The Think Piece Interview: Monica McGurk

We knew Monica McGurk when she was Monica Houle. This was back when we were both listening to Duran Duran and attending Forest Lake High School in the late 1980s. I was a year ahead of her and stumbling over basic algebra. Monica never stumbled over anything. She went on to get degrees from Harvard and Stanford, and today has a high-powered career as an executive at Coca-Cola. She also has a husband and three children. Life is crazy-busy, and good. But then she stumbled upon something in 2011 that changed her forever: the atrocity that is human trafficking, which she discovered was happening in her adopted hometown of Atlanta at a high level. And Monica being Monica, capable of things most people aren’t, had to do something about it. So she wrote a novel — no, she wrote three novels — that examine the issue, and directed them at society’s most vulnerable potential victims, young adults. The first book is out now and is called Dark Hope, and is part of her Archangel Prophecies series. It’s a captivating read. The story is built around a Twilight-type narrative involving a 15-year-old character named Hope, who survived a child abduction, and today is dealing with typical teenager problems, as well as having angels fighting over her destiny, including one she’s in love with who loves her back. The book has a magical realism that makes each page strange and thrilling and a beating heart that rages against modern-day slavery.

We got together recently in St. Paul to talk about writing, books, angels, Las Vegas, and the humanitarian crisis that she just couldn’t ignore.

TP: The book was so rich and detailed and elegantly paced, not in a hurry,  clocking in at 400 pages, and you have two more to come. And you wrote it while tending to your career as a vice president at Coca-Cola and three children. How in the world did you do that? Has Dark Hope been incubating for a long time?

MM: Not really. I started it in 2011.

TP: Wow, that’s pretty fast. Had you long wanted to write in the Young Adult genre?

MM: Yes, absolutely. I had been writing fan fiction, and I had ended up writing two novel-length pieces on, and my husband started making fun of me, saying you need to challenge yourself. I thought OK, I’ll stay in the same genre. I had been writing on Twilight, and thought I’d do a book that would be both a homage and a retort to Twilight, because I found myself when I was reading those books, I got so engrossed in them I couldn’t put them down. So I said I’ll stay in the same genre, although not with vampires. I’ll do angels. It was really quite a whim that I chose angels, and I had this vague idea about a child abduction being the start of the book.

TP: What was the process like writing it?

MM: I had the conception that this would have been the work of a solitary pedophile, and as I was starting to research the book I stumbled upon all of this information about human trafficking, as well as the fact that it’s a huge problem in Atlanta. I was shocked. I had no idea what was going on in my own community. It’s one of those things that once you know about it, you can’t forget it, and you can’t look away, you have to do something about it. I thought, This is the way I can contribute, I will make that part of the story with a subplot, center around that, and bring that into light of popular culture, particularly with this genre because the average age of entry of victimization for domestic minor sex trafficking is 12 to 14, which is perhaps the youngest age you would read this book. I thought if I could help readers understand this is going on and they can be aware so they’re not victimized that would be a good outcome.

TP: I have to admit as I read the book that I wondered if you had personally been touched by this horror. Have you?

MM: Not from a standpoint of being victimized, no. But as I learned about human trafficking and the problem in Atlanta, I did reach out to some local organizations, like Street Grace, which is featured in the book and is a real non-profit. I have been fascinated with its work because its mission is to end domestic minor sex trafficking through changing our legal frameworks and culture, as opposed to restoration and victims’ services. It has a wonderful name, and I wanted to use it in the book, so I cold-called the CEO and sort of apologetically said, I’ve stolen your name, I hope you don’t mind, and I would love for you to read my book, and I’d love to learn more. And she read it, and I didn’t know it at the time but she’s since told me that she thought, Oh this is going to be horrible, this is going be some hack job, this woman is crazy, but she responded well to the book, and so we began a dialogue, and I’ve gotten involved in two respects: through a speakers bureau that goes out to the public – to churches, to PTAs, to corporations, to groups like the Girl Scouts — and through its advisory board.

TP: You have such a big job as a senior vice president of strategy development and ecommerce for Coca-Cola. Where did you learn how to put together novels?

MM: I just jumped in. At one point a friend put me in touch with another aspiring writer who had been through the process ahead of me, and I got some tips and tricks from him, but really I just jumped in because I liked to do it, and I had no clue (laughs). I had the story figured out and an outline for each of the three books. I spend a lot of time thinking before I ever write, and I find when I get to the actual writing I can be very fast. Now, I have to do a significant amount of editing on the back end, but I can pump it out pretty fast.

TP: But seriously, where do you find the time? Literally?

MM: I travel a lot for work and any flight I’m on, that is my writing time, and since I was traveling regularly, multiple times a week, almost daily for a while, but since I’ve joined Coke that has changed. And so what I find myself doing is a little bit, and it literally might be tiny, tiny amounts, not even a thousand words some days, but then I’ll give myself a weekend as sort of a mental retreat and make it a writing weekend. I seclude myself. I might feed the kids, keep the laundry machines going, something like that, but mostly write.

TP: And you love it?

MM: I do love it. I would do it every day if I could. I’ve been realizing how hard it is to keep promoting your book. I don’t like that part as much. I mean I like talking about the book, but I wish it would just magically show up in everybody’s hands, and they would read it (laughs).

TP: You have that fascinating and disturbing section in the book where Hope goes to Las Vegas and is exposed to the underbelly of gambling and trafficking culture. That was intense. How did you learn all those details?

