I remember sitting in the Ronald McDonald House family room at Cardinal Glennon, on a brief break from taking care of Blake during his time post-ICU, checking email and answering fan mail. A former slave sent me a note saying she had thought nobody saw her, what she was going through, until she read one of my books. It had made her feel like somebody out there cared about the invisible trafficking victims in our country. Another email was from a college student in Russia, asking if she could translate one of my books into Russian for a school project. It seemed a little surreal, that the books were going absolutely nuts with tens of thousands of downloads while my whole world was centered on hospitals and Blake.
When I wrote Throwaway, my eyes were opened to the horrors of human trafficking. I’d struggled to find my niche in the fight against it until January of 2010 or 2011, when I had an epiphany that I’d use my books to be a voice for the voiceless. That was backed up by a conference I attended on the topic—the main speaker even said “Maybe someone out there is supposed to be a voice for the voiceless.” I got the hint. I gave up pursuing traditional publication and went indie, making the four books I had free as ebooks: Throwaway, Jailbird, Ties That Bind, and Suddenly a Spy. At the end of each was a note about the reality of human trafficking.
Because of those books, I was contacted by a reader whose grandmother ran an organization that was on the front lines of the fight. That introduction began my friendship with Project Liberty out of Lansing Michigan. This group amazes me – at its helm is a retired pastor’s wife and a crew she rounded up to help her jump feet first into the thick of the fight. Where other people would be content to tweet or even write a check, Saundra was knocking down doors to pull kids from the pits of hell. I learned just this week that Saundra's husband passed away. My heart breaks for her, and the world is a much darker place without him in it.
One of the things she did was put me in touch with their lead investigator. It was all very cloak and dagger, with code names and the works. He would call me at specified times from undisclosed locations and tell me stories from the fight. I would close the door to my writing room, lest my children overhear or see my tears.
Over the years, I became a mouthpiece for the cause and the group. I wove the investigator’s stories into my fiction. I gave speeches at schools, churches, and women’s groups. I wrote articles. I went on the radio. I gave interviews. I did my best to raise money for Project Liberty and other groups targeting different areas of the epidemic. For the next several years, I was certain that I was doing everything I could to help the victims of human trafficking.
At one point, I developed the flu and was so terribly sick I didn’t answer my phone or email for almost a week. I was piled up in my living room, miserable (and probably fairly gross after days of languishing in my misery) when there was a knock at the door.
It was the police. When I had missed our scheduled call and then not responded to email, my contact at Project Liberty had called the police to check on me. I was mortified. Assured that I hadn’t been murdered, the officer instructed me to email my friend.
Somewhere along the way, the world found out about human trafficking. Even with all of the awareness, raising money for Project Liberty, or any group, got harder and harder. People donated to large organizations with branding and celebrity backing. I found myself once again struggling to find my niche in the fight. When I watch videos like the moving testimony Ashton Kutcher gave before Congress, I wonder if I did enough. If I should have fought harder to stay in the fight instead of quietly passing the baton to others.
Lately, the thing heaviest on my heart is the many, many foster children in the system who need a home of their own. This group is an incredibly high risk demographic for being trafficked, and I can’t help but wonder if my role in the fight is shifting, if I’m being called to provide homes for children in the system so they never have to face the horror of being a sex slave.
But back to the books… the accident happened shortly after I released those books for free. I didn’t do anything to promote them. In fact, after the accident happened, I let my domain name lapse. I didn’t have time to deal with any of it; Blake was my world.
So when I got an email that June from a new publishing company out of Seattle, I almost deleted it. My finger hovered over the button, somehow unable to follow through. After reading the email a couple more times, I decided to live on the edge and respond. I told myself the odds of it being a genuine publisher interested in my books were about as slim as the Nigerian prince being legit, but I responded that I was interested in hearing more. Several emails later, I had a video conference with the CEO. I liked what he had to say. A lot. I believed in what they were trying to accomplish, so I placed my faith in the fledgling publishing company called Booktrope and signed for my four existing books and whatever came next.
Even better, they agreed to let me keep Throwaway free. For them, it worked to bring new readers to my platform. For me, it meant I could stay true to my desire to raise awareness for human trafficking. Over the next six months, the four books would be edited and re-released. The fifth book, Ring of Fire, would be finished, edited, and published.
When Throwaway was re-released under the Booktrope banner, it caught us all by surprise by going darn near viral, with over 150,000 downloads in the first six weeks. Before long, Booktrope was telling me that I had over half a million readers worldwide. Even now, all these years later, it amazes me to stop and think about how many people have read the words that I wrote, sitting up all night in my basement because it was the only time I could find that wasn’t filled with Scottrade or children.
I published under my maiden name. Partly because it’s so much easier to say and spell. Partly because by that time, I was starting to miss the person who’d worn that name. Over the course of six years, the line between my legal and pen name has gotten blurry. I catch myself signing one when I should sign the other. Sometimes I feel there’s a bigger battle going on there, something that has nothing to do with names at all.
We did the launch for Ring of Fire at O’Malley’s Irish Pub on Cherokee. It seemed fitting, since that little pub inspired so much about both Throwaway and Ring of Fire. The undeniably talented John Bartley played the launch for me, which was equally fitting since he inspired the character Danny in both books. My launches were less like typical book launches and more like a party at the pub to celebrate. That could be why they tended to do well. Whatever the cause, they’re some of my favorite memories.
My books changed my world. I’d left my corporate job with no clue what would come next, so singular was my focus on Blake. Booktrope came along at the perfect time and reinvented my world. Just like that, I was a published author. No, I wasn’t E.L. James—though we’d run in the same Twitter pack before her books took off—but I was making enough off my novels to stay home with my kids. That dream meant even more to me than the first. There was even talk of a movie deal—by 2012, I’d been approached by a small studio who wanted to option Suddenly a Spy and Booktrope was filling my ears with all they were doing to shop the books around Hollywood.
As my world changed, it was opened to new people, new experiences that never would have happened without my book babies. My friendship with Sylvain Reynard came when my writing, my soul, needed it most. Since the Great Marriage Upheaval of ’08, Adam and I had come to a solution that looked a lot like that of the title character and her ex-husband had in the movie Joy. We co-existed, co-parented. On our best days, the friendship that had founded our love years before would peek its head out. On our worst days, well, it was worse.
Sylvain and I found each other online via a mutual admiration of each other’s work. From that, a friendship began. From that, a discussion about co-authoring a book. I craved the emails that went back and forth between us as we plotted and planned. They gave me hope that the kind of romance that swirled through my imagination lived in the mind of at least one other human on this planet. And as long as that was the case, romance lived.
Sylvain’s career took off while mine meandered. Eventually the emails and talk of a co-project died off, replaced by a weekly acknowledgment of each other on Twitter. Still, I look back on that time fondly. He unknowingly inspired me at a time when I was floundering to finish the book I had been working on, floundering because the ember of romance in my spirit had all but died. Connecting with another creative soul had fanned the flames and even though our stories parted ways, he’d left his mark in the words that tumbled anew onto the page.
to be continued...
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.