April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Life After Death: Susin Nielsen’s tenderhearted novel, ‘The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen,’ explores the aftermath of a school shooting | Under Cover January 2013

Susin Nielsen

Photograph by Tallulah Photography.

In The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, his older brother brings a hunting rifle to school to kill his merciless tormentor—and then takes his own life. Where’d that idea come from?

There were two books of Wally Lamb’s that I pulled little things from. But in The Hour I First Believed, the protagonist’s wife is at Columbine when the boys open fire. There was a line in that book about the fact that one of these boys had an older brother and for some reason it just kind of punched me in the gut, and I thought, “Oh, my god, I never thought about the fact that these people—and in that case, one of them actually was a monster—but these people have their own families. They have siblings. What would it be like for the surviving brother?

Why is there so much humor in such a troubling story?

I can’t write a book without humor, and this was certainly as dark as I have gone in any of my books. What really worked for me is that the story is told in first person. When you’re dealing with a 13-year-old boy and his perspective on life, at that age, we tend to be very self-centered, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. There are going to be things that make readers laugh in terms of his interactions with other people, his impressions of other people, because they’re his private thoughts. So when Henry is first meeting his neighbors and Farley and Alberta, that’s a very natural way to bring humor into the story, even though Henry never thinks he’s being funny, of course.

Did you use humor to deal with the world while growing up with a single parent in Ontario, Canada?

Oh, my God, that’s such a great question! Nobody’s ever asked me that before. Yeah, I did. I was a performer from a very early age. We would try to get parents to sit down and watch a play that I had made the neighborhood kids rehearse and memorize. I think I actually had a little book of kids’ plays that my mom had given me. And so I would force all the other kids into participating, and we would put on performances, and they would involve really bad jokes.

Henry’s family and his friend Farley are huge pro wrestling fans. How’d you write so sympathetically about a sport that you’re not really into?

I was having lunch with a writer friend, and he said—and I think Alberta says this in the book—that wrestling is “like a soap opera for guys.” Suddenly, the penny dropped for me. I thought, OK, that makes a certain amount of sense. Now I understand why people might enjoy watching this.

You got your first break writing TV screenplays after serving snacks to the cast of Degrassi Junior High. Were your muffins any good, or were you a lousy baker like Henry’s sassy girlfriend, Alberta?

That’s really weird that you asked me that, because I don’t think I’ve ever made that connection before. I didn’t make the muffins, I bought them. But the kids on Degrassi wrote a poem to me at the end of the first season. It goes like this: “An ode to Susin, the Brand Muffin Queen, we eat them, we die, then we turn green.”

Sadly enough, after we first spoke, there was another school shooting.

I was devastated by the news. I got a message from a woman who lives in Connecticut that moved me beyond words. Here’s what she wrote: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen has really had me thinking after these recent horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary. One big problem I had prior to reading this book was that I was ignorant of the feelings of a shooter’s family members. It has helped me to pray for the members of the Lanza family who are also suffering at this terrible time.

Rick Margolis About Rick Margolis

Rick Margolis was executive editor for SLJ.

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