It doesn’t matter how sadly frequent the phenomenon: when a school shooting makes the news, when the photos of stunned students and anecdotes from shaken eyewitnesses begin to surface, we can’t help but ask, “What kind of person does something like this?” From the instant such a crime is committed, a murderer is considered to be not a son, or a friend, or a student, but a monster. And often for very good reasons.
But there is always more to the story. “One thing that I always hated about news articles after school shootings is that they always focused on one aspect – music, or video games, or gun control,” said Florida-based YA author Shaun David Hutchinson (The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley). “You never know who the shooter is.”
For years Hutchison had toyed with the idea of telling the story of a violent crime from multiple points of view; when, in 2013, he began working with Amy Boggs of Donald Maass Literary Agency, he started exploring what it might mean to illustrate a school shooting in such a way. There was only one hitch: “doing 10 or 12 different voices felt beyond my comfort zone,” he said. “I feared that they’d all come out sounding at least a little bit like me.”
With Boggs’s help, he began researching the project, pouring over the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education’s Safe School Initiative report, a study of 37 school shootings going back to 1974, compiled in the wake of the 1999 Columbine tragedy. “It said there was no way to create a useful and realistic profile of who a school shooter might end up being,” Hutchison said. “They come from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds – some were bullies... some were bullied.” He was especially struck by one statistic: each of the attacks mentioned in the report was carried out by a young man.
So he sketched out the tale of Kirby Matheson, who opened fire in his school gym, killing six and injuring five others. At the same time, he compiled a list of fellow YA authors that he either knew personally or admired. Then, in a proposal, he laid out his vision of a single story told from many points of view – each one crafted by a different writer.
Hutchison and Boggs sent the proposal to Michael Strother, Hutchison’s editor at Simon Pulse, and Strother immediately sprung into action, pulling together an offer in 24 hours. “I thought this was such an original and important story to tell,” Strother said. The threat of gun violence is a reality in schools, he said, and the book provides an opportunity to look beyond the headlines to the range of emotions. “[YA] allows teens to work through feelings and emotions by seeing a different point of view,” he added. “To me, that’s very important.”
Hutchison’s initial fears that the project might not appeal to some of the well-known writers on his list – among them Steve Brezenoff (Guy in Real Life), Neal Shusterman (Unwind), and Courtney Summers (Cracked Up to Be) – were unfounded. “Every single writer on there is a writer whose books I have and whose works I admire,” he said. “I’d expected that 40% would say yes, and it was more like 90%.”
Once on board, the collaborators used the online organizational tool Trello to confer about major plot points, so that the stories of Kirby’s friends, family, classmates, and distant acquaintances would wind seamlessly around one another. “I did broad strokes – here’s how old he is, here’s the car he drives,” Hutchinson said. “I didn’t want to curtail their creativity or fill in too many blanks.” When the chapters began coming in, the writing, he said, far exceeded his expectations: “I was blown away.”
Violent Ends, which will be released on September 1, does flow – as is advertised – like a novel in 17 chapters. Names, locations, major events, and seemingly incidental details are equally consistent across the various narratives, providing a sense of immediacy and of place. In some stories, Kirby comes off as an angry, disaffected young man; in others, he’s thoughtful, even sweet. “There are people who saw Kirby as a great guy, says Strother. “People that bullied him and were nice to him, that loved him, and didn’t really know him.”
The only voice missing, in fact, is Kirby’s own – a tough decision, says Hutchinson, but ultimately the right one for the goal of the book, which is to illustrate the incredible complexity of each of these tragedies. “If we’d written from his point of view, it would have muddied everything,” he says. “By the point where he made the decision to commit this act of violence, he wouldn’t have thought himself a nice person, a sweet person. The only way to really get his story is from the people who knew him.”
Violent Ends. Edited by Shaun David Hutchison. Simon Pulse, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-4814-3745-3