distraction no.99

Nova Ren Suma | On Writing & Writing Distractions

Not an Author Newsletter… something else.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Kim Purcell (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Kim Purcell reveals how she removed the distance between her and her character and found a way to love her novel again…

My big turning point came at a time when I hated my main character. Even worse, I hated myself for creating her. My debut novel, Trafficked, is about a girl named Hannah who comes from Moldova to LA to be a nanny and ends up a modern-day domestic slave. When I first started writing the novel, I really liked Hannah. She came to me as this sarcastic, funny, kind soul, but then, even though I thought she was pretty neat, I decided this just wouldn’t do.

She was a victim. Any person who’d been trafficked and enslaved would have to be weak, right? I wanted to be “realistic.” So I made her into this frightened, weepy character, and then I sent her down a path of misery during which one thing after another would befall her. Oh, your life doesn’t suck enough, yet? How about this? I felt like I was beating an injured horse.

After a few years of writing, I no longer liked her at all and I didn’t know what to do. I’d made her into this person that made you cringe. When I brought her to my writing group, they said, well, it’s good writing, but will readers want to stick with this miserable story for three hundred pages?

I felt defensive. There were plenty of miserable stories out there. People loved them. Some of my favorite stories were miserable stories: Angela’s Ashes, Invisible Man, The Lovely Bones. There was nothing wrong with a miserable story.

But then, I sat down with my miserable story and I felt miserable. I thought it was shit. I didn’t know why. I’m not normally overly critical about my writing. I generally believe that if I keep writing, it will get better. The problem was that after two, three, four years, I still wasn’t feeling the magic.

Writing became a chore. It was an important story, I told myself. I had to keep going. But every time I sat down with my character, it just felt like a bummer. Her life was so awful, I couldn’t stand it.

So, I decided I was going to quit the book. I switched to another novel-in-progress, but I kept thinking about Hannah and how I’d abandoned her and not just her— by not telling this story, I’d abandoned all the people who are enslaved around the world. That made me feel even shittier. What kind of person does that?

I talked to my husband and my writing group. They told me to keep going with it, that they liked the story and they believed I could do it. So I returned to the story, rewrote it a couple more times, and somehow, miraculously landed a fabulous literary agent. I could not believe it. That was it, I thought. I’d sell it and be done with the miserable thing.

The thing that I didn’t know was that I was far from done with it. My agent and I went through a couple rewrites and she sent it out to the first round of editors. They found it too bleak. A couple of the editors didn’t like my main character. I felt ill. I didn’t like her either. I mean, she was okay, but I wouldn’t want to be her friend. It was a dark night of the soul. Either I had to admit defeat, or I had to rewrite from scratch. After five years of working on the novel, which I was sick of, rewriting it from scratch sounded like hell.

And then, a little voice in my head chirped, “But what if you put more of yourself into her?” What if she was someone who could be a friend? What if she was not weak, but strong? What if I let her be that sarcastic, funny, kind soul she started out as? And then terrible things happened to her? How much of her humor would she hold on to? How much of her kindness?

This was the big turning point for me. The novel became interesting to me again. I decided if I was going to rewrite Hannah, I had to get rid of the distance between my character and myself. I couldn’t be safe. I had to be able to inhabit the character in order to care for her and make readers care for her. I had to de-victimize her and make her a survivor.

Over the next year, I rewrote the novel from scratch, keeping the basic plot, but changing the character and her reactions to everything that happened. While I wrote, I thought of all the girls and women I met in Moldova. I thought of the nannies and housekeepers and immigrants I’d interviewed here in America. They were smart, funny, and determined to live in a vibrant way, despite everything that had happened to them, and I put their collective spirit into Hannah.

Not once was I bored, depressed, or disheartened. I was on a journey and when it was finished, at last, I felt proud of the work I’d done. My agent and I were ready to send it out again. I felt like I was at last linking arms with Hannah and walking with her to her next destination, instead of tossing her at the first editor who’d take her off my hands and relieve me of the burden.

A few days later, I was on the F train, heading to Brooklyn from Manhattan. I was talking about the book with some friends. I spoke passionately about Hannah and her story, and while I talked, I noticed a woman watching me a few seats over. I had no idea, but this woman was an editor at Penguin. She got off the train at my stop—we lived close to one another at the time—and she said, “Excuse me.” She said she was sorry for eavesdropping, but she was an editor and she’d love to read my novel. She handed me her card. I looked down at the card, which read Penguin. I couldn’t believe it. I sent it to her and Viking bought it a few days later.

