Your latest novel is a dark and disturbing story about a 16-year-old named Angel who moves in with a guy she meets at the mall and is lured into a life of drugs, violence, and prostitution. It must have been tough to write.
I tried to put it off as long as I could. I wrote Heck Superhero and Tom Finder—both about homeless boys—and I knew that someday I was going to have to write a book about a homeless girl. I knew that to write that kind of book really honestly, it was doubtful I could do it without talking about prostitution. And the research on that topic was enough to tell me that before I started to write this book, I needed to be very strong and very happy in my life. But sadly that day just never really came. Then it took up so much space in my brain, I knew I had to write it.
Why’d you write it in verse?
It was a way for me to tell the truth about something without rubbing my nose in the gory details. I still had to live there, though. The hardest part was sort of crawling into Angel’s body every day. There are lots of days when normally I run to my writing, thinking, Yay! It’s time to write! But with Angel, I found that I would sit there and look sidelong at my pile of papers and just not want to write. But every time I did, I just loved her so much; I knew I had to write her story. I had to be her voice.
Did your research involve talking to prostitutes?
One experience in particular was very telling for me. I was in Vancouver, doing a reading, and I went over to a church that provided free dinners every night for the sex workers. I helped make the dinner, and then we all sat down and ate together. I had a lovely conversation with one of the volunteers beside me. We were talking, and at the end, I said that I thought it was very nice of her to come and help. And she said, “Oh, I’m not a volunteer. I’m one of them.” That experience was one of several that just told me I didn’t have to go that far imaginatively to really understand these women—they weren’t that different than me.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about prostitutes?
That they have willingly entered this life, and they can leave it any time they wish.
Why do so many women stay?
It is a form of enslavement, really. They’re threatened. They’re physically beaten. They’re told that their family members will be hurt. They stay because of their addictions. They stay out of fear. Lots of reasons.
Even though much of Angel’s life is hell, she always seems to have hope. Did you get that from your research?
Yes. These women have so little to hang onto that many of them are deeply spiritual. Some of the stories that I tell come right out of real-life stories. So, for example, the girl who went to church on Sunday and a drunk came in covered in filth, and she took care of him and welcomed him, and helped him sit down—that really happened.
Your story takes place in Vancouver’s seedy Downtown Eastside, where scores of women began to mysteriously disappear in the ’80s. Why did you include a list of their names at the end of the book?
I felt like I owed them something. I took their story and made something with it, and I wanted people to realize that it’s their story, and to honor them in some way and for them not to be forgotten.
You have seven children and twelve grandkids. How’d you manage to write and raise a family?
The short answer is badly. But they’ve all turned out wonderfully well in spite of me. With writing, I believe in the power of five minutes, and that might be the secret. And I also have no hobbies. I don’t do anything except family and write, so that might be it, too.
To read a starred review of My Book of Life by Angel (Farrar), turn to page 140.