I recently finished reading a book "The Kindness of Strangers" by Katrina Kittle. The cover caught my attention initially at Barnes & Noble. I always judge a book by its cover, don't you? ha ha. Anyway, when a book grabs my attention I usually look at the cover first (obviously), then I flip it over to read any reviews or information about the story. I would have never surmised by the cover or the information on the back that this book was about child sexual abuse. This book grabbed at my heartstrings and opened my mind to some of the horrors that children may face - even at home.
quiet street in the suburban Midwest, a popular, seemingly stable
family keeps a terrible, dark secret behind closed doors-a secret that
will have life-changing consequences for all who know them.
Sarah Laden, a young widow and mother of two, struggles to keep her own
family together. After the death of her husband, her high school aged
son Nate has developed a rebellious streak, constantly falling in and
out of trouble. Her kindhearted younger son Danny, though well-behaved,
struggles to pass his remedial classes. All the while, Sarah must make
ends meet by running a catering business out of her home. But when a
shocking and unbelievable revelation rips apart the family of her
closest friend, Sarah finds herself welcoming yet another young boy
into her already tumultuous life.
Jordan, a quiet and reclusive elementary school boy and classmate of
Danny's, has survived a terrible tragedy, leaving him without a family.
When Sarah becomes a foster mother to Jordan, a relationship develops
that will force her to question the things of which she thought she was
so sure. Yet Sarah is not the only one changed by this young boy. And
as the delicate balance that hold her family together begins to
crumble, the Ladens will all face truths about themselves and each
other-and discover the power to forgive and to heal.
Powerful and poignant, The Kindness of Strangers
is a shocking look at how the tragedy of a single family in a small,
suburban town can effect so many. Told from varying perspectives,
Katrina Kittle, has created a haunting vision of the secret lives of
the people we think we know best. With gripping and heartrending
storytelling, The Kindness of Strangers shows that even after the most grave injuries, redemption is always possible.
The book took me away (that's a good thing) from the first page I got all caught up in the story; and, by the time I was almost finished, I sat up all night finishing the book. It was worth it. A real page turner.
I'll give you a brief about the story so as not to spoil it for you. The book has some very interesting characters:
Sarah - A mother of 2 boys, and a widow whose husband, a doctor, passed away from cancer. She is left raising her 2 boys and supporting her family with a catoring business, creating cakes and exotic dishes to make anyone's mouth water.
Nate - Sarah's eldest son, a teenager. He's a bit of a troublemaker at first, but ultimately does a lot of growing up and turns out to be very level headed after all. I like Nate. He's a good kid.
Danny - Sarah's youngest son. He is a pre-teen, maybe 11 or 12. He stays in the background of the book. You'll understand what I mean if you read the story.
Jordan - Danny's best friend. He is also an 11 year old boy. Jordan is the only son of parents who are well-regarded in the community. His mother, Courtney, is a doctor. Sorry Katrina, I can't remember what Mark, Jordan's father does for a living.
Courtney - Jordan's mother, a doctor, and Sarah's best friend. Courtney used to work with Sarah's husband at the hospital.
Mark - Courtney's husband and Jordan's father.
There are a few other characters in the book, but these are the main characters who are critical to the story.
The first word out of my mouth when I finished the last sentence of the book was "Wow." It was difficult to read - not from a prose standpoint, but from a subject matter standpoint. As a mother, I cannot fathom that anyone would ever intentionally hurt their child - any child - like this. That is all I will say about that. I want you to read the book. Still, it left me wondering - what prompted Katrina Kittle to write such a story? Was it her own personal experience, a story that she created out of the depths of her mind, or inspired by someone that she knew or had met? I felt as though I had to know and I am glad I asked.
I contacted Katrina and we began a conversation. I feel as though I have made a new friend. She is dynamic and interesting and an extremely talented and gifted writer. She is the author of 3 books:
Two Truths and a Lie (2001)
Traveling Light (2001), and,
The Kindness of Strangers (2006)
I will be reading the other 2 shortly. In the meantime, though, I asked Katrina if she would answer a few questions about her book for my readers and she said an enthusiastic "yes." Here begins our conversation:
How about we have a conversation?
Having just finished reading your book "The Kindness of Strangers" it made me think, sadly, of whether we really know our friends or the people in our lives. Heck, if you watch enough Oprah you realize that you may not even know the people who are closest to you in your life.
That's why the title works. It wasn't my original title and at first I resisted it, thinking "but they're not strangers." The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought they really WERE strangers. They had no clue of the real truths in each others' lives.
