Cover art for 'The Kindness of Strangers' [HarperCollins,2007]
(Image by Harper Perrenial, courtesy of Katrina Kittle) Details DMCA
My guest today is Katrina Kittle, novelist and lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Dayton.
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome to OpEdNews, Katrina. You've published books more recently but I'd like to talk about one I just read that you wrote a number of years ago: The Kindness of Strangers [HarperCollins, 2007]. Please tell us a bit about it.
Katrina Kittle: I am always happy to talk about The Kindness of Strangers because that book had such a tough time finding a publishing home, and yet, once it did, it became my most successful book. I'm thrilled when someone like you discovers the book and still finds it timely and moving. Its success felt like true affirmation and validation for my stubborn tenacity and refusal to give up on the book. Part of its difficult journey was the subject matter--this novel centers around a case of child sexual abuse. I say "centers around" because it's not about the abuse, and there are no scenes of the abuse actually happening. The book begins with the discovery of the abuse, so that horror is already over when the story starts. The novel is about what happens next. Kindness is really about one woman's experience being an emergency foster placement for a sexually abused boy she and her family know, and how reaching out to help this boy begins to heal her own family and the ways they were broken themselves.
JB: Your answer has spawned so many questions. Let's first talk about why you wrote it in the first place. It's definitely a heavy topic.
KK: All of my novels center on social issues I deeply care about, but how did I come to care about this topic? When I was an artist-in-residence at a school back in the mid-'90s, I met a 10 year-old kid whose backstory was much like Jordan's. I didn't know that at first--he was my favorite kid in this class! He told me he was HIV+ which blew me away--I knew my AIDS facts and had already written a novel which dealt with AIDS. When I asked his teacher, she told me simply that he been sexually abused, his biological parents were incarcerated, and that he was with a foster family. The teacher must have mentioned it to the foster mom because she sought me out after school and told me more of his story--his parents, both doctors, were serious cocaine addicts and had been essentially prostituting their only child to their dealer. I was flattened. This kid had not only survived, but thrived--he was a typical kid, funny, and interacted well with others. If someone had told me his story in advance, I would've guessed (wrongly) that I could pick him out. He would've been the last kid I picked. So it opened my eyes to how little I knew about child sexual abuse and how many misconceptions I had. I started doing cursory research and was horrified to discover the statistics--that one in four girls and one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday (there is a broad spectrum of what is considered abuse).
JB: Astounding and horrible.
KK: Then...the story started to form. I only knew that kid for five hours--one hour a day for a week. But any interaction can start the seed for a story. Jordan's story is different--I knew I didn't want Jordan to have HIV because I'd already written about that, and that diagnosis casts a shadow over the rest of his story/recovery. But, the character of Sarah started to develop as I did this research--Sarah (like me) considers herself educated and well read and is mortified by "how did I not know about this?" Most of us don't know much about this obscene crime, unless, like Sarah, it's forced into your awareness. The experts I worked with--pediatricians, social workers, police officers--al talked about the "conspiracy of silence" surrounding this crime. As the novel started to form in my mind, I became determined to break that silence.
JB: Jordan's mother is a morbidly fascinating character. You fleshed her out without sympathizing, on the one hand, or making her "just" an evil caricature, on the other. That's quite a tightrope act. How did you pull it off? And why did you make her a doctor, an obstetrician, of all things? I suspect that it's more than simply that the case you observed involved two doctors.
