Tom McAllister and Elise Juska on Writing Fiction About the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting

Elise Juska, author of ‘If We Had Known’, and Tom McAllister, author of ‘How to Be Safe’ in conversation about fiction reflecting reality

On the 14th of February 2018, a heavily armed former student in Parkland, Florida opened fire at the students and staff members of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, leaving seventeen dead. The Parkland shooting has unleashed a renewed wave of protest against gun violence with the survivors championing the Never Again moment. In a country that is constantly mourning the victims of one mass shootings after another but has failed to pass any meaningful gun control, the subject of gun violence could not be more urgent. Published in April, two new novels explore the aftermath of America’s deadly gun culture.

In Tom McAllister’s How to Be Safe, high school English teacher Anna Crawford turns on the TV to find her face flashing across cable news, the prime suspect of a mass murder at her school. The real perpetrator is found, and the police clears Anna of any wrongdoing, but she is still regarded with suspicion in a town that quickly descends into paranoia. Caustically funny and brutally raw, How to Be Safe satires the media frenzy that engulfs a tragedy.

The fatal rampage in Elise Juska’s If We Had Known takes place in a mall in small town Maine. Professor Maggie Daley learns that the shooter, Nathan Dugan, was a former student in her freshman writing class after a classmate’s viral social media post about Nathan writing “a paper that was really weird.” Maggie finds Dugan’s long-forgotten essay in her files that hints at his violent nature. Consumed with guilt, she finds herself at the heart of a contentious public scandal that threatens to destroy everything she has. If We Had Known is a gripping read that asks hard questions about culpability and scapegoating in the wake of a crime.

The authors spoke about writing fiction based on reality, the catalyst behind their books, and wanting their novels to be known as more than the “mass shooting books.”

Tom McAllister: Elise, the first question (that people have asked me a lot too) is when did you start working on this book about a shooting? What prompted you to? How long were you working on it?

Elise Juska: This book has been a strange journey. I actually started working on it ten years ago after [the] Virginia Tech [shooting]. There was an interview with a creative writing teacher, she had taught the shooter. He had been pulled out of class because his instructor wasn’t comfortable with him. This creative writing teacher was working with him one-on-one but then they had seen all this disturbing dark stuff in his creative writing and she was interviewed about it after the shooting.

That interview haunted me and stuck with me as a teacher. I know you too are a teacher, but just for me the prospect of something coming up in student paper as a red flag that I somehow missed and then something horrible happens (not that she missed it, she tried to alert people and made all these attempts to notify people), so that was where the idea originally came from.

TM: My understanding of the Virginia Tech [shooting], just from mass media was that… they start to blame people, scapegoat people. Some of it was like “oh, these fiction teachers never did anything.” It seemed like the popular narrative became that there were all these red flags that the teacher completely ignored, but it sounds like not the case.

EJ: In fact, yeah she told the police, she told the administration. There was this interview on the New York Times daily podcast with the person who owned the gun shop that sold the gun to the shooter. He was being asked (I can’t remember exactly) if he felt responsible after and wished he hadn’t done it. He said something like the teacher should have caught it.

TM: That’s consistent with how the gun industry seems to operate. Have you had students in your fiction classes who were doing things that worry you? Cause students write weird stuff in fiction classes. A lot of times it’s copying the Walking Dead or whatever TV shows they like anyways. Have you had any problems? How do you decide where that line is?

EJ: Yeah, it’s so tough. Do you teach just fiction?

TM: I’ve done non-fiction courses too. I’ve had two students [where] I’ve been really concerned that they were a danger to themselves [and] I’ve reported things.

EJ: I’ve taught both also. When I first started teaching, I had just graduated from college. I was 22 teaching freshman [composition], [I got] all kinds of incredibly serious personal issues showing up and I was so ill-equipped to deal with these things. I was trying, I was worried, I cared but I hadn’t encountered most of these things in my own life.

TM: And you’re still just learning the basics of running a classroom.

EJ: And I’m totally shy, paralyzed by nerves, and reading about some harrowing stuff but at least the assignment is write about a personal experience and this is the thing that they’re choosing, so they’re telling you in effect. It didn’t feel as much as I was interpreting or looking for subtext, but in the fiction classes it can get really dicey.