I read on your site that a child you met inspired your story line for this book. Can you share with me how this child's story affected you, changed you, and prompted you to write this difficult story?
For several years, I free-lanced in many different schools either doing theatre workshops or working as a writer in residence. I was in a school, working with a group of ten- and eleven-year olds doing theatre improv, which is tough for that age. There was a boy who was immediately my favorite, even though you're not supposed to have favorites—he was smart, funny, quick, cute, clever. Because I was only going to be at his school for one week, I gave everyone an index card at the end of our first session and said, "Write down three interesting things you want me to know about you." I could use the cards as a "cheat sheet" if there was an especially shy child; it would give me a topic that might help draw them out. So, lunch time comes and I'm flipping through the set of cards and I can't wait to see what the smart funny boy has written. I get to his card and I'm stunned. He has written as #1: "I have HIV." Now, mind you, this was in 1995. My first novel was about AIDS, I'd worked for an AIDS service organization, and I knew my AIDS facts. In 1995 there was no way that boy I'd just been talking with had been born with HIV. Fortunately, this is no longer true, but at that time, there's no way he would've been the healthy ten-year I was just joking with. Which leaves us with the traditional means of infection...and he's only ten! First, I go to his teacher, hoping hoping hoping this is a mistake—that maybe he doesn't really understand what he's written or he's trying to get attention. But, no, the teacher tells me that it is true. All she tells me is that he'd been sexually abused, that his biological parents were incarcerated, and he was with a foster family. That blew me away! She must've told the foster mom about the index card because at the end of the day, the foster mother sought me out. She was thrilled he'd written that fact on his card--which was something I didn't understand at the time--and thought it was a huge step for him. She volunteered more of his story: both of his biological parents had been doctors, well-respected in their community. No one knew that they had serious cocaine habits. No one knew that they'd accrued huge debt because of their habits. No one knew that for nearly two years, when they couldn't afford to pay their dealer, they allowed their dealer and his friends to "use" their son. They were essentially prostituting their only child for drug money. This story leveled me. I knew right away I would write about this boy, but not in any graphic, exploitative way. The word that kept occurring to me was RESILIENCE. If someone had told me this boy's story BEFORE I visited the school, I would have guessed I could pick that child out--he'd be the shy, withdrawn one who didn't relate to or trust anyone else, right? Wrong! This kid had not just survived, but thrived. He was happy and typical...and THAT'S what I wanted to capture: that triumph, that spirit, that resilience and strength. It's not a book ABOUT abuse--it's a book about healing (the abuse is over when the book begins).
Obviously, that boy's story is NOT the story of The Kindness of Strangers. That wasn't my story to tell, but he did inspire the story. I'd already written about both AIDS and about addiction, so I left those elements out of this novel. Removing the cloud of HIV from my fictional character's life allowed for a much more hopeful ending.
Does this child know that his story inspired your book?
Unfortunately, this boy passed away before the book was published. He acquired chicken pox at school which is devastating for someone with HIV. He had, though, been adopted by his foster family. I really only knew him for five hours...but he had a profound effect on me.
Did you find it difficult to write about the feelings and actions of the characters you created in your book?
At times the material was very heavy and depressing as you can imagine. When I began the research, I realized I had many, many misconceptions about child sexual abuse. There were several wonderful experts who helped me (all listed in the acknowledgments)--doctors, social workers, police officers, child psychologists, etc. What kept me going was the knowledge that there were these talented, amazing, brave people in the world working on behalf of very real kids every day. I had the luxury of stepping away from the book if things got too dark. But the real heroes don't have that luxury. Their Jordans aren't fictional.
How did you relate your own life's experiences to your characters?
I think writers "use" everything they see and experience. It's nearly impossible not to do that! We are told from the time we're kids in school to "write what you know," so of course I write about things I've experienced or know well. My characters are always fictional creations, but many aspects of them are composites of people I know. Sarah in The Kindness of Strangers, for example, looks like a friend of mine, is the cook I wish I could be, and keeps family rituals that I have heard about from three other different friends' families. The bat incident actually happened to me, although it was not my idea to get rid of the bat the way Sarah does. Our life experiences have a way of worming themselves into our fiction. I guess I would draw the line at using anything deeply personal that would be recognizable as anyone I knew.
I was surprised that you did not give more of a voice to Danny, Jordan's friend, in the book. Was there a reason for this?
