At the center of Bloomland, the debut novel by John Englehardt, is a mass shooting on the campus of a university. It is a sobering insight to the aftermath of a tragedy written in a unique perspective. Englehardt didn’t originally intend to write a novel like this. It came from building off of numerous ideas. Still, what came of it is an important and original understanding of these horrific events like the one depicted.
The novel won the author the Dzanc Prize for Fiction in 2018. The award was created to recognize daring, original, and innovative writing; all of which Englehardt’s book is.
The idea of mass shootings being entertaining is difficult. The portrayal must not seem like it is glorifying the act, but the writing must be honest to how the perpetrator thinks and acts. Englehardt’s novel is insightful, but never gratuitous.
I corresponded with the author via email about how he handled writing such a difficult novel, what sources were helpful to him, and why this story is important in today’s society.
What drew you toward writing about such a difficult subject like mass shootings?
At this point in time, the phenomenon of mass shootings is buried in myth. We are trapped in a cycle of short-lived outrage, and we keep repeating the same uncritical narratives over and over again. Bloomland was my attempt to cast doubt on those narratives, to try to shift our focus to self-reflection, shared responsibility, and the systemic issue of male aggression.
Initially, though, I was not writing about a mass shooting. I was writing about young adults constructing identity and the promises of higher education. I had character sketches of students entering the Greek system and down-and-out adjuncts. It was 2014, and I had just moved from Arkansas to Seattle. Not long after I moved, there were a number of school shootings in the Pacific Northwest: Umpqua Community College, Marysville Pilchuck High School, and Seattle Pacific University. My heightened awareness of these events, so close to home, made me realize the themes I was working with—like male entitlement, for example—were directly related to the context of mass shootings. That’s when the idea came to me. I was drawn to it because I knew there was a story beyond the one to which I’d become accustomed.
Did you feel any responsibility or the need to follow unwritten rules when writing this?
I think whenever you write about violence, and specifically when you deal with the perspective of a perpetrator, the biggest concern is whether the story panders to the violence it depicts. You have to find a way to un-glorify violence, to not elevate the offender to the status of an anti-hero. And this is really difficult, especially considering all the stories we have that implicitly buy into the idea that the only recourse for a man “wronged by society” is rage. A lot of people have asked me about the Joker movie recently, for this reason. I haven’t seen it, but it’s embroiled in this question: to what extent does a story (irresponsibly) present violence as cathartic and liberating, rather than compassion and the hard work of finding oneself?
At the beginning, I told myself I wasn’t going to write from Eli (the shooter’s) perspective for this reason. I was reading about the no-notoriety movement, about the dangers of copycatism, about all the ways the media elevates shooters as lone wolfs or uniquely pathological men. But later on, I also became concerned with dismissal. When we write off mass shooters, or don’t point a trained eye at them, we’re less likely to understand how our communities produced them, or how our individual choices are complicit in the larger narrative. As a writer, I have to believe that to extend understanding towards someone does not mean you condone what they’ve done. So, my goal became to show Eli’s choice for what it really is—not redemptive, but entitled, sad, and unspectacular. An outcropping of socially sanctioned male behavior.
How did researching and writing Bloomland affect you mentally?
I remember one week in particular where I was writing the courtroom scene, and I was watching the 60-plus hours of courtroom video of the Aurora Shooting trial. There’s a trial in Bloomland, and I felt it was really important for me to understand how these legal proceedings unfold. What initially struck me was how long these trials are, how they happen years after the shooting, and how much they rely on our (incomplete) understanding of the perpetrator. But what really affected me was watching the testimony of victims and first responders, who were asked to revisit the traumatic details of the shooting publicly, yet again. Hearing, in their own words, the story of how the shooting changed their lives still haunts me. I didn’t write anything for a while after watching that. I just cried, then went on a long walk. There were a lot of days that, no matter where I looked, there was something related to the book. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
One thing that got me through it was realizing that cynicism was probably the most toxic emotion to embrace. I had to keep that in check. Because when I started writing this book, I did not think the topic would continue to be so tragically relevant. I remember this one quote kept getting passed around, that after the parents at Sandy Hook were outspent and outmaneuvered by the gun lobby, the argument was over: America had decided that a high vulnerability to getting killed by a gun was just the price of being a citizen. It’s depressing, sure, but it was unhelpful for me to embrace this pessimistic outlook. I’d rather focus on the positive ways the conversation is changing. I think we are hearing a lot more about how domestic violence is an undetected precursor to shootings, and the need for men to reflect on our investment in toxic masculine culture. We are increasingly aware of the lopsided coverage school shootings receive when compared to shootings in communities with racial and economic disparity. We’re seeing laws getting passed that can actually help us, and we need to learn how they work. That’s what gives me hope.
What books or media did you find useful in the research of this book?
One of the most important books I read early on was Katherine Newman’s Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. Newman and a team of sociologists spent three years interviewing about 200 citizens of Heath, Kentucky and Westside, Arkansas, after those communities had endured school shootings. These were pre-Columbine shootings, and Newman’s findings dispel the popular explanations of motive, like mental illness, violent media consumption, and bullying. They essentially lead with the question: “How is it that these communities lacked so much access and insight into what these young men were going through?”