How could we write about anything else but what’s going on? Fiction reflects the world.

TM: Right after the Virginia Tech [shooting] happened, I had people asking well, what do you think? Some samples of the kid’s stories had gone up and I wouldn’t have noticed them as being bad or not unless it was paired with weird behavior too. Cause so many stories (usually from young men) have so much bloodshed. There’s swords and decapitations and monsters and it’s hard [to tell]. Not so much now, but years ago you get a lot of people doing American Psycho stuff or Chuck Palahniuk stuff. I feel like a lot of times, the only stories they know how to tell.

I also wouldn’t be able to turn off that guilt if I was that teacher. It seems like it would be impossible not to be constantly questioning whether you’re at fault for people dying.

EJ: Same. I’ve seen a lot of student work that’s really into gore and you think it’s a lot of what they see in movies or on TV and sort of mimicking that. Sometimes just the way that it’s written feels different, where there’s glee in it or just something that feels worrying.

TM: I guess that’s so hard to describe unless you’ve read hundreds of hundreds of student papers and stories.

EJ: Sometimes so hard to know if I should intervene in this case. Have you had to?

TM: In fiction class, I had one guy who hadn’t written anything that weird but he did after one of the school shootings. I think he wrote something like “I should have done the same thing, this guy is a hero” and he was removed from school the next day. I never saw him ever again.

EJ: He was your student?

TM: Yeah, I of course did not know him very well. My interpretation was that it was more a twenty-year old kid who taught it would be funny to push people’s buttons and didn’t realize the severity.

EJ: Circling back to your original question, when did you start writing the book?

TM: After Sandy Hook. So we both had five years after. In my book, the teacher is blamed at first. In the frenzy after [the shooting], they see her name and she ends up on TV. That’s all it takes for people to say: yup, she must have done something.

I was really thinking about the Boston Marathon bombing, there was this social media frenzy afterwards. All these people on Reddit who were studying pictures trying to determine who it could have been, drawing circles and arrows on people. Some of these people’s lives were almost totally ruined. The New York Post just put a picture of two men — who were totally innocent — suggesting that they were the suspect of the bombing. I just thought about the toxicity of that kind of culture that’s so desperate to find a quick, easy answer to something’s that’s not an easily answerable problem. That started the idea of the school shooting… and [the media frenzy] gave me some catalyst to move forward after the shooting.

One reason that people are interested in our books is because they say it is timely and it is, but the Parkland shooting hadn’t [happened] when we were writing it. How long ago did you finish [your book]?

EJ: I finished it about a year ago and I had been working on it four years prior to that. It’s felt pretty complicated having the book out right now. Logistically we have been working on this book for years, you hate to think that anyone might feel that you’re exploiting what’s going on. So have you been struggling with that too? With not being too self-promotional?

TM: Absolutely. There have been times after Parkland… where some people were tweeting out screenshots from my book that [they] felt kind of commented on [the shooting]. On one hand, I thought that’s kind of amazing, you wrote a thing where people feel like is kind of relevant to what’s happening in the world. On the other hand, it’s like I can’t have anything to look like I am personally sharing this because it looks gross.

It’s weird because when I did my first reading from the book, there was a shooting at the YouTube headquarters and I’ve already resigned myself to having to start most of my readings with some disclaimer like I know five people got killed last night, sorry. But it’s also kind of why I wrote it, kind of why you wrote it too. That this is an ongoing condition.

EJ: That’s the struggle. No, you don’t want to be exploiting what’s going on in fiction but also how could we write about anything else but what’s going on. I mean, fiction sort of reflects the world.

Going back to why I wrote it, the story to me was about the teacher: what it feels like to be that teacher [knowing] that there is this thing that you missed and how do you wrestle those feelings of responsibility.

TM: The school shooting for you is a catalyst for talking about some other stuff.

EJ: Yeah that’s what I mean cause I feel like [my book] does get described as a school shooting book. [The shooting] is the first scene, but [the book] is really about the aftermath, on the teacher, and on other people and what that ripple effect is like.

