Friday, August 28, 2009

An Interview with Jantsen's Gift Co-author Aimee Molloy

By Susan
I had the opportunity to have a candid conversation this week with Aimee Molloy, the co-author of Jansten’s Gift. For Aimee, the book was more than her next title, it was a life-changing event. Check out our quick conversation and let us know what you think!

1) Tell our readers a little bit about the story of Jantsen's Gift.
Jantsen's Gift is the story of Pam Cope. In 1999, her fifteen-year-old son Jantsen died unexpectedly of an undetected heart ailment. At his funeral, she and her husband, Randy, requested that people donate to a memorial fund in Jantsen's name in lieu of flowers. They raised more money than they ever expected--nearly $25,000. Pam ended up donating a portion of that money to friends in Vietnam who had started an orphanage. She, Randy and their daughter, Crista, went to Vietnam to visit the orphanage, and it was here that her whole perspective began to shift.
She went on to use the money, as well as her grief and compassion, to start an organization called Touch A Life. First, they worked in Vietnam saving children who lived on the street and were at risk of being trafficked. Then, after reading about the issue of child slavery in Ghana--which, believe it or not, is still a big problem there and around the world--she began to rescue children who had been sold by their parents to fishermen who worked Lake Volta, the nation's largest lake. Now, they have a boarding school in Ghana and have rescued 69 children. While it sounds like a sad story, it's not. Pam is incredibly inspiring and funny, and really puts herself out there in the book. We've heard from so many people, who said Pam's story has changed their lives in very good ways, making them take stock in themselves and figure out what's really important to them.

2) What began this incredible journey for you that became Jantsen's Gift?

The book was actually the idea of Heather Schroeder, a literary agent in New York. The New York Times wrote about Pam's work in Ghana, and after reading that article, Heather knew it would make a great book. She got us together. Pam and I first met at a coffee shop in New York. Our second meeting was three weeks later, at the airport, on our way to Ghana.

3) This is your third collaboration on a narrative nonfiction book, the first, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, with Chaplain James Yee, and the second, This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future, with John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry. As a writer, how did you gravitate towards this niche?

When I was very young, I used to practice writing by trying to emulate my favorite authors' styles. In fourth grade, I won a contest for writing most like Edgar Allen Poe. Perhaps it was that blue ribbon that set my fate, although I certainly didn't expect to be able to make a living doing this someday. I also got a very fortunate first break. In 2004, I read a story in The New York Times about Chaplain James Yee, a Muslim U.S. Army chaplain, stationed at Guantanamo, who had been arrested on suspicion of belonging to Al Qaeda.

The story seemed fishy to me, and I became really interested in learning more. So I chased it. I was working full-time at a gallery, and doing this in my free time. I interviewed his family, his colleagues and his lawyers. He wouldn't grant me an interview, however, as he was weighing how best to present his side of the story. I was hoping to write an article about his case, but that didn't transpire. That was a big disappointment to me because I had invested a lot of time in it. So I decided to quit my job, become a waitress if necessary, and pursue writing full time. On the last day at my job, Chaplain Yee called me. He told me that he had sold his story to a publishing house, and wanted me to write it for him. Nobody was more surprised by that than I. But I got the job, and it's turned into so many great experiences and opportunities.

4) How has your involvement with Pam Cope and Touch A Life changed you?

The better question may be how has it not. I got to travel to incredibly remote parts of Africa and Asia and interview child slaves, their masters and the parents who had sold them. I never imagined I'd ever get to do that. I've gotten a very rich understanding of how people in other parts of the world live. I've met so many children who have endured so many unspeakable things, and meeting them has had a profound impact on me. I've also gotten to know Pam, who has inspired me beyond belief, and will be one of my closest friends forever. In the end, this experience has taught me that as long as I am fortunate enough to make a living writing, I'd like to be involved telling stories that may contribute in some ways to making a real difference.

5) Of all the travels and children you met while writing this book, who or what location affected you most?

That's a hard one. I think the experience that's affected me the most was visiting Cambodia, where I interviewed young girls who had been working in the sex industry for many years. It was heartbreaking, and two years later, I still haven't fully shook that experience. It's one thing to see children in Ghana sold because of poverty. While that's incredibly hard to witness, I don't think that the intentions behind it are evil. But it's another thing to see these young girls being forced into these situations because men--many of them Westerners--will pay a high price for them. That experience has made me want to explore this issue more and help to tell the stories of girls like those I met.

6) The book strongly carries Pam's voice. What was the process you two used in writing this project?

It was very intense, and it worked so well mainly because Pam was willing to be very open and very honest with me from the beginning. We spent a lot of time talking to each other, and we travelled together a lot too, which was very helpful. It's easier to come to an understanding of another person's voice when it's all you hear for two-week stretches and are forced to share beds, clothes and toothbrushes in the middle of Africa and Asia. She also shared with me all of her journals, which was an act of trust that I will always appreciate. Then we just sat down and went to work. I holed up in a little hut in Bali and wrote a first draft, which Pam read very carefully and made tons of suggestions. We went back and forth several times before we got to a place--and a book--that we both fell in love with.

7) Did you begin Jantsen's Gift with specific goals in mind, or was the goal to simply tell Pam's story?

