A Conversation with Dave Cullen

By Danielle Harris

How did you become so involved with the shootings at Columbine? What motivated you to begin writing the book?
It was strictly by chance. I was just dipping my feet back into journalism when it happened, and I caught early word of the shooting on local TV in the first hour. So I drove out there, just in case it turned into something. I never expected that.
I kept trying to move on the first several months, but the story kept pulling me back. It had such an impact on the country, and the community, too. And I got more and more frustrated that no one seemed to know why it happened. I knew there were answers out there. I had to find them.

How long did it take to write Columbine and what was the process like? Were there ever times you wanted to give up?
All told, it took most of the ten years between the attack and publication. (And then months touring and back into it for an Afterword for the paperback.) It was rough. I struggled through two bouts of secondary PTSD and went deeply into debt. But I also loved writing it, figuring out the mysteries behind it, and figuring out how to make it work as a book. There was a period between year 4 and 5 that I thought maybe it was over, and I couldn't make it happen. I tried to resign myself to that, but part of me was always refusing. 

The structure of Columbine is unique. How did you decide on this structure and were there others formatting ideas used before finally settling on the final one?
That was the hardest part of the writing, actually. (As opposed to the hardest part of the research/understanding.) Right after the 5-year anniversary, I threw out everything I'd done and took a whole new approach to the book. That's when I decided to weave ten different storylines together, based on ten major characters. That never changed, but how to make it work was still years away. It was a very complicated process and I actually made some videos about how I chose the characters, and how I structured it. I had to keep the videos under ten minutes each, so it took two for each. They are all here.

The videos on structure are a discussion with LA Times Books Editor David Ulin. I actually drew out some graphs of how I laid it out on flipcharts.

The shootings affected everyone around the country differently. How close did you become to the victims’ families and survivors and their families? Because of those relationships, did it affect your writing?
I focused on just ten characters and I became very close with some of them. It was actually comforting getting to know them. The harder part was the first week I spent out in the field meeting students in shock. That's what really rattled me, and stuck with me to this day. I think it was harder because I never got to follow the lives of the vast majority and see if/how they got better. Most of them got better. That's reassuring.

Did your view of the shootings and aftermath evolve over time as you discovered the truth?
Definitely. Five months out, I did a big expose piece for Salon, which they subtitled "Everything you know is wrong." I was shocked by what I found out writing it. And that was only the start. The big thing for me became getting to the psychologists. I realized at one point that I was not an expert on mass murders and needed to find people who were.

Did your personal values and political leanings affect your writing?
Not that I'm aware of. I tried to keep politics out of it--eg, not to get into the gun control debate. Better to leave that stuff to the readers. I tried to step back on the people involved, too, and let the reader make the judgments.

If you could go back and change anything about Columbine, would you?    
I'd change just about everything. If I could stop it from happening, I'd do that, of course. 

And finally, do you have any advice for fledgling writers? 
Do I! Haha. I have all sorts of advice, and I'm compiling some of the stuff I've written over the years to get up on my website. (I'll probably start with a blog post very soon.)

The biggest, and simplest thing, though, is to write—constantly. If you're not writing six days a week, you're cheating yourself. (I give myself Sunday off. Everyone needs a break. Pick yours.) Every musician practices their scales and limbers up their fingers/lungs/whatever every day. Every athlete does the same during the season. You can't just pick up a paper cold and expect great things to come out.

If you write six days a week, you may well write something good one or two of those. If you write one day a week, you'll never do anything good. You'll always be warming up.

The fastest way to get better is to write more.

The next most important thing is getting help. That means taking classes, reading books, joining a writer's group and getting feedback. And most of all, listening to the feedback. Really listening. If you're defending, you're not hearing. You don't have to listen to the dumbasses, but if you're not listening to anyone, you're kidding yourself.

Also, try writing in different forms. If you're a journo, you really need to take some creative writing classes and write some fiction. Fiction writers should try narrative nonfiction, and poetry, and maybe acting.

There are also some great books out there for writers. The two I recommend most are Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft and The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers. I liked the second one so much that I lobbied the author, Betsy Lerner, to be my agent. She eventually said yes. She totally gets writers. It's coming out in a tenth anniversary revised edition Oct. 5.

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