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Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Monica McGurk of ‘The Agency’ Is Helping To Change Our…

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Monica McGurk of ‘The Agency’ Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

A fascinating part of The Agency’s plot is when the main character, Bree, needs to smuggle the children in her charge out of Turkey and finds herself following the route that many human traffickers use to smuggle their victims, stowing away on a container ship. The conditions, the strain, the fact that this really happens — not just to adults but to families and children — blew my mind as I researched this. Bringing it to life was very difficult, but very rewarding.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Monica McGurk.

Monica McGurk is a C-suite corporate executive who has often found herself in the position of being a female trailblazer in corporate America. She is an advocate for women’s rights and an anti-human trafficking activist. Her “side gig” as a fiction author is a vital part of her approach to renewing her personal energy, pursuing a creative outlet that allows her to tackle social topics of extreme importance in today’s world. The mother of three, she lives in Chicagoland with her husband of nearly 24 years, their youngest son, and two dogs. You can learn more about Monica, her advocacy, and her novels at https://monicamcgurk.com/

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in Minnesota, from farmers on both sides of my family, with humble beginnings. I was the oldest of three. I had some idyllic experiences — it was a very small town, much of my vast extended family was nearby, including my maternal grandparents who literally lived around the corner from me. I could ride my bike to go visit them. And I had a lot of great female role models around me — many of my aunts were entrepreneurs, for example — and a lot of diversity in my family. I was always encouraged to be whatever I wanted to be, with no judgment, which was very empowering.

Reading was always a big part of my life. My parents like to tell the story of how I learned to read at a very young age off the back of cereal boxes, which seems especially poignant to me now that I work for the Kellogg Company! I always had my nose in a book and was typically so engrossed that I missed the bus stop more than once.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

There were so many books I found inspiring as a child! The ones that stand out were the ones that helped me develop empathy and compassion for others. The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom’s biography which recounts the story of her family’s efforts to protect Jewish people during the Holocaust was one. The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller, and Joni, by Joni Eareckson Tada, were such powerful testaments to overcoming life’s obstacles and the challenges of physical disability. I became almost obsessed with these books for a period. I also voraciously read anything by Judy Blume and series like The Box Car Children, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. Mystery, intrigue…young people digging into challenges to solve them on their own — all of that appealed to me. If the main character was a girl, so much the better!

I wouldn’t say any of these works promoted a dramatic change in my life but getting exposed to these stories at an early age influenced my passion for stories that would appeal to younger readers, as well as for inclusion and diversity, which has been a hallmark of my professional career and informs my writing. The Agency: The Norwood Nanny Chronicles Book One, for example, creates a world run by women and shows how these women explicitly challenge and subvert stereotypes to their advantage. Both this and my prior trilogy, The Archangel Prophecies, feature a diverse set of characters that reflect the world in which we live.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Early on in my business career, I was working on a survey that was to provide critical data for a big meeting. The timing to receive the survey responses was tight — so tight, I needed to get some data entry help to put it all in. (You’ll have to remember this was like the early nineties, much lower-tech than we have today!) I had never managed anyone before, and when the temp told me she was finished, the day before the meeting, I didn’t bother to ask her if she had saved her work. She left for the day and when I went to use the data afterward, lo and behold, she had forgotten to save her work and it was useless. I learned a LOT of lessons about planning and managing people. Mostly I learned about the Save button! I am diligent, to say the least, about backing up my work.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

The Agency, first and foremost, fulfills my mission of always featuring strong female characters who are determining their own fate. They aren’t passive observers or victims — they are making decisions, for better or worse, that drive the plot forward. I feel this is important as sometimes, YA literature can perpetuate views of young women as being passive. I strive to make these characters realistic, at the same time — with believable, not super-human reactions to the action as it unfolds.

Beyond that, The Agency’s premise — that an elite nanny school is a cover for an independent spy agency — gives me the platform to tee up some very important social themes. Of course, gender roles and stereotypes, and how women use their power to influence events on a grand international scale, is one of those themes. The legacy of colonialism and its demise — how does that impact people’s identity, and how has the consequences of it led to some of the human and civil rights issues we see in places like Hong Kong and China? Current events writ large — from today’s unprecedented refugee and global migration crisis to human trafficking, to conflicts in the Pacific and Middle East — serve as a backdrop for the action and enable me to probe deeply on our obligations as human beings, the tradeoffs we make and how politics may get in the way of our humanity.

