On my Agatha Award nominees panel for Best Children’s/Young Adult at Malice Domestic a few (has it been that long already?) weeks ago, moderator Alan Orloff asked me the following: Greg, your book tackles multiple contemporary societal problems. How do you balance writing about such tough topics with ensuring that your work is compelling and hits the right mystery/suspense notes?
It was a great question, and as usual, I hadn’t read the questions before the panel so I answered off-the-cuff (I don’t know why I do this rather than prepare; I guess it’s either a preference to try to think quickly in the moment or sheer laziness or a combination of the two) and while I do like the answer I provided on the panel, the question lodged in my brain and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and thought, hey, this could make a good blog entry, so here we are.
On the panel, I said something along the lines of how it’s often very difficult for people to understand situations or experiences they haven’t had themselves; which is why it was important to write about these things–so that the reader can see and feel, even if peripherally, what it’s like to go through something incredibly hard and life-changing, and develop empathy and sympathy by being able to put yourself into that moment and situation and wonder how would I handle something awful like this? As much as we like to shield young people and children from problems and suffering and so forth (or at least pay lip service to it; think of the children is far too often used as a cudgel to bludgeon non-conformists with), the reality of life is bad things happen. Never think bad things can’t happen to you because they happen to everyone without rhyme or reason or provocation. If one person reads this book and it makes them change the way they think about the topics covered in it, or enables them to feel sympathy for someone else in that situation, then the book had the effect intended. I have always tried to include social issues in my work because it’s important to me. I write mysteries and crime fiction because I want to see justice in an unjust world–and that hatred of injustice drove me to write this book.
And it isn’t difficult to balance the mystery/suspense notes with a social issue; if you build the crime around the issue, you’re still writing a crime novel, just one illustrating a social issue.
Basically, I wrote this book because I was angry.
The Steubenville rape case–there was a parallel one in Marysville, Missouri, that didn’t get nearly as much attention as the Steubenville story–made me very angry. And the more I read about both cases, the angrier I got. It shames me to admit that it took these two cases to finally break through my own societal grooming as a male to finally understand what it was like to be female in our society. It shames me to admit because it shouldn’t have taken me so long to get it, to understand. It took me a very long time to finally wrap my head around feminism and feminist issues…mainly because I could never understand the mentality that women were somehow lesser than men. Women aren’t another species, after all, and yes, the mores and expectations of our culture and society do shape boys and girls in different ways, marking the differences with sexist and misogynist tropes and ideas. I never understood why a girl who had sex was a slut, while the boy was a stud. I remember when the story about the Spur Posse in the 1990’s (I collected a lot of articles about them; I had wanted to write a book called When Stallions Die based around that case) broke and how that also kind of changed my world-view a little bit. (I often say that I spent most of my adulthood unlearning everything I was taught before I was an adult.) When I was growing up a husband could rape his wife and not be charged; as her husband he had a right to her body, and even rape itself was rarely reported (women didn’t want to be shamed, understandably, and it was always her shame, not the rapist’s), if ever prosecuted. I remember when I was in college there were rumors about a campus rapist–the girls whispered about it amongst themselves, and of course, they talked to me about it–which I also always wanted to write about.
So, in the wake of Steubenville and Marysville, I decided that it was long past time to write about it.
I had been toying with something I called “the Kansas book” for years. I had created this town and these characters when I was actually in high school, and wrote a rambling, disorganized, really bad handwritten first draft between the ages of 16 and 23. When I finished it I knew nothing would ever come of it because it was beyond repair. However, I have borrowed characters, scenes, and storylines from that original manuscript numerous times over the years since; and I had been trying to write a newer, better version of it. I knew I wanted the story to start with the discovery of the dead body of a star football player at the local high school, but I never really could get any traction with it. I kept thinking, this is trite and tired and been done so many times already.
But after Steubenville, while also having conversations with my women friends, it clicked in my head and I knew how to make the story work: rip it from the headlines! And I knew the body was one of the players who’d been involved in the “she deserved it” rape of a cheerleader over the summer. I knew that I wanted to make it damned clear how misogynist and sexist our legal system is, as well as our culture when it comes to protecting young girls and women. I started remembering things from my own past, things that made me embarrassed and ashamed and angry at myself. I had participated in the culture of toxic masculinity myself. I’d indulged in petty gossip about girls, and slut-shamed. I remembered a story I’d been told about how a cheerleader in another town, when I was in high school, had gotten drunk and pulled a “train” on six football players–a story I still remember, over forty years later.
And I wondered about that. That story made the rounds–and I didn’t even go to the same high school. And everyone shook their heads and clucked their tongues in shame at this girl’s slutty behavior. Can you believe what a slut she is?
