Interview: Gretchen Olson
Current Mood: awake
Current Song: Come On Get Higher by Matt Nathanson
Call Me Hope by Gretchen Olson is an intense story about a girl who is verbally abused by her mother. Hope keeps it to herself, at times making a game out of it - if she bites her tongue, if she takes the abuse quietly, she earns "points."
At first, Hope has no close friends. Her father took off shortly after she was born. Though she gets along well with her older brother, he isn't abused by their mother and therefore doesn't share the burden. Then Hope begins to work at a secondhand store to pay for a pair of purple boots and befriends the two older ladies who run the shop. When her lies and actions jeopardize her job, Hope must learn to vocalize her feelings and come to terms with her family's situation.
Call Me Hope handles a delicate subject well. The mother's harsh words will make readers cringe and want to console her daughter. I liked Hope's point system, her fondness for lucky numbers and patterns*, and her interest in The Diary of Anne Frank. I especially liked what the purple boots symbolized: her uniqueness, her freedom, and her strength. I hope that this book will make readers reach out to someone who may need their help.
*When I first picked up the book, I was intrigued by the plot and the title, as I greatly enjoy the word "hope," and I adored the lilac cover with purple boots. Then the book began on a special day and had the character looking to numbers as lucky signs. I liked that immediately, as I see numbers and patterns everywhere!
Author Gretchen Olson and I spoke at length about her book and about resources for victims of abuse. I hope that you'll read both the book and the interview, and that you'll reach out to someone who may need your help.
What came first, the name of the character or the plot of the story?
The concept for the book came first -- I wanted to address verbal abuse. My heart has long ached for children who are publicly humiliated, demeaned, and spiritually crushed. They, in turn, grow to adulthood with sorrowful stories of low self-esteem, poor self-confidence, plus a path of relentless obstacles. My mission was to educate children (and adults) that name-calling, put-downs, sarcasm, belittling, etc. is not only bullying, but also abusive. Children rarely understand that harmful words, especially from an adult who supposedly loves them, can be classified along with physical and sexual abuse. Verbal abuse, with no physical proof of pain, can be more damaging and crazymaking than other forms of abuse.
I chose Hope's name to symbolize my passion for ending this insidious behavior and for my belief that, with awareness, we can. Hope is such a great word – it is wrapped in comfort, encouragement, and strength – some of our greatest survival tools.
Hope's mother is verbally abusive, but her brother escapes the majority of the abuse. Why did you make the mother selective?
It is not uncommon for someone to selectively abuse one or more victims, allowing others to escape unscathed. An unexpected change in circumstances might create such a dichotomy. In my book, Hope's mother and father choose to have their first child, Tyler, with the idea that Hope's mother will still have time to pursue her acting dream. But, when she becomes pregnant with Hope, she sees her dream slip away. To make matters worse, her husband leaves soon after Hope's birth, forcing Hope's mother to cope alone with a colicky baby, a condition that can exhaust the most patient of parents. Hope is the closest scapegoat. I also chose only one character to receive the abuse as I didn't want to divide the readers' attention and compassion.
Her mother calls Hope all sorts of names, puts her down constantly, and even calls her birth an "accident." Were you ever asked by an editor or agent to tone things down or change anything?
My editor suggested that I tone down the mother's abuse in order to make her change at the end more plausible. With that suggestion, I also added some positive moments in her relationship with Hope. This is, actually, typical of the verbal abuser, with the good times or "normal" times suddenly interrupted with a verbal tirade, leaving the victim confused and then frustrated for letting his/her guard down.
We also discussed the use of "dumb s*^%" in the book and decided it represented the reality of extreme verbal abuse that needed to be addressed. I think I only used it two or three times. Children in verbally abusive situations will, unfortunately, offer a much longer list of expletives.
After Hope finds a pair of purple boots at a secondhand store, she starts working there to pay for them. I think the boots symbolize her determination, her independence, and her strength. Why purple?
The color purple is widely used to honor and remember victims and survivors of abuse and violence. I think the color is strong, bold, and resilient; it's created by mixing red and blue which makes me think of blood and bruises. Yet, there is also a glow, a brilliance to purple that gives me hope. I love the book's jacket with its soft, soothing lavender background and the purple boots in the richer, bolder plum. Also, purple is the color used by the Hands & Words Are Not For Hurting Project.
