Saturday, September 22, 2012

Author Interview | Cathy Gohlke | Band Of Sisters

The following is a Q&A interview with Cathy Gohlke, author of the new book Band Of Sisters, courtesy of her publicist. You can read my review of this moving novel here.

What motivated you to write Band of Sisters?

I’ve always been fascinated by the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. But I was horrified to learn that there are more than twice as many men, women and children enslaved today than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This book was born of a passion to end modern-day slavery, and most of all, to ask, “What can I do to help in a need so desperate?” 

Why did you choose NYC 1910-1911 to tell this story? And how does human trafficking in that era compare to human trafficking today?

 I was inspired by an article I’d read about Alma Mathews. Alma was a small but determined woman who, armed with her umbrella and a hefty douse of fury, stood against dangerous men bent on exploiting immigrant women as they entered the U.S. through Castle Gardens, in old New York City. Alma ushered young women to her home, prepared them for employment, and helped them begin a safe new life in the city. It became a full time ministry involving many—all in the early days of the settlement house movement.

But my editor suggested that I set the story later, when immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island. As I researched that possibility, I found that the problem of exploitation and human trafficking had not only grown during those years, but that the strikes of NYC shirtwaist factory workers had made public the desperate need for women to make a living wage in safe circumstances. Necessary elements for the story and high drama were all a matter of public record—everything from the passing of the Mann Act to address the fear of white slavery to the Triangle Waist Factory fire.

Even though our technology, transportation, communication, etc., is different from the story’s era, many countries today are no further in providing rights and safeguards for women than the U.S. was in 1910. Some are further behind.

Many of the same ruses are used by traffickers to lure women into their snare now as they were then: better paying jobs for themselves and/or money for their families, flirtation, pretense of emotional caring and support, marriage, offers specifically for modeling jobs, offers for education, appeals for help of various kinds, plays on sympathies, etc.

In some cases, after having sex with someone they trusted, or after being drugged and forced into having sex, women or children are/were blackmailed. Fearful that their families will not believe them or will accuse them of promiscuity and reject them, they are afraid and feel compelled to sneak out and “service” men when called. Some are sold to traffickers or users by members of their own family, or by someone they trust.

Once trapped—sometimes after being unwittingly drugged and/or blackmailed—women are often transported far from their home (crossing borders to other states or countries). Held against their will through abuse, enforced poverty, lack of ID, lack of language skills, lack of visas or passports, they may simply not know who to trust or where to go for help in the country in which they find themselves. Isolation, threats to their person or their family, repeated brain washing that they are dirty, worthless, unwanted, unloved, and good for nothing but sex with paying customers are all tools that traffickers use to intimidate and control their victims.

Fear of what will happen if they try to escape, fear that they have ruined their lives and will have no other way to live, fear for themselves and loved ones, resulting health problems, feelings of hopelessness and a constantly reinforced sense of self-worthlessness all form formidable prisons for victims of trafficking. Even if it seems they can physically escape, they may not be able to break the emotional or mental chains that bind them.

All those things happened then, and they continue to happen to victims today. 

What research did you do?

My research began with human trafficking today and the fight to abolish modern-day slavery through books, the internet, and through organizations and individuals that are helping in various ways—raising awareness, rescuing, restoring and healing victims, tracking down and prosecuting predators, education of men and boys re. the human rights and intrinsic worth of women, safe houses, etc., and those who fundraise to assist organizations or individuals who are already doing these things.

For historical background I watched documentaries and read (books, old newspapers, archives) about the growth of old New York, the social conditions and desperation of the poor and of immigrants in particular, the disadvantages to those who did not speak English, the unique problems of women and children—the opportunities for and difficulties of making a living wage outside of prostitution, the threats made to women and their families to coerce them into sexual service, of their economic desperation without a male provider, of their few legal rights, and of the unfair treatment women received in court. Those studies led me to the development of the sweatshops, the growth, expansion and revisions of the settlement house movement, the work of Jacob Riis in making the abject poverty of thousands known to the public.

Learning of those conditions led to a special interest in Irish immigrants—their cultural and social strengths and weaknesses, their views of family, their aptitude for and reception in different types of employment in America.

My husband and I made two trips to NYC. From there we conducted research at Ellis Island, took several tours in the Tenement Museum, and bought more research books and maps, including more on the Triangle Waist Factory fire.

Once I knew my storyline, I mapped out locations of the story and trekked through Manhattan, exploring old sites, especially between Mid-town Manhattan, through Washington Square and the surrounding NYU area (including the site of the Triangle fire), the Bowery and the Lower East Side. As I walked, photographed the city, explored, and talked with residents, the voices of my characters erupted. I gladly followed their lead.