For every book the writer has to make choices. At one time, there were far more voices in the book--Courtney, Detective Kramble, Ali, Danny, (and a five-year-old daughter who got cut out of the story altogether)! I have to laugh at myself--my problem is never writer's block, but usually the opposite. My book's first drafts are WAY too long and need to be cut and cut and cut. Eventually, though, it's crucial to decide "whose story is this, really?" and which voices are all necessary for the reader. Which voices add to the effect you wish the reader to have, which voices take it in an entirely different direction. It's always a struggle to decide how to coral all the ideas and keep some kind of focus. That is why Danny was given those "book ends" to open and close the book. I found his perspective from a distance more interesting than his confusion while he was in the main events. Nate and Jordan both have knowledge that Sarah doesn't have, for instance, which makes their voices enlightening to the reader. Danny, in the past, didn't have any information that the reader didn't already know (he actually has less than the reader)...so he was not as interesting a choice as the other two boys. Choices, choices...as I tell my own creative writing students: "Who tells the story controls the story."
Also, the way that Jordan wanted to end his own life in the beginning of the book seemed terribly dramatic for a child so young. What prompted you to write this scene?
That came directly from the research. In a heartbreaking number of cases, the abuse is discovered through a suicide attempt (this was the case for the boy I met who inspired the story as well). Many of the adult survivors I spoke to told of reaching the point where they decided they "couldn't do it [take the abuse] anymore" and attempted to end their lives.
I'm interested in knowing how you came to name your characters. They all seems to have Biblical names.
Names take a long, long time and lots of thought. Sometimes the reasons are practical and logistical--not too many that all start with the same letter, or end with the same syllable, or have the same number of syllables. That sounds silly, but it truly effects a reader's enjoyment and ability to keep all the characters straight. But then, there are more thoughtful, symbolic reasons as well. The Biblical Sarah, of course, gains a son late in her life...and this Sarah does as well (even though she already has children). Her biological sons have Old Testament names fitting a good Jewish family. Jordan is the most obvious in the idea of "reaching" or "crossing" Jordan on the way to a better place, or promised land. It's a long struggle to get there, and the character has a long struggle ahead as well, but the name implies that the struggle will be worth it and will lead to redemption and hope.
Why did you create a character, Sarah, that had lost her husband to cancer?
In an early draft, Roy was alive and well. I belong to a very helpful writers' group where we share and give feedback on each others' work. When I read early chapters, they all suspected Roy of something dark because he worked with Courtney. I went back and revised, writing scenes that showed Roy to be a good dad, a trusted husband, yada yada yada only to have my writer friends suspect him even MORE because I was "giving him so much page time--there has to be some pay off." Sigh... I'm a runner, and I work on scenes while I run. I was jogging along when the thought occurred to me "What if he were just dead?" I remember stopping in my tracks so abruptly a car slowed to see if I was all right! But...the minute the thought hit me, I knew it was right. It was one story to have this happy, whole, intact family reaching out to help someone in dire need. But it was a richer, denser, more interesting story if the family reaching out was broken and grieving in their own ways and they STILL found it in them to help someone worse off than they were. It is in their reaching out that they begin their own healing! So, killing off a character actually strengthened the entire theme of the story.
How did you research for this book, and did you get to know the child who had been victimized - the one who inspired your story?
All of my books center around social issues I care deeply about and I always begin my immersing myself in research. First I do all I can on my own using libraries and the internet, to build a good base of knowledge before I approach the experts. That way, I don't waste their valuable time asking them questions I could easily find out on my own. I contacted a police officer, who let me accompany him on a shift one night and ask him questions when we weren't otherwise occupied. This same police officer put me in touch with a detective, and another officer who gave me a tour of the jail and showed me where a child would meet with an incarcerated parent. I contacted some pediatricians at Children's Medical Center in Dayton, who were incredibly helpful and they put me in touch with the amazing organization CARE House. The social workers at CARE House were invaluable. They allowed me to go through the Stewards of Children training provided by the organization From Darkness To Light. I encourage anyone interested in protecting children from the scourge of sexual abuse to check out their site-- www.darkness2light.org Their mission is "To diminish the incidence and impact of child sexual abuse, so that more children will grow up healthy and whole." Their website is incredibly helpful and offers a free download of "Seven Steps" to begin. I worked extensively with a child psychologist who specializes in trauma like Jordan's to get therapy and recovery details right. I even paid for this psychologist to have a session with my fictional character!!!
How did this story, the writing of this story, the research, and the experience change your own life?