MM: I went out to Las Vegas, and met with Tony Hsieh and the folks at Zappos, as they’re building out this entrepreneurial zone in the city through The Downtown Project. What Zappos is doing in Las Vegas, the vision they have and the confidence they have to pull it off, is great. Hsieh was very generous with his time and put me up, connected me with people on his staff, and told me where to go. Also, a former colleague of mine at McKinsey was able to facilitate a meeting with a lifelong casino industry guy, and so I learned all about the syndicates, Wynn Hotel, all of that.

TP: Hope was put in some very adult situations for a 15-year-old. It was a bit stressful to read.

MM: It was stressful to write. I mean it had to be creepy but not too creepy. That was one of the challenges of this whole series. There’s a love story and in many respects, and deliberately, parallels what happens with trafficked girls. You’re trying to show that experience so people can learn from it. Whether it’s because of that or because in my opinion a 15-year-old girl should not be having sex, I had to be careful. I didn’t want to cross the line in that romantic story, which some Young Adult novels do. That was one of the things the editors and I worked very hard on.

TP: I thought you handled it very sensitively. You also touch on so many religious themes in the book, with the story of the angels and the cult and the mythology. How has the reaction been to these elements?

MM: There have been a couple people who have blogged about not liking the religious elements. I found it difficult to write about angels without there being some acknowledgment, whether you’re a believer or not, and regardless of whether you’re a believer in the Christian tradition or Judaism or the Islamic tradition, all of which have angels in them, that there’s some broader mythology, of faith.

TP: You sure know a lot about angels.

MM: I actually have not done a lot of research about angels. I had been raised a Catholic, I had gone through CCD and everything, I knew a fair amount of the Bible. But I didn’t really know anything about angels. So I did my groundwork how they appeared in different religious traditions, what the lore was around them, and around the same time I tried to avoid anything in the Young Adult genre related to angels, because I didn’t want to get anchored on what other people were doing.

TP: What do you love about Young Adult fiction?

MM: Sure. Twilight, Hunger Games. My knowledge of the genre is through my children. We either read them together or I’ll read them before I read them to my children. It’s a great thing to talk about, having a similar literary interest. Some of it is fabulous, like the Hunger Games series. I love the presentation of a values-driven heroine who makes things happen.

TP: What don’t you like about it?

MM: Well, there’s a lot of dark stuff that positions girls as victims. A lot of the story lines center around love triangles. And it bothers me. I understand it sells and it plays to a certain vulnerability in a girl’s psyche but I don’t want books where girls always have to be saved. There’s never a position where Hope is a victim. Even when Michael takes her to Las Vegas, she chooses to go. Her empowerment will be even more evident in the next book, you’ll see her grow and take even more risks, which is pretty exciting to me.

TP: You have that scene where Hope falls off Stone Mountain that is beautifully rendered. Did you always want to set it there?

MM: I had the fall scene planned for Kennesaw Mountain at first actually, but Stone Mountain is so quintessentially Atlanta.

TP: I loved how your shared your writing playlist on Spotify. What’s your top writing song?

MM: “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys, no doubt.

TP: So tell me more about your interest in trafficking. I really love all the advocacy and awareness-building you’re doing on social media.

MM: It really started at home and I was Googling and there was all these stories of trafficking in Atlanta, how young the victims were, and I was floored. When I started going through the Street Grace training program, I remember sitting in this auditorium and hearing the average age of entry is 12 to 14, and thinking, Oh my god, that’s my daughter. She was 11 ½ when I made my connection. I thought how naïve she is, even though I’ve tried to make her wise to the street, but you don’t want to take away her childhood, and how easy it would be for her to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was very motivating to me.

TP: It’s a big problem here in Minneapolis as well.

MM: It’s a big problem everywhere. And what’s shocking is in some of these cases it’s the parents or someone known to them selling the children. There was one story in Georgia where the parents traded their daughter for car payments.

TP: That’s very difficult to hear. Just how widespread is the crisis?

MM: The underground economy is hard to quantify, of course. A lot of our best estimates globally there are to 20 to 30 million victims. Financially speaking, that’s as big as the snack food industry in the United States.

TP: And I suppose with technology, it’s even harder to track?

MM: True. It’s like ordering a pizza. The tracking is very sophisticated, it’s much easier to hide people. To use our modern transportation systems to move them from city to city, to use the Internet to essentially order victims. It causes all type of mental health problems in the lives of victims.

TP: How does this all go so unnoticed?

MM: I think many folks just choose not to see it. We found recently that around 90 percent of the reported domestic minor sex trafficking victims in Georgia, are still enrolled in school, while they’re being trafficked.

TP: That’s mind-blowing.

MM: This means on the one hand, it’s not the people you’re necessarily thinking of as being victimized. On the other hand it means that teachers can be a great resource, if they’re trained to identify and intervene in the right way, if they think someone is being victimized. One of the things I’ve learned is traffickers tell children, if you don’t do what I tell you, I will kill your family. Traffickers pick them up and drop them off at school. They try not to disrupt school as that would trigger social services.

TP: How is this not a bigger priority in our law-enforcement community?

MM: Our criminal justice system is asked to do so much. I know some people in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), they can track cybercrime and they’ve done some amazing busts of some really sophisticated criminals in this space, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that this really became a focus and it took the alignment of the attorney general, and the FBI, and the GBI, a real governmental push to do something different in this space, to make it happen. They’re all resource-constrained. But things are starting to happen.

TP: I love that you’re pushing awareness on this, and I loved your book.

MM: Thank you, and the next book is way better!

To learn more about Monica McGurk’s Archangel Series and to get involved in the fight against human trafficking, please go here:














This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing