It’s time for another SAT (Successful Author Talk)! Today’s guest is Sarah Darer Littman, author of WANT TO GO PRIVATE? which I reviewed here. WTGP? has had such a profound effect on the students here in my library that I wanted to open up this SAT a little more, and get into the bones of what drove Sarah to write about such an emotional topic.
BBC: WANT TO GO PRIVATE? deals with a sensitive issue – sexual predators online. Why did you choose to write this story?
SDL: I was actually trying to write a completely different book when I heard Supervisory Special Agent Tom Lawler of the FBI’s New Haven Office speak about Internet Safety at my son’s school two years ago. But I was already extremely aware how many parents are flying blind when it comes to their kids’ online activities, and how easy it is for young people to make mistakes that have lasting and far-reaching consequences.
After SSA Lawler’s presentation, he told me about a case in CT where a girl had left with a predator. Fortunately, her mom was a reasonably clued up parent and had the passwords to the girl’s accounts, so they were able to figure out what had happened pretty quickly, but even so, by the time she and the predator were apprehended they’d almost reached the Canadian border. What struck me most – and what inspired me to write WANT TO GO PRIVATE? – was her reaction when the police apprehended the predator. It wasn’t “Thank heavens you’ve rescued me”, but rather “Don’t hurt him!”
As soon as I heard that, I turned to SSA Lawler and said, “That is the book.” Kids today have been getting Internet Safety training since elementary school, and this girl’s mother was obviously clued up enough to have the passwords to her account, so I imagine there had been discussions in the home. How then, did she travel from having had all those warnings to the point of “Don’t hurt him!”?
That question wouldn’t leave me alone. It pursued me and nagged me until I called my agent and said, “I need to write this book.” Fortunately, Jen Rees, my wonderful editor at Scholastic, was extremely supportive, so I was able to start the research that would help me find the answer that question and thus tell Abby’s story.
BBC: What kind of sources did you use for your research? At any point was it too emotionally difficult for you to push forward?
SDL: I was very fortunate to be able to get permission to work with the New Haven Office of the FBI for my research. I also consulted with detectives at my local police department in Greenwich, a friend of mine who is a well-known expert on pedophiles, and read extensive research on the topic. I found it extremely difficult at times, both doing the research and writing some of the scenes. The most difficult scene for me to write was one of which only a fraction appears in the book. When I sent the book to my editor, one of the notes in the editorial letter was that it seemed like Abby and Luke only went on a car ride together. I realized that subconsciously, I really didn’t want to know what had happened to Abby. As a victim of childhood sexual abuse myself, it was extremely painful to think about, like picking a scab off a wound that I thought had healed. But to do justice to Abby’s story, I had to open the door to that motel room and look inside. When I tried at first, I started having really bad nightmares and had to stop. But then I got to the point in revisions when I had to do it in order to continue. It was one of the most difficult writing days I’ve ever had.
BBC: Some of the scenes in WTGP are very disturbing, yet necessary for the message. How did you decide where the line was drawn in terms of your audience?
SDL: I wrote the first draft without too much thought to language, because allowing an internal censor can be crippling. But before I sent it to my editor, and then with every single subsequent edit, I thought about every single word. Literally. I had friends of mine, an 8th grade media specialist and an 8th grade language arts teacher (who are now immortalized as Officer Ball and Office Domuracki) read early drafts for language and content. Karen Ball highlighted every single swear for me:
I went through and cut out as many as I possibly could – only keeping the ones that I felt were necessary in terms of the story. I do feel that I achieved this, because while most of the reviews mention the graphic nature of some of the scenes, I don’t think there are any reviews that have said that I’ve used graphic language gratuitously.
The bottom line is that real predators get very dirty very quickly. I tried to focus more on the seduction angle of the relationship between Luke and Abby in order to minimize the content, but let’s face it, you can’t write a realistic book about the grooming process without some language and content. My view is that it’s crazy to say “we shouldn’t let our kids read this book because of the language and sexual content” while we’re letting them loose on the Internet. The letters I’m getting from readers who have already had experiences with predators and tell me how much they relate to the book, some as young as 12 – bear out the danger of the denial strategy.
BBC: The website that Abby meets her attacker on is www.chezteen.com which is a real website devoted to educating teens about internet safety. Where did this stroke of genius come from?
SDL: *blushes* Well, thank you for calling it a stroke of genius : ) I actually registered the url as I was writing the first draft of the book with the thought that I would make it into an Internet Safety site. I knew that the first thing I would do if I were reading the book as a teen would be to go check out the website to see if it was a real site. YA authors still have a very strong inner teen – that’s how we write with a teen voice. So I wanted to make sure I owned the site and could use it for a positive purpose. I’d hoped to make it into a discussion site but unfortunately that would take more time and money than I have available.
BBC: One of the most compelling things about WTGP is that Abby is a booksmart girl from a fairly normal home. What motivated you to place such a character in this situation?
SDL: An FBI agent who did a presentation sponsored by the Greenwich Penwomen talked about a common misconception that the kids who are taken in by predators are only “bad” kids with “bad” parents. I think so many kids hear the Internet Safety talks at school and think, “That wouldn’t happen to me, I’d never be that stupid”. But there’s a big difference between academic intelligence and emotional maturity, which takes longer to develop.
So I wanted Abby to be academically smart and “a good kid” and her parents to decent people, but like many parents, busy and distracted because they both work and don’t always have the downtime to just sit and allow the conversations to happen.
A huge thanks to Sarah for coming onto the blog today and sharing the process involved in this powerful novel! If you haven’t read it, put it on your TBR pile.