By exploring these themes, I hope to make people think, perhaps lift their head out of our current pandemic woes a bit and inspire them to ask, what does this mean? And what can I do? And I would add that the modern-day plague of human trafficking has remained a consistent topic in my novels. It is woven throughout my earlier work, The Archangel Prophecies trilogy, highlighting its various forms with a particular focus on the United States. It shows up in The Agency in two ways, more focused on international issues and the risks posed to refugees.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

A fascinating part of The Agency’s plot is when the main character, Bree, needs to smuggle the children in her charge out of Turkey and finds herself following the route that many human traffickers use to smuggle their victims, stowing away on a container ship. The conditions, the strain, the fact that this really happens — not just to adults but to families and children — blew my mind as I researched this. Bringing it to life was very difficult, but very rewarding.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I would say the “aha moment” that caused me to incorporate more social justice themes, and particularly the issues of human trafficking and women’s rights, into my work, was when I began researching my first novel, Dark Hope, over ten years ago. That book opens with a child abduction scene. I am very fact-based and do a lot of research, so I asked myself, “just how frequently does something like this happen in the United States?” I was flabbergasted when my search results turned up countless articles about human trafficking and, specifically, the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the United States. I had no idea that was happening and was happening even in my own city. Children the age of my own daughter were being groomed and forced into that life. It was the kind of knowledge that I could not look away from. I immediately started learning more. It really led me to view The Archangel Prophecies as a way to use popular culture — the genre of YA, specifically — to create a factually correct, safe way to raise awareness about these risks among the population most vulnerable to this crime. I partnered with educators and nonprofits such as Street Grace and ECPAT-USA — two of the leading groups in the United States driving systematic change to protect children — in doing so, even going so far as to create teaching guides that could be used for youth organizations and in schools.

From there, it was a natural step to always incorporate social issues in my books. It isn’t even a conscious decision anymore. It is intuitive. And my new novel, The Agency, reflects that.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I have been gratified to receive countless messages from readers of The Archangel Prophecies and of The Agency who have told me two things: first, I had no idea human trafficking was a problem of this scale, and in this country. They have asked how to learn more, have leveraged the resources on my website, monicamcgurk.com, have invited me to book clubs to discuss with their fellow readers, and have taken action to get involved. I love that. And though I know I am a small part of the activism in this space, it is really gratifying to see how much the public dialog has changed in the ten or so years I have been involved. You cannot walk through an airport without seeing signage — in hallways and in bathroom stalls — raising awareness and offering help to victims. Truckers and transportation companies, hotel chains, airlines have all leaned in. Governments are decriminalizing victims’ status and perpetrators — including some very visible ones like Ghislaine Maxwell — are being held accountable.

The second thing they tell me is: I am so glad you have focused on the way you do on women. One reader recently posted a comment to my video I shared about why I wrote The Agency, saying “I think it’s so important to have a ‘women’s world’ theme for our young adult (and not so young) readers.” She wanted her daughter to see that possibility, and she said she knows that “that is what [her daughter] looks for in her entertainment choices.” I find it very rewarding that readers see that need and feel The Agency fulfills it for them.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

On the issue of human trafficking, we need better refugee and immigration policies. We need to continue to decriminalize those who are victimized in these situations, particularly children. We need to hold perpetrators accountable, with more than a slap on the wrist. These are crimes that destroy peoples’ lives and mess with their psyches for a long, long time and represent choices that a child would not willingly make on their own.

