Thursday, February 28, 2019

Q&A with Keely Hutton

Keely Hutton is the author of the young adult historical novel Soldier Boy. The book is based on the life of Ricky Richard Anywar, who as a teenager in 1989 was forced into Joseph Kony's army in Uganda. Hutton is an educational journalist and former teacher, and she lives in Fairport, New York.

Q: How did you end up working with Ricky Richard Anywar on Soldier Boy, and why did you decide to write it as a novel rather than as nonfiction?

A: In March 2012, my cousin, John Fay, emailed me about his friend, Ricky Richard Anywar, a man he’d met while working with non-profit organizations in Africa.

Ricky had been trying for over eight years to find a writer to tell the story of his time as a child soldier in notorious warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but no one would take on the project.

Although Ricky’s story of survival captured my attention, I politely declined John’s request that I speak with Ricky three times. I believed a story as important as Ricky’s deserved both a published author with name recognition and a writer with life experiences similar to Ricky’s. I was neither.

Fortunately for me, my cousin emailed again about Ricky, and even went as far as involving my mother in his push to make the Skype call happen. Finally, I agreed, and Ricky and I scheduled a time to chat.

Five minutes into our first Skype conversation, I was certain of two things: 1. Ricky’s story needed to be told. and 2. even though I still questioned if I was the writer to tell it, I knew I wanted to help Ricky and his work at Friends of Orphans in northern Uganda in any way I could.

I agreed to write his story if Ricky agreed to be involved in every part of the process and promised to let me know if, at any point, I was not representing his story, him, his family, the Acholi people, and Uganda with the respect, accuracy, and authenticity they deserved.

I then dove into research to educate myself on the Ugandan conflict, Joseph Kony, the LRA, child soldiers, and Acholi culture and traditions. Ricky and I also started Skyping and emailing regularly.

In June 2012, Ricky traveled to the U.S. and stayed with my family for several days. We discussed ideas for the book, Ricky’s time as a child soldier, and how he became founder of Friends of Orphans, an organization that helps with the recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration of former child soldiers and war-affected youth in northern Uganda.

The decision to not write the story as non-fiction stemmed from our discussion about Ricky’s motivation to share his story with the world. Ricky explained that he didn’t want the book to be a series of shocking, graphically violent scenes. He wanted the message of his story to be one of hope and inspiration.

After reviewing my notes from our conversations, I knew I had to find a way to give readers time to breathe. During Ricky’s two-and-a-half years of captivity, there were no moments that weren’t traumatizing and terrifying, so I had to build in quieter moments.

With that goal in mind, I pitched the idea of writing his story as a young adult historical fiction novel with two alternating storylines, Ricky’s and Samuel’s. Ricky’s chapters would be accurate representations of his time in the LRA.

The chapters that follow Samuel, a fictional composite character representative of the thousands of children Ricky has helped since founding Friends of Orphans, would be set 20 years later and serve as a thread of light woven between the darkness of the Ricky chapters.

Ricky loved the idea, so I broadened my research to include how Ricky and the Friends of Orphans staff approach the difficult task of aiding former child soldiers and war-affected youth. Readers would see Friends of Orphans and the healing, transformative work done at their compound through Samuel’s eyes. 

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: My research consisted of thousands of hours of conversations with Ricky, books about the history of Uganda and the Ugandan civil war, documentaries, videos, articles, accounts of former LRA child soldiers, and a collection of Ugandan poems and folktales.

My prior knowledge of Uganda and the Ugandan civil war was very limited, so most of the information I learned through research and my conversations with Ricky surprised me.

I was heartbroken over cruel abuse children suffer, but also inspired by the resilient spirit of Ricky and former child soldiers like him and in awe of Ricky’s capacity for forgiveness and hope.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between history and fiction as you wrote the book?

A: To tell Ricky’s story, we leaned heavily on history, both his and his country’s, and less on fiction. We agreed to keep Soldier Boy as close to Ricky’s experience as possible.

When writing the Samuel chapters, I pulled from stories Ricky had shared with me about his interactions with thousands of children at Friends of Orphans to create a fictional character that possessed characteristics, thoughts, and reactions that were authentic to the experiences of former LRA child soldiers and abductees.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Soldier Boy?

A: Despite the heartbreaking horrors Soldier Boy reveals about the decades-long civil war that gripped Uganda and its children, at its core, Ricky’s story is a story about the unrelenting strength of the human spirit to find hope in the darkest corners of hell, to escape captivity despite insurmountable odds, and to hold onto humanity when all else is lost.

It is a message I hope readers take from the pages of Soldier Boy and remember when faced with hardships in their own lives. I also hope readers recognize the healing power of storytelling and find the strength to someday tell their own stories.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished reading through the second pass-page proofs for my next book, a middle grade historical fiction novel titled Secret Soldiers. Like Soldier Boy, Secret Soldiers explores the impact of war on our youth, but this story is set during World War One and deals with young soldiers who volunteered to fight.

Over a quarter million underage British boys fought on the Allied front lines of the Great War, but not all of them fought on the battlefield—some fought beneath it.

Secret Soldiers follows the journey of Thomas, a 13-year-old coal miner, who lies about his age to join the Clay kickers, a specialized crew of soldiers known as “tunnelers,” in hopes of finding his missing older brother.

Thomas works in the tunnels of the Western Front alongside three other soldier boys whose constant bickering and inexperience in mining may prove more lethal than the enemy digging toward them. But as they burrow deeper beneath the battlefield, the boys discover the men they hope to become and forge a bond of brotherhood.

I am looking forward to sharing Secret Soldiers with readers starting on June 11, 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The civil war in Uganda lasted over 23 years, and the damage and trauma caused by the conflict is still being felt throughout northern Uganda. A portion of my proceeds from the book are donated to Friends of Orphans, so by purchasing Soldier Boy, readers are already helping.

If readers want to help beyond purchasing Ricky’s story, Friends of Orphans needs financial support to help run their programs. They are also always looking for volunteers to come and work with FRO in Uganda, as well as people who will work within their own communities to create awareness about FRO’s work, promote advocacy and networking, and organize fundraisers to further support Friends of Orphans projects.

Additional information about Ricky and Friends of Orphans may be found here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Soldier Boy is a winner of the 2018 Children's Africana Book Awards.

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