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Author Talk: April 1, 2011

A first-time novelist and a member of the Army National Guard, Trent Reedy is the author of WORDS IN THE DUST, the remarkable tale of an Afghan girl named Zulaikha who dares to hope for a better future --- - and the surgery she'll need to fix her cleft palate --- - when American soldiers arrive in her village. In this interview, Reedy talks about his own experiences as a soldier in Afghanistan, elaborating on the real-life figure who inspired his book. He also explains how the experience of war altered his feelings about the Afghan people, reflects on the challenges of writing his first-ever novel, and recalls the fan letter he wrote that helped launch his career as a writer --- - and sparked the beginning of a long-lasting literary friendship.

Question: What led you to write WORDS IN THE DUST?

Trent Reedy: In 2004 and 2005, when I was serving with the army in support of the reconstruction effort in western Afghanistan, I was often dismayed when I saw the aftermath of the terrible injustices women and girls had suffered under the oppression of the brutal Taliban. Even after being forced out of direct power, the Taliban still threatened girls who wished to attend school as well as women who wanted to exercise their new right to vote. Although I witnessed a lot of progress in the state of women's rights during my time in Afghanistan, I often felt frustration from not being able to help even more.

When my unit encountered a young girl named Zulaikha who suffered from a cleft lip and crooked teeth, we knew we had to help. My fellow soldiers and I pooled our money to pay for her flight to our main base in Afghanistan, where an army doctor had volunteered to conduct the needed corrective surgery. I was happy, feeling that we had really made a direct, positive difference.

Throughout all of my encounters with Zulaikha, I was impressed by her courage and dignity. She covered her birth defect, but otherwise she met our gaze, answered our questions, and did not shy away from us, even though I imagine we could be quite frightening with our body armor and weapons. For me, Zulaikha began to represent the indomitable spirit of all Afghans and of Afghan women in particular.

Q: How was she different after the surgery?

TR: After her surgery, Zulaikha's problems with her upper lip, teeth, and nose had vanished almost as if she had always been completely normal. Her physical transformation was amazing, but perhaps more striking was her emotional change. She no longer hid her mouth in shame. The very best moment of my time in Afghanistan was seeing Zulaikha smile.

Q: How did your feelings about Afghanistan and the Afghan people shift during your time in the country?

TR: I went to Afghanistan with a distrust of everyone in the Middle East. I felt deep anger over the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and I am ashamed to admit that I at first foolishly blamed all the Afghan people.

However, during my year in Afghanistan, I worked closely with many wonderful Afghans. Most of the people we encountered in Afghanistan were very friendly and disliked the Taliban as much as we did. I soon realized that I had been sent to help a tremendously friendly and peace-loving people restore their country after decades of war and oppression.

I went to war with the idea of fighting for America's freedom, but instead I spent most of my tour doing my best to work for peace and freedom for Afghanistan.

Q: What happened after you came home from Afghanistan? What challenges did you face in writing the book?

TR: Although WORDS IN THE DUST was inspired by a few of my experiences, it is still a work of fiction. I had to invent a lot, but I placed great importance on writing the details as accurately as I could. I was familiar with the Afghan landscape, with the military settings that appear in WORDS IN THE DUST and even with the general layout of a basic Afghan residence. However, the real challenge was writing about those aspects of life that Afghans keep private, behind their walls hidden from outsiders. I read many books and interviewed friends in Afghanistan as well as Afghan-Americans to learn more about the wondrous complexities of Afghan culture.

Q: How did you meet our current National Ambassador for Children's Literature, Katherine Paterson?

TR: When my unit first moved out to Afghanistan's Farah Province to establish a position there, we lived in a rented Afghan house. There was no cold storage for real food, so we lived on small field rations. The well continually ran dry, so we went most of the month without a shower. There wasn't enough room in the house for many soldiers, so between guard duty and missions, we weren't allowed much sleep. Worst of all, the Taliban kept sending death threats, and our house wasn't in a very defensible position. I was miserable and terrified, wondering if I would ever make it home.

Finally, the mail arrived and I had been sent a copy of Katherine Paterson's classic BRIDGE OF TERABITHIA. On a very rare free afternoon, I read the entire book in one sitting. The novel's friendship between Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke reminded me that there was still hope and beauty in the world. Later, on patrol with my squad, driving down the Afghan street with my M-16 sticking out the window, I should have been watching out for the enemy, but all I could think of was the wonder of Katherine Paterson's words.

I wrote her a fan letter. I never expected a reply, but her answer began a correspondence that developed into a friendship that I cherish deeply. Many terrific people have taught me about writing, but Katherine Paterson has taught me more than anyone else about how to be a writer.

Q: You recently reenlisted with the National Guard. What will you be doing with them now?

TR: I have enlisted in the Washington Army National Guard as a broadcast journalist. I'll be serving one weekend each month and two weeks every summer in a public affairs unit. This unit's mission is to produce television, radio, and print news stories for distribution in the military. Maybe I'll even get the opportunity to return to Afghanistan.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from WORDS IN THE DUST?

TR: I'd like readers of WORDS IN THE DUST to understand that although Afghanistan seems very different from America, people everywhere mostly want the same things: peace, hope, and a chance to shape their own destinies. I hope readers can find something like themselves and their own desires within the struggles my characters face.

© Copyright 2011, Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc. All rights reserved. 

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