Arn as a boy
Arn and me when Arn was honored by Friends Without A Border
We traveled to a part of the country still controlled by the Khmer Rouge to interview Sombo.
I met Arn through a neighbor in my apartment building in New York. I was a little wary at first because what I knew about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge led me expect to meet a person so traumatized that he might not be able to tell his story in way others could understand.
Arn did have trouble telling his story in some ways – he would sometimes dart away from difficult topics or be overcome with sadness. But when he spoke about the way music saved his life, about his work to preserve Cambodia’s traditional music, or about his belief in the power of forgiveness, he was radiant. He had a fire to be heard and an irresistible insistence that you listen.
What he didn’t have was a way to spread his message – beyond his own efforts to speak out. What compelled me to write the book – beyond Arn’s own charisma – was a feeling that the world has turned its attention away from Cambodia. But genocide persists – and Never Fall Down shows how its architects and the tools they use remain the same.
Did you know right away that you would write this story as a novel? How did you arrive at this decision?
In the course of my research, I found Arn to be a remarkably reliable and consistent storyteller. He could remember, often in horrendous detail, much of what he witnessed. And when I checked his account vs archival material and other witness accounts, he was surprisingly accurate in recounting events from more than 30 years ago.
But he was also 11 years old – a traumatized child whose perceptions were cruelly distorted by the Khmer Rouge. He can recall some things – like the eery ‘click’ of a land mine going off under a little girl’s foot; but can’t remember others – like the girl’s name or when or where the explosion took place.
And so I chose to use his recollections as the armature onto which I could craft a narrative. I wove his memories together with my own research or my own imagination to write scenes that have the specificity of non-fiction and the narrative drive of fiction.
How much did you know about the reign of the Khmer Rouge before you met Arn? What kind of research did you do for the novel?
Arn and I spent hours in my home doing long, emotionally draining interviews. Then I traveled to Cambodia with him, retracing the steps of his childhood – from the town square where he and his little brother hustled for change, to the Killing Fields temple where he was forced to witness the torture and death of hundreds of people, and on to a remote corner of the country where Khmer Rouge hold-outs live to this day.
Arn was able to round up a few of his fellow survivors from the death camp and I hired an independent translator to corroborate what Arn had told me earlier. He was unsure of his memories but what was astonishing was how well his stories meshed with theirs. The only thing that was different? He had downplayed how many risks he took to steal food and keep the other children alive; his fellow survivors – and his Khmer Rouge captor – remembered acts of heroism he had never shared with me.
Together we all traveled to the temple where they pointed – as if they were seeing ghosts – to the places where the killings took place. They reenacted -with some hesitation at first – the propaganda songs and dances they had to perform to stay alive. And we all visited the home of the former Khmer Rouge soldier who was their warden and sometimes their protector.
It was a privilege to accompany them on the trip and to bear witness to their experiences. It was an honor that they shared so much with me – and it was moving to see them process, and shrug off, some of the memories that held them hostage all these years.
It also turned out to be lots of fun. One afternoon, when the ‘boy band’ reunited to play some of the old propaganda songs, they were soon howling with laughter at the melodramatic lyrics that praised the Khmer Rouge – knowing that their tormentors couldn’t hurt them any more.
You’ve told the story from Arn Chorn-Pond’s point of view – how did you capture his voice in the novel? What were some difficulties you encountered in writing from his perspective?
I tried to write this book a dozen different ways. I started with what a member of my writers’ group called my Walter Kronkite voice. Just the facts, with a journalistic remove. Then I tried on a number of different styles. What was missing in all of those was Arn’s own beautiful, improvised English. When he talks about his childhood – as a musician in a death camp or as a soldier no taller than his gun – it’s as if he becomes that child all over again. He speaks urgency, terror, confusion – and sometimes wonder and wisdom.
I’d heard that voice for so long I found I could practically channel it. But I was afraid of using it for the book, afraid people would find it distracting or that it would fail to capture all the intelligence and wit that Arn has. After a chance meeting with an English teacher who made me realize that if I took the risk, readers would follow, I gave it a try. Once I got out of the way and let Arn’s voice tell the story, the writing flowed.
I was so immersed in his voice during the writing, the difficulty was to turn it off at the end of the day!
