First Fictions – Lisa Harding’s first novel: ‘Harvesting’

 In Diary, News

Welcome to the first in an occasional series of ‘FIRST FICTIONS’.

I’m delighted to feature the novelist and actor, Lisa Harding, whose first novel, Harvesting will be launched on the evening of 12th April and is published by New Island.

‘Harvesting’ has been described by Roddy Doyle as ‘shocking – and shockingly good. It is thought-provoking, anger-provoking, guilt-provoking, and – most importantly – it is a brilliantly written novel.’

‘Harvesting’ will be launched by Anthony Glavin in Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin.

1 – ‘Harvesting’ is a compelling tale – dark and uncompromising, but impossible to put down. What drew you to tell this story?

When I was still acting in Fair City, I was approached by a representative from the Children’s Rights Alliance to see whether I’d be interested in being involved in a campaign, run in conjunction with the Body Shop called ‘Stop Sex Trafficking of children and Young People.’

I said yes instantly, and my role was to publicly read testimonies of girls who had been trafficked to Ireland.

Before that day I had no idea of the extent of the industry ( some 1.2 million children trafficked globally for the sex trade, with figures rising because of the vulnerable missing migrant children). I also didn’t know that Ireland is regarded as a destination point for traffickers and sex tourists, and that some of the girls who fall prey to this world are as young as twelve, and some of them are Irish. I was rocked to the core by what I read that day. The girls’ stories took hold and I just wasn’t able to shake them. I knew I wanted to do something to try to raise awareness and give voice to these invisible girls, but I didn’t know what exactly. It took some years before ‘Harvesting’ took the form it did. As I had written a few plays before then, I thought at first that it might be a piece of theatre, then I wrote a series of short stories where the characters of Sammy and Nico emerged (‘Harvesting’‘s two main protagonists). I only knew it was going to be a novel when I realised I couldn’t stop writing, and the stories demanded the longer form.

2 – The two main characters are children – they could be our daughters. You inhabit their world in a way that grips the reader – and that grip can be a deeply uncomfortable one. As a writer, how difficult was it to make the leap of imaginative empathy into the girls’ world?

lisa harding

‘Harvesting’ will be launched by Anthony Glavin in Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin on the evening of 12th April.

I guess I knew that to do these girls justice, I couldn’t side-step the issue, or try to package the story in way that was pretty and palatable for the market, or indeed make them secondary characters, as women in the sex trade often seem to be in crime novels or thrillers. I wanted to fully embody them, to humanise these statistics we read about in journalistic reports.

I wanted to write it in a way that would be as immersive as possible for the reader, so I chose to write in the present tense, so the reader would experience the moment as the girls experience the moment, and I also chose the first person, the ‘I’, which is intimate and consuming.

Once I could hear their voices, I allowed them tell their stories through me, without any censorship on my part. Honestly, my heart broke when I first encountered some of these girls’ stories and I wanted to approach this whole endeavour with as open a heart as possible.

I felt a huge sense of responsibility putting these stories into the world, and was relieved to have the support of NGO’s in Moldova and Dublin, who read and approved of the text. A representative from both CCF Moldova and Ruhama felt that a book like this had the power to touch readers’ minds and hearts in a way that no amount of reporting of facts could.

3 – Can you tell us something about the research involved in the writing of ‘Harvesting’?

I was furnished with a report from the Children’s Rights Alliance once I agreed to be part of the campaign, which provided me with case studies, first-hand accounts, statistics, logistics, traffickers’ routes, the fact that it is a billion dollar industry — the third largest illegal activity after drugs and arms, and almost as profitable. Ecpat international are a global initiative that sets out to eradicate the sexual exploitation of children, and they were linked in with the campaign in Ireland. Also the guards here in Ireland have a website: www.blueblindfold.gov.ie that provides extensive information on trafficking at home. Its motto is ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’. Although research was a huge part of the process involved in writing ‘Harvesting’, there came a point where I wouldn’t allow myself read any more and I just let my imagination take over.

Ultimately the characters are works of fiction; they are not based on any one girl’s testimony, but hopefully they embody a universal truth. And I did check for any plausibility issues with the NGO’s who were kind enough to read it.

4 – This novel struck me as an exploration of the abuse of power. Can you respond to that?

There can be no greater of abuse of power surely than trafficking of people, for any purpose. It seems inconceivable — in a modern civilised society such as ours — that slavery of this kind can exist. It’s a hidden world, ruled by fear and secrecy and shame, and it needs a light shone on it and a rigorous airing, and engagement in the public arena.

5 – Can you tell us something about the process involved in the writing of this, your first novel? What did you struggle with the most? What came ‘fully formed’ to you as you wrote?

I approached writing this, my first novel, in the same way I approach creating character as an actress — from the inside out. Once I could hear Sammy and Nico’s voices, and I knew they were authentic, I just ran with them. The story flows from the characters’ psyches and the truth of their actions. I genuinely stepped aside during the initial writing burst, which happened over the space of six months. It seemed to pour out of me with no conscious thought on my part, what you might call ‘improvisational’. I left it alone for a few weeks, as is often suggested, and then went back in with a more detached, rational mind to edit. Because of the free-flowing style of the novel — the fact that it is told in alternating chapters that are really extended monologues — there wasn’t a huge amount of editing involved. Until I came to work with the publisher, of course! This was a more exacting phase in the process, and very welcome.

6 – What’s next for Lisa Harding, Novelist?

I’m always concerned with writing about social issues and subjects that engender a strong response in me as a human being. I’ve long been fascinated with the place of alcohol in our daily lives, how it’s such a socially acceptable drug and so normalised, yet how it can wreak havoc on some people’s lives, if their chemistry reacts in a certain way.

I’ve almost finished a first draft of a second novel grappling with this topic: how some people have what is called ‘dual diagnosis’, where alcohol presents as the problem but there’s an underlying emotional/psychological issue that goes undetected. The novel explores how the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to recovery that’s offered freely doesn’t work for everyone. It is specifically concerned with a young mother’s struggle to find recovery and the effects on her young son.

It’s not all bleak however, as there’s huge maternal love (however chaotic) at the centre of it.

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