TM: [The shooting in] mine is an eight page prologue and then the rest is all aftermath. What made you decide not to emphasize the shooting aspect?

EJ: So the opening scene, the teacher is just hearing the news and then realizing [the shooter] was her student. Shortly after, the classmate posts something on Facebook that goes viral. Something about what he remembers about this kid writing in class and then she goes digging in her class and she finds the papers. So yeah, I guess that’s just the moment. Is yours the actual scene of the shooting?

TM: It’s actually the lead up, none of the violence actually happens on the page. [I was interested] in having to stay in that really traumatic aftermath where a lot of people, for a whole generation [even], are affected by it.

[Two questions] that I have been thinking about and people have asked me about: do you have hopes that the book will have an impact on any social issue and do you think that’s even the job of the novel to do that?

EJ: I guess in some ways that depends on the intention of the novel. I didn’t go into it, in my head, that I was writing this book about this issue. It was I’m writing a book about my own greatest fears as a teacher that I’ve worried about for a long time. What about you? From what I’ve read about your book, it’s really driving towards the end on a collision course. It feels so angry and emotional and hyped up all the way through. Was it hard to sustain that all the way through as you were going?

I’m writing a book about my own greatest fears as a teacher that I’ve worried about for a long time.

TM: A website was doing a roundup of upcoming books and they said if you’re angry read this one first and I felt very good about that. I was afraid I was too didactic with the book and that it would be propaganda then.

Even if it’s what I view as socially desirable propaganda, that’s still what it is and so it was really important to me in the early drafts to make sure I was focusing on an actual person and a character and trying to build out this person’s life and her voice and her worldview. Otherwise I would have just wrote an essay about my thoughts on the issue and I didn’t want that. But it was hard, partly because periodically there would be some new outrage or some new horrifying incident where the same rhetoric happens, the thoughts and prayers and all that stuff.

In one way, that helped to fuel the project. If I was kind of losing steam, I would write. I would remember why I was so invested. Then on the other hand, I had to check myself and make sure even if it’s a book that had clear politics or views, that it wasn’t a book with an agenda.

EJ: I was also feeling the same way. I found the book personally so hard to get through at times because of what was going on in the world. To have those things happening in the real world, to retreat to fiction and to have that fiction be also this harrowing place where I’m researching the psychology of shooters. It was just at times unbearable to be in both.

TM: How much research did you do on it?

EJ: I did a fair amount of reading, even though the shooter [in my book] kills himself at the shooting so his point of view isn’t in there especially for that reason, I wanted to have a pretty good sense of who he was. As he’s seen through the lenses of all these other characters, I was just clear on who that missing person was in the middle. So I did a fair amount of research there. Did you?

TM: I did some kind of real research and some kind of clipping through bits and pieces of some articles. I read Columbine by Dave Cullen which is just really great. I thought I knew everything about Columbine. It happened when I was in high school and I was really invested in following that story. It turns out I knew very little of what happened. Twenty years later, he can point out the bad reporting and the misconceptions.

There was the book called One of Us [by Åsne Seierstad] about the Anders Breiviks mass murder in Norway. That guy was a real different thing, a hero to a lot of alt-right type whereas the Columbine shooters, they’re in the more traditional school shooter mentality.

EJ: Is there anything else you want your book to be known as besides a school shooting book? Do you think for your next book that you’ll go towards the loaded cultural topic or something else?

TM: I think there’s a certain temptation to suddenly to feel like a certain kind of writer, like I’m going to be the trending topics guy or I’m going to throw myself into becoming this whole thing. That kind of scares me, limiting myself in that way. I don’t have a lot of good projects rolling right now but I want it to be something similarly as exciting for me to work on. I bet for certain anything I would do won’t have the weird, somewhat fortuitous timing of having just showing up at the same time people are talking about whatever the next thing is. Do you have a plan for the next thing?

EJ: I don’t really, I would like to have a next thing for the next book that comes out just to feel that I have traction on something else. I’ve been writing a lot of essays lately. Writing this book was so hard and so harrowing and kind of emotional. I’ve just backed up and been writing essays which I’ve really been liking. I actually feel like I’m a short story writer, that’s where I feel most happy and most comfortable and that’s who I kind of essential am.

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