How did you come to be involved with the Hands Project?
While I was doing research for Call Me Hope, a school counselor told me about The Hands & Words Are Not For Hurting Project. She explained it was a relatively new program designed as an intervention and prevention tool against abuse and violence. The program's beauty is its simplicity – a 14-word pledge: "I will not use my hands or my words for hurting myself or others." Participants also outline their own hand onto purple paper and post it as a reminder of their promise. This concept works easily with any other abuse and violence prevention program – in schools, communities, homes, the workplace, church, etc.
I was so impressed with the program and its results that I included the pledge in my book and became a volunteer. I am now president of the board of directors and am donating a portion of my Call Me Hope income to the program.
For more information, please check out www.handsproject.org
If readers relate to Hope's story, should they talk to the police or trusted adults or . . . ? What do you recommend?
One of the main reasons I wrote Call Me Hope was the lack of options for verbal abuse victims, particularly children. There is no legal recourse, only education, encouragement, compassion. While an adult can leave a verbally abusive relationship, a child is fairly stuck unless the situation includes well-documented emotional abuse and neglect. Verbal abuse is often the first step toward physical and/or sexual abuse. We must stop it at its earliest stage. I definitely would encourage children to speak to a school counselor, teacher, or other trusted staff member. Adults should seek help through community programs such as the local domestic violence shelter, Crime Victims Services, police, or trusted friend, or colleague.
Once again, if we spread the message about the Hands Project, and if people of all ages pledge not to use their hands or words to hurt themselves or others, maybe there won't be any victims in need of help.
Gretchen recommends these additional resources:
The National Child Abuse Hotline
Phone: (800) 422-445
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Phone: (800) 799-SAFE
National Organization for Victim Assistance
Phone: (800) TRY-NOVA
National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
Phone: (800) 537-2238
Books by Patricia Evans:
The Verbally Abusive Relationship
Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak Out
The Verbally Abusive Man: Can He Change?
If someone suspects that abuse is happening to a friend, a student, a neighbor, what do you suggest he or she does to help that person?
First, he or she should contact one or more of the above resources, especially the Crime Victim Service, to gain a better understanding of verbal abuse and to seek professional advice. Then, I'd urge a visit with the suspected victim, explaining verbal abuse and options for help. Just knowing someone is out there who understands and is available to listen is a huge support.
Have you had any reader feedback?
A sixth-grade girl came up to me recently and whispered, "I'm Hope and my mother is Hope's mom - my mother is on drugs." A middle-school librarian reported that several students had confided in her about similar verbally abusive home environments. She also said her two copies were constantly checked out, with students proudly returning them a day later, claiming they'd stayed up late into the night until they’d finished. I'm thrilled that the book is giving children courage to talk about their situations. This is the best pay, review, award, I could ask for.
I would love to see Call Me Hope marketed to adult audiences. The book has been out just a few months and numerous older readers have commented that it finally validated their own verbally abusive childhoods. "Hope now gives us a voice," said one middle-aged woman. Several other adults said they couldn't finish the book as it brought back too many difficult memories. During a recent school visit, a teacher was so moved she left the school briefly at noon, returned with $500 cash from a nearby ATM, and purchased 35 copies. "We need this in our classrooms," she said.
Tell us about your prior and future works.
My first book, Joyride, is a young adult novel about an Anglo high school boy working with Mexican migrant laborers on an Oregon farm. The story is based on twenty-five years experience with migrant workers on our blueberry farm. I wrote the book hoping to provide a fresh look at the migrant way of life in order to bridge our cultural gap and reduce prejudices. It was a Booklist Top Ten First Novels and an Oregon Book Award Finalist.
My next book will be a father-daughter flying trip to Baja, Mexico. My research includes years of travel in Mexico including a recent 40-hour flight in a two-passenger Piper Super Cub to the tip of Baja and back.
If you could only put ten books on your favorite bookshelf, which books would you select?
Winnie-The-Pooh, A.A. Milne
Nancy Drew & The Hidden Staircase (1930s version), Carolyn Keene (Mildred Benson)
The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans
The View From Saturday, E.L. Konigsburg
The Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif
Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
The Giver, Lois Lowry
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte