Interview: 'Columbine,' and how to write a tragedy

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I picked up Dave Cullen’s new book “Columbine” at a local bookstore. By Sunday night, I had finished all 400 pages, shaken, disturbed, and, yes, deeply moved.

From a journalist’s perspective, I found Cullen’s book to be a near masterpiece of narrative non-fiction. He brings a silent authority to every sentence, each fact and emotion and quote ringing true. The hours of interviews, years of reporting, and total immersion in the horrible tragedy brings an unprecedented level of understanding to a shooting that I, for one, had thought I had a pretty good handle on.

Turns out, I didn’t really know much about it all.

I’ll save my praise—just read all his reviews if you want to find other reasons why the book is worth reading.

I wanted to get a sense of just how Cullen pulled off such a compelling work. I had a number of questions. How did he keep the tension so high when we all know the ending? How did he manage to capture the stages of grief the victims of the shooting went through? How did he get the people involved to open up? How did he live with this story for so long?

So I emailed him and asked if he’d take time to speak to The Hastings Report. He kindly agreed. What follows is an edited transcript from the conversation. It ranges from the technical issues of writing the book, to the emotional issues, to how the one time Army officer and Arthur Anderson consultant got his start in journalism.

To start off: how did the book come about?

The first time it came up was in July 2000.  Jonathan Karp, who was at Random House then, was starting an e-book imprint there. He asked me to do a short book, like 50 or 200 pages on anything. I said okay, ‘What if I do something on what we’ve learned so far about Columbine?’ He thought that was a great idea. At that point, I’d begun talking to some the psychologists the FBI brought in, not all of them, gradually working my way into that community.  As an investigative journalist what you do is you get one person to talk, and you do a series of interviews, and they recommend you the next person if they’re impressed by your work.  I really thought I could capture more about the killers than what we had learned. [Karp] just wanted a simple book putting together what we had learned, but he told me to go further if I wanted to. I spent the next two years on it. It was such a  gradual process in trying to understand Eric[Harris] and Dylan [Klebold.] At that point we didn’t have the journals, none of their writings were released, and so I spent a couple years on it. That book didn’t’ work out, e-books didn’t work, Random House called off the whole imprint. The book was cancelled. Then I spent a couple years not sure if I was still going to do it.

But you revisited the story on the five year anniversary of the shooting.

Five years out, I did a piece for Slate, the Depressive and the Psychopath. I decided to do a completely different book then and went ahead with a book proposal. That’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.

Do you think tens year needed to have passed for you to tell this in the way you wanted? For all the characters to have told you their stories, to have evolved, to have gained a kind of perspective.   

My agent may or may not disagree with that. She was with me the whole time. It was kind of trying time for her. During the second five years, I started with a one and half year contract. She had to negotiate two one years extensions for me. I definitely made life hard for her. But there’s definitely a need for perspective. I didn’t think I had the perspective even five years out. For one thing, we didn’t have a lot of the information. The killers’ journals didn’t come out for seven years, and that took a long time for me read and to process. The different stories of the victims didn’t play out fully until seven or eight years out. It will never be over for them, but the victims reached some sort of a point where they had reached a plateau. Five years was so much better than two or three years for me.  It took me the whole time to figure it out, to back away from it. With Dylan, I noticed, during one of the rewrites I had made a sort of sarcastic crack about him. Being a little jerk as a murderer. I asked myself, what am I doing there? That’s not my job to be judging these killers. Their actions speak for themselves. Not only is it completely unnecessary, it’s really keeping me at distance from Eric and Dylan. If I’m judging them and angry and insulting then how am I getting inside him? How am I going to empathize with what he was going through and what was driving him? I don’t want to forgive him, or let him off the hook. My job is to convey him to the reader. And if I’m going to understand him I have to feel what he’s feeling and grasp why he was feeling that way. If I’m standing there angry, I’m not getting inside him. That was a real turning point. I thought I was getting inside the their heads, but I realized I still have quite a ways to go there.

Have you gotten any response, positive or negative, from the people you write about in the book?

