Amy Susan Wilson Interviews Lara Bernhardt, Author of “Shadow of the Taj”

ASW: Good afternoon, Lara. It is great to have the chance to visit with you about your latest novel, Shadow of the Taj. This book addresses the hot-button issue of human trafficking of children, and one Western woman’s determination to help one child caught in a web of child prostitution. How did you come to write on this subject?

Lara Bernhardt

LB: Thank you! I appreciate the chance to chat with you! Many years ago I had the opportunity to spend about half a year in India. I met wonderful people, learned about a fascinating culture, was served some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, and toured many beautiful, historic sites. The time I spent there was enriching, informative, and eye opening. It was also sobering. Decadent opulence counters extreme poverty, of a depth we have a hard time fathoming in the western world. While there, I witnessed many horrific things that I could never forget. I also read any English-language newspapers and magazines I could get my hands on – and learned about the horrifying reality of human trafficking and sex slavery. The stories stayed with me, haunted me.  I tried to research the issue more after returning to the States, but found little information. I questioned whether it was even my place to write this book, but the story wouldn’t let me go. I needed to write about this, to share it. The characters in my book are not drawn specifically from one character each, but are amalgamations of stories I read. I’d like to say the horrors in the book are inventions of my overactive imagination. Sadly, they’re real. Millions of our sisters on the other side of the world live this horror.

ASW: Your protagonist, Leslie Matthews, travels to India with her husband, and Leslie ends up entering the underground world of trafficking to save a young girl. And also, I must say, Leslie strikes me as the proverbial “girl next door” all grown up – the woman you sat next to in high school French class, college art history courses, and she is the neighbor next door who drives a carpool and suburban mom who infiltrates the dangerous world of trafficking. Tell us how this character was created? 

LB: I love that description of Leslie. That’s exactly how I intended her – everywoman, someone you knew or know. She could be any of us, and embodies many of the challenges and abuses women face navigating their daily lives. I wanted readers to identify with her, to recognize themselves in her as people who shoulder responsibility, support their families, and do whatever needs to be done –  often without recognition. And maybe even nod along as they read about issues Leslie has endured that they’ve experienced in their lives. She doesn’t possess superpowers or preternatural skills. She is by no means perfect and copes daily with regret and guilt for decisions and mistakes in her past. She’s one woman compelled to save a little girl, perhaps driven in part by the loss of someone close to her during childhood. Someone looking for redemption and determined to see a happy ending.

ASW:  This novel is a suspenseful novel as much as a human rights novel in terms of subject matter. Did you intend for the book to take on both roles? Talk to me about your writing process of this novel, and whether you set out to pen a novel of social justice.

LB: Good question. In fact, I didn’t envision this as a suspenseful novel when I first began writing it. But as the story developed over time, the obstacles Leslie faced grew and the forces she had to overcome became more dangerous – putting far more at risk and her in harm’s way. This is not my first published book, but it is the first book I ever wrote. And the process I followed isn’t one I would recommend. I wrote the book, realized it wasn’t very good, and sought instruction on the craft of novel writing. At that point, I drafted an outline and completely re-wrote the entire book. I’m not sure I intended it to be a book about social justice per se, but I definitely wanted to shine a light on how human trafficking and slavery still exist in the modern world. It’s a grisly business, preying on the poorest and weakest members of society – those helpless to fight back.

Click here to purchase

ASW:  You are also a very prolific poet. Share with us how you decide whether a writing idea transforms into a poem or prose work. Or does the muse decide for you?

LB: My mom asked me a similar question once. And I told her that the works come to me in the form they’re meant to be in. So I suppose the answer to the question is that the muse decides. Poems arrive in sudden bursts of inspiration for me, typically, with the first lines in place. Stories arrive as images and larger ideas that develop over time.

ASW: Let’s also chat for a moment about your role as editor-in-chief of the literary journal, Conclave: A Journal of Character. How long have you been at the helm of this journal and what is the primary mission of Conclave?

LB:  Our first issue of Conclave released in February 2016, so we’ve been working on the journal for over three years now. The mission of Conclave is two-fold in my mind. First, we aim to offer writers an outlet for their poetry and short works that may not be a good fit for other publications. We’ve been stunned and thrilled by the quality of work submitted from all over the world. I think that has enabled us to give voice to many views and opinions and allow readers to see into worlds perhaps previously unknown to them. Which brings me to the second mission. We aim to offer readers an enlightening and emotionally satisfying experience when they pick up the journal and delve into the voices we publish.

Leave a Reply