On some of the broader issues raised in The Agency — like civil and human rights abuses around the world and the risks that expansionist countries might pose to our interest — I would encourage our community to engage in robust dialog and not lose sight of events overseas, despite all the challenges of our own domestic politics.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leadership is about using inquiry to help people imagine and commit to a better outcome — whether that is a business outcome or a social outcome — and then helping them unleash their own human potential to realize that vision. It is about asking questions, not telling. It is about empowering and holding people accountable, not micromanaging. It is about creating the kind of environment where people can be authentic, take risks and speak up. Most importantly, it is characterized by informed optimism. It is not cynical. There is so much negativity in the world today; a real leader does not succumb to that. They confront the tough issues but dig into meaning and purpose to help everyone find solutions and weather the storm.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Your purpose will find you. I used to waste a lot of energy because I didn’t feel I had a clear career objective. What I learned over time was that by getting to work and setting that concern aside, I came to realize what was important to me, what I was good at, and how that could come together into a life I love. Especially when one is young and has limited life experience, how can you be expected to know what you ultimately want to be? Give yourself the grace to grow into and discover it.
  2. Investing in yourself and your wellbeing is not selfish, it is essential. I had what I like to call my “mini mid-life crisis” over a decade ago. I was burned out. I realized I was “all in” as a mom, a wife, and at work, but I had let all the joy and pleasure get squeezed out of my life because I was doing nothing that was just for me. That was unsustainable. That realization led me to resume writing, which is now a great source of energy. Pursuing this passion makes me better on all fronts of life. Everyone needs to refill their gas tank, in whatever way works for them. And it is smart to prioritize it.
  3. Discipline is a superpower — cultivate it. I am particularly gifted in my ability to focus. If I sit down to write, I can write for hours and literally not move or look up. My family jokes that when they interrupt me with a question, I subconsciously process that question and answer it at some ridiculous interval, like five or ten minutes later. In today’s world of social media and other distractions, I am grateful for this discipline and try to protect it like a hawk. Setting aside time and removing whatever distractions plague you is critical. Monitoring how you spend your time is very useful as a check to make sure you are really allocating your time to what is important.
  4. Don’t be scared to use your voice. As a young woman, I often thought my point of view was not relevant, or I was intimidated to speak up. And the longer I waited, the higher I made the bar for myself; I thought I had to be brilliant to enter the conversation. I had mentors coach me on this point. One went so far as to tell me, ‘You think everyone else is so smart? In your next meeting, grade everyone’s comments on a scale of 1–5, and then tell me what you think.’ He didn’t mean to denigrate others, nor artificially pump me up, but it was eye-opening — a lot of people talked a lot, and they weren’t necessarily bringing a lot to the party when they did. It made me more comfortable sharing my own point of view. Another mentor taught me the power of questions — how questions can trump assertions and advance a conversation, without seeming to dominate it; and that sometimes, by asking what seems like a “dumb” or “naïve” question, you surface assumptions or issues that others may have glossed over. It’s a particularly easy way to engage and use your voice when you may feel ill at ease. Especially when you may be in a non-diverse situation, it is critical to speak up. Everyone will benefit from a fresh perspective. Just try it.
  5. Do something that really scares you at least once a year. I started being purposeful about this in mid-life and it has been great. My “something scary” has ranged from ziplining and climbing the Sydney Bridge (I am terrified of heights) to giving a two-hour lecture about women’s leadership to a group of over a thousand people to hitting the “upload” button on my first chapter of fanfiction ever. It is very satisfying to look back and see the growth you’ve achieved because you put your mind to it. Doing so can challenge your self-conception — your belief in yourself — in a positive way. The more practice you gain with taking smart risks, you realize you will be more than okay, you can thrive. That way, if it ever really matters — if you face a choice with real consequences — you will approach it with confidence.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I am still learning,” Michelangelo.

I am innately curious. That is part of why I love to write books like The Agency — it gives me the opportunity to delve into new situations, locations, histories, and issues as I bring them to life in my work. The other meaning I attribute to that quote is that I am not perfect. It gives me the humbleness to acknowledge I am a work in progress and will make mistakes, and that is okay. Not everyone is going to love me, nor my work, and that is fine, too. That is the human condition.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Ooooh, so many. Perhaps Louise Erdrich, whose work I just began reading and with which I have fallen in love for its grace and beauty and its insistence on portraying people in their full complexity. She happens to be from my native Minnesota, to boot.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I can be found on my website, https://monicamcgurk.com/, on Instagram as @monicamcgurkwrites, on Facebook as @monicamcgurkwrites and on Pinterest as @monicamcgurk.

For those more interested in the business side of my life, you can find me on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/monicamcgurk

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Monica McGurk of ‘The Agency’ Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.