Victor Malarek is an award-winning journalist with more than forty years of experience. At present, he brings his hard-hitting investigative skills to CTV's current affairs show W5 as a senior reporter.
Malarek has been with W5 for 13 years. From 1990-2000 he was a co-host of CBC's investigative documentary show The Fifth Estate. Prior to that, he spent fourteen years with The Globe and Mail as senior reporter and investigations editor. Malarek has been recognized for his work over the decades, including four unprecedented Michener Awards for meritorious public service journalism presented by the Governor General. In 1997, he won a Gemini Award as Canada's Top Broadcast Journalist.
FriesenPress has turned the investigation around to learn more about the 5 W’s - Who, What, Where, When and Why of his first fiction, Orphanage 41.
After writing six non-fiction books, what compelled you to write this book as a fiction work?
Orphanage 41 had its genesis in my internationally acclaimed book The Natashas; Inside the New Global Sex Trade in which I detailed the tragic lives of the women and girls trafficked into the worldwide flesh market. Bringing my skills as an investigative journalist, I unearthed shocking evidence of breaking centres in Serbia, where teenage girls from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania were viciously indoctrinated into the world of prostitution. I travelled to war-torn countries such as Kosovo and Bosnia, where I exposed corruption involving United Nations peacekeepers who knowingly used trafficked women for “rest and recreation,” and uncovered scandalous situations throughout the European Union, Israel and North America where the trafficking trade continues to flourish to this very day.
The Natashas is filled with disturbing stories of crooked cops, complicit government officials, complacent politicians – and far more disturbing, corrupt orphanage directors - that combine to form a powerful truth about this modern day slave trade. My treks through the seedy underbelly of brothels around the globe filled with petrified trafficked sex slaves made me realize that prostitution is not the oldest profession, but the oldest oppression of women. In talking with more than two dozen young women who had been rescued from sexual bondage in Kosovo, Greece, and Italy, I learned that so many were abducted from their villages or, worse yet taken straight from orphanages in Romania, Ukraine and Russia when they aged out at 17. What I witnessed and then wrote about in The Natashas shaped the plot and characters of my first fiction novel, Orphanage 41.
In my research for The Natashas, I went to Ukraine and visited a number of orphanages and was moved to tears as I saw what the babies, toddlers and teenagers were forced to endure day in and day out. Having lived from 1959-1962 as a ward of the state in a Dickensian run institution for boys in Quebec, I knew full well that the vast majority of these helpless children faced a bleak and daunting future. Most were being programmed for failure.
What I saw over the years was the stuff of nightmares, and slowly the plot of my first novel began to percolate in my mind.
I wanted to tell a story that touched on so much of what I saw. I wanted to breathe life into characters who bore a close resemblance to many of those I encountered along the way and make them more than just another statistic. I wanted Orphanage 41 to be a moving, thought-provoking human drama, a tale of tragic loss and the incredible drive of the human spirit in its many forms – both good and bad. And, I wanted the novel to end on an uplifting note.
I heard that Orphanage 41 reads like a non-fiction. How much of the book is inspired by true events?
So much of the book is based on reality. As I said, many of the characters are composites of people I met along the way, and in an amusing twist, the initial trek by the main character, Mykola Yashan, into the Ukrainian farming village of Stornovitzi is almost exactly what I experienced a decade earlier while visiting the village that my mother’s family came from before immigrating to Canada in 1911. As well, there’s considerable historical material woven into the plot.
It is well known that you had a difficult childhood. Can you give us some insight into what it was like growing up in an institution?
When I was ten years old, my brothers and I were placed in what was supposed to be a safe and caring environment, having been taken away from my parents by Quebec’s social welfare system. Instead, the Montreal institution for boys was filled with violence, bullying and abuse. For four years, I experienced hopelessness and despair.
As an adult, when I first visited the orphanages in Ukraine I could identify with the abandoned children and see the anguish, desperation and sadness in their eyes. It was all so heartbreaking.
In my book Orphanage 41, Mykola goes out and buys cartons of cookies, books, art and school supplies for the children he has just met. I did exactly that as well. I also brought the toddlers dozens of stuffed animals – a gift from my daughter’s overflowing collection!
What was the turning point that set you in the direction towards journalism?
I walked into the world of journalism by sheer happenstance, responding to a newspaper ad for an office boy way back in 1968. I was hired to fetch coffee and run errands for writers and editors at the now defunct Weekend Magazine in Montreal. A foot in the door! That’s where I caught the reporting bug and it quickly turned into a raging fever. It began with a story about the advent of suicide hotlines, information I gleaned from a friend. My instincts kicked in. I knew this was something important and so I approached the editor. Remarkably, he gave this novice, inexperienced coffee boy a chance! In 1970 I landed a real reporter’s job at the Montreal Star and it was the beginning of my career as an investigative journalist. I’ve never looked back.
You have written some heavy hitting books that expose readers to some serious issues such as prostitution and sex trafficking. What can readers expect from this book?
As I said earlier, much of what I have seen and reported on over the years has found its way into my first fiction. I tackle adoption, prostitution, trafficking and government corruption at the highest levels. There is a line between reality and fiction. This book may blur those lines.
You have published six non-fiction books through traditional publishers. So why did you choose to self-publish this book?
I have always been something of a lone wolf who takes chances. When I was contemplating whether to go the traditional route of established publishers, I had this nagging feeling inside. Been there. Done that, and quite frankly, I didn’t always like a lot of the experience; the gate-keepers - editors with their own vision, imposing their own style and focus; a lengthy timeline imposed by launch dates and frustrating delays while decisions were made. I really wanted the creative freedom that comes with self-publishing. I also wanted to control the marketing, the publicity and of course, receive a larger share of the book’s earnings. I did my research, made some calls, read about self-publishing companies and decided that FriesenPress was the outfit that best fit my needs to go indie.
What was different or your favourite part about self-publishing with FriesenPress versus your experience with traditional publishing?
What I like best about FriesenPress is the way they shepherded me through the entire process in a very simple, easy and understandable way. If there were concerns or questions, Pip, my account manager, dealt with them immediately. It has been an effortless experience.
What comes next for you? What events do you have coming up?
I will officially launch the book at a fundraising event in Toronto. A portion of sales will go to Ukrainian Canadian Social Services, which looks after those in need in the city. Moreover, I have several events scheduled around one of my pet projects, NASHI, an organization of dedicated volunteers that sprang up in Saskatoon. From selling [documentary] One Perogy At A Time, they have built a safe house for vulnerable girls aging out of orphanages in Ukraine. I will be in Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Dauphin and Edmonton over the next few months.
I have also secured a booth at Toronto’s 2014 Word on the Street event on Sunday, September 21. Last year 215,000 people attended the prestigious gathering.
There are also interviews on radio and television coming up across the country.
What is the best way for readers to get in touch with your and follow your progress?
I’m on Twitter @HeyMalarek. I’m on LinkedIn and I can be seen chasing and confronting the bad guys on CTV’s W5. People can also get in touch with me through my website: www.heymalarek.com
Are you planning on writing another book?
I am currently writing another mystery thriller called Wheat$haft. Much of it is based on what I witnessed in UN food relief camps in Ethiopia and Eritrea during the devastating famine back in 1983. It promises to be a gripping page turner with its main character, a relentless investigative reporter for the New York Tribune called Matt Kozar. Similarities probable!
Interviewed by Hannah Monteith & Rasanga Weerasinghe
Edited by Sarah Newton