Now, just this month, the book has come out. Hannah’s story will be heard. The story of slaves across America will be heard. And none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been willing to rewrite from scratch and allow Hannah to be strong in order for her story to come alive.

—Kim Purcell

Kim Purcell is a novelist, journalist and teacher. As a radio beat reporter, she interviewed drug dealers, prostitutes, and murderers and became interested in the trauma many of them experienced as children and teenagers. She wanted to tell their stories in a more complex way, and decided to focus on writing novels while teaching English as a Second Language. She wrote two novels before Trafficked. After hearing the painful stories some of her immigrant students shared with her, she became interested in the subject of human trafficking and modern-day slavery. She traveled to Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, to research this book. She had two babies and wrote it mostly when her two wonderful daughters were napping. She loves to run, do yoga, and dance in random places, like elevators. Sometimes her husband and kids stop her and sometimes they join in. They all live in Westchester County, near New York City, with their rescue dog, Lola.

Visit Kim at www.kimpurcell.com.

Follow @kimberlypurcell on Twitter. 


Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to the author for donating the prize! I’m happy to announce the winner:

Amy @ Kissed by Ink won a signed copy of Trafficked by Kim Purcell! Congrats! I’ll email the winner to ask for a mailing address. Thank you again to everyone who entered!

Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

28 responses to “Turning Points: Guest Post by Kim Purcell (+Giveaway)”

  1. This is an amazing story, and it’s so awesome to see how one shift can make such a huge difference in your outlook, and the book! Congrats on the release and thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. This is one of my favorite turning points so far! (and I love this series you’re doing, Nova!)
    It was one of my favorites because…this is *exactly* what I’m going through and it’s so painful. I can’t move on from my story because I’m leaving behind the characters that I’ve put so much sweat into. I need to finish. I’m so glad it worked out for, Kim! That’s awesome! Trafficked sounds really good too! Anyways, I hope I can reach that point in my book too where I’m excited to write it again! I remember I had that feeling once, where all I thought of was my story, so I know I can get there again! Best of luck to all you writers!

  3. Wow, what a cool story. I mean, the ending. I can imagine the exhaustion and despair of having to rewrite after all that work, guh. Glad you found your turning point!

  4. Wow, I’m so excited to read your book! Thank you Nova for having this blog! It allows me to discover new authors. 🙂

  5. Oh man, what an amazing post. I’m glad you were able to push through and even rewrite the story so Hannah was strong. I really am excited to read this book because of how amazing it sounds, but this post really makes me want to read it now. Thanks, Kim.

  6. That is such an amazing story! I am now totally PSYCHED to read this book. Main characters (especially relatable ones) are hard and I think it’s true that sometimes we have to draw off of ourselves to create characters we truly love to write and read about. 🙂

  7. Yes!!! We need more stories like this….very inspirational. Thanks so much for sharing your personal experience. This book sounds incredibly powerful as well.

  8. Kim, your story gives all aspiring writers hope that just because they don’t get it right the first time, doesn’t mean they won’t get it right. Looking forward to reading Trafficked!

  9. This book looks fantastic. Congratulations on your first novel Kim! Reading this story makes me want to get back into writing.

  10. Love it! Your perseverance paid off and your main character thanks you. And I have heard about the F train to/from Brooklyn being full of publishing folks!

  11. Wow! What a turning point! And an act of serendipity as well. (I’d like to meet an editor from Penguin on my train, too!)

    But, seriously: good for you! It certainly paid off that you re-wrote and didn’t completely abandon Hannah. I’ve been told that we should write what we, ourselves, would like to read. That’s become one of my measuring sticks now. If I don’t like my story, my characters, etc., then I highly doubt that anyone else will either.


    Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez
    On Twitter: @ZaraAlexis

  12. I think this is yet another insightful post for this series. Though I have yet to experience the same conflict with a character, I am happy that the author was able to start liking her character again.

  13. I’ve been looking for Trafficked at my bookstore but they don’t have it right now. Boo! I’m going to keep looking because I really want to read it.

  14. Ironically, just 10 minutes ago I saw that I was going to order this book on Amazon, and I was like, oh. I forgot I had that in there. I wonder if its any good? I have read a lot about trafficking, some good and some bad. Then I saw this, and read about the transformation of the main character, and was like, ya. I want to read this now. I also sometimes get to write reviews for readingteen.net, so hopefully I will get a chance to write a review about this for them. Thanks for making this issue known!

  15. This looks like a great read, and spreading the work about trafficking through blogs, novels and social media is a critical step to creating awareness.

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