Author Talk: February 2, 2012
In Drusilla Campbell’s latest novel, LITTLE GIRL GONE, a teenage runaway is rescued by a troubled young man and has been living with him in a trailer for years. But when he kidnaps a pregnant teenager, she must face the reality of her situation. In this interview, Campbell discusses the inspiration that she drew from her personal experiences. She also shares her views on the various relationships examined in the book, reveals her favorite character, and gives insight into why she writes.
Question: What first inspired you to write this story?
Drusilla Campbell: Why would a woman live with a terrible man who was keeping a girl prisoner behind the house? What kind of desperation makes that possible?
For a few months the news seemed to be full of such incidents and I couldn’t get these questions out of my mind. I decided to write LITTLE GIRL GONE partly as a way to explore the whole subject.
One of the great things about novels (writing and reading them) is that they give me a chance to expand my field of empathy by walking in someone else’s shoes for three hundred and fifty pages. That doesn’t mean I approve of colluding with a man like Willis, it just means that in the future, having written about Madora and gotten to know her so deeply, I can’t jump to judgment quite as fast.
Q: You write about some difficult topics in LITTLE GIRL GONE. Was there ever a point where it was a challenge to continue because of the emotions or situations the characters faced? What would be your advice to writers who find themselves in that kind of situation?
DC: I didn’t have that problem with LITTLE GIRL GONE. Though I felt a really strong connection to Madora, the part of me that is like her, the part that I drew on to create her character, is very small.
In contrast, when I was writing THE GOOD SISTER, I became deeply involved in Simone’s post partum depression and subsequent psychosis. I was totally depressed for weeks and it was finally my husband who pointed out that I seemed to be suffering from post partum depression without ever having had a baby!
My advice to authors? Just be aware of your inner life and how it interacts with your creative voice. I have a cousin who trained for the opera and he talked about how his voice was his instrument. For writers, our inner life is our instrument and we have to take care of it, feed it, nurture it. And be aware of it because just as a method actor can get lost inside a character he portrays, a writer can lose herself too. I have a writer friend who calls her imagination a gift and a curse and a huge responsibility.
Q: What was it like to write Madora? How were you able to slip into her character and understand her motivations and feelings? What about Willis and Django?
DC: Slipping into Madora’s character wasn’t that hard. I went through a pretty wild and reckless time back in the dark ages of my life. I used that. Mostly, though, when I was writing Madora I remembered a girl I went to elementary and high school with. Most of the girls in our circle were from families that knew each other and shared values. She was different, however. Her mother ran what I think of now as a very substandard home for the elderly and infirm. My friend worked for her mother and did most of the dirty work. It was a kind of Cinderella life, I suppose. Nothing like Madora’s in the facts, but still there was something there that I drew from. While the rest of us have stayed in touch over the years, our beautiful friend has disappeared down the rabbit hole of bad choices, bad men, lost opportunities. This would have happened to Madora too had she not met Django.
I knew from the beginning that Willis was deeply misled about what he was doing and that he had to look at his life, the kidnapping, in a way one hundred and eighty degrees off from mine. I didn’t want to write about a sexual deviant, a rapist or pedophile. Once I knew something about his history, he sprang to life.
Q: Did any character in the book become your favorite?
DC: Oh, Django. From the very beginning. He was so much fun to write about and during those segments when he was mourning his parents, I felt all his grief as if it were my own. He was that real to me. What made him fun, was that he viewed life as this incredibly rich pie of possibilities. He’d known nothing but love and plenty for twelve years. What a fortunate boy he was. His parents’ death put a hold on that exuberance for a while, but when he decided that he had to get Madora and himself out of Dodge fast, when he had a goal, he returned to that person who really thought there were virtually no limits.
Q: The role of fathers is a prominent theme in the novel. Why did you want to discuss this in your book?
DC: Gosh, I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of a father to a girl. Not to get too cerebral here, but a girl first sees who she is in her father’s eyes. If she sees herself --- through him --- as valued and worthwhile in her uniqueness, then that’s going to stick with her through life. I think a father makes a little girl feel safe. He might be a ninety pound weakling, but if he’s holding your hand when you cross the street, you know you’ll make it to the other side.
I had a father who loved me and was proud of me, but life overwhelmed him and he never learned how to take charge. For that reason, he was loving but he was also not very present. He was happiest sitting in a chair reading a thick book, smoking, eating popcorn. Through my teens up until I stopped roaming the world and settled down, he and I couldn’t connect. I regret that a lot.
Q: You show a variety of mother-daughter relationships in the novel: Madora’s estranged relationship with her own mother, her complicated feelings for Linda and her baby, and the new relationship between Django and Robin. What did you want to show with each of these different relationships?
DC: Boy, is there any relationship more fraught than the one between mother and daughter? I never get tired of examining the twists and turns of it in my own life, my siblings and friends. I had a strong-willed and complicated mother and we clashed loudly and often. Not a day passes that I’m not aware of the powerful influence she’s had on my life.
What I want to show through the mother-child (not just daughter) relationships in LITTLE GIRL GONE is how very “hands-on” the work of a mother is and what happens when the mother is absent either psychologically, or taken by sudden death. Parenting is the most important job most of us will ever have and it is also the most challenging. Most, most, most: no wonder parents are exhausted at the end of the day and still can’t sleep for worrying.
Every family is different, happy or unhappy, and exploring the dynamics is what keeps me at my laptop.
Q: Though fiction, LITTLE GIRL GONE has similarities to recent news stories about kidnappings. How would you respond to a reader who said she felt the themes in the novel were too serious, or too troubling for her to read?
DC: I can sympathize with a reader who feels that way. There are times when I really don’t want to read anything serious. I love police procedurals, I’m a devoted fan of science fiction (though it is sometimes very serious) and some fantasy. My secret pleasure is adventure novels. But I am drawn back time and again to fiction that explores our complicated lives and our troubled world. I find that I am moved by such novels in a way that makes me feel more fully human.
Having been through a time in my life when I did everything I could to turn off my feelings, to flat-line through my days, I’ve learned to value my emotions as never before. I think it’s a huge gift when a writer creates a character so real that I am able to live through his or her struggles vicariously. This is what novels do better than any other art form. This is why they’re important.
Q: You’ve written six books and are currently working on your seventh. While all of your novels are very unique, do you think there is anything that is characteristic of your work as a whole?
DC: My view is that across the world, people all want the same things: a sense of worth, safety, food and somewhere warm and dry to sleep. In one form or another, that’s what all stories are about: the desire to have those things. I write about the slice of the world I know. American families in all their permutations.