Monica McGurk Q&A

January 4, 2021
Monica McGurk writes novels for young adults with impeccable quality.

“I spend a lot of time thinking before I ever write, and I find when I get to the actual writing I can be very fast. Now, I have to do a significant amount of editing on the back end, but I can pump it out pretty fast. What I find myself doing is giving myself a weekend as sort of a mental retreat and make it a writing weekend. I seclude myself. I might feed the kids, keep the laundry machines going, something like that, but mostly write.”

Had you long wanted to write in the young adult genre?

Yes, absolutely. I had been writing fan fiction, and I had ended up writing two novel-length pieces on fanfiction.net, and my husband started making fun of me, saying you need to challenge yourself. I thought OK, I’ll stay in the same genre. I had been writing on Twilight, and thought I’d do a book that would be both a homage and a retort to Twilight, because I found myself when I was reading those books, I got so engrossed in them I couldn’t put them down. So I said I’ll stay in the same genre, although not with vampires. I’ll do angels. It was really quite a whim that I chose angels, and I had this vague idea about a child abduction being the start of the book.

What was the process like writing it?

I had the conception that this would have been the work of a solitary pedophile, and as I was starting to research the book I stumbled upon all of this information about human trafficking,. It’s one of those things that once you know about it, you can’t forget it, and you can’t look away, you have to do something about it. I thought, This is the way I can contribute, I will make that part of the story with a subplot, center around that, and bring that into light of popular culture, particularly with this genre because the average age of entry of victimization for domestic minor sex trafficking is 12 to 14, which is perhaps the youngest age you would read this book. I thought if I could help readers understand this is going on and they can be aware so they’re not victimized that would be a good outcome.

You have such a big job as chief growth officer at Kellogg. How do you find time to write?

I just jump in. At one point a friend put me in touch with another aspiring writer who had been through the process ahead of me, and I got some tips and tricks from him, but really I just jumped in because I like to do it, and I had no clue. I had the story figured out and an outline for each of the three books. I spend a lot of time thinking before I ever write, and I find when I get to the actual writing I can be very fast. Now, I have to do a significant amount of editing on the back end, but I can pump it out pretty fast.  What I find myself doing is a little bit, and it literally might be tiny, tiny amounts, not even a thousand words some days, but then I’ll give myself a weekend as sort of a mental retreat and make it a writing weekend. I seclude myself. I might feed the kids, keep the laundry machines going, something like that, but mostly write.

And you love it?

I do love it. I would do it every day if I could. I’ve been realizing how hard it is to keep promoting your book. I don’t like that part as much. I mean I like talking about the book, but I wish it would just magically show up in everybody’s hands, and they would read it.

You have that fascinating section in the book where Hope goes to Las Vegas and is exposed to the underbelly of trafficking culture. How did you learn all those details?

I went out to Las Vegas, and met with Tony Hsieh and the folks at Zappos. Hsieh was generous with his time and put me up, connected me with people on his staff, and told me where to go. Also, a former colleague of mine at McKinsey was able to facilitate a meeting with a lifelong casino industry guy, and so I learned all about the syndicates, Wynn Hotel, all of that.

Hope was put in some adult situations for a 15-year-old.

It was stressful to write. I mean it had to be creepy but not too creepy. That was one of the challenges of this whole series. There’s a love story and in many respects, and deliberately, parallels what happens with trafficked girls. You’re trying to show that experience so people can learn from it. Whether it’s because of that or because in my opinion a 15-year-old girl should not be having sex, I had to be careful. I didn’t want to cross the line in that romantic story, which some Young Adult novels do. That was one of the things the editors and I worked very hard on.

I thought you handled it sensitively. You also touch on so many religious themes in the book, with the story of the angels. How has the reaction been to these elements?

There have been a couple people who have blogged about not liking the religious elements. I found it difficult to write about angels without there being some acknowledgment, whether you’re a believer or not, and regardless of whether you’re a believer in the Christian tradition or Judaism or the Islamic tradition, all of which have angels in them, that there’s some broader mythology of faith.

You sure know a lot about angels.

I actually have not done a lot of research about angels. I had been raised a Catholic, I had gone through CCD and everything, I knew a fair amount of the Bible. But I didn’t really know anything about angels. So I did my groundwork how they appeared in different religious traditions, what the lore was around them, and around the same time I tried to avoid anything in the young adult genre related to angels, because I didn’t want to get anchored on what other people were doing.  My knowledge of the genre is through my children. We either read them together or I’ll read them before I read them to my children. It’s a great thing to talk about, having a similar literary interest. Some of it is fabulous, like the Hunger Games series. I love the presentation of a values-driven heroine who makes things happen.

What don’t you like about the genre?

Well, there’s a lot of dark stuff that positions girls as victims. A lot of the story lines center around love triangles. And it bothers me. I understand it sells and it plays to a certain vulnerability in a girl’s psyche but I don’t want books where girls always have to be saved. There’s never a position where Hope is a victim. Even when Michael takes her to Las Vegas, she chooses to go. Her empowerment will be even more evident in the next book, you’ll see her grow and take even more risks, which is pretty exciting to me.

I loved how your shared your writing playlist on Spotify. What’s your top writing song?

“Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys, no doubt.

 Tell me more about your interest in trafficking.

It really started at home and I was Googling and there was all these stories of trafficking in, how young the victims were, and I was floored. When I started going through the Street Grace training program, I remember sitting in this auditorium and hearing the average age of entry is 12 to 14, and thinking, Oh my god, that’s my daughter. She was 11 ½ when I made my connection. I thought how naïve she is, even though I’ve tried to make her wise to the street, but you don’t want to take away her childhood, and how easy it would be for her to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was very motivating to me. It’s a big problem. And what’s shocking is in some of these cases it’s the parents or someone known to them selling the children. There was one story where the parents traded their daughter for car payments.

That’s difficult to hear. Just how widespread is the crisis?

The underground economy is hard to quantify, of course. A lot of our best estimates globally there are to 20 to 30 million victims. Financially speaking, that’s as big as the snack food industry in the United States.

How is this not a bigger priority in our law-enforcement community?

Our criminal justice system is asked to do so much. They’re all resource-constrained. But things are starting to happen.

I love that you’re pushing awareness on this, and I loved your books.

Thank you.