Interview with Meg Tuite and Doug Wood
Douglas Wood takes us inside the school of a mass shooting and into the lives of some of the children, the adults in their lives, and the shooter. Here is a quote from the Boston Globe:
“Parkland. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. Newtown. On and on: In America, mass shootings have become so familiar that they seem to follow the same sad script.
He will be a man, or maybe still a boy.
He will have a semiautomatic rifle — an AR-15, or something like it — and several high-capacity magazines filled with ammunition.
The weapon will have been purchased legally, the background check no obstacle.
He will walk into a school, or a concert, or an office building.
And he will open fire into a crowd of innocents.
Even as he’s still firing — crack crack crack — word will begin to spread. Survivors huddled in closets or behind bandstands will send pictures, text messages, and videos into a world that is again aghast.
Televisions will play the videos recorded amid the carnage, the sound somehow worse than the images. The fear in the victims’ voices will be familiar, yet too potent — a sound outside the boundaries of our own empathy.
We will hear about the heroes: Teachers who barricaded their classrooms or threw themselves between their students and the gunfire; concertgoers who shielded strangers as bullets plowed into their backs.
And we will hear about him: He was strange and troubled and cruel to animals; he’d shown signs of mental illness; he lost his job; he beat his wife.
A chorus will rise to ask why anybody should own such a weapon, much less someone so obviously troubled; another chorus will accuse the first of politicizing tragedy. Some will point to the Second Amendment, and blame a lack of treatment for the mentally ill.
Politicians, and then the president, will emerge. Some will plead for new laws. More will ask only for thoughts and prayers. Some will not mention guns at all.
Any promises will be broken. Beyond the shattered orbit of the school or church or concert that became a shooting gallery, the whole thing will recede too soon into memory.”
What propelled you to take up this difficult, but prescient subject for a story?
I’ve been working on Riverbend Anthology for a few years actually, and while the story may seem prescient, it’s not. Remember the Las Vegas shooting? Remember Riverside? Remember Pulse nightclub? All of those mass murders and more have happened since I started working on Riverbend. Each time the nation is shocked and outraged, and there’s a candle light vigil with thoughts and prayers, but gradually another headline comes to the fore of the national conscience, as it must. And then a few months later there’s another mass shooting and once again we’re shocked.
This is our new normal. If a school year went by and none of our children were killed in a mass shooting, that would be unusual.
I am a parent, so these horrible events wouldn’t let me go. I don’t really write much non-fiction and there is already a lot of fantastic, nuanced, beautiful non-fiction that answers questions about mass shootings. But fiction raises questions: What happens to a community when the unspeakable occurs? How as human beings do we go on with our lives after a horrific loss? Will we ever feel joy again? What does forgiveness look like? Healing? And so from an artistic perspective, I felt my job was to learn what I could and properly describe the situation without drawing conclusions, which is the reader’s job.
I also wanted to write something that wasn’t simply an emotional gut punch. It’s tricky because the pain in this scenario is so present, but how could I craft a story that moved through that and into a different layer?
With this in mind, I thought the best way to approach this story would be to go deep rather than wide. By which I mean avoiding the Conflict/Action/Resolution, linear storytelling for this piece and tell it as a mosaic of smaller tales. By presenting the shooting at the top and showing it from multiple perspectives—some near, some far; some in the past, some drawn way out into the future; some beyond the grave looking back—it opened up the story so that I had room to tell it.
How did you decide which characters to explore and where to place them in the story?
In the early 20th century, Edgar Lee Masters wrote Spoon River Anthology, a series of interrelated poems told from multiple perspectives of people that were buried in the Spoon River cemetery. The spirits look back on how they died or their choices in life. The conceit allows Masters to move beyond death, to telescope years into the future or past, or to sit with one crucial moment. Some of Spoon River is told from the collective point of view of the town folk in a more formal sort of voice.
In Riverbend Anthology, the town itself is the protagonist, so I bookend the story with the town’s wide perspective (with a hint of Masters’ lyrical voice), before introducing the individuals that live there. That settled, I tried to draw out as many different emotional and intellectual perspectives as I could, trying to find the right voices that would be emotionally true, unexpected, and further the readers’ understanding of this mass shooting instead of simply playing on their emotion or horror. To let the characters speak without imposing my bossy, authorial agenda on them.
I knew I needed to keep a light touch with presenting children in peril, for instance. Too much of that would be unbearable and exploitative. I had an incredible teacher, Jill Alexander Essbaum (author of Hausfrau), who taught me to write the unusual: You don’t need to say that the grass was green, the sky was blue. Likewise, I didn’t need to keep playing that tragic note of frightened children. It’s implicit in the story and it’s expected. Dwelling there for too long yields nothing. Keeping it pointed but brief is a way to take care of the reader, to hold her hand through the piece, as if to say, we’ll look at the difficult stuff, but you’ll also see moments of grace and forgiveness and together we’ll come out the other side safely.