Elizabeth Gilbert's inscription at the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love reads: Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. Pam and I read that book at the same time, and whenever we hit a rough patch in the story telling or wondered where we were going, we'd return to the idea that we just wanted to be honest. Of course, this was a much different, and probably more difficult, process for Pam, as it was her life we were delving into. But I think that this, above all else, was the thing that was most important to both of us, and the reason why people are responding so well to Jantsen's Gift. It's definitely something I've always believed in: a book can't be really good if it's not completely, 100 percent, brutally honest.

8) For other writers out there seeking publication of nonfiction, how do you recommend they get started?

I get asked this question a lot, and even after three books, I still don't know if I'm qualified to give advice, because, unfortunately, there really is no formula for it. Some people find going to school or taking classes helpful, but I didn't go that route. I do know that there were many years that I spent talking about wanting to be a writer far more than I was actually writing. The one thing that I do know is that the trick to writing really is simple: you have to write. Write all the time, at least every day. It doesn't have to be a great work of art, or something you even intend to show to anyone. Right now, the best writing I'm doing is in my journal, and it was like that for me for many years.

Once you feel comfortable--meaning you've found your own voice and have overcome all the demon voices in your head questioning your ability or right to write--there are steps you can take to get published. I started very small, with local magazines, which, as long as they exist, are great resources for new writers. Write as many articles as you can, even if you don't get paid. If you want to publish a book, you must get an agent. Publishing houses will no longer look at work unless it is presented through an agent. That may sound like an impossible goal, but there are many agents who will take their chances on unpublished writers with good ideas and a strong voice.

9) What writers and/or works have influenced you the most?

That's kind of like asking me to choose my favorite child! Because I write narrative nonfiction, the writers who have influenced me the most tend to be novelists. Ian McEwan is probably my all-time favorite. I've read Enduring Love so many times, I think I may have memorized it. I recently went through a stage of discovering writers from the 1950s and '60s. Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road and his short stories are works of genius. I'm also drawn to writers who are willing to take risks. The best example I've seen of that in the last few years is Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird is never too far away from me. Anyone who has aspirations to write should read this book. It's a great tool on the writing process, and on working your way through the moments of utter horror and lack of confidence that are a constant and never-ending part of the writing process.

10) If there was one key to publishing a successful non-fiction work, besides solid writing skills, what would you say it is?

I'd love to know the answer to that one myself. While I don't think there is one key thing, there are certain elements that I believe have to be part of anything artistic: as I said earlier, you must be willing to be honest. You must be able to quiet the part of you that judges yourself for even writing, and put yourself out there. Then you must find the right people who are willing to support you. I've been very lucky to work with great editors--people, who I believe, don't get nearly enough credit for all that they contribute to the process of publishing a book. Then when it's all done, you have to just sit back, believe in what you've done, and hope that others want to read it.

11) What's next for Aimee Molloy?

I'm currently working on a proposal for my own book. It stems from the research I started with Jantsen's Gift, and will profile sixteen girls who are sixteen years old from sixteen totally different cultures from around the world. It feels like a big step for me to be pursuing my own book, rather than co-authoring, and I'm excited, terrified, and relying a lot on trust right now.


  1. I remember seeing Pam's story played out on Oprah. The images of the little boys sold into slavery on the fishing boats haunt me still. I can see how working with Pam was life-changing for Aimee. Can't wait to read the book.

  2. I have to read this. I've visited an orphanage in Thailand before and the experience was life-changing. Thankfully, it was a nice facility with a loving staff. The worst was seeing the kids with AIDS, some were just babies. They had them separated into two rooms - the ones who were sick and the ones who weren't sick YET. When I looked into the latter room and saw all these seemingly happy and healthy kids and knew that they were all going to die before they grew up, I ran away sobbing. I still get misty-eyed thinking about it.

    I think anyone who can witness these things and be involved enough to help children are heroes.

  3. I, too, was so moved by this story. Kim, I can only imagine how your heart felt that day in Thailand, and Pamela, I agree that the images stay with us. I think, for just that reason, that this book is a MUST READ. It can change not only they way you think, but also how we react to the world around us.

  4. I'm sure in some ways it was cathartic to write about what must have been a deeply disturbing experience. Your book sounds really interesting--thanks for sharing your story.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. Definitely a must read. As Kim's mom, I cried over her reaction to the children with AIDS, as well as for the little ones who had that horrible disease. Thankfully, all the children in that orphanage were well cared for. What still haunts me are certain faces of girls and young women in Thailand forced into prostitution. While living in Bangkok, I did some extensive research on this for a novel I was working on. So I strongly relate to why Aimee was so deeply moved by what she experienced in regards to forced prostitution in Cambodia. I really hope that one day she will explore this issue more and write about it. I plan to really get into it in my memoir covering the six and a half years I lived in Thailand. Aimee's solo book really sounds fascinating. I wish her all the best.

    On a much different note, Susan I really enjoyed meeting and talking with you yesterday. This is a fantastic interview. Really looking forward to reading more of your work.

  6. Not only is Aimee a wonderful author, she does a great interview. Well done. I am related to Pam, involved in Touch A Life, have been to the same remote areas in Ghana, and met those children rescued from Lake Volta. Aimee captured everything factual and emotional to a tee!

  7. Eric, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Pam this week and am so moved by the journey of the Cope family. I agree that Aimee gave a great interview here. There is so much work to be done, yet already so much accomplished! Thanks for stopping by the blog. In Peace- Susan


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