Yes. I’ve gotten a lot of response from people close to it, almost all positive. I was nervous about that. When I do magazine pieces, the longer I work on it, I get more and more nervous that the source isn’t going to like it once they’re invested in it. If they don’t think I portrayed them accurately or fairly. These are the two different ways you can blow it as a reporter. I did show some copies before, and some sources I sat down with pages to go through page by page in the manuscript. Kate Battan, the lead investigator, sat down for six hours at a restaurant and went though it line by line. Several I sent copies before the book came out. It’s been almost all positive. There have been a couple people who have been extremely negative. The Browns, Randy Brown, does not like the book at all.

Randy Brown is the father of Brooks Brown. The Browns tried to warn the Jeffco Cops about Eric Harris, but their warnings were ignored, right? What does he object to in the book?

He, from what I can gather has two problems. One is he doesn’t like the fact that I focus on Eric as a psychopath, even as assessing him as a psychopath. He thinks that that writes Eric off as crazy. I tried to make the point that he’s not crazy—that psychopaths are very rational and know exactly what they are doing and don’t care. I also felt very strongly that my job was to look into the killers and come to the best conclusion I could. Whether or not I liked the answers, I had to report them. The other problem that Randy expressed about the book is about bullying. That I don’t blame it on bullying. There was definitely bullying that went on at Columbine High. But there isn’t any evidence with connection to the murders. Erica and Dylan don’t seem to themselves as bullied. They don’t’ complain about it all in their writing. If anything, Eric saw himself as the opposite—a bullier. I understand there were a lot of early theories on the bullying, but then once the killers’ journals were released, the killers aren’t talking about that. It seems a little preposterous that Eric would complain about everything under the son except what was driving him to do it.

This gets to the first question of myth that book raises, myths that perhaps families cling to after tragedies. Victims can become invested in myths, and it’s tough to see them proven wrong.

I think, in general, that is the case with some of the myths. Certain people got invested in different myths for honest reasons and came to believe things to be true in the early days with not much to go on. They came to certain conclusions that later turned out to be false but they were very heavily invested and didn’t want to back off. The response I’ve got from the book, though has been strongly supportive, from the community, nationally, in emails and online. And even so many emails from Evangelical Christians about Cassie Bernall[a victim whose original story of her death later turned out to be false], people who are invested in different ideas. I’ve gotten lots of emails from Goth kids—that said they were bullied and it was very important to them on a psychological level to think that the Columbine killers were bullied too, and sometimes bullies do pay the price for bullying, as horrible as that sounds. They were invested in those ideas and read the book and realized it wasn’t about that. Most of the email I get are from people who were willing to set aside their views, and say, oh, I’m glad to hear the truth.

A second question of myth: what was the media’s role in creating them? Like the majority of readers, probably, Columbine became this idea for me, this short hand—the nerds or outcasts decided they had enough and killed everybody, targeting the jocks. That myth has persisted.

Once we get something wrong it’s going to be with us. The myths are self-perpetuating. A good reporter who tries to do his research and who comes back to the story for whatever reason later—an anniversary, or another school shooting, or a debate about gun control or violent video games—goes back and looks at the original coverage. If the original coverage is wrong then the person who has done his due diligence gets the wrong facts. The problem is the media becomes the historical record. Unless there is some way to correct it, you keep going to the same stuff. Garbage in, garbage out. Most of these myths were known within the first year, and there were stories correcting the myths, so media close to the story knew it was wrong. But there’s a handful of correctional stories and tens of thousand of original stories getting it wrong.

Are there any lessons working journalists can learn from covering a story like this? Have we in the media gotten any better?

The biggest problem with messing up the first time is conjecture. Particularly the conjecture about why, the motive.  With conjecture about how, there’s always conflicting information from the witnesses, there’s confusion. In a day or two, the how gets more or less figured out and that becomes how it is remembered. But when you start talking about the why, the corrected answers are not going to come for weeks and months. The opposite happens. There’s no data to go on so we take little fragments of information and make theories out of them, and they solidify quickly and they become accepted fact. Have we learned from Columbine? Yes we have. In most of the tragedies since then, we have gotten much better at holding back. With the Virginia Tech shooting, in particular, I did quite a bit of reporting on that in the first couple of weeks. I was watching the media very closely, and both reporters and the experts were being very, very, careful. ‘Here are some possibilities, here are the things to look for,’ but being very careful about not drawing conclusions too quickly. Everybody understood what happened at Columbine and was being more careful, particularly about motive and the character of the perpetrators when we don’t have much to go on.

