I remember clearly the day two seniors walked into Columbine High School in Colorado and opened fire. I was sitting on the floor of my living room, my six-month old son crawling over my legs, as the program I was watching changed into breaking news and the screen was filled with a post-apocalyptic scene of helicopters and police tape and kids running with their hands over their head while others lay dying on the sidewalk.
It was one of those moments in which the world - if not dramatically changed – at least shifted into something new and frightening and uncertain.
So when Dave Cullen’s book Columbine hit the shelves ten years later (and to be truthful, before it hit the shelves), I was immediately drawn to it.
Why this book over others that have come out about that tragedy? I think part of it for me is that Dave was there from the beginning. Part of it is that he let it take ten years to write: ten years gives a lot of perspective.
But the greatest part was what Dave had to say about his book himself:
I spent ten years covering Columbine, and was struck by how complex and consuming it was. So many fascinating people, such rich stories, all knotted together. I was compelled by two questions: what drove these killers, and what did they do to this town? That's what I set out to tell.
And tell it he did.
Last week Dave graciously agreed to talk with me, and we spent almost an hour talking on the phone about the book, about his experiences writing it, and the traffic between his house and the airport. ☺
He’s given many great interviews to other people about the content of the book, and I tried not to ask all the same questions he’s answered dozens of times already. If you are interested in more information, I’ve included some of my favorites at the bottom of this post.
Here, though, is part of the conversation I had with Dave:
I read in another interview that you wanted to be a novelist when you were in college. Did you ever consider writing about the Columbine tragedy as a fictional account?
I still want to be a novelist, but no. I didn’t. There have been several people that have tried that. There’s a place for it. But if you’re going to research it you might as well tell the story. I did want to use the techniques of the novel though. I don’t want to use the word non-fiction novel, but I wanted to employ the techniques of new journalism, like In Cold Blood, the kind Tom Wolfe and Sebastian Junger wrote: a non fiction account that reads like a novel. People would read it because they get sucked in and want to know what happens next. I didn’t want people to read it because it was like eating their vegetables: something you have to do because it’s good for you. Who wants to read that? It’s not that hard to do both. Well, it is, but you can do them both.
When did you first know this could be something much more than a few articles about a school shooting?
Well, I went the first day. I saw it on the news and I wasn’t very far away, so I went out just in case. I got in my car about noon and thought, “I’ll be out there in case it turns out to be something.” But I didn’t take a phone with me or anything, so I wasn’t in touch with anyone while I was there. About 4 in the afternoon, I got a hold of someone’s cell phone and called the editor I worked with at Salon and asked, “Are you going to want something today?” I didn’t even know if she’d want a story that soon but she said, “I’ve got a cover blocked out for you.” So I did that article. It was such a big thing, I knew in the morning that it was going to be more than just that one article.
Joan Walsh was the editor and told me a day or two into it, “You can do a story or two a day if you want to.” I did one story a day for about a week, then did one for about a month, going more in depth. I got involved in some of the churches there, going to Bible studies and such, because that was such a big part of the community and of the story. I did that for a while and then I thought I was done. I thought, “I’m done with this kind of thing. I don’t want to do anything about mass murders again.”
But by the end of the summer, I was frustrated we didn’t have any answers. We didn’t know anything about the killers or why it had happened. In September, I wrote another article. [In this article Dave exposes many of the myths the media had perpetrated about the killers.] I thought I was done again, but about a month after that story I felt dissatisfied.
I hadn’t figured out what drives these killers. And I went back and talked to psychiatrists, and the investigators brought in world famous shrinks and my next objective was to talk to them.
The next summer Jonathon Karp, who was an editor at Random House with a new imprint there, liked my work at Salon and talked with me and asked if I would be one of the original authors of AtRandom. He asked if I had anything I’d like to write a short ebook on and I suggested I do something about Columbine, and he said great. That’s the first time I started thinking of it as a book. That book didn’t work out; it was really too soon and I didn’t feel like I had a great feel for the killers. 5 years later the idea sold to Dutton and then I never looked back. In the end, I went through three publishers before the book was finally finished.
You spent the better part of ten years being immersed in Columbine, not just as someone writing about it, but as someone who was there. How did you deal with the emotional overload that comes with this kind of subject?
Well, there’s the Dart Center. It really helps. I went through the training and got with this group of journalists and that helped. It helps to have advice from other people that have gone through this kind of trauma.
I had to identify first that I had this problem. There were signs, slipping into depression, but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t really know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I didn’t know there was a secondary PTSD - a rampant PTSD – experienced by cops, ambulance workers, people who work with rape, murders - a lot of people who didn’t personally experience it but work with all these people that were in the middle of it and they absorb the trauma from those people.
I didn’t know what was happening to me. Like any kind of disease the first way to recover is naming it.