Your characters are strongly influenced by the question asked in Charles Sheldon’s classic, “In His Steps”—“what would Jesus do?” Why did you choose that book to help tell your story?

After all my research I knew I had the historical elements needed. What I didn’t know was the inner conflict of each character, or the answer to the all-important question: “what can I do to help in a need so desperate?” I found my answer by confronting the question Sheldon posed in his very popular book of the time, “what would Jesus do?”

If we all truly do what Jesus would do, slavery will end. Jesus never exploited men or women—He uplifted them and showed them a path of hope, a new way of thinking and living. He never used children, or child labor for ease or gain—He blessed little ones, demonstrating their great worth. He never bought or sold babies to fulfill the bride “needs” of a one-child culture. He never bought or sold human organs, or fetuses, or body parts. He never lied to immigrants, never enslaved them, never threatened their families or loved ones or lives if they did not comply with His demands, never coerced or forced, never shamed or punished a single person into submission to His will. But in every way He set a moral compass, employed Divine compassion to the broken hearted and broken bodied, and held to account any and all who victimized others.

In Band of Sisters your characters maintain that the answer to human trafficking is found in the question, “What would Jesus do?” What do you mean by that and how does that question impact this modern-day crisis?

In recounting the things Jesus taught, and in thinking about the life He modeled, I realized that He has already given us the answers. It is only for us to employ them.

Jesus would:
  • Open His hand and His heart to those society spurns—not only to receive those who come to Him, but He would go out and search for and engage them, as when He ate with publicans and sinners, as when He called Zacchaeus from the tree.
  • He would provide medical help, as when He healed the woman with the issue of blood, the man born blind, the paraplegic let down through a roof, and countless others.
  • He would not hesitate to confront the darkest of the dark in order to free victims—the things and people and forces we’d rather not see or deal with, as when He drove demons from the young man, and from Mary Magdalene.
  • He would open His purse strings, even His home to the needy as when He commanded us to provide for widows and orphans, as when hounded by Herod, he personally demonstrated the helpless plight and needed solutions for refugees.
  • He would expect that those who could provide financially for this ministry and need would do so, just as He accepted gifts from those able to finance His ministry.
  • He would protect lives and argue for victims legally—even those who’d made mistakes society deems unforgivable, as He did for the woman taken in adultery—the woman in danger of being stoned.
  • He would accept the thanks of and stand for those who looked to Him for answers. He would maintain relationship with them, even when they were misunderstood by society, as He did for the woman who anointed His feet. He would hold to account those who victimize others, as He did when He declared that for anyone who makes one of His little ones to stumble it would be better if a millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea.
  • He would raise awareness and educate society to be on guard against this evil as much as any evil, to be vigilant, to accept responsibility to change, to train children to love God and care for and respect one another, just as He taught them everyday of His life.
  • He would advocate for the human dignity and worth of all people, women included, as He did when He breached society’s laws by allowing the unclean woman, desperately hoping for healing, to touch Him, when He reached out to the Samaritan woman, who lived with a man not her husband, and when He died on a cross in our place.
Band of Sisters takes place in NYC. Do you think human trafficking is limited to large cities?

No. That is why raising awareness of the crime and education re. the methods used by traffickers is so important. Small, rural, isolated or poor communities are targets just as vulnerable as big cities. Traffickers often enter such communities with bogus offers of better jobs, modeling opportunities for young people, and offers for education. But those dreams are crushed when willing applicants are unwittingly sold as sex slaves or used for pornography, with no way to get back to their homes and families. In some cultures, once a girl has been so abused, she is no longer welcome to return to her family, thereby compounding the problem and sense of hopelessness. Education and understanding is desperately needed on all parts.

Issues of sex slavery and human trafficking are foreign to most of us and uncomfortable to discuss. How can Christians respond?

By speaking for those who have no voice. These are among the poor and needy of our day, in many cases the orphans that Jesus commanded us to care for.

We must remember that the discomfort is ours, and the desperate need is theirs. Being a Christian, a Christ follower, isn’t easy in a fallen world. Doing what Jesus did wasn’t easy or comfortable. He confronted demons and hypocrites. He stood against people who cared more about the monetary value of their livestock than they did about freeing one human being from demonic possession.

Jesus ate with “publicans and sinners” to the ruin of His reputation. Just as He is our example in loving one another and in protecting innocent young children, so He is our example in setting captives free, in loosening cords that bind, in rescuing women and children from prostitution, men from slavery.

In many countries of the world Christians pay with their lives for standing up for their faith and/or for protecting others. I’ve heard it said that only in America do we expect it to be easy to be a Christian. Talking about things that are uncomfortable to our sensibilities don’t seem so hard in comparison to the challenges our brothers and sisters in Christ face the world over.

