must leave a meaningful comment for entry.  This means your comment needs to be more than “please enter me in the contest”.
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  • While following the blog isn’t required, it is appreciated.
  • The contest ends on Sunday, February 26.

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