KK: Ah, Courtney. She was a lot of work. I actually wrote chapters from her point of view in early drafts, even though I knew she wasn't going to get to be one of the narrators in the actual story. I needed to write her chapters so that I knew exactly what had happened, but I had no interest in subjecting readers to those scenes. I'm so glad you thought she wasn't just an evil caricature--it really was a tightrope act, so thank you! I did a lot of research, but I want to stress--I'm a fiction writer. Yes, I wanted to get details rights and I wanted to treat this subject responsibly, but the bottom line is that I'm not an expert on pedophiles--although I did work with a lot of people who were. I read a lot of case studies and even interviews with incarcerated pedophiles. There wasn't a single profile or "typical abuser"--the only thing in common many of them had were that they were charming and well-liked by people who knew them. I think Courtney became an obstetrician for me when I read that many pedophiles who were abused themselves weren't triggered to begin sexually abusing until their own child was the age that the abuser was when the abuse started. Another awful detail I came across was that many abusers try very hard not to abuse--they remove themselves voluntarily from children, choosing professions that don't put them in contact with any children. I thought Courtney could be a doctor like her own father, but that she chose a specialty where she's mostly dealing with adults--and only briefly with infants (who would never be left alone with her). I didn't want to make her sympathetic, exactly, but I find most "monsters" are all the more horrifying when we understand them a bit, when we understand their motivations--which is very different from condoning what they do. I needed her to be likable enough that readers would understand how Sarah and the rest of the community could be so duped.
JB: Right; you did pull that off. Let's talk about the dupe factor. Sarah had thought she and Courtney were friends, best friends, even. She felt duped and definitely betrayed, crushed that she hadn't protected her family. Speaking of profiles, there's also one for families more susceptible, although certainly not welcoming, to pedophiles. Can you talk about that a bit?
KK: Right, any family where the adults are distracted (and the children are therefore more hungry for adult attention) is more susceptible--families where there has been a divorce, or a death, or where a parent or child is very ill. Pedophiles groom families as well as victims. They are usually invited into homes--as Scout leaders, coaches, family friends. This is not to make everyone paranoid, but another bit of research that really surprised me was that most sexual abuse is inflicted on children by someone they know well, not by the "scary stranger in the park." That's how pedophiles get away with it--they present themselves as helpful, charming, often as good role models for the kids. In very early drafts, Roy was still alive and this was a whole, intact family reaching out to help someone else. I "killed off" Roy initially because early trusted readers kept suspecting him of being somehow involved in the crime because he worked with Courtney. So I kept writing scenes showing Roy to be this great guy, this fantastic and awesome dad--but then my early readers said things like, "Something really big must be going to happen with Roy because you're giving him so much page time." When I decided the book was better without him (poor, sweet Roy), it actually worked better with the research as well--with Sarah widowed and grieving, and her boys struggling in their individual ways, they're much more likely to be groomed by the Kendricks. It also made the personal stakes higher--as Sarah really believed Courtney was helping her out of friendship. And a story about a broken, struggling family who finds it in themselves to reach out to help someone else worse off than they are, and in that process of helping, they begin to heal themselves--well, that felt like a richer story to me anyway.
JB: What an interesting process novel writing is! Tell us more about the trials and tribulations of finding a publisher you alluded to earlier, please.
KK: My first novel was published by what was then Warner Books, and it was a two-book deal. I adored my champion of an editor there, Diana Baroni. After my first novel's final draft had been approved, and Diana and I began discussing the next book--I ran this idea by her. She was wary of it because my first novel, Traveling Light, dealt with AIDS. She worried that we wanted to grow the audience and that might be difficult with another even more controversial subject. I was reeeeeally naive, and decided that if I just wrote the story, she'd change her mind. Today, I marvel at my naive arrogance! Ignorance really is bliss. But I was so passionate about the story, so I forged ahead...and, of course, when I showed it to her, she was horrified. Not by the story--which she loved--but that I had gone against what we agreed upon (under a tight deadline, no less). So, this novel was written second, but wasn't published second. My next novel, Two Truths and a Lie, was a book I did very much want to write, and it was the one she had instructed me to proceed with, so I got busy producing that novel for them while Kindness sat on a shelf.
Once Two Truths and a Lie was published, I did a major revision of Kindness (then titled Strong at the Broken Places), and brought it back to Diana, hoping it could be my third book. Alas, no. Diana loved the novel but she said, "You belong at a different publishing house." Those are very disheartening words to hear from your publisher! But she was right. Each publishing imprint has a very different focus and demographic. And I didn't fit Warner's. It wasn't so surprising that Warner Books wouldn't let Diana publish Kindness as it was surprising that they had ever agreed to publish my first one. Diana said, "I see this as a HarperPerennial"--which is exactly where the book ended up.