Tara Fowler
October 17, 2012 AT 04:01 PM EDT

Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down is the haunting story of the Cambodian Genocide as told from the perspective of Arn, an 11-year-old boy who’s taken from his home and forced to work in the rice fields for the Khmer Rouge. There, Arn volunteers for a band and discovers his affinity for music. The decision saves his life, but it also thrusts him into the middle of Killing Fields, where he’s forced to commit atrocities.

Based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, Never Fall Down was recently named a National Book Award finalist. The winners won’t be announced until November, but McCormick took the time to talk to EW about the nomination, her interviews with the real Arn, and the power of a simple song.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congrats! You’re a National Book Award finalist. You’ve been one before for Sold, but how does it feel this time around?

PATRICIA McCORMICK: It’s meaningful for this book because it needs that seal of approval for some more cautious readers, people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in reading a book like this. It validates storytelling as a way of healing. This is all about how Arn healed by revealing the worst things about his past. We all have these stories to tell and by telling them we will free ourselves.

Was it difficult to get Arn to share his story?

Yes and no. He would become that 11-year-old all over again. He would jump away sometimes from the more difficult aspects of it. My job was to lead him back without re-traumatizing him. There were days when the two of us would cry and have to call it quits. There were other times where I would have to stand firm as the witness and show that I could listen to what he was telling me.

Did he ever waver in his commitment at all?

A lot of people when they survive a really difficult situation focus on the wrongs that were done to them and shy away from looking at things that they had to do to survive. Arn is really unusual in that he was very open about his actions as a child soldier. What he didn’t tell me were things I learned from other interviews with people who were at the same camp as he was. He never told me about the heroic things. He never bragged.

Do you have a favorite relationship in this story? Mine was the one between Arn and the music instructor Mek.

For me that was it because they saved each other’s lives. Mek spent years looking for Arn. Arn would go back to Cambodia from time to time and hand out dollar bills asking for this guy named Mek. They finally found each other, but Mek was in such bad shape, he said to Arn, “You have to find something for me to do.” That’s when Arn came up with the idea of pairing the master musicians with children so that the traditional [Cambodian] music forms wouldn’t be lost.

What’s the power of reading about the Cambodian genocide as an individual’s story as opposed to learning about it in a history lesson?

If we think of genocide as an issue, our hearts go dead because you feel like the world is so overwhelming, I can’t personally make a difference. But if you read one person’s story, it calls on your empathy in a completely different way. It opens your heart and hopefully it motivates you.

Were you worried at all about the voice you used?

I was really worried that people would perceive it as politically incorrect. My bigger worry in that context was that people wouldn’t know how smart Arn is. Sometimes with that non-standard English, people assume that the person isn’t intelligent just because their grammar isn’t precise. But his voice is so poetic. He says things in such a way that no writer could ever [capture]. When his adoptive mother found that he’d been peeing out the window, he said “she went bazooka.” The actual idiom is “she went ballistic,” but of course he would say bazooka, that’s just perfect!

Can you tell us about the first time you heard Arn play?

It’s so magical. You’re sitting there watching his face and you can see that he’s transported away from the here and now and he’s just in the music in that moment. But you’re also aware that this is a person where music was used not only to save his life, but was so cruelly used against him. It robbed him for a long period of the joy that he had in playing music. In the end, you’re so in awe of his commitment. He really wants to change the world with music. He wants it to save other people’s lives like it saved his.

Do you think this is the kind of book that should be on school reading lists?

I hope so. There’s a much greater emphasis now on genocide studies as opposed to [just] studying the Holocaust. [Never Fall Down] is really valuable because it’s a child perspective. I don’t know that we have that in the literature.

Since escaping Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, Arn has founded Cambodian Living Arts, an organization dedicated to preserving the traditional arts that were nearly lost during the genocide. Arn and Mek will be playing at Lincoln Center next year alongside Cambodian Living Arts’ master musicians and their child apprentices.

Read more:

2012 National Book Awards finalists announced

Goodreads list: ‘Not Bestsellers Yet, but Readers Think They Should Be’ — EXCLUSIVE

Pulitzer Prize board doesn’t choose a fiction winner. That’s all kinds of wrong

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