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Interview: May 2010


Lucy Christopher’s debut novel, STOLEN, explores the dark themes of obsession, abduction alienation, and survival, as experienced from the perspective of Gemma, an English teen who is kidnapped by a stalker and brought to the Australian Outback.  In this interview with’s Sarah Rachel Egelman, Christopher discusses the personal experience from her childhood that partially inspired the book’s plot and setting, and explains her reason behind framing the narrative as a letter written by her protagonist to her captor, Ty. She also sheds light on the motivations behind Ty’s mysterious but surprisingly sympathetic behavior, reflects on what she hopes readers will take away from the story, and shares details on her much lighter second novel, FLYAWAY. STOLEN is written in the form of a letter from a kidnapped teenager to her abductor. Why did you choose this format or style, and what did it allow you to accomplish that a more traditional narration wouldn't have?  

Lucy Christopher: I knew right from the start that I wanted to write STOLEN in the form of a letter from Gemma to Ty. In fact, the very first line on the very first page --- “You saw me before I saw you” --- was the very first line I ever wrote of this story, and it stayed there like that, from beginning to end, right up to publication. I wanted a narrative style that was intimate and emotional, and the letter format suited perfectly. I also have had years of experience writing letters, courtesy of growing up with a split life between the United Kingdom and Australia, so writing in this style came pretty naturally.

Through writing in the style of a letter, I could get right up close to Gemma’s thoughts and feelings. And by doing so, I felt I could bring the reader straight into my protagonist’s emotional world. I wanted readers to go on the same emotional journey as Gemma does, and to feel the same confusion that she feels towards the end of the novel.

TRC: What idea came to you first: an exploration of abduction (and obsession), or an exploration of Stockholm syndrome? Or did you connect the two themes from the beginning?

LC: To start, I was definitely more interested in the ideas of abduction and obsession. The exploration of, and research into, Stockholm syndrome came later. My initial urge to write this novel actually sprung from my own feelings towards the Australian landscape. Before I began high school, my family moved from the UK to Australia. Looking back, I guess this felt like a kind of abduction away from the place I knew to somewhere altogether more strange. I’ve always found Australia to be beautiful and exciting, but also terrifyingly alien. Since then, I have always been obsessed with trying to understand it, and trying to understand my feelings towards it. Do I belong here? Is it home? Am I scared of or in love with it? I accessed these emotions when I came to write how Gemma feels about both this strange land that Ty takes her to, and about Ty himself. The idea of being taken somewhere where you don’t necessarily want to go, and being forced to adapt and survive --- I was interested in this process.

TRC: Is Stockholm syndrome a common response to abduction, or a more unique occurrence among victims?

LC: This is a tricky question for me to answer as I’m no psychologist, or indeed no expert in Stockholm syndrome. When doing my research, I looked into cases of Stockholm syndrome that occurred after victims were forcibly abducted, such as the kidnaps of Natascha Kampusch and Jaycee Lee Dugard. I also researched the Norrmalmstorg robbery in Stockholm, from which the syndrome got its name. Full-blown Stockholm syndrome seems to be relatively uncommon, but the FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System reports that just under a third of kidnap victims show evidence of Stockholm syndrome. What really interested me were the conditions that, according to the experts, commonly lead to Stockholm syndrome among victims: the intensity of the experience spent with the captor; the lack of physical abuse; and the isolation from the outside world. I was also interested in the definition given by Frank Ochberg, who is credited with defining the syndrome: He says the syndrome is about the gratitude a captive feels towards her captor for saving her life.

In a sense, one can view all relationships as entering into a kind of mild Stockholm syndrome. Having experienced some pretty intense relationships myself when I was away from home, I could almost begin to understand how a relationship could develop in that way. I was interested in whether teen readers might be able to see any parallels between an exploration of Stockholm syndrome and the process of entering into any new and intense relationship, particularly if that relationship might not necessarily be good for them.

TRC: Have you spent time in the Australian desert? How easy would it be to disappear or get lost there? How long could Gemma and Ty have survived out there?

LC: Yes, I’ve been to the Australian deserts quite a few times. The two most memorable experiences were when I was 19 and I embarked upon a week-long camel trek in the Simpson Desert, and a few years later when I drove through the Great Sandy Desert over a three-week period as part of my research for STOLEN.

There’s no denying that this is a difficult terrain. People do get lost here and do disappear, but that generally only occurs when they are poorly prepared and inexperienced. If you are trained at finding food and water and are well prepared, the chances for long-term survival in this environment are greatly increased. The indigenous peoples of Australia have been surviving within this land for centuries, and are a testament to how important it is to have detailed and intimate knowledge of a land. Ty could have survived in this land for a long time, I think, since he knew it so well, and loved it so much. It may have been a little more difficult for Gemma, because she would have had to build up her knowledge base, but I’m confident she would succeed --- she’s smart and resourceful, and in her own way she’s a survivor, too.

TRC: What kind of research did you do in order to write this book? Did you learn anything that was surprising or shocking to you?

LC: I did lots of research. I had already been to the Australian Outback quite a few times before, but I’d never been to the Great Sandy Desert. So my boyfriend and I hired a 4WD in Broome in Western Australia and made our way to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, exploring as many of the arid landscapes along the way as we could. We took thousands of photos of trees and different sand formations, and also spent some time with the local indigenous groups, learning about the land from their perspective. I read extensively about the Outback, and queried doctors, lawyers, anti-venom experts, snake handlers, entomologists, and cameleers in order to make sure my information was as accurate as possible. I watched a lot of movies about the Outback, too, although I have to admit I was too chicken to watch more than half an hour of Wolf Creek! I read loads of stuff in books as well as online. The thing that surprised me the most, I think, was to learn that the Great Sandy Desert is one of the most fertile deserts in the world --- surprising, really, when you think of the desolate image it often conjures.

