Author Carla Damron, left, sits with Cindi Boiter, right, executive director of The Jasper Project, at Richland’s main library branch for Jasper’s most recent Meet the Author event. Damron talks about her novel “The Orchid Tattoo” and answers questions from the audience. (Photo by Abby Foncannon)

Local fiction author Carla Damron took inspiration from the clients and people she met during her 30-year career as a social worker to write “The Orchid Tattoo,” her latest mystery novel. 

Damron often worked with people who had serious and persistent mental illnesses. She began writing fiction while she was still working. 

Her novels and other literary works draw from the unique and sometimes dramatic circumstances that real people experience. She wants to educate readers about societal problems, from domestic violence to human trafficking. 

“All of my fiction, whether I want it to or not, is going to be about social issues,” Damron told The Carolina News & Reporter during an interview. “It’s because it’s what bothers me. It just kind of is what my brain says I need to process. And so writing is how I process.”

Early on, she knew one of her protagonists would have a mental illness. Georgia Thayer in the “The Orchid Tattoo” is that character.

“She’s got an illness, but it doesn’t define her,” Damron said. “It’s a part of who she is, but it’s not all of who she is. … We don’t celebrate those stories like we should.”

When she was writing, Damron couldn’t include specific cases or names of clients. But she still drew from them for her fictitious work.

“I worked with a guy who just heard horrible voices, … and he could be very scary because of that,” Damron said. “But he was actually the most nice, gentle man … could be terrifying looking, but he would be the sweetest thing in the world.”

Damron wants people to read “The Orchid Tattoo” and think more, notice more and have more conversations about mental health and human trafficking.

Writing “The Orchid Tattoo”

“The Orchid Tattoo,” Damron’s fifth book, was published in 2022.

It was crowned best fiction-thriller by the 2023 PenCraft Seasonal Award Winter Competition, which recognizes excellence in creative writing. 

Damron started working on the novel in 2016, going through several rewrites and battles with her editors over the necessity of the protagonist’s ailment. 

She uses the character of Georgia to illustrate how some people with mental illness have careers and live largely normal lives.

When Georgia is under stress, she hears several voices in her head: the general, the counselor, the advisor.

“I really wanted to portray someone with mental illness who’s also a hero,” Damron said. “I would say she is definitely based on a lot of the folks that I worked with.”

The novel takes place in Columbia. Several locations in the book are recognizable to those who know the capital city, including Harden Street and Two Notch Road. 

Georgia, Kitten and Lillian are the novel’s three main characters. 

Georgia is a hospital social worker whose sister suddenly goes missing. She meets 15-year-old Kitten while searching for her sister and learns that Kitten has been pulled from the foster care system into the dangerous world of human trafficking. 

She also meets Lillian, the right-hand woman of Jefe, the kingpin at the Orchid Estate. The estate includes a beautiful mansion in the South Carolina Lowcountry, based loosely on the island estate in the story of Jeffrey Epstein, the multi-millionaire financier who died in jail after being convicted in a large human trafficking operation. Here, Jefe caters to wealthy politicians and world leaders, essentially running an exclusive brothel.

Lillian is the madam who subtly manipulates the girls by providing a motherly and protective role model for them while also managing them as the women who will service Jefe’s clients.

“A lot of times girls that have been trafficked, it’s almost a Stockholm syndrome kind of thing, where they identify with their traffickers and they become a part of the trafficking organization,” Damron said. “And that’s exactly what happened to Lillian.”

Damron wanted to show the different types of human trafficking operations that could be part of a larger organization in “The Orchid Tattoo.” She writes about labor and sex trafficking as part of the multi-tentacled operation Jefe has created. 

“The mindset that these rich, powerful men have, that they can just come and … get away with what they’re doing because they’re above the law – that just is kind of repulsive and interesting to me,” she said.

Damron’s advocacy work

Damron started writing “The Orchid Tattoo” while doing advocacy work for the S.C. Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Serving as state director for seven years, she was more involved in getting anti-human trafficking legislation passed in South Carolina. She conducted training sessions, organized a large annual symposium and did member outreach. 

That’s when she got to know Jeanne Cook, a retired social worker and a big fan of mystery novels. When Cook read “The Orchid Tattoo,” memories of her own social work surfaced. 

“The first thing I thought of was all the kids I knew along the way,” Cook said. “You know, it could have been any of them. Any of them, boys and girls.”

Damron also got to know Carol Yarborough, who used to be a medical social worker, like Georgia in “The Orchid Tattoo.”

Yarborough is the current executive director at Dickerson Children’s Advocacy Center, an organization committed to helping abused children through comprehensive assessment and treatment services.

The center runs a trafficking task force for four S.C. counties.

“One of our goals is to make people understand (that trafficking is) a complex issue,” Yarborough said. “But it’s also right in your backyard. … It’s happening in neighborhoods and communities and the foster care system.”

Damron partners with Doors to Freedom, an organization in Summerville that helps human trafficking survivors.

Julia Pittman, who works with the organization, is proud of the work done for survivors. 

She said the group’s goal is to provide a safe haven for girls ages 12 to 21 so they have access to the tools needed to transform their lives.

The nonprofit provides safe housing, therapy, rehabilitation and other educational and vocational programs. One of the jobs those in the program have is making bracelets that say things such as “trust” and “compassion.”

Damron sells the jewelry at her book signings and other events, giving the proceeds to Doors to Freedom. She also gives some of the royalties from “The Orchid Tattoo” to the organization.  

“As a social worker you don’t ever really retire,” Damron said. “… I feel like I’m still a social worker, but my new medium is writing.”

“The Orchid Tattoo” won best fiction-thriller for the 2023 PenCraft Seasonal Award Winter Competition. The competition recognizes excellence in creative writing and honors 32 books. (Photo courtesy of Carla Damron)

Audience members listen attentively to Damron discussing “The Orchid Tattoo” and her work as a social worker. (Photo by Abby Foncannon)

Damron discusses U.S. human trafficking stats and information. (Photo by Abby Foncannon)

Damron wears all blue on Jan. 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Multiple copies of “The Orchid Tattoo” are on the shelf at her home library. (Photo courtesy of Carla Damron)