Writing a Book with a Strong Sense of Location or Place
Karen Cushman asked Deborah Ellis, “My newest book, War and Millie McGonigle, started with a place: South Mission Beach, San Diego, where my husband grew up. You, too, have written books set in a place alive and rich. Will you share some insights into place in your story, The Breadwinner?”
Q: Did you choose the setting first, before characters and plot? Did the story grow from the place or did the place grow from the story?
Ellis: The story of The Breadwinner very much grew from the place as I wanted to write about what was happening to children under the Taliban. Afghanistan and its history are major players in the story, and although Parvana and her family are dealing with universal themes, they are responding to events particular to Afghanistan.
Q: How/where did you find the details that brought your place to life?
Ellis: I spent a lot of time in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and in Russia, meeting with people and learning about what they had been through. Later, I was also able to travel into Afghanistan to meet with more people there.
Q: Did the place enrich the story, or did it create limitations? Did you have to change details about the place?
Ellis: I think it enriched the story, in part because many of the readers would never have lived through circumstances like Parvana lived through, so it would all be new to them. The things that shine through most in the book is not the Afghan setting but the kindness and the generosity of the Afghan people, and I think young readers take that away from the story as well.
Q: What would you like us to know about the place you chose for your book?
Ellis: I would like them to know that the Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan, that the Afghan people are facing a terrible famine, and that there are organizations on the ground there providing help, and they could use our support. Groups like Islamic Relief, The Red Crescent, the World Food Program, UNHCR and UNICEF—and others—will welcome donations.
Thank you to Deborah Ellis for her reflections about this important book.
Learn more about Deborah Ellis.