Author's "Gray Zone" sheds light on dark subject

LOS ANGELES Wed Jul 27, 2011 12:57pm EDT

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Daphna Ziman is on a mission to help foster children, and she's picked a novel way to do it -- novel, being the key word.

Ziman, a Los Angeles-based philanthropist and activist for kids placed in foster care, has written a fictional novel, "The Gray Zone," whose protagonist was orphaned as a child.

Now, that kid is a grown woman named Kelly Jensen, and she's on the run from the law following the brutal murder of a Las Vegas politician. But with the help of a sharp-minded, handsome defense lawyer, Kelly could clear her name.

Sound like a fast-paced, breezy crime thriller meant for any summer reading list? Well, it is -- and it isn't.

Ziman's aim is two-fold: get people to read her story like they would any thriller from the likes of novelists James Patterson or Harlan Coben. But she also aims to engage readers in a serious problem in America -- the plight of kids in foster care who, Ziman says, are victims of neglect, abuse, human trafficking and sex slavery.

"You can write a (nonfiction) book and put the facts and statistics in it and nobody will read it, or you can take the public, the readers, on a journey," Ziman told Reuters about why she chose to write the novel.

"This way, I could create something that would stay around forever, and maybe somebody would be interested in transferring it into a movie" or some other medium, she said.

Ziman's approach to raising awareness may be a "novel," but it's hardly new. Fiction has long been used to expose truths that many officials might prefer were better left unexposed.

There was, of course, Upton Sinclair's 1906 muckraking novel "The Jungle" that blew the lid off unsanitary practices in Chicago's meat packing business. Charles Dickens looked at the plight of English orphan boys in "Oliver Twist."

STORY GETS PERSONAL

Adding to Ziman's zeal is a personal reason to advocate for foster kids. She has adopted two daughters out of the system and founded nonprofit group Children Uniting Nations, to raise money and awareness about issues impacting kids.

Not all kids are victimized by foster parents, of course, but the number who are is hard to determine because they don't speak out publicly as kids. Moreover, many of their cases are discussed behind closed doors by adult guardians and government officials, hence the title "The Gray Zone," Ziman said.

But back to the book. It begins with Kelly Jensen working in a Vegas nightclub as a celebrity impersonator. After a local politician turns up dead, Kelly meets handsome Los Angeles attorney Jake Brooks and together, the pair embark on an adventure that exposes unspeakable crimes.

Ziman wrote the book, she said, as much as a catharsis when she was coming off a bad divorce as a way to help kids. In a way, she figured, she'd get two things done at once -- advocate for kids and exorcise her own demons.

"I thought if I was going to write about Kelly, I could vicariously live through my characters, and if she could overcome such monumental obstacles, then my obstacles seemed minor in comparison," Ziman said.

Whether Ziman succeeds at reaching readers and telling them about a serious problem with "Gray Zone" remains to be seen, but she is off to a good start with the novel making several best-seller lists.

And even if it doesn't, there's no stopping her activist spirit. On Thursday, (July 28), Children Uniting Nations, is holding a one-day forum in Washington, D.C. to discuss new laws that could better serve kids in America and open up all those closed-door meetings.

Moreover, she's also decided that, post divorce, she has a new career ahead of her -- author.

"I'm finding that going into the worlds I'm creating is hugely therapeutic," she said. "This swan is emerging and somehow the ugly duckling is not popping up as often."

(Editing by Jill Serjeant)

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