I think I've always been drawn to the ways human beings "are broken" by the world but come back stronger, and this was an astonishing case of that. I sincerely believe every one of us has a story, and some of these "darker" stories actually help us and inspire us if we don't turn away. Human beings, and their strength, never cease to amaze me!
Could you tell me a little something about the restaurant that Courtney and Sarah frequent in Ohio?
This restaurant is real and one of my very favorites! It's also mentioned in my first novel, Traveling Light. It's Hispanic, with an ever-changing menu featuring a different Spanish-speaking or Latin American country's cuisine. Fun, fabulous, and the best paella I've ever eaten! It's my very favorite restaurant in Dayton! I often just ask Bill or Mark "what should I have tonight?" and let them decide for me. I have never, ever disliked anything they've set before me. They offer cooking classes and dance classes, too. It's just a wonderful place owned by dedicated, talented people.
I am really looking forward to reading your other 2 books. When you write, do you find that the story just flows from you at times? Most of the time? Not often?
It really varies. Each book has been different, and each stage of each book is even different. It's a tough question to answer! There seems to be no pattern to the "flow" but I believe in being at the desk regardless. I work a set number of hours each day, as if it were any other job, so when the inspiration flows I'm there to catch it, and when it doesn't, I'm there plugging along, keeping in shape, anyway! But thank you so much--it's music to my ears that you want to read my other titles.
Do you struggle with your story, and if so, how do you put your mind back in the zone necessary to continue writing?
Again, I think the discipline is everything. I no longer have a zone necessary to write, just as I didn't have a zone necessary to teach when I was a full-time teacher. I taught on days I didn't feel much like it...and usually ended up forgetting my initial resistance eventually and really getting into it. I am at the desk at the same and for the same time every day whether I "feel inspired" or not. I'm a firm, firm believer in Natalie Goldberg's "writing practice" from her great book WRITING DOWN THE BONES. She compares it to running. We keep at it to stay in shape. You can't set out to run a 5K if you haven't run for days, right? Same with writing. It takes a daily discipline and practice to build up the stamina.
As an artist, I know the "struggle" I face at times when taking on a portrait because I am trying to capture the true essence of the person I am painting. Do you ever face that "struggle" as a writer?
Yes. I struggle with getting my "vision" to match what I'm actually creating on the page. The "vision" is always so much better! I just keep in mind that my goal is to "serve the story" and I usually plod forward. I imagine every artist struggles with this. I can make peace with the struggle if I truly believe a book represents the best possible work I was capable of at the time. There's a great Lao Tse Tung quote above my computer: "Do your work, then step back. The only serenity."
Are you a great cook like your character, Sarah?
I'm not nearly as good or trained as Sarah, but I sure do love to do it! I take cooking classes for fun and love nothing more than to make dinners for friends so we can all sit around talking and eating for hours (and so far my friends are all very willing guinea pigs when I'm trying something new). The comfort Sarah finds in chopping and stirring while she mulls over problems in her head is one I share! My friends tease me that when I'm "cooking" figuratively on a book, I'm cooking literally a lot, as well. It's the best way (besides running) to work through problems in scenes or figure out the next step in the plot.
I have to say, Katrina, I was deeply moved by your book. It was an interesting story and a real page turner. I found myself absorbed in the story till all hours of the morning, totally messing up my next day, but hey! That's the jewel of a true author and storyteller is someone who can create the entire situation in the mind of the reader. You took me there, Katrina. It was a scary place to go at times, but you took me there. I will never forget the powerful way you shared this story. I cannot fathom the devastation that children must experience who are living a life with sexual abuse. It must be terrifying for them. I can't imagine that they would ever trust anyone - ever. It is a sad and tragic reality. Because of your book, I feel more qualified to discuss sensitive subject matter with my own children now in hopes that maybe, God forbid, if they are ever faced with a difficult or uncomfortable situation, that they know to scream, run away, tell someone that they trust without being embarrassed. Children are so easily embarrassed. They are fragile beings. Hopefully, your book will save at least one child from the horrors of predators - even if that predator is a parent. I learned something valuable from your story, Katrina. Thank you for writing this book. As difficult as the subject was for me to wrap my brain around, I'm glad that you made it a great story from the beginning till the very end.
Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart. As you imagine, this book had a tough time finding a publishing home because of the subject matter. I really believed in it and messages like yours are affirmations that I was right to do so.
Be sure to visit Katrina's website at: www.katrinakittle.com!