2012 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

Patricia McCormick

McCormick and ArnNever Fall Down, by Patricia McCormickPatricia McCormickNever Fall Down

Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

Interview by Sofia Quintero

Sofia Quintero: What compelled you to tell this particular story of all the ideas you could’ve otherwise pursued?

Patricia McCormick: When Arn talks about a childhood in the Killing Fields, it's almost as if he becomes that terrified 11-year-old child all over again. He speaks in urgent, disjointed fragments. Sometimes, he is overcome with such sadness that he can't continue; at other times, he goes numb. I had a feeling that if he and I could safely capture that story between the covers of a book, he wouldn't have to relive those memories in the same way. And I think the book has indeed had an impact on him. By having readers bear witness to his story, he feels less trapped by the past and more like the man he is than the terrified child he was. 

I also thought that American readers have a bit of a black hole when it comes to knowledge of Cambodia. We had such Southeast Asia fatigue after Vietnam and such collective guilt for our bombing of Cambodia that we, as a nation, tended to turn away from its stories. My hope is that this book will fill in some of the missing pieces of that dark history and that it will take a place in the literature of genocide studies so that readers will see the brutal similarities among such mass killings―be it Rwanda or Poland. 

SQ: In choosing to tell Arn's story as a novel, surely there were times when you evoked poetic license. Other than to perhaps fill in the blanks in his memory, how did you determine when doing so would be truer to the emotional truth of his experience than just conveying verifiable facts?

PM: Arn’s memory is amazing. He can remember in impeccable detail the sound of a landmine being sprung, the smell of gangrene. But, tragically, a child stepping on landmine was so commonplace that he couldn’t recall a specific instance of it happening. So I created a character, based on a number of different little girls who carried rice for his platoon, who loses her leg―and later her life―to a landmine. By making use of Arn’s memories along with an amalgam my own research and my own imagination, I tried to render this experience in a way that is closer to the emotional truth than the verifiable truth.

Afterward, Arn, the character says, “Now even the earth is our enemy.” This isn’t something Arn actually said, but, again, it captures the pervasive fear he experienced in a way that isn’t in the transcripts of our interviews but is so true in an emotional way.

The biggest artistic risk I took with Never Fall Down was to tell the story in Arn’s voice. Trying to capture that voice was like trying to bottle a lightning bug. Every time I imposed the rules of grammar or syntax, the light went out. And so, after hundreds of interviews here and in Cambodia, where we traced the steps of his childhood and came face-to-face with the Khmer Rouge solider who was his warden and friend, I chose to use Arn’s own his distinct, poetic, and beautiful voice.

My concern was that some readers might miss his intelligence and wit in this non-standard English. But just the opposite turned out to be true. Readers have consistently said that hearing the story narrated by an innocent, bewildered, mischievous, and often funny child got them through the worst of it.

SQ: Even despite the horrific context, many things that were important to Arn as an adolescent would matter to any other young person of the same age. His primary quest to survive and the extreme things he does to do so don't rob him of his interest in culture, curiosity about sex and attraction, capacity for play whenever the rare opportunity arises, even desire to be acknowledged for being good at something. Was this something that struck you as you were listening to Arn tell his story, or did it become evident to you in the crafting of it as a novel?

PM: That childish quality is still very much alive in Arn. That wonder, that mischief, that playfulness was, somehow, not vanquished by the Khmer Rouge. And so those were qualities that were alive in his telling of the story. He remained that 11-year-old throughout his ordeal―a kid who liked to get attention for being able to spike a volleyball or steal a sugar cube, a kid who desperately missed his family, and a kid who wanted to accepted by his peers when he finally got to high school in the US. What also lived inside him was a child who would do what it took to survive, a child who had killed, a child who had lost everything. Those two forces were in a constant battle for his soul but, miraculously, the kind, playful, loving, forgiving one always won out.

SQ: Even with a young protagonist, it arguably might've been less risky to gear Never Fall Down to an adult readership and realize your objectives. Obviously you decided to take Arn's story to young readers. What do you hope will be the payoff in exposing young people to Arn's experience?

PM: When we started our collaboration, the scope and audience for the book was an open question. Arn has accomplished so much as man―as a peace activist, as a savior of Cambodia’s traditional arts and music, working with gangs―that it seemed a shame to only be able cover those accomplishments in the epilogue.

As the project went on and I keyed in on his voice as a child, as a teenager, we both knew that we could reach an impressionable audience if we told the story from that point of view. I knew from my experiences writing for young adults about issues like child trafficking that we would reach a deeply empathetic audience. And Arn knew from his work with students that this is a readership that takes action, to raise money, to raise awareness, and to raise the stakes. Young readers are anything but self-centered. They care deeply about their peers around the world and around the block. Perhaps because of their facility with the internet and social media, they are not waiting around for governments or NGOs to act on their behalf. They are the ones out holding raffles, carwashes, egg sales, and rallies. They are traveling to places like Cambodia to build libraries and water purification facilities, to work in orphanages and schools. As Nicholas Kristof has said, it is young people who have stepped up to battle international indifference and governmental inaction in the Sudan, the Congo, and elsewhere. And he predicts that one day we will look back on this period of terrible cruelty and thank them for salvaging our national honor.

