Interview with Jeff Bennington
Author of Reunion
Author of Reunion
1. I felt like the idea of questioning the long-term effects of someone who had been involved in a school shooting was a very interesting topic to ponder. What led you to start thinking about that? How did those thoughts form into a book?
Like many kids, I experienced my share of bullying, but certainly not to the extent that children do today. I understand the hurt it causes. My interest in bullying, for lack of a better phrase, was renewed in 1999 after hearing about the Columbine massacre. After Columbine, it seemed as if school shootings were commonplace. And the fact is, there have been more incidents of school violence in the U.S. after Columbine than there were in the 99 years prior.
In 2007 I wrote a paper in a graduate class at Indiana University called Bullying in The Workforce. That spring Seung-Hi Cho killed 32 people and wounded many more on the Campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. At that point in my life I was considering taking my writing a step further and began writing fiction for the first time.
While writing Killing the Giants in 2008, the idea of writing a book about the survivors of a school shooting reuniting just popped into my head—I don’t know when or where, but it stuck, and I’m sure it sprung from my paper and other thoughts on school shootings. Incidentally, 2008 was my 20th high school reunion (which I couldn’t attend) and so the idea of a twenty-year reunion made sense.
2. I felt like the build-up to the shooting gave me a very surprising look at the possible life of a child who would grow up to be a murderer. I actually felt great sadness for the shooter, yet still anger for what he did & who he became. What kind of research did you need to do to write about his childhood?
Actually, I did far less research to develop David Ray than the others because school shooters come in every shape, size and socio-economic color. I learned a lot about victims of abuse when my wife worked for a child placement agency that specialized in cases where the parents gave up their parental rights to the state. She now has a degree in psychology and helped me with his profile.
In my research, however, I learned that the U.S. Secret Service authorized a study that urged public schools NOT to profile their students. Why? Because they found that killers in the context of a school environment are not always the troubled kid with a poor home life. School shooters are often the ones no one would expect.
As far as why I wrote David the way I did, I knew I had an opportunity to create a character that would show the world what really happens behind closed doors. David had it all: sexual and physical abuse, drug use, bullied by his peers, and the mother of them all, satanic ritual abuse. What could be worse?? It is sad. It is scary. When we think of a seventeen or eighteen year old criminal, we see them as an adult and forget that they were children who for whatever reason, lost their soul without their consent. That’s why I entered David’s past. I wanted to make him real, someone with his own pain and aching heart, a wounded spirit ready to strike like a badger backed into a corner.
3. I’m curious about your characters, they each seemed to have strong enough personalities to make them seem like real people, as you wrote them did they take on a life of their own, or do you feel like you directed them?
I created them in a basic character sketch so that each one had a very specific outlook and characteristics. I didn’t want any doubles. After that, they sort of played out their role on their own…of course that’s where a good editor comes in. It can be difficult to keep six main characters straight.
Do you feel like the characters were real to you as well?
Yes. I often cried while composing their lives. They’re all very broken people. When I entered their souls, I discovered some very dark places, some of which reminded me of myself.
Did you feel empathic to the things that happened to them & the decisions that they made as if they were real people?
Yes. That goes back to why I chose to write this book. My wonderings were based on a bleak outlook for those who struggle with a traumatic past. I guess that’s why Nick played such a strong and crucial role in the story. He has it bad, as I imagine some victims do as well. You’ll notice that most of the survivors changed into someone much different from what they had planned. With Nick, I took that concept and twisted until you don’t know what’s real and what’s a dream, or if he’s good or bad.
4. I’m curious if you knew the direction the book would take in the lives of the victims and the shooter before you started writing, or did they take on a life of their own as you were writing?
All I knew at the beginning was that I’d create a cast of characters that would represent a variety of students who would be drastically altered after experiencing the trauma of a school shooting and then attempt a class reunion twenty years later. The way their lives turned out evolved later after I wrote the first three chapters.
Those early chapters, however, became the foundation upon which I developed the survivors, carefully steering them away from what their lives could have looked like. The details played out as the story unfolded. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at the results!
5. As you wrote the build up to the shooting, with the teasing and torture in the life of the shooter, did you know who he would end up killing & or shooting before you wrote the shooting?
Yeah, pretty much. My character sketches were developed based upon whom I wanted to star in the show. But many of the supporting cast fell in or out of place on an as needed basis…like Nick’s brother and the sweet lady in the city archives!
