Drive, Terminator, New York & human trafficking
I’m at a kids birthday party when a woman I barely know grabs me by the arm and declares: ‘I have an idea that you should write about.’
I glance over her shoulder for the exits, my smile fixing into place, wondering if I should tell her it’s not ideas I’m lacking just hours in the day. ’Human trafficking,’ she announces, ‘you need to write about it.’
I tell her with an apologetic shrug that I write young adult fiction; ‘lots of car chases, hot boys and kissing. That sort of thing.’ Even as I say it, I can feel myself shrinking in her estimation, and, it must be admitted, my own. She’s talking about human trafficking and how it affects over thirty million people worldwide and I’m talking about girls with mind powers and shape-shifting demons.
I left the party with a niggling feeling, which was compounded when I got home by the sight of a post-it stuck over my desk with ‘make your words count’ scrawled on it.
With my first four books, all published by Simon & Schuster, I had established a name as a writer of fast-paced thrillers. When asked about my inspiration I frequently cited Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sarah Conor from Terminator (Yes, I am that highbrow).
While I’d always prided myself on the fact my female protagonists were kickass and intelligent, now I was confronted by the fact I could be writing something with real power, something that could have impact, something that could potentially help change lives.
‘No,’ my agent sagely advised. ‘A book about human trafficking is very hard to sell.’
She was right of course and there was also the fact that I had no real authority or knowledge of the subject. True, I had no knowledge about telekinesis or secret military units either and this had never stopped me writing about them (Wikipedia, Google and my imagination are my best friends) but human trafficking was something else entirely.
So I sat down to write my next novel – inspired by a combination of Ryan Gosling in Drive, the police station scene in Terminator and a trip to New York – and had an epiphany. I could write about human trafficking after all. I would slide it sneakily into the book. It would still be a young adult thriller, with all the chases, action and kissing required, but at the heart of it would be a human trafficking conspiracy. Immediately I started researching and chatting with friends who worked for the UN, discovering that more people today are enslaved that at any other point in history and that human trafficking has fast become the third largest criminal industry in the world.
Instead of writing about a victim, something I didn’t feel confident enough to do, my protagonist became the teenage daughter of a man who runs a government task force tackling gang-related trafficking and I set her in the midst of a conspiracy involving her father and the New York gangs he’s up against.
The book was eagerly received by my publisher in the UK and snapped up by Simon & Schuster in New York too, making me realise that just because I write young adult fiction doesn’t mean I have to write about sparkly vampires and love triangles. But neither do I have to sacrifice thrills and action in order to make a serious point.
As an author I’ve learned that empowering teenagers isn’t just about giving them strong role models, it’s also about using the medium of storytelling to open their eyes to issues that we all need to take a stand on.
Out of Control by Sarah Alderson (published by Simon & Schuster) is OUT NOW.
This feature originally appeared in The Big Issue (may ’14)