TRC: A lot of Ty's obsession with Gemma seems related to his traumatic upbringing, but perhaps he is just mentally ill. He is an unreliable character, as it is impossible to understand his true intentions, background and motivations. Do you have a sense about Ty and his motivations, or does he remain somewhat mysterious to you as well?

LC: I like to keep Ty somewhat mysterious. He is somewhat of a wild and primitive character who avoids too much analyzing. I do think, though, that much of his yearning for belonging and connection stems from his traumatic upbringing: being forcibly removed from his home and not having any meaningful and loving relationships at an early age. He is trying to find belonging and meaning in his life in whatever way he can. The only time he ever felt comfortable, happy and free as a child was when he was living off the land by himself. This is part of the reason why he feels such a strong empathy for and connection to land: It’s his escape, his safe place…the place that makes him feel free instead of confined. Rather ironically, when he forces Gemma into this place, he is trying to impart upon her the sense of freedom and safety that he feels there.

TRC: Ty is also focused on the contrast between city and wilderness, and it becomes an extended metaphor for his mental state as well as Gemma's. Was this your intent when you set out to write the book, or did this aspect just unfold?

LC: Yes, I was looking to play with this metaphor and even to extend it a little. I was thinking of ideas of city vs. wilderness, rational vs. irrational, civilized vs. primitive, culture vs. nature, good vs. evil, etc.,…all those definitions that we often think of when we contrast an urban environment with a natural one. However, I wanted readers to start to question these definitions by the time they got to the end of the novel, to start to be confused about which place was, in fact, the wild place, or which mental state was, in fact, the rational one. I wanted the boundaries and definitions to be blurred.

TRC: England in contrast to Australia is another metaphor for Ty of good versus evil, or pure versus corrupt. Some young American readers may not understand the historical tension that exists between the two nations, but is it important for fully grasping the conflict between Ty and Gemma (and the inner conflicts they each feel)? 

LC: I don’t think it’s crucial to understand the historical tension between the UK and Australia in order to understand STOLEN, no. It might be an interesting layer to add into the mix since, indeed, there is a great deal of underlying confusion towards notions of belonging and patriotism between these two countries. But American readers might be interested to know about another historical tension: that of the “Stolen Generation.” This term usually refers to the half-caste and full-blood Australian aboriginal children who were taken from their birth families under government policy from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1970s. They were taken from their (often desert) homelands and forced to live in white institutions in Australia’s cities and towns; places often entirely alien to them. When Gemma tells Ty that “they kind of stole you, too,” she is linking Ty’s childhood experience of being stolen by the authorities to her own experience of being stolen by him, and yet she is inadvertently linking Ty’s experience to the forcible removal of the Stolen Generation from their homes.

TRC: Gemma's physical attraction to Ty makes her identification with him as her captor even more complex. Would an ugly kidnapper have made for a different story? 

LC: Of course. This story started with an attraction and ended with an attraction, but the nature of Gemma’s attraction shifted slightly during the course of the book. Instead of being solely attracted to Ty, by the end Gemma finds herself attracted to the land he has come from and brought her to. Gemma needs to be simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by Ty in order for the reader to think more deeply about these blurred boundaries --- between being entranced and terrified by the desert, and intrigued and repulsed by human nature. Life is never black and white, and strong emotions are always made up of conflicting thoughts.

TRC: It would be easy to say that Ty is not abusive or cruel to Gemma because of moments of tenderness, and because of the way the book ends. However, that seems wrong because the act of kidnapping is, in and of itself, abusive and cruel. Yet you, like many notable post-modern writers, play with the readers' reactions to Ty (a very small manipulation compared to how Ty treats Gemma). Was your intent to blur the lines between love and obsession, attraction and stalking, right and wrong, or to examine these intersections?

LC: Yes, I wanted nothing to be certain. In my experience, life is much more often made up of “blur” rather than things clean and simple. I also wanted Gemma’s story to prompt readers to question their own lives and relationships. Are they what they think they are? What are the boundaries between a fair relationship and an unfair one? How do we know when we are in the wrong type of romance? I didn’t want to write a book with easy answers.

TRC: Are there really feral camels in Australia?

LC: Sure are! Every time I’ve been to the Australian deserts, I’ve always seen many more wild camels than wild kangaroos. In fact, I think Australia is one of the world’s top producers of camels! They’re not native animals, though, and in that sense the camel in STOLEN proved a perfect metaphor for Gemma.

TRC: What writing projects are you working on now?

LC: My next novel is called FLYAWAY and it’s a really different book from STOLEN. It’s geared towards slightly younger teenagers and follows Isla, a 13-year-old girl who has a strong bond with her dad. Together, every year, the two of them watch the migrating wild swans arrive in their local nature reserve. But this year is different. There are new power lines up at the nature reserve, and the swan flock crashes into them. Then her dad gets sick, really sick, and is hospitalized. But at the hospital, Isla meets Harry, with his wild smile and scruffy hair, and together they discover a flightless swan on a lake. Isla decides that if they can help this swan to fly again, then perhaps she can help her dad, and Harry, to heal again, too.

It’s a book about healing, and finding the flock around you, and, ultimately, learning to fly. It feels like it’s the bright and happy younger cousin of the older and darker STOLEN, and I hope readers will really warm to it. But those who really love STOLEN might be interested to know that the book after FLYAWAY is another darker thriller for older teens. So please stay tuned!