6. I appreciated how the spiritual aspect of a school shooting was addressed. Would you say that with any school shooting or murder of peers & family that there is a spiritual aspect that is at play?
Yes, of course. The thing is, good and evil is not cut and dry like we’d wish it were. We are all good at times and evil as well, depending on how you define perfect goodness. Unfortunately, many people like to start the goodness gauge from their own life performance, and as a result, believe that all men are good. School shootings are a perfect example that the human race is marred and in need of redemption. What you’ll find in Reunion, however, is not a preachy, you must be saved message. What you’ll find is, a message that there is hope when things appear hopeless…even after experiencing something as hard to understand and contemplate as a school shooting.
Do you have thoughts about the spiritual climate of our country possibly having a great deal to do with this kind of violence occurring? Do you have any thoughts of what could be done about this?
While researching for Reunion I learned a little bit about the history of school violence. I found it interesting that school violence as a whole had a rapid up-tick not long after prayer was banned from public schools in 1962. From that point on, the violence in public schools has gone from bad to worse.
7. I felt like the book had a very honest look at spirituality and a person’s relationship and/or belief in God. How did you come to include that in the story?
If you remember the atmosphere after Columbine and even 9-11, you’ll remember watching a nation turn to God in desperation, searching for hope and answers. When terrible things happen that we don’t understand, people generally tend to turn to God or turn away from him. Nick and Tanner in particular fight against God as they try to make sense of their loss. I’m one who believes that it’s very much okay to be angry with God and wrestle with him. If I can’t get angry with God in my humanity at the risk of offending him…than he is a very small God. I think Reunion covers a variety of ways that people deal with trauma on a spiritual basis because that’s how people cope. Not everyone leans on God in times of disillusionment, but many people do. I couldn’t write Reunion without addressing the spiritual nature of tragedy.
8. One of my favorite parts of the book was how you addressed the teasing & abuse that goes on in schools, & the divisions between different cliques. I remember seeing a lot of that when I was in school and I saw people that I cared about very hurt by it. I remember kids who went to school that could have turned into a David, I can remember a boy who rode my bus and can still see the emptiness in his eyes. When I first moved to that school, the other kids even told me not to sit by him because no one liked him. I always felt if other kids would stand up and be kind and friendly to everyone regardless of how they look or what they wear, school would have been a lot easier for everyone. Maybe the freak or nerd is actually the coolest person in the school, and no one even knows because they haven’t tried to get to know them. I really felt that this book clearly stated that sentiment! Do you think that if parents & teachers were to possibly have kids read Reunion that it would make a difference in how they treat other people in their lives?
I hope so. I’m considering adding a teacher’s guide at the end because there are so many themes that could be discussed in a school setting that are so very relevant today.
What about the kids who are victimized, do you think that Reunion could possibly make a difference in how they choose to handle the pain from being tormented?
I think Reunion is a book that can show that the victims of bullying are not alone and that their pain is not overlooked. I also think that when they see someone like Tanner, an underdeveloped kid teased for being smart, grow into someone amazing, they can see that there is hope for them. David Ray’s demise is one that is not very glamorous. I hope that he is not a person anyone would hope to emulate.
Tanner and David had similar experiences at school. The difference is that Tanner held on to his family and friends and David withdrew to himself… a dangerous place to go.
If there is anything I’d like my readers to take away from Reunion, it’s that bullying and school violence is not about the moment when we see the horror of a school shooting played out on television. Reunion is about the danger of untold stories and how we treat each other based on superficialities. It’s also about how we deal with trauma, our personal fears and the things that scare us to death. The thing is, Reunion is told in the context of a ghost story, so the themes we’ve talked about are so under the surface that you barely know they’re there.
I’ve heard nothing but positive comments from the teens who’ve read this book. Is it creepy at times? Yes. Will you want to keep your light on at night? Yes. But you will also fall in love with the characters. A cute story: After reading Reunion while on vacation, my in-laws said that they felt so attached to the characters that they had the feeling they’d literally see them as if they were a part of their life.
I wonder if your reader friends are looking for a book like that?
Author of Reunion and other thrillers
Kindle Link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004S7AR0E
The Writing Bomb: http://thewritingbomb.blogspot.com/
The Writing Bomb: http://thewritingbomb.blogspot.com/