Reading the news, I found the journalism of Jelani Cobb and Lois Beckett particularly compelling. Later on, when I got a sense of what the bigger picture was, I moved beyond media specifically examining mass shootings. Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking was one of the most influential books for me during this time, for it’s vision of compassion and understanding. Prejean acts as a spiritual counselor for men convicted of murder, who are on death row, and this book more than anything showed me how important it is to understand perpetrators, to view them as human, lest we keep repeating the cycles of violence that were handed down to them. Finally, bell hook’s The Will to Change was very important in terms of understanding Eli. It’s such a thorough examination of the way young men are taught that to become an adult is to be stoic, to value control, fear, and disconnection. She shows how this process of male socialization hurts everyone, including the men it promises to empower.
How and why did you settle on using second person to tell this story?
I honestly tried to write this book in first person and third person, but the notion that these three perspectives were being offered by some detached, authorial figure always felt contrived. Then, when I got to the Eli sections, it really didn’t work. I felt I couldn’t give him a platform without some kind of formal check. Writing in second person helped me move the ego of each character slightly off to the side. I was drawn to how it interrogates the reader, prods them into feeling part of the action, and for its tone of urgency.
Second person also allowed me to give the novel a central consciousness, a narrator speaking to — and beyond — each of the three central characters. That’s where Steven, the discreet first person narrator at the novel’s core, came in. Not only does he know Rose, Eddie, and Eli personally, but he feels like he could have done something to prevent the shooting. His presence allows the story to be raw in its anger, sadness, confusion, and guilt. The layered consciousness allows Eli to do something problematic, and then for Steven to step in and immediately elaborate or critique that action.
I am interested (for lack of a better word) in these types of events. Not the tragedy necessarily, but the before and after. I’ve interviewed Dave Cullen, author of Columbine and Parkland, and we talked in depth about the PTSD the occurs after a shooting. Your book, in part, follows the after. Why was it important for you to do so?
As long as we keep having mass shootings, we need to think really hard about what happens to survivors, and their communities, when the cameras and reporters leave. We ask for their stories, we publicly mourn them, and we ask about the grisly aftermath. But who is paying for their counseling, their medical bills? How do lengthy trials, where survivors are forced to publicly revisit every painstaking detail of the shooting, affect them? Who organizes and dispenses all the letters and donations that pour in? What person is that flag at half-mast really meant for?
The memoir Gone Boy by Gregory Gibson was very instructive to me, regarding this topic. His son was killed in a 1992 shooting at Simon Rock University, and the book is about the grieving process, dealing with the bureaucracy of the college, the lengthy trial, his obsessive search for answers, and his eventual correspondence with the shooter. I think we need more stories where people (especially men) describe what it’s like to find a compassionate way through loss
I remember reading that Cullen interview! I especially like the distinction he makes between the Columbine and Parkland students: how the years of shootings and drills this generation has been exposed to makes it so they can immediately spring into action. That lack of surprise is so indicative of how dire things are.
It what ways did this book end up different than you originally planned?
I was definitely not ready for how many mass shootings would happen while I was writing this book. It was honestly really hard to keep up, but since I was writing about this topic, I felt it was my duty to keep up on the news, on the way our national conversation was evolving (or not evolving).
In terms of the story itself, I didn’t foresee the way some of the characters’ lives would speak to each other. It didn’t occur to me until much later that the way Eddie deals with the loss of his wife is actually very similar to the way Eli deals with the loss of his mother—the way he turns inward and intellectualizes the problem. That was a surprising moment for me.
This is a broad question, but what do you hope readers walk away with after they finish your book?
The novel is narrated by someone who feels responsible for the event, and his exploration of each character can be seen as an act of contrition. That sentiment is what I hope suffuses the book. I hope the reader walks away thinking: in what ways can our culture, government, media and individual actions be seen as complicit in the proliferation of mass shootings? What are the ways that we, on a daily basis, normalize the idea that violence is a redemptive act?
For example, prosecutors recently announced that they will seek the death penalty for the El Paso shooter. If he is given this sentence, he will join the other 224 inmates currently waiting to be executed in Texas right now. This, to me, is very sad and frustrating. I’d like us to think really hard about the way our culture, and our government, promote the idea that violence is a valid way to access justice and meaning.
After the prize was awarded, what did the editing process/relationship look like with Dzanc?
The day after I won the prize, I talked on the phone with Michelle Dotter, Dzanc’s editor in chief, about the big picture edits she had in mind for the book. It was really important to have this conversation up front, to make sure our vision for the book aligned. Among other things, she asked me to work on the clarity of ending, and to make sure the storylines of each character were interwoven whenever possible. I worked on these global edits for several months, then handed in my ready-to-copyedit version in December. After that, we spent around two months on copyedits. The book became so much stronger as a result of this process. I think copyeditors are some of the unsung heroes of the book publishing process.
It’s also continually amazing that, a year ago, I had no book deal, and was beginning to think this project wasn’t going to be picked up by an agent or publisher, as I’d been submitting it for almost two years with no luck. The fact that Dzanc published this book in less than a year is a testament to how agile small presses can be.
Finally, the age old question: what’s next for you?
I’m working on the next book, but it’s still in the phase of research, of finding the most honest voice to tell it. So, trying to speak about it concretely would be a mistake, since it’s such a heap of disparate ideas and life experience. One thing I can say for sure is that no one will die in this book. There is probably enough death in Bloomland to last my entire literary career. I think it will be good for me to write about something else.