Lastly, I searched for characters that might allow some humor, or at least lighter moments. The weird old gal that makes the dolls, for instance. She’s one of my favorites. Not everyone in Riverbend speaks like Maya Angelou.
The order of the pieces was something I held kind of lightly. Beyond the beginning and the end, I just tried to break up the more lyrical pieces and the voicier monologues. The middle part of Riverbend Anthology could probably be read in any order, those stories refracting off each other differently. I just picked an order that worked for me.
Was it important to keep the gun control issues out of the piece?
I think so. I mean, I have my opinion: ban assault weapons, ban handguns. I’m not shy about it and I believe it completely. But, you know, who am I? I’m just a guy with an opinion. People don’t read fiction for a lecture. If someone is persuaded it’s secondary, a byproduct. Fiction asks questions. Non-fiction is better at answering questions.
If I’ve stated the question clearly and there’s no easy answer, the reader has to think about it and live in that uncomfortable place. That’s okay.
So that’s also why I didn’t include an NRA spokesperson, for instance, or an anti-gun rally or something. It seemed too easy and emotionally uninteresting. The implication of the piece is anti-gun already, no need to belabor it.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about this issue?
Vote. Donate*. March. Repeat.
* March For Our Lives is the Parkland, FL kids’ organization: MarchForOurLives.com
* Everytown for Gun Safety is terrific: Everytown.org
What else are you working on at this time?
I recently finished my first novel—no mass shootings, thankfully—and I’m starting to shop it. I wanted to explore the love between friends, the limits of forgiveness, and what people want versus what we need.
It’s about a Los Angeles artist and his husband who loan a good friend a significant sum of money. But just for a weekend—she’s got a check coming in on Monday and she’ll pay them back. But there’s an embarrassed apology. A week goes by, a month, and she still hasn’t repaid them. The artist makes excuses for her to his husband. But then she’s jailed on fraud charges and her two troubled kids are sent live with them. And so because of this act of kindness, the artist’s family and his life start to unravel.
The novel travels from Los Angeles, to Vietnam, to southern Missouri by way of Chicago’s Gold Coast and it also has some pretty dark humor, which I really loved writing. I miss spending time with these characters.
How long have you been writing?
Not long enough. I started seriously writing prose in my forties, after a lifetime of writing music and plays. I got my MFA in 2015 from UCR/Palm Desert Low Residency program, which I cannot speak of highly enough. UCR gave me a community of writers that I cherish. I also workshopped with Tom Jenks, who has edited Viet Nguyn, and Annie Proulx, and Raymond Carver, and Alice Munroe, and pretty much everyone else. Tom is a lovely man and generous, but also rigorous. What a boost it was to hear: This is really good. Keep doing this. You’re on the right track.
Who are some of your major influences?
I am drawn to empathetic writing, inclusive writing, kind writing (though bitchy writing can be fun, too). The writers I return to are Baldwin, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Viet Nguyn, Michael Cunningham, Jill Alexander Essbaum, for sure. Is there a through line there?
I often go back to Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry when I find myself in one of those ‘who cares what I write’ kind of moods, which I am quite prone to. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my author/husband James Sie (Still Life, Las Vegas), my first, best reader, who influences and inspires me in all kinds of ways. Mostly for good, sometimes for evil.
Do you have a set schedule for writing?
I am an odd writer in that I have to stop myself from writing. I can write if I have a lot of time or if I’ve got ten free minutes. I can write in silence or with the TV on. If I’m in the middle of a project, I could write eight or ten hours at a go if my husband and child didn’t keep interrupting me to eat and shower. It’s not unusual for me to write a thousand words a day. From what I understand, not everyone works this way. Ideally I would live inside my stories and be a big brain on a stick that someone moves from room to room, to catch the sun. Getting out into the world is what I should have a schedule for.
My lower back and I do not endorse this approach.
You have a musical background. Does music come in to play with your writing?
I hope so. I think music gave me sensitivity to the sound of words, the rhythm of prose. Fancy words are not better than simple words. Music made me trust my instinct to change a perfectly constructed sentence that sounds wrong. If it sounds wrong, it’s wrong. There’s another, better way to say it.
I’m currently neck deep into a new piece (Novel? Novella?) that is partly in iambic. The English language nicely fits into iambic rhythm. (The previous sentence was in iambic: duh DUH, duh DUH, duh DUH, duh DUH, duh DUH, duh DUH, duh DUH, duh.) There are no line breaks. if I do it well, the reader will not know it’s in iambic but will feel that rhythm. If I do it poorly, it will seem like Dr. Seuss or something. Music is to blame for me thinking I could pull this off but . . . fingers crossed!
Do you have a favorite quote?
“The time has come for you to lip-sync . . . for your life!” RuPaul
In order to preserve the artistic arrangement of the writing, this piece has been created with Print2Flash Flashpaper.