I started thinking that maybe, just maybe, they had gotten her drunk? Too drunk to resist, too drunk to know what was happening? And I began to think that was probably a much more likely story than the one I’d been told. No seventeen year old high school girl goes to a party thinking “I’m going to take on the football team tonight!”
I think it was 2015 when I decided to change how I wrote. I was on a treadmill back them, book after book after book, deadline after deadline after deadline. It seemed like my life was nothing more than a long series of deadlines, one after the other and I could never relax because I had another deadline. I was tired of the stress involved in producing and the shame of missing deadlines, which meant missing the next and the dominoes would fall, one after the other. I decided I was going to not sign contracts for anything until I had a completed manuscript, so I wasn’t starting from scratch every time I turned something in and started the next one.
And finally, in July of 2015, I sat down and started writing a book I was no longer calling ‘the Kansas book’ in my head, but rather #shedeservedit.
I wrote over 97,000 words in one month–that’s how angry I was–and there wasn’t even a last chapter because I didn’t know how to finish the book. I sat on it for years, pulling it out every now and then, tinkering with it some more, but never really feeling it was ready–and I still didn’t know how to end it. I finally signed a contract for it because otherwise I probably would have never finished it and just kept futzing with it until I died, and I thought it was an important book to get out there. Sure, I went around and around about it; am I the right person to tell this story? Should someone else be writing it? I started reading other y/a novels about sexual assault, but they always left me feeling unsatisfied; the endings never really worked for me, which was the same problem I was having with this book. But I finally decided the best thing for me to do was sign the contract and give my editor a chance to look it over and give me input…and I am incredibly blessed to have an exceptional one in Ruth Sternglantz. The book is much better than it ever could have been without her insights, her vision, and her sensitivity. I was also very proud of this book when it was released, and I still am. I was both honored and shocked when it made the Agatha shortlist; even more so when it made the Anthony as well.
Alex jogs down the gravel path, his rubber cleats making crunching sounds on the shiny, sparkling white stones. The field, still lit up from the game, looks forlorn and lonely. The sod is chewed up from impacts and cleats and falling bodies. Some debris blows around in the slight warm wind, heavy with coming rain—plastic bags, strands from purple and gold pom-pons on a stick, wrappers from cheeseburgers and hot dogs sold at the concession stands. State championship flags snap and crackle on their poles on either side of the scoreboard. The janitorial team works their way up from bottom to top, picking up trash carelessly left behind by the crowd who’d filled the iron rows of seats.
The scoreboard still reads HOME 48 VISITORS 7.
He’s forgotten his arm pads on the sideline by the bench. He took them off when Coach Musson pulled the starters from the game when the fourth quarter started because the game was already won. He didn’t realize he’d left them behind until Coach Musson’s short post-victory pep talk was over and he went to his locker to take off his pads. His mom always says he’d forget his head if it wasn’t attached. Maybe she’s right. He could just get new ones, sure, but he’s superstitious about these arm-pads. He’d worn them all season last year when they’d won State again.
He knows it’s stupid, but why risk jinxing things?
He’s coming down from the adrenaline rush of the game, beginning to feel tired. His arm pads are right where he’d tossed them, underneath the bench where the big orange coolers of Gatorade sit during the game. The pads are just lying there, graying gold, his name written in purple marker on them.
He’s thirsty but wants to just sit for a minute. Let the locker room clear out a bit before he goes back to shower and change.
The wind is picking up. The summer has been long and hot and dry, but it’s supposed to start raining around midnight. There’s a bruise on his right calf, purple outlined in yellow and orange. He doesn’t remember getting hit there. He never remembers the hits. The games go by so fast. He spends every Friday afternoon with his stomach knotted. The pre-game warm-up seems to last forever. But once the whistle blows and the ball is kicked off the tee, time flies. Later his muscles will ache, the bruises will come up, his joints will start hurting.
He knows he can’t sit for long. India, his girlfriend, is waiting for him. He’s hungry—he can never eat before a game. He wants to grab something to eat before he has to be home. He hates his stupid curfew, but as his dad likes to remind him all the damned time: my house, my rules.
This wasn’t the original opening; originally the book opened with the quarterback missing and Alex, his best friend, goes out looking for him only to find his body floating in the river. But my editor recognized that wasn’t where the story began; we needed to see the night before and not in flashback, to set up everything for the rest of the story. (I am very stubborn and often need someone else to say to me, this isn’t working and this is why for me to give up on trying to make something work when it never will no matter how hard I try.)
I’m very proud of this book. I think for once I actually succeeded in what I was trying to do–and that was, of course, thanks to my editor’s wisdom–and while I most likely won’t win the Anthony (a very strong field), I am so pleased that the book got some recognition.