SJ Laidlaw On Using Real-Life Experience As Inspiration


Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's volunteer for the WHAT is SJ Laidlaw, author of FIFTEEN LANES.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I moved from Indonesia to India in the winter of 2012. At the time I was working on a book set in Indonesia but I started volunteering with a couple of NGOs in the red-light district in Mumbai, trying to help sex workers and their children. The goal was to prevent second generation trafficking. The vast majority of sex workers in India are trafficked. It's estimated that as many as 90% of their daughters end up in the sex trade, if they don't get support from NGOs to help them escape. As a social worker, I’ve had training to work with survivors of sexual violence, so I thought perhaps I could put my training to use.

While working with these NGOs, I was approached by a strategic philanthropy organization that was producing a countrywide report on sex trafficking in India. They asked me to edit their report and write the executive summary. This involved reading all of their primary sources, as well as everything I could find on sex trafficking. As I became immersed in the struggles of children growing up in brothels, my interest in my Indonesian story waned. I realized I needed to write about the lives of the children I was working with.

Kamathipura, the red-light district of Mumbai, is intensely populated but spread across a small area of just fifteen lanes. For sex workers and their children, it’s often their entire world. Poverty and rejection by the rest of society inhibits them from venturing outside their community. To capture the narrowness and isolation this community feels, I titled the book FIFTEEN LANES. The black lines that trap the bird on the cover are an actual map of the neighborhood.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it? 

While the lives of the girls I was working with were filled with dangers and depravations, the girls themselves were amazingly positive. They don’t see themselves as victims. In fact, having spent many years working with kids in international schools, I was struck by how determined and optimistic these kids were compared to some of the kids that I’d counseled in international schools. It got me thinking about how suffering is difficult to quantify and even harder to predict. 

Having rich, loving parents doesn’t necessarily protect a kid from pain. Growing up in a brothel doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not going to feel loved and supported. A lot of how we respond to adversity depends on the resilience that we’ve developed through confronting hardship. Most of the girls I worked with in Kamathipura were incredibly strong and often mature beyond their years, particularly if they had younger siblings. They were often tasked with raising their siblings and were very protective of them. 

I decided to write a story that shows how suffering and sexual violence cut across class and culture. It's told in the voices of two girls. Noor is the daughter of a sex worker. She and her younger siblings live in a brothel in Kamathipura. Grace is the daughter of an international banker who has lived the nomadic life of a Third Culture Kid. While Grace is from a wealthy and privileged background, both girls experience adversity in different ways.

Noor’s story was partly content driven. I needed to introduce a very foreign world, not only India, or the life of underprivileged children, but the life of a girl who is raised in a Mumbai brothel. The girls I was working with faced so many challenges, from the day-to-day reality of poverty, prejudice and disease, to the near-constant exposure to sexual violence.

Because I wanted to give as complete a picture of Noor’s world as possible, I decided to start with her earliest awakening to her circumstances. Her narrative starts when she’s five-years-old and continues until she’s seventeen. 

Grace’s narrative was easier to craft as it’s one that readers will be familiar with and one I’m more familiar with myself. While I worked in Kamathipura for over two years and was working with sex workers’ daughters while I wrote the book, I’ve worked with girls like Grace for many years. She’s a fragile, socially isolated girl who becomes the target of extreme bullying. Her narrative spans just a few weeks.

Aside from the different timelines, the main challenge in writing this book was juxtaposing Grace’s suffering with Noor’s and not letting one story overwhelm the other. 

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

This story never changed much from my original direction, though I had to do several major rewrites to tone down the graphic nature of the subject matter. I hope I’ve accomplished that but it still may be too much for some readers, particularly if they’re triggered by issues of sexual violence or self-harm.

That said, I’m writing about the lives of two girls who are both victimized in real and terrifying ways. It’s a hopeful story but not a light-hearted read.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Stories come to me easily. I have a lot of ideas. The challenge for me is that I get caught up with life. It’s not always easy to discipline myself to sit down at my computer. I’m trained as a social worker and adolescent counselor and I love that work, so it competes when I also want to write.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Sometimes I think the stories choose me. I was on vacation in Nepal about nine months ago and by chance got talking to some Tibetan refugees. There’s a huge refugee community in Nepal, as it’s immediately across the border from Tibet. Like most people in the west, I knew about the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the exile of the Dalai Lama and of course the murder of Kelsang Namtso that was caught on video, but I didn’t know much more than that. The stories these refugees told me really moved me. I guess like many writers I need to connect with a story emotionally before I have the impetus to write it. I’ve begun working on a book about Tibetans.

When it comes to naming characters, I just rest my hands and let them tell me what their names are. What’s your process? 

It depends on the story but in the case of FIFTEEN LANES the names of the two main characters was deliberate. Both character’s names foreshadow their journey. 

With Grace, I thought a lot about the nature of shame. It’s terrible for any kid to be bullied or socially isolated but in counseling I found that kids felt so much worse if they believed they’d somehow provoked the bullying. We, as adults, understand that there’s never a legitimate reason for bullying but it can be hard to convince a kid of that.

Grace’s feeling of shame significantly intensifies her misery. It also makes it hard for her to ask for help, particularly from her mother who she feels she’s disappointed. So, in her case, I was thinking about the concept of sin or falling from grace.

Noor’s name means “light,” or “of the light.” I’ll leave my readers to decide if that was a good name choice.