By Leslie Lindsay
I have a thing for new authors. There’s inspiration and awe within the pages you hold in your hands. There’s potential and excitement. It’s all about newness of exhilaration.
Clara is in the midst of brushing her daughter, Daisy’s hair when armed men invade her home, taking Clara away from her husband and beloved daughters to an investigation room where they demand answers.
But Clara isn’t talking.
Alternating between past and present in a “now” and “then” format without specific chapters, we learn the horrific story of Clara’s fractured life. We see her grow up in a captive brothel-like environment under the guise of a happy home in which she “trains” girls for their clients. She falls desperately in love with her captor’s son, the second in command of this…operation.
Now, she’s sequestered in a barren room, questioned by men and women who only want to help her, but she’s not convinced anything is wrong. Her past and present collide with new revelations about whom she was and who she’s become. In this sense, the title, THE GIRL BEFORE is spot-on. Also, the cover is mesmerizing and lends to the shattered self-image Clara harbors.
Join me as we welcome debut author Rena Olsen to the blog!
Leslie Lindsay: Rena, I’m looking at your sweet, smiley face and I think, ‘no…there’s no way this woman could have written a book so dark and sinister. Not to mention that your father is a minister. While Clara, your main protagonist is a bit naïve, THE GIRL BEFORE is anything but sweet and wholesome. Why this book now?
Rena Olsen: Haha! Well thank you for that assessment. I contain multitudes. While the book may seem dark and sinister, it is reality for so many. I may look sweet, but I don’t shy away from the tough issues. I’m a therapist, and I spend my days hearing about the horrors human beings inflict on each other. In some ways, writing this sort of psychological, and yes, dark, book, helps me process what I hear. As for why now? Awareness of human trafficking is slowly gaining traction, but there are so many myths about its prevalence and the “type” of people involved. While Clara started speaking to me just to tell her story, explain why she might seem naïve to many, I have hopes that this book can at least raise awareness of this horrific thing that happens all over the country and the world.
L.L.: I found the subject matter of human trafficking completely repulsive and disturbing, yet it’s done in a tasteful, non-graphic manner. Can you tell us a bit about the real life of these girls? Perhaps a little glimpse into your research?
Rena Olsen: Honestly, the content of the book is toned way down from reality. Many people want nothing to do with learning about this particular subject simply because it is so horrific. However, for me it was never an option not to be as realistic as possible without turning people off more. This is the reality that millions of victims live, day in and day out. In my research, I watched a few documentaries, my favorite being Nefarious. I read a lot of stories and researched organizations working to stop the practice of human trafficking and raise awareness, and I went to several speakers on the subject.
L.L.: While pretty rare, I understand that this kind of thing [human trafficking] goes on all over the place. In fact, I think right here in an affluent Chicago suburb, there was some kind of…compound in which something very similar was going on. I once heard about a group taking children to hotels in St. Louis for this purpose. Can you speak to that?
Rena Olsen: Though it’s difficult to estimate, there are anywhere from 20-30 MILLION people trapped in slavery around the world today. This includes bonded labor, forced labor, and sex trafficking. Human trafficking has been reported in all fifty states and Washington, DC, and there are an estimated 60,000 victims trapped in slavery in the United States today. It’s not as rare as people would like to believe, unfortunately. It’s the second largest global organized crime. I could go on, but I will leave a few sites here to peruse if you are so inclined. (enditmovement.com, a21.org, polarisproject.org)
L.L.: I have to say…after reading THE GIRL BEFORE, I feel much more protective of my own children as they hop on bikes and ride to school or the park. Things like this are rare, but sadly, they happen. How can we prepare our children for the world, and what dialogue might we have with them regarding stranger danger?
Rena Olsen: Some of the sites listed above give some good resources on that as well. Awareness is key. This is why I am so adamant about education on the subject. It may be more pleasant to pretend it doesn’t happen, but being prepared is more important. Not that we should all live our lives in fear either. Teach kids about stranger danger. Make sure you have a plan in place should they feel as if they are in danger. Create a code word so if someone tries to trick them into coming with them, they know whether to trust them or not. Practice how to get away (running, screaming for help, etc).
L.L.: I understand you are a marriage and family therapist as well. How (or did) your experience and background influence your writing?
Rena Olsen: My background was a very important part of my writing. THE GIRL BEFORE is built on its characters, and in order to create layered, nuanced characters, I needed to dig into the psyche and understand how each one ticked. My 14 years of combined education and practice in psychology and therapy have taught me a lot about how different people think and react to different situations. It has also given me insight into the abuse aspect of the book. While many people may see Clara as naïve or get angry at her for not knowing better, I used my education and knowledge to really consider how someone in her situation may react. I have gotten some very positive feedback from those who have come from abuse situations, thanking me for portraying her as I did.
Be sure to click here and watch this eerily creepy-good trailer of THE GIRL BEFORE.
L.L.: Clara is such a fractured character. She is both a victim and perpetrator. She feels a sense of guilt about what’s happened in her “home,” yet she feels responsible for it and wants to be punished. Did this response from her come as a surprise to you?
Rena Olsen: Not at all. As stated before, many might see Clara as naïve, but I have always seen her as strong. She was working with the information she’d been provided. Once she got new information and assimilated it into her worldview, she wanted to be held accountable for the things she had done. She could have taken the easy way out and assumed she couldn’t be held accountable for things she knew nothing about, but she stepped up. That is the very definition of courage, and exactly what I would have expected from her.
L.L.: A bit about your process: do you like to plot, or fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants?
Rena Olsen: I’m typically a pantser. I know my destination, how the story is going to end, but the route is a mystery. My characters are always surprising me, and that’s truly where my creativity works best. However, it’s also a good way to get stuck sometimes, so this next time around, I’ve created an outline. How well I follow it remains to be seen!
L.L.: What’s obsessing you lately? What has your attention?
Rena Olsen: I tend to have a pretty obsessive personality but lately I’ve been so wrapped up in the book release, that’s had most of my attention. Between that and working my day job I don’t have time to obsess over anything else. I suppose my one obsession that doesn’t go away is Twitter. I can spent hours there.
L.L.: Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Rena Olsen: Well, you didn’t ask what my favorite food is, so you wisely avoided my continuous monologue pitting pizza against tacos. Also yes, I would cast Theo James as Connor in the movie of THE GIRL BEFORE, if it ever became a movie, and if I had any say in casting.
L.L.: Rena, it’s been enlightening having you here today. I wish you the best of luck with THE GIRL BEFORE.
Rena Olsen: Thank you so much! It’s been lovely chatting with you!
For more information, or to connection with Rena via social media, please see: