Friday, January 4, 2013

Columbia author's new novel highlights homelessness

Janna McMahan got the idea for her new novel years ago on a street in Austin, Texas, when she spotted a homeless girl with a tattooed face. 

The teenager wore cargo pants, scuffed boots and white-girl dreadlocks. What McMahan remembers most, though, were the tattoos. 

Who would do that to a child? she thought. And why would she do that to herself?

McMahan, who lives in Columbia, thought about that girl for years. She wrote a novella that was part of a bestselling collection and published two successful novels, “Calling Home” and “The Ocean Inside.”

Then, one day, she decided to write about the tattooed teenager.

Her resulting novel, “Anonymity” (Koehlerbooks; $15.95), is the story she wrote after learning that most of her assumptions about homeless youth were wrong. 

“I do not profess to be any sort of expert on this topic,” she says, “but it was the most eye-opening experience as a writer that I have ever had.”

In “Anonymity” Lorelei, a young runaway, is trying to survive on Austin’s streets. Lorelei is so determined to keep details about her family and life secret that even her first name is a pseudonym.
As the book progresses, however, readers learn more. They discover why Lorelei has facial tattoos and why she’s alone on the streets.

McMahan set her book in Austin and conducted extensive research there. Especially helpful, she says, was time spent with staff from the city’s youth homeless shelter, where she learned how talented and resourceful street kids could be. 

Before writing “Anonymity,” McMahan had assumed that many runaways were rebelling from parents, an idea she suspects she picked up from movies she watched as a kid. “I figured it was kind of their choice,” she told me.

She learned instead that many homeless young people are on the streets to escape abusive family situations, or because they’ve aged out of foster care and simply have nowhere else to go. 

McMahan says the main reason she wrote this novel was to engage and entertain readers. But if she’s also able to educate, so much the better. Lorelei’s reality, McMahan has learned, is one shared by almost two million U.S. children. 

McMahan’s publisher, Koehlerbooks, opted to release the book now because January is when major cities, including Charlotte, conduct homeless population counts. Koehlerbooks is donating a portion of book sale proceeds to Austin’s LifeWorks, a nonprofit whose services include a youth homeless shelter.

McMahan will give a reading and sign books at 2 p.m. Jan. 19 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.