At Virginia Tech, it seems clear that the shooter was mentally ill, probably psychotic. In Columbine, as you mentioned, Eric Harris was a psychopath.  That’s an important distinction between the two mental states.

It’s a big problem for lay people. Psychosis, psychotic, psychopath, all sound very similar. We associate the words and find them similar, when they are at two opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s major distinction—these are two completely different things, and you’ll be misunderstanding both of them if you confuse them.

In the email you sent me, you mentioned the film The Grifters as a model for how you structured the book. The Grifters, based on a Jim Thompson novel, is filled with characters that are desperate, pathetic, murderous, lost.

I do get a lot of my ideas in how to construct stories from film. With this book, I got a lot from the black comedies, the dark films like the Grifters.  When I was in writing school, and figuring certain things out, I never realized I would be writing about death. I never wrote this kind of story before. I realized how important comic relief was. I gasp to use the term here—obviously there’s no comic relief here. But I realized when you have murders in the movie or book–you have murder, you have pain, you have torture–these are very difficult for the reader or viewer to consume. You have to leaven that somehow, you have to give them sort of relief. Okay, you’re giving the reader something difficult, you have to give them something else, whether it’s hope or laughter. In my book, I knew it was going to be really diffcult on the reader. I had to lighten that load. I knew there were stories of redemption and forgiveness among the victims, stories of hope. I knew I had to think about how to present all that. I could not do it arbitrarily. Lots of high and lows, emotions and intensity of positive and negative. Never too much at one point. I could not beat the reader up, where they just had to put the book down, where they couldn’t stand it anymore. It became harder as I edited because we edited so much. I wanted the book as tight as possible. 875 pages was the first draft. It would have been over 900. We got it down to 400 and back up to 425. I cut well over half of the book. Certain things were collapsed dramatically from 20 pages to a half of page. Structuring it, it’s like a series of ocean waves some get bigger and smaller again, and there are the parts between the waves. Take out a chunk and cut the peaks of the wave and it is all flat, or I take out the in-between and it’s all high. The editing process was monumental. I would move scenes around all over the place to get it right. Is there too much anger? Is there too much hopeful stuff? Or is there too much fear or not enough fear? I always wanted to keep the tension high, the reader wanting to figure out certain things. What happens next? I wanted the reader to want to flip to the next page.

Some the scenes must have been very tough to write.

I felt the different emotions as I wrote them. My mentor Lucia Berlin, who has passed away, taught me a great deal. One of the things she taught me was: write through the emotions.  Whatever happens in your scene, whatever emotion, you need to feel that as you’re writing it. You need to internalize it as if it’s real, and it will come through, it will be in there, in ways you didn’t know you were doing. I learned that from her, doing that in fiction. I went through the emotions with the people as I interviewed them. I didn’t try to hold myself back. I let myself feel those, really feel, as I went thought the process. In two scenes, I had to keep stopping every day because I cried every day. I had a list of scenes on Excel, every scene in the book. I knew where the highpoints would be. I could shuffle them around. I felt them as I wrote them so I knew where the emotional spots were.

What was the hardest scene?

The most difficult by far was the writing the scene where Dave Sanders bled to death. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know how hard. I’d interviewed Linda Sanders, a five hour interview. She wasn’t sure she was going to want to talk to me. I met her at restaurant for lunch and left at like 5:30. She’s a wonderful woman. I really adore Linda Sanders. She’s so fragile. She was a classic fragile person who found a spouse, Dave, that was her rock. It worked perfectly for them. Linda really relied on Dave and Dave loved being the rock. When that was pulled out from under her, she had nothing, and she crumbled. Having interviewed her and several of Dave’s friends, they were really broken up by it. That’s what made writing the scene so hard. Thinking about it, focusing on what was happening to Dave, knowing the impact this caused. The fact Eagle Scouts tried to save him. That was by far the hardest.

One of the most shocking storylines form the book, that I was not aware of, was the Jefferson County officials who covered up the prior information the police had on Eric Harris.

