Bear Witness is about a girl who witnessed the kidnapping of her best friend. Author Melissa Clark talks about the novel’s origins and more.
About ‘Bear Witness’
Paige is a typical 12-year-old girl in every respect but the most important one — she has witnessed the abduction of her best friend by a stranger in the middle of the night.
Three years later, Paige is still dealing with the consequences of what happened to her that night, although in a lot of ways she’s expected to have moved on already. But when a small town is rocked by a crime such as this, nobody truly forgets, least of all Paige.
Interview with Melissa Clark
Tell us five interesting facts about yourself.
1. I’m a dual citizen (U.S./Canada)
2. I’m an unabashed karaoke freak who loves singing old-school hip hop the best.
3. I keep a dream blog.
4. I have a Siamese cat named Persephone who inspired my second novel, Imperfect, about a girl who purrs.
5. I got to host Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite authors, when she came to my graduate program (at U.C. Davis).
What inspired you to write Bear Witness?
I had an obsessive and unsubstantiated kidnapping fear when I was a kid. If a car slowed, or if someone was walking toward me, I was certain they were going to kidnap me. Years later, in 1994, I was living in the Bay Area when the news story broke of Polly Klaas’ kidnapping. This was a brazen and horrific crime as she was taken from her bedroom during a slumber party. A day or two later there was a picture in the SF Chronicle of her two friends (who had been sleeping over) coming out of the police department, having just given descriptions of the criminal. They were each clutching a teddy bear and smiling with hope that their friend would be found. I can’t express how haunted I was by that photo — the bears, the innocence, the hope, in a situation that was ultimately hopeless. I always wondered how one would move forward having experienced something like that. It took me almost 20 years after seeing that photo to finally explore the subject.
In the acknowledgements, you thank those you met at the criminal trial for Elizabeth Smart’s captor. What kind of impact did that trial have on you and the formation of this book?
The trial really showed me firsthand how a crime affects an entire community — family, friends, teachers, regular citizens, and so on and so forth. I have some court scenes in the book which I couldn’t have written without witnessing a criminal case of a similar nature firsthand. On a side note, it was amazing seeing Elizabeth Smart in person. She has got to be the most resilient, powerful young woman I’ve ever seen.
The structure of the book was such an interesting choice. What made you decide to write it backwards?
I don’t remember this being a conscious choice or decision. It just sort of came out that way. As the book was taking shape I realized it was an effective method because you know from the start WHEN the crime happened, and as you progress with the story you know as a reader that you are reading toward that crime. It also mirrored the idea that it’s hard to move forward from something like this.
You have quite a list of accomplishments under your belt. Have any of your previous projects prepared you for writing this novel?
My work, either in television or in previous books, is usually lighter, funnier, etc. so this book was a departure for me, tonally. However, I’ve written a lot of projects in the ‘teen’ or ‘tween’ voice (Sweet Valley High, Braceface), so I imagine that prepared me in some way. I’m also very interested in psychology, and that interest helped fuel Bear Witness as well.
The title of the book has a great double meaning. Was that easy to come up with, or did it take you a while to pin it down to the perfect phrase?
I had originally titled it “Bear in Mind” — and was happy with the title and it’s double-meaning. However, a dear friend, David Rubenstein, tossed out the phrase “Bear Witness” as an alternative title, and as soon as he said it, it stuck — it also has a double-meaning and I think is more effective.
What’s easier to write, the first line or the last line?
The first line. But truth be told, you never can fully know the beginning until you write the end.
What YA book do you wish you had growing up?
I only recently read, and loved, The Fault in Our Stars. I KNOW I would have loved that when I was younger, too.
About the author
Melissa Clark is an author, television writer and college instructor. She is the author of the novels, Bear Witness, Swimming Upstream, Slowly, and Imperfect. Her essay, “Rachael Ray Saved My Life” is included in the anthology The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage. She is also the creator of the animated television series Braceface, starring the voice of Alicia Silverstone, which aired on the ABC Family Channel. She has written scripts for Rolie Polie Olie, Totally Spies, Sweet Valley High, among others. Melissa teaches creative writing and literature courses both privately and at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.