Fiction in a World of Fear

by Andrea Scrima

Tragedies like the mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, and most recently (since this panel first aired last month) in Odessa bring everything to a stop. As we read the details and look at the pictures, we all pause, look around, and take stock of our priorities and what we hold dear. Writers are no different, except for the work we do. We’re often in the middle of describing a particular part of the world—when another part is suddenly falling apart.

Jon Roemer and David Winner polled a handful of active writers and asked how public tragedies impact their current and future work—projects that may or may not portray mass shootings. We aimed to gauge how writers deal with such landmark events in practical ways and how, if at all, their writing engages with violence in America.


In The New Yorker last year, Masha Gessen described the difficulty of defending the values and institutions currently under attack, because it requires “preserving meanings” and is “the opposite of imagination.” She aspired to “find a way to describe a world in which… imagination is not only operant but prized and nurtured.” On Facebook the Monday after the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, a different writer, Grant Faulkner, simply posted two words—“another killing”—over and over, hundreds of times. Gessen described traditionally crafted work, while the Facebook post is visceral and immediate. Where do you think your next work will land?


Jon Roemer: The Facebook post reflects what I was feeling the Monday after the shootings. But the fiction I’m writing now probably won’t be read for a year or more. So I think hard about its relevance, especially if we keep rushing toward more violence. Part of the job is to be forward-thinking. Just wish I could write and publish faster.

Zachary Lazar: I’m writing the most traditional novel of my life right now (though that isn’t saying much).  I simultaneously have no faith in the power of novels and total commitment to the novel as a thing, an art form, something I like. Mass shootings seem to me to be one symptom among many of our culture’s failure to address meaninglessness, to create meaning, and even though I don’t believe there is such a thing as meaning, the active pursuit of it is essential to sanity. I just don’t give a shit about social media. I guess it did good work during the Arab Spring but I think the role it plays in the U.S. right now is more or less comparable to the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s.  It makes TV look nourishing. Read more »

Unfit to Own a Gun

by Katharine Blake McFarland

I was in my office at the Children's Defense Fund when I heard that someone had shot and killed an unknown number of children at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. I picked up the phone and called one of the top gun safety organizations in the country, and asked to speak to their policy director. When I told him who I was, and where I was calling from, he said, “Wow, I'm so sorry. What a day for you guys.” I digested the misplaced apology—there I sat, safe in my office in Washington, D.C. while mothers and fathers pulled in to the Sandy Hook Elementary School parking lot—but managed to say something like, “you, too.” Then there was a beat of silence that would have felt uncomfortable on another day, like standing too close to a stranger, but on that day it was forgiven because words prove themselves deficient on days like that, and in the face of events for which we are all to blame, apology might be the truest beginning. “So, what are you guys going to do?” I finally asked him, and we starting talking strategy.

This is how it felt in D.C.: even in the earliest moments after the earliest Newtown headlines, change seemed close enough to touch. The shooting was like a terrible wave rising in the distance, but it was a wave that might carry us to shore if we could catch it and the current stayed strong. It was opportunistic, surely, but the alternative seemed worse: to grieve and then do nothing, to let it pass, until the next mass shooting when we would grieve and do nothing again.

So I did what we do in D.C. In my role at CDF, I attended and organized meetings, rallies, and press conferences. I went to events on Capitol Hill and at the White House. We asked volunteers to call and visit their elected officials, and we supported the work of incredible grassroots groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. I researched numbers and drafted statements. I hugged mothers who had lost their children in previous mass shootings, like Virginia Tech and Aurora. I hugged mothers who had lost their children in the crossfire of gang violence in Chicago. This was my first time working on guns, in my first job out of law school, but it was not new subject matter for CDF, who first began collecting data on children and guns in 1979.

How do you get people to listen? Numbers help put it in perspective. If you add up the soldiers killed in action in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, you get 52,183 lives lost. During that same time (1963 to 2010), 166,500 children and teens were shot and killed by guns here at home. That's three times as many children as soldiers in war, and averages out to 3,470 children and teens killed every year. Or, 174 classrooms of 20 children a year. Or, 174 Newtown's a year.

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