There are a few amusing moments in the story as Arn discovers unfamiliar aspects of life in America, such as his introduction to hamburgers at McDonald’s. These moments are often bittersweet, since they tend to indicate something we take for granted in our everyday lives. What effect did you hope to achieve by including these moments?
My hope was to show the pure wonder of encountering a strange new culture – and to show that even after all Arn had been through, he still retained a sense of curiosity, trust and joy.
You’ve written multiple novels that deal with difficult, and often dark, subject matter. How did writing this novel compare to writing others?
This was probably most difficult because I felt a keen responsibility to Arn – who had become my friend – to tell his story with honesty. To convey his heroism, his canny ways of surviving and my deep respect for him – but to also convey accurately the full picture of his life, the things he had to do to survive and the guilt he carried.
It was such a relief for me when I was able to ‘get’ Arn safely to the US and start to describe his healing.
The other thing that made it hard was that my other books are more purely fiction. Yes, they’re based on interviews with real people; but the characters I create were an amalgam of all of them. Arn is a real man who laid bare his entire life story. This book would form a record of his life. I had to get it right.
At the end of the novel there is a certain sense of optimism that emerges. How did you arrive at this hopefulness?
That optimism is pure Arn. He has an unquenchable belief in the power of forgiveness and in his ability to spread peace. He takes true joy in life. And he as made good on those beliefs by starting an organization to save the traditional music of Cambodia, to provide literacy and job training to orphans like himself and to go to areas of conflict to spread peace. Most of all, he leads a life as an example of hope
Never Fall Down
NEVER FALL DOWN
National Book Award Finalist
New York Times Notable Book
Named Best Book of the Year by iTunes, The Huffington Post, the Chicago Public Library and Atlantic.com
The Tayshas Reading List (Top Ten Pick)
SLJ Best Books of 2012
Booklist Books for Youth Editors’ Choice
Barnes & Noble Top New Teen Book
An ALA Quick Pick Nominee
An ALA BFYA Nominee
Based on the true story of an 11-year-old boy who survived the Khmer Rouge by playing music in the Killing Fields, NEVER FALL DOWN was a National Book Award Finalist.
Praise for Never Fall Down:
"One of the most inspiring and powerful books I’ve ever read. Never Fall Down can teach us all about finding the courage to speak our truth and change the world.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“While never shying from the ugliness and brutality of this genocide, McCormick crafts a powerful tribute to the human spirit.” — Publishers Weekly starred review
“Powerfully, hauntingly unforgettable.” — Booklist starred review
“This compelling chronicle deserves to be widely read, discussed, and reflected upon by a generation of young people who may be largely unaware of this dark chapter in world history.” — Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books starred review
“A gripping account of the inner turmoil of a child soldier.” — New York Times Book Review
“McCormick’s novel is one that needs to be read.”
— The Horn Book
"Following the pattern of excellence McCormick began with her novel SOLD, she has created another amazing story through skilled and patient research.” — Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) starred review
This information is about Cambodia before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge. If you have any questions or additional resources to add, please let me know.
From 1994 to 2015 Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) documented, preserved and researched the mass killings of Cambodia during the Democratic Kampuchea regime. You can find a large collection of information on this website.
Courtesy of worldatlas.com
Additional Information about Cambodia relevant to the book can be found at these links:
Goodeye Video made a promotional video for the book before its release (below)
In this interview, Arn speaks about how he found the courage to share his story and how he and I worked together to craft the book. We talk in particular about how hard it is share those things of which we are most ashamed and about the important role of the listener.
Listen to my interview with Scott Simon from Weekend Edition Saturday.
Click on the image below.
with Beth Kephart
PP: Where did you first learn of Arn Chorn-Pond?
McCormick: A neighbor introduced me to Arn and I was instantly intrigued by his story – and by the difficulty he had telling it.
with Sofia Quintero
SQ: What compelled you to tell this particular story of all the ideas you could’ve otherwise pursued?
McCormick: When Arn talks about a childhood in the Killing Fields, it's almost as if he becomes that terrified 11-year-old child all over again. He speaks in urgent, disjointed fragments. Sometimes, he is overcome with such sadness that he can't continue; at other times, he goes numb