by Paula Gail Benson
Not so long ago, Carla Damron was one of our blogging partners here at Writers Who Kill. Today, she’s retired from a career as a social worker and is writing full time, which is great for all of us who love her work.
How Carla Spends Her Spare Time
I first met Carla as a member of a local writing group. Together, we’ve critiqued each other’s stories, served in leadership positions with the local Sisters in Crime chapter, and had some terrific times with extraordinary people.
Literary Titan described her recent novel on human trafficking, The Orchid Tattoo, as an “emotionally charged crime mystery filled with suspense and thrilling twists. It is a story that will stay in your mind for a long time after reading and will force you to question why we aren’t discussing the atrocities of human trafficking more often.”
I thought it was time to catch up with our friend and find out more about her life and work. Welcome back to Writers Who Kill, Carla!
What drew you to study psychology in college and how has that benefited your writing?
I’ve always been fascinated with how the mind works, so psychology was the right fit for me. As a writer, I love to explore the complexities of relationships and family dynamics, which draws from my social work and psychology backgrounds.
At what point did you decide to become a social worker?
Right out of a college, I got a job at a small mental health clinic where I worked with several social workers (my salary was a stunning $9,900 a year!!!). These clinicians taught me so much—I especially loved how the social work field views the person within the systems that affect them, including families, communities, and cultures. So I soon realized this was the right career path for me.
In your social work career, you served in various capacities and venues. You worked directly with clients then later shepherded an association and planned conferences. What were some of your most memorable moments?
I’ve worked with some fascinating clients who taught me more than any textbook ever did. Mostly they showed me the power of resilience and recovery, which I love to explore in my writing.
Later in my career, when I worked for the National Assn. of Social Workers, I spent time doing advocacy, which meant spending time with other advocates and policy makers.
I also visited the statehouse watching the “sausage” get made. I remember sitting in the gallery when legislators were debating the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. One elderly representative fighting the removal kept proposing ridiculous amendments to delay the process. It was exhausting. And annoying. Suddenly, out of the blue, my phone decides to speak—Siri says, loudly, “I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE SAYING!” in the middle of the Representative’s rant. I thought for sure they would kick me out, but instead we all just laughed.
What drew you to work with human trafficking victims?
I never did direct practice with survivors except for one mental health client. But during my advocacy work for stronger anti-trafficking legislation, I met survivors, advocates, law enforcement officers involved in combatting this crime. I heard story after story of how this crime ruins lives. I learned how common it was, right here in South Carolina, and how certain groups (like foster kids) are especially vulnerable. Emotionally, I needed to write about it. As an advocate, I needed to tell people what I’d learned.
Did it surprise you how pervasive human trafficking is?
Absolutely. There are 40.3 million human trafficking victims globally, and it is a 150-billion-dollar industry. In the US, there have been 40,000 cases reported to the Human Trafficking Hotline over the past ten years—and that’s a huge undercount. In South Carolina, the state human trafficking task force reports 277 known victims in 2022. Imagine what we don’t know about. It’s stunning. People can read more about it at www.polarisproject.org or www.a21.org.
Your protagonist in The Orchid Tattoo, or perhaps I should call Georgia Thayer one of your leading characters, is a social worker who is determined to find out what has happened to her missing sister. While strong and resilient, Georgia must cope with her own mental illness. How did you develop Georgia? Did she come to you as your mystery series protagonist Caleb Knowles did, a complete person, or did she evolve?
Georgia has been knocking around in my brain for several years, it just took a while to find her story. I wanted a protagonist who is feisty, smart, and struggling. Georgia hears voices but doesn’t let her mental illness define her. I thought it was important for a character in the mystery genre who has mental illness to NOT be a villain, but is a hero. Or rather, a shero! She’s also very flawed, or rather, very human, which makes her fun to write.
Kitten, the trafficking victim in The Orchid Tattoo, incredibly combats some truly tragic situations. How did you find the strength to write about her ordeal? How did you manage to keep readers engaged with her story?
Kitten never gives up. That’s what readers connect with. She is determined to escape the traffickers and never lets that awful life take her soul. You are right, she undergoes several challenging ordeals, but her quest for freedom is what keeps her going. I didn’t want her to be a tragic figure, I wanted her to be, in her own way, a warrior.
Why did you feel it was necessary to include a point of view from Lillian, the former victim who now works for the traffickers?
Because that happens in trafficking organizations. Some victims identify with the trafficker as a survival technique, and I wanted to explore that. Lillian is a victim who ends up running a brothel—and her evolution becomes an important engine in this story. Readers seem very fascinated with her.
As you’ve learned about human trafficking, you’ve worked with organizations that support victims. Could you tell us about those groups and how proceeds from The Orchid Tattoo are helping victims?
Doors to Freedom, a low-country organization, helps survivors of trafficking by giving them housing, counseling, rehabilitation, and job skills. I’m donating part of my royalties to them. Also, the survivors make jewelry!! I’ve been selling their bracelets at book events for them. 100% of money made goes to the artist. Folks can order them here: https://www.doorstofreedom.com/herbracelets
What’s on the horizon? Anything new planned for Caleb Knowles or the characters in The Orchid Tattoo?
Caleb is BACK!!! The fourth in this mystery series comes out later this year. In Justice Be Done, Caleb tries to solve a murder that happens during race riots spawned by a hate crime.
I’m also drafting the sequel to The Orchid Tattoo—those characters stayed with me and wanted to be heard from again. Funny how that works!
Carla Damron is a social worker, advocate and author whose last novel, The Orchid Tattoo, won the 2023 winter Pencraft Award for Literary Excellence. Her work The Stone Necklace (about grief and addiction) won the 2017 Women’s Fiction Writers Association Star Award for Best Novel and was selected the One Community Read for Columbia SC.Damron is also the author of the Caleb Knowles mystery novels, including Justice Be Done, the fourth in this series. She holds an MSW and an MFA. Her careers of social worker and writer are intricately intertwined; all of her novels explore social issues like addiction, homelessness, and mental illness.