Kids also join in the creative process once they’ve finished a book. They create videos, songs, poems, essays, and stories inspired by what they read. Last week, I posted on my website an eloquent and powerful rap written by a 15-year-old boy from Ohio who’d read one of my books. It is a privilege to write for kids like Ryan―kids who act on what they read to create things of beauty and power. Young adult readers are the most empathetic, most demanding, most creative, most generous whole-hearted readers there are and I am honored to write for them. 

SQ: Your first novels Cut and My Brother's Keeper both featured American protagonists confronting not only family concerns but specific mental health challenges. Now your most recent works like Never Fall Down bring readers to characters in other nations grappling with "larger" socio-political issues from sex trafficking to war. What inspired the shift? What would you say are the concerns and questions that drive all your work regardless of where and when the stories are set? 

PM: If there is a through-line in my work it is giving voice to experience that might otherwise be drowned out by the louder, more attention-seeking voices out there. I also hope that in my fiction I can inhabit a point of view or an experience that is misunderstood―and tell that story with compassion, honesty, and a lack of judgment.

It has been very rewarding to find that young readers in the US are deeply interested in and concerned about the lives of their peers around the world. Teenagers get a bad reputation for being self-centered; but as outpouring of donations and activism prompted by the KONY 2012 campaign proved, young people aren’t waiting around for governments or NGOs to take action on their behalf.

Kids are not always in a position to affect policy, nor do they always know how to react to big socio-political issues. What they can do is read―and develop a bigger, more compassionate world view.

SQ: In recent years, there has been extensive debate over the recent popularity of "dark narratives" and heavy themes in young adult literature, from dystopian fantasy to contemporary stories that deal with substance abuse, suicide, and even sexual assault. One journalist even described it as "desperation lit." Why do you think readers are so drawn to the topics you write about, and what do you hope they will gain from reading your novels? 

PM: I think young readers are drawn to books that feature serious themes because they want perspective on their own lives, their own struggles. That’s why it’s deadly to try to censor what people might call dark lit. One person’s cutting-edge fiction is someone else’s everyday life.

I also think young readers are drawn to these books because they are inspired by the triumphs of characters facing challenges greater than their own. Finally, I think young readers are seeking a way to appreciate the bounty and goodness in their lives rather than feeling burdened by what they have.

SQ: Which authors did you read as a teen and whose work in the genre do you enjoy reading now? Why? What would you like to see more of in young adult literature? 

PM: Young adult literature scarcely existed when I was a young reader; my reading diet consisted mainly of the Cherry Ames, Student Nurse series. But I was able to find Member of the Wedding, and much later, This Boy’s Life. And of course, I read The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Like many readers, I was drawn to coming-of-age stories, which, when you think of it, is really what young adult fiction is. The big difference is that that YA fiction is urgent and immediate―a coming-of-age story told without the benefit of adult wisdom in hindsight.

SQ: Many young people who are avid readers tend to be aspiring writers, and they often ask, "How did you write your book?" Describe your writing process. What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a young aspiring writer?

PM: Writing is my day job; I show up every day, fighting it all the way, wishing I had a boss to tell me what to do. I start by putting all my doubts, all my resistance, my fears, and my random to-do list items in my journal―so that they don’t find their way into my work. Once I’ve poured out all that negativity I’m primed to write.

SQ: Finish this sentence. Adults also should read young adult literature because...

PM: …young adult authors are doing some of the most daring work out there. Authors who write for young adults are taking creative risks―with narrative structure, voice, and social commentary―that you might not see in adult fiction.

We have to be at the top of our game―because we’re competing with Facebook and smartphones, DVRs and iPods, not to mention SATs and extra-curriculars. We have to capture and hold our readers’ attention on Page 1 and sustain it until the end. Young adults are willing to accompany an author just about anywhere―to a dystopian future or the ancient past―but they will not tolerate anything extraneous or self indulgent.

Sofía Quintero is the author of several novels and short stories that cross genres. Born into a working-class Puerto Rican-Dominican family in the Bronx, the self-proclaimed “Ivy League homegirl” earned a BA in history-sociology from Columbia University in 1990 and her MPA from the university's School of International and Public Affairs in 1992. After years of working on a range of policy issues from multicultural education to HIV/AIDS, she decided to pursue career that married arts and activism. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote the hip hop novels Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’, and Burn. Sofía is also the author of the novel Divas Don’t Yield and contributed novellas to the “chica lit” anthologies Friday Night Chicas and Names I Call My Sister. As an activist, she co-founded Chica Luna Productions (chicaluna.com), a nonprofit organization that seeks to identify, develop and support women of color who wish to create socially conscious entertainment. She is also a founding creative partner of Sister Outsider Entertainment, a multimedia production company that produces quality entertainment for urban audiences. Quintero’s first young adult novel, Efrain’s Secret, was published by Knopf in 2010. To learn more about Sofia and her work, visit blackartemis.com, sisteroutsider.biz or myspace.com/sofiaquintero.

Photo credit: Roberto Ligresti