The gist is that it was 13 months before Columbine, Dylan tried to tip off Eric’s plan, and I think try to end the plan. He told Brooks Brown to look at Eric’s website. He wrote down the URL and looked it up and saw death threats about Brooks himself. Then Brooks did exactly what Dylan knew he would do. He told his mother, Judy Brown. Judy Brown had gone to the police several times about Eric being a juvenile delinquent. Judy and Randy Brown went to the police, and the police did investigate. So when a the police officer, Mike Guerra put together what he found, including an unexploded pipe bomb near Eric’s house. Here’s a kid who is making multiple death threats, and actually making the weapons. This isn’t idle chatter anymore. He’s actively researching how to make the weapons, a key flashpoint in terms of risks: when you start acting on threats that’s a huge hurdle. Guerra drafted a search warrant. It’s very convincing. But he got put on to another case and was taken off this. And it was never followed up on. Why, we don’t know. Officials have refused to talk. It was not taken to a judge and no search was conducted. A year later, within the first hour of the shooting, the police knew the perpetrators were apparently Eric and Dylan. They did a search and they found them in the files. They had committed a felony and they found the report about Eric. They found the affidavit for the search warrant.  The officials thought it would look really bad if it went public. Everyone could already tell Columbine was shaping as crime of the century. ‘You’d been warned of the crime of the century and didn’t do anything?’ Rather than taking their lumps, they decided to hide it. They held this meeting and decided  for everyone to keep quiet. It stayed secret for many years, until there was  grand jury investigation. On the third interview attempt with Mike Guerra, he admitted the meeting occurred. Seven years after Columbine. In all that time, several key people had denigrated the Browns and said the Browns had not warned them. The Browns were victims in this cover up, which explains their anger.

Last question, something a little more positive than the rest of the discussion. You’ve had an unorthodox career path. Could you talk about how you ended up where you are today?

It took me a long time to figure out what to do with my life or how. I made a big mis-turn in college where I went into daily journalism. I did the daily journalism thing at my college paper for three and half years. I started when I went to college thinking I wanted to be a writer, and being convinced my parents and other people you have to find a way to make a living. I really wanted to write novels, but journalism was a compromise, where it would still be hard to get job, but it combined writing and reporting. Daily journalism wasn’t the right fit for me. At that age, I was slow in figuring it out. I knew I didn’t like it. I felt overtime I was getting less and less out of it. After three and a half years I was convinced didn’t want to be a writer or journalist. But what I should have figured out I didn’t want to be a daily journalist. I’m much more of long form writer. It took me years to get back to writing. It wasn’t until I was 35 that I went back to grad school to get my creative writing degree, writing fiction again. I kept getting drawn back to fiction. I finally realized I do love doing this, I do want to spend by life doing this. But I think the things along the way really enriched me. I went into the Army, I went to work EDS, to work Arthur Anderson, became a management consultant. I had a chance to go to Kuwait right after the war, and one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t go. I went later, but almost slapped myself—I had missed a chance to see a country that had just got out of war, when the oil fires were still burning. But I learned and changed so much. Opportunities land in your lap, you make your opportunities by working harder, you can be smart, you cake them and run with them or not. With Columbine, I had just promised myself if anything of significance happened in my area, I was just going to go. I didn’t have an assignment. That day I almost didn’t go. I saw it on TV and I didn’t think anybody was going to get killed. I was eating lunch and continued eating lunch. Then I almost slapped myself: maybe it will be something. I called the editor of Salon, left a message, ‘it’s probably nothing but there was shooting outside of Denver, I’m going to be out there.’ I got in my car, without an assignment. One of the reasons I was mad at myself because all the things that happened in this area that I didn’t cover—like Timothy McVeigh’s murder trial, was a mile from me. I thought about going sometimes, but I didn’t go. But I though what I was going to sit in the back of the courtroom and see if I can pitch a story? In retrospect, yes, I would have had all these ideas for stories. Or Jon-Benet’s murder, which was right near where I lived, and I didn’t write anything about it. Why don’t I just do these things? You may feel like an idiot being there without an assignment. But there is a Catch-22, you get an assignment by digging around and coming up with something. There are a lot of stories out there. Hit the pavement sometimes, when you don’t know what the heck you’re doing, and you don’t have anyone you’re doing it for. Dive in, just start.  