Human trafficking and the abolition of slavery is such a huge problem, let alone rescuing and restoring its victims. What can I do to help?

First, learn all you can through reading and talking with individuals and organizations who have already joined the fight:
  • Google “human trafficking” to learn what is happening in the world.
  • Contact your local library, social services, churches or police force and ask what is being done in your community to raise awareness and prevent human trafficking. They can help you find books, organizations, and on-line information to educate yourself about:
    • The crime (what is human trafficking and where in the world it occurs—you will be astonished)
    • The people at risk
    • The methods traffickers use to capture and enslave
    • The tracking down, arrest and prosecution of predators
    • The rescue, restoration, and healing of victims
    • The fight to abolish slavery through legal means
    • The education of men and boys re. the dignity and worth of women and girls
    • Organizations and/or Individuals that are already working to do the above. (See my website at for a growing list of these sites. If you find more, please let me know so I can add them.)
  • Once you understand what organizations and opportunities are already in place, determine what you are able and equipped to do. That might include:
    • Work directly with one of these organizations, either in this country or in a foreign country
    • Validate, affirm, encourage and engage girls or women who are at risk or in the process of healing
    • Welcome strangers into your church as part of the church family
    • Take a rescued victim into your home or provide housing
    • Mentor a victim, or a girl or woman at risk
    • Help a woman find safe and gainful employment and/or child care
    • Help a woman applying for a job find appropriate clothing
    • Provide childcare and/or transportation when needed
    • Tutor a student, young or not so young and encourage hopeful options
    • Invite women or girls for a meal in your home or take them out for a meal or event, using the opportunity to reaffirm their worth
    • Provide assistance for medical care—practical or financial
    • Speak up when others make slurring or disrespectful comments re. women, immigrants, homeless, etc.—attitudes must change to make change last
    • Do not patronize stores, hotels, sporting events or other venues where you believe women or children are trafficked
    • Provide legal counsel, assistance or finances for same for victims
    • Write or speak out against trafficking
    • Hold public figures and men within your circle of acquaintance accountable for their actions toward women and children
    • Be vocal and proactive about the need to raise a generation of men who will not exploit women and children
    • Be vocal that the only way trafficking will stop is to eliminate the demand for supply
    • Support legislation to stop trafficking, to prosecute and to re-educate predators
    • Write letters of support and concern to elected officials re. human trafficking
    • Contribute financial support to one of the organizations that is already in place and helping
    • Create and/or support films, documentaries, plays, or various art forms that raise awareness or needed funds
    • Fund-raise for organizations that are helping
    • Help to educate publicly or privately those you know re. all of the above
    • Work with others to create new possibilities
    • Pray—continually
  • Most importantly, realize that while you can’t do everything, we can each do something. Together we will raise a symphony that must be heard.
How does your faith impact your writing?

My faith is part and parcel of all I do. While writing my first novel I learned that I cannot divide the heart God knit inside me, cannot separate what I write from how I live in response to Him.

That’s when I began praying, not just that the Lord would lay on my heart a “story,” but that He would lay on my heart His “purpose,” and a story to illuminate that purpose. Later I understood that “purpose” is what is known in writing circles as a “strong moral premise.”All the characters must respond to that premise in some way or other. It is what ties the story together. Faith weaves the moral premise in my life, and as I live out that faith—as I respond to my Savior—my own life story is written. 

Are you a plotter or a seat of the pants writer?

That’s a great question! My wonderful agent, Natasha Kern, is convinced I’m a “pantser.” I’ve thought of myself as a “plotter by force.” Over time, I’ve learned to plot enough to write a synopsis—but it’s like ripping teeth from their roots. I fear losing the passion for and organic nature of my story so am hesitant to commit or share details before writing a first draft. I’d much rather write a story and then severely revise and edit. But I’ve come to see that that is not always an efficient process—not for me and not for my agent or editors. The thing that’s helped me most is Michael Hague’s Six Point Plot Structure as he describes it in the DVD, The Hero’s Two Journeys, as well as The Moral Premise, by Dr. Stanley Williams.

Now I write a long and detailed—sometimes rambling—synopsis, then put it away, and only take it out if I find myself wandering off track. The finished product is often quite different from my original notes. 

What spurs your writing?

Writing has become my way of making sense of the world, of putting into perspective the struggles of humanity and of my own—past and present—of trying to see the world as God sees it, as He redeems it by pursuing and claiming one heart at a time. I want to know what gives Him joy, what breaks His heart—those are the stories that matter, the stories that bring me continually closer to Him.

Frederick Buechner expressed it best, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Finding that place spurs me on.

You can connect with Cathy Gohlke on her website and Facebook, and you can read my review of Band Of Sisters here.

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