February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Worlds Turned Upside Down: Marieke Nijkamp on School Shootings and “This Is Where It Ends”

Photo courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Photo courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Marieke Nijkamp’s gripping debut novel, publishing on January 5, spans the 54 minutes that students are held hostage in an auditorium during a school shooting. Narrated by four characters with ties to the shooter—his sister, her girlfriend, an adversary, and the shooter’s ex-girlfriend—Nijkamp uses flashbacks to explore the characters’ backgrounds as well as to piece together what led up to this devastating event full of terror and bravery. “Teen Librarian Toolbox” blogger Amanda MacGregor caught up with Nijkamp and discussed her inspirations and research.

What inspired you to write This Is Where It Ends (Sourcebooks, 2016)?

Several high profile school shootings, and a deep longing to understand not only the situation but especially the human aspect of it. I wanted to understand the stories of a school shooting. And This Is Where It Ends allowed me to create and explore those stories.

What research did you have to do for your novel?

A lot. As I started out with this story, I felt thoroughly overwhelmed and I knew I had to really delve into the details to be able to write this respectfully. So for every hour I spent writing, I spent (at least) another researching. I read firsthand accounts of shootings, I listened to 911 calls, I plowed through hundreds of pages of investigative reports, I talked to people, I kept up with news and social media feeds as active shooter situations emerged, I familiarized myself with the psychology of being held at gunpoint. As much as possible, I immersed myself in what we know about school shootings (which is both a lot and not a lot at all). And I tried to translate that to the book.

At the same time, of course, [this novel] is still fiction. A lot of my research informed the writing, but at the same time it’s not nonfiction. It’s a story about four teens in a harrowing situation whose world is being turned upside down. So I allowed for that, too, in the way the story unfolded. But I wanted to ensure that any poetic license remained respectful to real life.

Did any of your research help you better understand the psychology behind these events? And how did that play into the creation of Tyler, the shooter?

There are a few characteristics that hold true for almost all shooters. First, shootings rarely happen impulsively; they’re almost always planned in advance. Second, in 80 percent [of the cases], one or more students knew beforehand the shooting was going to occur. Third, almost all of the shooters are male. Beyond that, we don’t have an accurate profile that fits most shooters. Most struggled with feelings of loss or depression, and most were bullied. But at the same time, most students who struggle with loss or who are bullied never become shooters. The point is, there is no consistent profile. It can be anyone from students who were part of the popular crowd to loners, from honor roll students to troublemakers.

Which meant Tyler, at first, was a puzzle to me. I used some of those characteristics to help me re-create certain pieces, but I mostly used the other characters. Because from the start, Tyler was more than the shooter alone. He was also a brother, a boyfriend, a student. So I wanted to use those other characters to figure out how they related to Tyler and he to them.

You include text messages, tweets, and blog posts in between chapters. What do you feel these social media aspects add to the story?

The social media aspects were a relatively late addition to the story. While I did my research, one of the things that stood out to me was that social media allows us a very close look at these shootings, with tweets and blog posts occurring as the shootings were unfolding. At the same time, however, that all too often leads to a dehumanization of the shootings, too. Many of those tweets were met with scorn instead of empathy, [in addition to] reporters fishing for information. And I wanted to portray that in the story as well, because it is all part of the way we interact with these situations.

nijkamp_this is where it endsThis Is Where It Ends has four points of view and a large cast of characters. Tell us about creating your characters and the choices you had to make in whose stories got told.

I wanted to tell the stories of the people close to Tyler, both because they knew him best—and part of that was informed by the 80 percent statistic referenced above—and because they were always going to be at the heart of the story. That was what I wanted to get as close to as possible. And it intrigued me how all of these characters had different understandings and [impressions] of one another. That’s the thing about perspective, isn’t it? How we look at ourselves and how others look at us always differs and there’s a tension between the two. For me, that’s the point where the magic of characterization happens.

And once I knew how all the characters related to one another, that also very much informed who Tyler targeted—because he set about causing the most pain.

Why did you choose to have four points of view but none of them the shooter’s?

Primarily because I felt the story of the victims should take precedence. Theirs was the story I set out to tell. But beyond that, I did not feel equipped to do so. Exactly because we don’t know what makes a shooter. To guess at that and create a profile, given the story I wanted to tell, did not feel respectful to the story or the situation.

The characters in your novel encompass a variety of identities. Do you have any advice for writers on including diverse characters?

Research prepared me for a lot of technicalities, but for the heart and the characteristics of the story, I talked to a lot of people in the process of writing this book, and again in the process of editing it. I based certain characters on my own experiences, but in encompassing other identities, I also reached out to readers who very generously helped me to get it right. And with every step you take outside of your own experience, the best thing you can do, the first thing you need to do, is keep your mouth shut, stop interpreting others, and listen.

Can you tell us a little bit about some of the other projects you are working on?

There are two main stories I’m working on right now. One I’m drafting that deals with friendship, grief, and never-ending nights. One I’m revising, that’s about war and family and the deepest betrayals. Both are entirely different, entirely mine, and I love them so.

See also:
YA Book Club Discussion: This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp | Teen Librarian Toolbox
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