As an author who has written about difficult subjects, I know how hard it can be to tell a story that deals with real-life issues people don’t really want to talk about (but should). While most people enjoy suspenseful stories that beg you to keep reading, no one wants to see bad things happen to innocent people. One must keep the story somehow enjoyable and hopeful, even when darkness and evil envelop the characters. Julie Bonn Blank has managed to do just that in her debut novel, Innocent Lives. After reading Innocent Lives, I wanted to know more about the story behind the novel. Below is my interview with the author. I hope you take as much away from it as I did.
Melanie: What was the inspiration behind Innocent Lives? Why did you take on such a difficult topic?
Julie: I was one of the ones who thought that human trafficking only happened I distant countries. I felt it deep in my soul when singer Natalie Grant described how she visited India and saw children in cages being sold. How she and her husband actually toured a brothel where young kids were sold. And yet what could I do besides try to financially help support these organizations trying to rescue these children? Obviously, they all need financial support and that is no small thing. But I couldn’t imagine being in Natalie’s shoes. I think I might have had have nightmares for life about not being able to grab all of those children and take them to safety.
I decided to get educated and as I did, I realized that human trafficking happens right here in the USA…every single day. I met strippers who had been coerced into dancing by an intimate partner, to make the bills. It appeared that all the ones I met had deep trauma in their lives and often came from abusive homes. I learned that most runaways also run for a reason-mostly abuse. Sometimes drug and substance abuse in the home as well. Often neglect. I met those who sold themselves on the Street to survive, to have a bed that night. And yes, I saw those who had a pimp-who had drawn them in, “cared for them”, often provided drugs for them that they became addicted to and then forced them into prostitution. Yes, human trafficking happens here and when I realized the extent of it, I became obsessed with using my God-given writing talents with bringing a story of two gals and their two different journeys of trafficking to raise awareness.
I also wanted to raise hope. I have met survivors, so I know that they exist despite the stats that only a small percentage survive, and they have healing to work on. Some have chosen to not heal. But for those that have, they are living a fulfilled and safe life now, something everyone should have access to.
Melanie: Is there anything about your background or experience that you feel made you a good person to tell this story?
Julie: I am a domestic violence advocate, and a survivor. I have worked extremely hard on my healing and at times, this continues. I believe that God pushed me to write about these things as a part of my healing process. It is a part of my healing to help educate and make a difference where I can in this industry.
I also realized as I researched that in my early teens, I had an older man’s undivided attention and he in fact, was grooming me. I fell in love with him. When he moved out of State, I grieved for well over a year, even though we wrote letters back and forth (this was early-email days!). At the time, my parents said that he was using me inappropriately to get something in his life that he “needed” and how wrong it was. And I was so mad at them! I loved this guy. But of course, you can guess that as I researched as an adult, I now recognize that not only were they right, but how very careful he was in grooming me. How he was inappropriate-but never “too far”. How he was there for me to talk to with all the drama at school, home etc, and allowed himself to become a shoulder for me to cry on. How he spent a lot of time touching me (hugging, holding hands, shoulder rubs, etc.) intentionally. This is a story that I’m just now going public with and am working on healing from as it really just recently became evident for what it truly was. And the biggest part? The LORD saved me as he relocated this “gentlemen’s” job to the next State. Wow. I was worth saving. So are you.
But this was my initial set-up. I went on from there to “draw” several abusive men into my life-one at time.
Melanie: How long did it take you to write this Innocent Lives?
Julie: Too long! LOL! I worked on it slowly for a couple years and then I joined NaNoWriMo where they encourage you to write a full book in a month’s time and you record your word count each day. I determined to finish the book in that time period, and I did. Of course, I was writing like crazy on evenings (after real work) and weekends and am grateful my family put up with that. But then more work came. Editing, going to my first writer’s conference, finding beta readers, finding an agent and much more.
Melanie: Do you have a favorite quote or scene from the novel?
