The Chilling Truths Behind Patricia McCormick’s YA Novels

McCormick talks for the first time about the trauma she suffered as a young girl — which led her to pen stories of other survivors. Her latest, 'Never Fall Down,' is the true story of a Cambodian refugee

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Roberto Ligresti

It’s harrowing being a character in a book by best-selling YA author Patricia McCormick. In Cut, her first novel, the heroine is hospitalized for repeatedly harming herself. In Sold, a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, a 13-year-old Nepali girl is sold into sexual slavery by her stepfather. And her stunning new novel, Never Fall Down, is the real-life story of Arn Chorn Pond, who came of age in the Cambodia’s Killing Fields. The book has already led to publishing buzz that McCormick, 56, may once again be a contender for a National Book Award.

Arn’s story, and the story of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia in the late 1970s, is a tale of human depravity and suffering so intense that it defies the Western imagination. It is a story of man’s inhumanity to man, through forced starvation, torture and murder. In forced labor camps, even the youngest children were forced to toil like animals. As the fictional 11-year-old Arn describes the plight of the children, “All have bellies swole up, like balloon. All have knee and elbow big like melon. Some with hair turned yellow. Some with hair falling out. Some with fingernails scooped out like spoon. All these kid so hungry, but sometime they not able even to eat. No craving for food anymore, no energy for it.”

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McCormick rigorously reported the book with skills honed as a newspaper reporter. She went to Cambodia with Arn for nearly a month, in order to retrace his young life—they revisited the prison camp where he was held, the Killing Fields, as well as other parts of the country important to his story. They traveled with a small group of men who had been boys with him in the prison camp. McCormick also interviewed Arn at length some 20 times in the U.S.; often Arn would cry or lapse into silence.

The author interviewed all of the other men out of Arn’s earshot to verify his story. It checked out; all that was missing, says the author, were the acts of heroism that Arn had omitted in his telling. McCormick was tremendously relieved. “With any story that is told so many times it can either get threadbare or exaggerated. And so I went at him many different ways to double-check. If I had to quantify it, I would say the novel is at least 90% true. Every place I had a fact, I used it. I leaned on every piece of archival information, all the corroborative interviews that I got to make sure—I didn’t want to pull a James Frey or a Three Cups of Tea.”

How did Arn survive? In large part by speedily learning how to play a difficult Cambodian instrument, the khim, at the request of his captors. Says Arn with a dawning realization in the book, “I understand now: the music, the Khmer Rouge make us play so no one can hear the killing.” Arn’s wily smarts and pluckiness also protected him: “I make my eye blank,” says his character in the book. “You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.”

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One of the author’s biggest decisions was how to recreate Arn’s distinctive voice. “I tried writing it as straight journalism and it sounded like Walter Cronkite was telling the story, and we love Walter but it didn’t have the same power,” says McCormick. “I tried writing it with beautiful, flowery, descriptive language of the dragonfly green of the rice paddies. And that didn’t work. I’d been listening to Arn for so long—at this point for about a year. He’s got such a beautiful, fresh take on things and it’s so lively.” The result is a poetic, singsong English, at once young and world-weary.

The reviews have been stellar. The Los Angeles Times raved, “By turns terrifying, heartbreaking and triumphant, Never Fall Down is as likely to inspire tears as it is to stick with readers for a lifetime.” In a starred review, Publisher Weekly lauded the novel: “While never shying from the ugliness and brutality of this genocide, McCormick crafts a powerful tribute to the human spirit.” Even Desmond Tutu reached out to endorse the book: “One of the most inspiring and powerful books I’ve ever read.”

The ideal reader for this book is a mature teenager, 13 years and older, or an adult with a taste for talent. The lure of the book, and of McCormick’s other four novels, is that the teenaged protagonists triumphantly survive their daunting circumstances. In real life, Arn has done just that. Now in his mid-40s, he lives outside Phnom Penh and is an activist in trying to preserve traditional Cambodian music.

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McCormick herself has risen above trauma in her childhood. During an interview with TIME a few weeks ago in Omaha, where she was on her book tour, she tearfully shared a story that she has never told a reporter before. McCormick is a survivor of incest: When she was six years old, she was molested by a family member. “I was so confused. I buried it, because I couldn’t believe it really happened.” The relative, she said, “was actually a good man. I don’t think he could believe he did it. He never did it again. And I think he spent the rest of his life regretting it deeply.”

As a result, McCormick has found a calling telling the stories of teenagers who face the abyss and survive. That common thread in her work wasn’t obvious to her immediately, but she has come to embrace it. “In each case, these people who have been subjected to horrible things, not only survive but they prevail,” she says. “I don’t want to go slumming in somebody else’s pain just to write a book. I want to go into those darker places to shine a light on that experience and come out with a story that validates the human spirit.”