Author Interview: Kim Van Sickler

snatchedThis month it’s a distinct pleasure to bring readers an interview with author Kim Van Sickler, whose recent novel Snatched in Gullybrook tackles a difficult and important issue: young girls who are kidnapped to work in the sex trade. When I asked Kim about this book and her experiences self-publishing for the first time, here’s what she had to say …

KC: “Snatched in Gullybrook” deals with human trafficking of young girls. This is an unusual and difficult topic for a novel. What led you to this subject matter as the focus for a novel?

KVS: My husband returned from a conference and told me about a women who spoke about her experience surviving sex trafficking. Her name was Natasha Herzig; she was a smart, athletic, popular and pretty middle-upper class teenager when she was approached by a “make-up” consultant at the mall about a job. Natasha was directed to an office building where she dealt with human resources and filled out a job application. Some time later she was contacted for a job interview and met with human resources again at a restaurant. This time Natasha felt distinctly uncomfortable. Her HR contact was acting jittery. Natasha decided she didn’t want the job anymore, claimed she was cold, and excused herself to retrieve a sweater from her car. Her plan was to get into the car and drive away, but before she reached her car a van pulled up beside her and a couple of guys threw her inside. She spent the next year and a half working as a sex slave, navigating her way around beatings and torture, dreaming of how she could escape. Like many people, I was familiar with the epidemic of human trafficking. But I considered it a third-world problem, or a domestic problem for runaways and drug addicts. It never occurred to me that girls could be manipulated away from their well-adjusted lives and loving families. The thought horrified me, and I immediately threw myself into researching this paradigm.

KC: You tell the story from three alternating points of view, the perspectives of three different girls who are kidnapped and caught up in the sex trade. What made you choose this narrative structure?

KVS: I wanted to convey the trafficking aspect of sex slavery. This isn’t an isolated occurrence. These same stories, sure the specific facts change from victim to victim, but the same timeline and basic experiences unfold all over the world, and all over the United States. No place is safe. Every fictional book or memoir I’ve ever read on sex slavery focuses on one girl or woman’s experience. By focusing on more than one victim, I felt I was emphasizing the epidemic nature of this industry. And it is an industry. Human trafficking is now tied with weapons trafficking and nearly tied with drug trafficking as the world’s highest earning illegal enterprises. More people are trafficked today than at any other time in human history.

KC: The book deals with the many terrible issues facing girls like your protagonists including drugs, disease, pregnancy etc. How did you go about researching these problems within the context of the story?

KVS: I read everything I could get my hands on, both fiction and nonfiction. I spoke to trafficking experts. I attended conferences. I let my own horror guide me.

KC:  The narrative moves forward and backward through time as well as alternating between differing points of view. Why did you decide on a non-linear time structure for the story?

KVS: I was fascinated with manipulating time and viewpoints. Sort of how these girls are being manipulated. And I happened to be reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz as entertainment at the time. (Neither of these books has anything to do with trafficking, but both employ literary time travel and multiple viewpoints.) I wanted to try, too. It was interesting that as I workshopped the book and later as I submitted it to agents, the constant feedback I received was that I should pare it down to one viewpoint and make the story linear. I struggled with that advice. Ultimately, I knew that I couldn’t tell THIS story with only one POV, and if I told all three girls’ stories in a linear fashion, it would become repetitive and even darker than it is now. Playing with time and viewpoints allowed for much-needed breathing space, I think.

KC: This is your first self-published book. How did you find the self-publishing experience?

KVS: I worked with CreateSpace and found the process extremely customer-friendly. I didn’t use all of CreateSpace’s offerings, however. I used their in-depth editorial review, their interior layout, and free ISBN numbering system. I used an independent line editor and cover artist.

KC: What is the most important lesson you learned from the process?

KVS: The importance of being selective in what I decide to self-publish. The general consensus was that this story is too dark and disturbing to sell in large quantities. While I don’t disagree, I strongly felt this story is incredibly important and needs to be told. There is nothing like it available in print or electronic format right now.

KC: What advice would you give to other writers interested in self-publishing their work?

KVS: Don’t rush the process. Make sure your story is the best it can be. Don’t skimp on editing or artwork. Don’t publish until it is perfect. Even so, you may get snarky reviews that use the term “self-published” in a way meant to be derogatory. And make sure you know why you are publishing. If you are publishing to sell books, try to work with agents or publishers first. Hear them out. Don’t self-publish because you can’t get traditionally published and you’ve run out of patience. You probably won’t make much money self-publishing. Especially if, like me, you have a day job, and a family, and want to continue writing. (There are still only 24 hours in a day.) Self-publishing means self-promoting, and I’ve learned just how much time that takes. And it’s constant. It never lets up. I’ve still got a long way to go.

KC: What are you working on now?

KVS: I’m working on a book about a father and son who get sucked into the drug underworld and the woman responsible for landing them there. It’s interesting that when I first started writing, I was crafting fairy tales for middle graders about witches and mermaids. I never would have guessed I’d be digging my teeth into such gritty and real-world issues as sex trafficking and drug abuse.