Julie: I obviously like a great deal of the book. I think I relate the most to Cienna. And I wanted to include two villains-one who was easy to hate and one we wondered about. For most of the book, Cienna sees Mike as her rescuer, not her trafficker. He is attractive and she even likes him a bit. There is a push and pull there. Eventually she discovers a heart-breaking secret and understands then that he truly is a monster, but it takes her time to get there.
By and far, the chapters where they are both finally rescued are my favorite and have heard from several that with those chapters, tears are a-rolling!
Melanie: You tell the story from several points of view. I like how this helps the reader see the entire story. If you had to write the story from only one character’s point-of-view, though, which one would you choose and why?
Julie: Cienna. Likely because, personality-wise, she and I are similar. And because I wanted the book to be from a mostly victim’s perspective.
There are now two smaller books created of side characters that are in “Innocent Lives” because readers were asking, and I knew in my head that their stories weren’t done yet. “Rose” and “Penny” are available in ebook form for those who want to get to know them a little better and are available most everywhere ebooks are sold. (“Rose” is free!)
Melanie: What do you hope readers take away from Innocent Lives?
Julie: Education is key. If we don’t talk about it, we can’t fix it. I want it to be a conversation starter about human trafficking here in the USA and elsewhere. Although it is true that most victims are not kidnapped (usually perpetrators obtain their victims through an intimate partner relationship and these days, that “relationship” often starts on the internet), kidnapping and trafficking do happen.
Melanie: After reading this book, I wanted to do something to help victims of sex trafficking. What actions can a reader take to make a difference?
- Be aware of the signs. Often sex trafficking victims are on the Street, but not always. They also work clubs, or they may be hidden away. They usually do not have access to ID’s or any identifying paperwork such as a Driver’s license or social security card. Victims have someone they must report to, and someone who tends to watch them most of the time in some form. They will likely seem nervous and are not free to develop close friendships. For labor trafficking, be aware that workers may show up in one van, have one driver and even live in the same home. They are often not fluent in English and are discouraged from learning the language. Labor trafficked individuals will also not usually have access to identifying paperwork and cash, so they cannot leave.
- Many organizations support victims. If you purchase “Innocent Lives”, some of the proceed go to the Family Justice Center of Washington County and to ARMS/Abuse Recovery Ministry Services. So consider buying a book. But there are many other great organizations where you can learn more, give and even volunteer. Check out Tamar’s Hope. They are on the streets several nights a week ministering to prostitutes. There are also larger organizations such as the International Justice Mission and Hope for Justice.
Melanie: Are you working on your next novel? If not, do you have any story ideas that are piquing your interest?
Julie: So I made a commitment that sometimes I wonder about. Ha. “Innocent Lives” is the first in the series of three. Yes, I am writing the second one and it is available for pre-sale on my website (title may change). This book will include the search for Rose’s daughter and a focus on the homelessness epidemic. In the third book, the series title “Guardians of Grace”, will become evident as Cienna’s daughter, Grace, plays a major role in the arena of human trafficking. In both these books (and in “Penny” and “Rose”), angels will become much more evident as that is another passion of mine, and (so far) present in all my books.
Melanie: Tell us about Julie. What do you like to do in your spare time? How do you lighten your heart after writing about difficult topics?
Julie: Self-care is super important, of course. I am working on doing a better job at that. I worked for awhile in the domestic abuse industry and that became pretty absorbing, since it has made up a lot of my life, and I also write about it. So I feel my current day-job in the pet industry is helping me to spend some time not focused on abuse. I love to go to the beach, here on the Oregon Coast. It is healing, and God meets me there. I enjoy gardening as well. My spiritual walk is incredibly important. If I go lax on meeting regularly with God and reading the scriptures, my walls eventually fall down. I focus hard on making this happen and also make time listening to sermons and other spiritual leaders. I need to have a more consistent prayer life, so am working on that. I have goals that I set every year and put on a little white board on the refrigerator. Finally, and certainly not least, my husband Bill is a big supporter of my dreams and aspirations. I couldn’t have done all of this without him and am incredibly grateful God brought us together (a full incredible story in itself!).