There were other things then, things I learned to do, like taking breaks, talking to people when it got too much. Putting limits on how much I experienced or did at once. Knowing when to stop.
7 years after the fact there was a second wave [of PTSD]. There was a string of copycat school shootings, and one happened close to my home. I watched it as it played out on TV and one of the girls was shot in the head and I was watching and praying for her for the whole afternoon, and when I talked to my shrink the first thing she said - gave me this dirty look and said – “Don’t you think four hours is a little excessive?” I told her, “I do this for work.” And she asked, “But for 4 hours?”
I realized she was right. So now I don’t. When the Virginia Tech shootings happened, I could not spend hours and hours on this.
Also, for me, learning about the killers didn’t bother me so much. It’s like studying a disease. It’s the victims that get to me. When they did the victim profiles, I turned off the TV. It seemed cold, but I knew that was my limit. That’s dangerous. I can cover the story if I can cover the killers, but it doesn’t arouse the same pain and grief as covering the victims.
The biggest way for me to solve the problem is to finish. The only way it ever stops eating me up is when I turn the final page. There’s no real healing until I finish.
There’s been time when I felt a weight lifted from me – I could feel it getting lighter as I’d finish a section of writing. But it was a gradual thing with this book. About a month after finishing I realized it had been that long since I’d had a crying episode. For so long I’d cried a lot, sometimes everyday, working on the book. And I realized I’m actually a normal person again. The weight of just wanting to get it right lifted. Once it was done, it was out of my hands.
You really have ten main characters in this book. Besides covering the background of the killers and the lives of the victims and survivors, you also cover the planning and execution of the intended bombing, the media aspect, the legal aspect, and the emotional impact. Was the hardest part about writing this: the intensity of the subject or figuring out how to structure the book to include so many story lines?
I underestimated how many characters there would be in this book. There’s more a lot more than ten characters; there are really ten plot lines. Then each of those plots lines had many, many characters. Once I started writing I realized each story line has about three main characters. I thought, “I have 30 main characters to juggle!” But then with supporting characters, I have about 100 characters, and 100s of bit parts.
It was hard for me, and hard for the readers. There was one point about a year before the last edit when I went through and culled the people who are only mentioned once, and it was about 150 characters. Anywhere you see “there was a woman who said…” or “a student who did this…”, those initially all had names.
The problem is, every time you hear a name as a reader you are thinking, “do I need to remember their name?” Wiping them out makes it easier on the reader to focus on the story.
Juggling the story lines, it was hard to juggle that. I was juggling violence, intensity, drama, tragedy. I didn’t want to have too much murder or mayhem. That gets really heavy. I’d say I tried to lighten it, but you can’t really do that. You can’t add humor to this, but I did try to balance darkness and light, pain and joy.
You have to be aware of what the reader is going through and keep them on the edge of their seat just enough - be suspenseful - but not too long. You can wear that out. It’s hard to keep the pacing just right. I had these big charts on the wall with a row of post-its for each of the story lines and I kept moving things around. If in an edit I took something out, I could see there was too much time between when a story line stopped and started again, I’d have to shuffle stuff around.
That became such a bigger problem in the later editing process. I finished the book with 875 pages and immediately we knocked out 75. My editor and I then knocked that in half so that we were left with about 400 pages. Every time we went through it and cut a scene, then I had to re-juggle everything else around it.
Emotionally, there were other challenges. But writing wise, the structure was the biggest challenge. I didn’t start with the structure in place, though. It took a lot of time. I didn’t completely work out the structure until I was well into the process.
What is the best compliment you’ve gotten from writing this book?
I think of all the things, the best part is that most of the people very close to the tragedy, people who were involved in it and several of the people in the book said it helped them in different ways. All of them said they didn’t know about the killers and about what had happened and it put things together for them. It helped them with the healing, and it was good for them to see how the other people dealt with it, how the community got through this. It took about 7 or 8 years for the community to start to heal. It’s never over completely, of course, but you get to a place where you approach closure. That happened about the time of dedicating the final memorial, eight years after the attacks, they were getting closer to closure, and it helped solidify it. People said that the book helped them to see how it played out for everyone else. I didn’t know if the book would help or hurt people, or neither, but it was good to know that for most of them, it helped the healing process.
Many, many thanks to Dave for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to me. If you are interested in learning more about the behind-the-scenes of the book, take a look at some of these links.
And go buy this book. It doesn't disappoint.
Dave Cullen's Website (This also has great links to information on PTSD as well as copies of the killer's journals, photos, police reports, and links to information about the victims)
Dave answers questions from readers like you at Goodreads
What You Never Knew About Columbine: an interview with Dave at Salon
How To Write A Tragedy: Interview on the Hastings Report
The New Yorker interviews Dave Cullen
Interview with The Dreamin' Demon