It Has to Be Real: A Conversation with Kim Purcell




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. #WeNeedDiverseBooks has inspired book lovers all over the world, encouraging writers and readers to become more socially aware. Kim Purcell has been a leader in bringing a greater social consciousness to the field. Her novels focus on complex social issues, including human trafficking, racism, mental health, and interracial relationships.

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. The novel not only spreads awareness of the cruelties of the black market in children but also delves into the complexities of global immigration. 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.

I spoke with the author about her inspiration in expanding diversity through her creative works.

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BRIANNA BRANCH: You’re known for thoroughly researching the subjects of your books, including the harsh world of human trafficking. How difficult was it for you to write Trafficked?

KIM PURCELL: The research was difficult, but I come from a journalism background, so it was also fascinating for me. For this book, I traveled to Moldova in Eastern Europe to get details about life there. I also interviewed both survivors and potential victims of human trafficking. Without traveling to Moldova, I never could have written this book. Many of Hannah’s memories are actually my memories from that trip. At one point, I even became a target for a trafficker. It was the middle of the night when our bus arrived in the Moldovan capital, and I had to run to get to safety. So the research was tough, for sure. As for the emotional scenes in the book, I was shaky after writing them. I write from the body, in a method-writing style, which means I feel the characters’ experience in my own body. So that can be hard.

Were you afraid to publish Trafficked due to its subject matter?

Not at all. My biggest hope was that it could save one girl or boy from being trafficked. When I go to schools to talk about the book, I warn about red flags for human traffickers, like the older boyfriend. And I think it’s made a difference.

How did you come up with the idea to write a novel on human trafficking?

I started writing this book in 2002 when I was teaching English as a Second Language in Los Angeles. 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. This story led me to research human trafficking in America. At the time, people thought it was something that happened in other countries, but not America. There were no other young adult novels about this issue at the time, so I knew I had to write about it.

The young adult genre has come in for its share of criticism due to a lack of diversity. How did you overcome that problem in your new novel, This Is Not a Love Letter?

I think the bigger issue is that we need more books written by people of color. It’s not enough for white writers to add in more diverse characters. It has to be real. The lack of diversity in young adult fiction is real, and the problem can only be solved by lifting up more writers of color. This is happening, but not fast enough.

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. The novel was based on the disappearance of a close friend in high school, right before graduation. I grew up in a mostly white mill town in Northern Canada and my friend was African-Canadian. When he went missing, there were clear signs of racial bias in the reporting and in the police investigation. As a result, in this novel, I wanted to explore racism, bias, and white privilege, among other issues, such as mental health.

Did today’s political climate inspire you to write about these themes?

The current political climate had no effect on the writing since I started this book in 2011. At that time, I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend who went missing. 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. And I started thinking about my friend. We were on the cross-country running team in junior high, and we used to run a lot together. 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. 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.

You tackle a lot of social issues in your novels, including human trafficking, poverty, mental illness, and suicide. Which issue has struck your heart the most, and why?

That is a great question, but hard to answer. 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. We all suffer. It’s just part of the human condition. 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.

What inspires and disappoints you about YA literature in the 21st century?

I think the quality of the writing out there is stunning — that’s one good thing. But I think we’ve got to publish more diverse authors and make sure there are more diverse books in school libraries. If you don’t see your own life reflected in the books in your library, are you going to 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? Do you not have this person in your library? They don’t, but they should.

What’s harder about writing YA, maintaining original content or giving readers what they want?

I don’t ever think about giving readers what they want. I write the story that I would want to read. I write a story that feels true to me. In this way, I think we redefine what readers want.

So what is next for you?

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.

Final question: What’s one thing you would give up in order to become an even better writer?

I’d give up sunshine. 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. Better to be holed up in a snowy cabin in front of a fire.

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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.


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