About michaelhastings

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7 Responses to Interview: 'Columbine,' and how to write a tragedy

  1. Caitlin Kelly says:

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I think it’s really important that writers do this kind of work, and talk openly about how emotionally hard it is — that he cried while writing does not surprise me. Many of us, including you, have likely suffered secondary trauma as it’s a normal by-product of processing and producing this kind of harrowing work. My book is filled with trauma and violence, and it is extremely tiring to work on anything of that nature, even when you know it’s essential to the end product. It needs to named and talked about so other writers know it’s going to hit them and what to do when it does. The is a good resource for this.

  2. jaimecolemansc says:

    Hi Michael, I read Columbine a few weeks ago and was blown away by it. I appreciated Cullen’s work and it’s depth. Thanks for sharing this!!

  3. davecullen says:

    Michael, thanks for suggesting and doing the interview. I was impressed by your approach.

    And Caitlin, thanks for the support. I’m glad you mentioned the Dart Center. They really helped me: in understanding how to treat my subjects, and myself. I just got back from a conference they set up at Virginia Tech. They’re doing great stuff.

    I hope you worked out a lot of the pain you absorbed on your book. I think “absorb” is the right word for it. The common theme I hear from reporters who spend a lot of time on trauma is that while you may shudder at the time when you’re there, you shrug it off, do your job and it doesn’t seem it has done anything lasting. But if you keep going back and back and back, it seeps into you gradually. You don’t feel it going in, you feel the accumulation. Then you have to figure out how to get it out.

    (For me, finishing the damn book was the best way to get it out. Hahaha. But I actually mean that.)

    I also how anyone would write about that stuff successfully without feeling it–at least in long form, where it’s more than just a factual account: the reader needs a story to sustain their interest, with strong, multi-layered characters, etc. In a long work–whether it’s a symphony, novel, narrative nonfiction, documentary film, feature film, opera . . .–you better be taking the reader/viewer on an emotional journey, as well as in intellectual one. How can you reproduce the experience standing at a distance? You have to allow the emotions to flow into you before you can reflect them back, don’t you? Is there another way to do it?

    Michael, I’m so glad you included the part about Lucia Berlin, my mentor, and my hero. She was an amazing writer–(her story “My Jockey” is a great place to start: one page, and it will blow you away)–and she taught me that. Her narrator never took sides or passed judgments, but the empathy lurked in there, and the respect for all her subjects.

    She learned it from Chekhov (not working with him, just reading him), who was her hero. I wonder if he cried when he wrote his stories.

  4. Caitlin Kelly says:

    Dave, I’m in awe of all journo’s who tackle this sort of stuff. It’s so easy to walk away from. It’s terrifying and dark and essential. You have to love the irony — the only person who even warned me what this sort of reporting can do to you (and did) was a friend who works at an auction house handling historical photos. She had edited a work of photos by Paul Hine and warned me that handling such heavy stuff, as she had done, would take a toll on me and it could hit me when I least expected it.

    I started research in March 2002 and by May, in New Orleans, still steeped in thinking and talking daily about violence physical and emotional, I began having nightmares and insomnia. In my work, as yours, I did indeed have to re-create gruesome, hideous scenes, trying to make the reader feel they were there; a few reviewers found it “graphic.” Well, violence is.

    Had my compassionate and wise friend not warned me in advance what to expect (none of my journalist friends thought to even mention it?), I would not have had a clue. Then it was another friend, who works in the prison system, who named secondary trauma for me. I had never heard of it. I try to speak out about it whenever possible.

    I am delighted the Dart Center helped you. They ran one of my essays, Calibrating Compassion, when my book came out.

    I compare our heads/hearts to a colander. Crude but true. To capture the story, it must filter through us – and it always leaves residue.

    In my case, my minister, friends and a therapist helped me process it. But, to be honest, I have an even more limited tolerance now for any form of violence, verbal, cinematic, whatever.

  5. davecullen says:

    Caitlyn, Interesting stuff. I like the colander image. I think I’ll remember that one.

    Dart was/is great. I’m going to see those folks in a few weeks in Indianapolis. I think I remember your essay, will go back and look.

    I had never heard of secondary PTSD either. It made sense immediately–since I’d already felt it by then. Naming it is key to resolving it.

    I have a much lower tolerance, too. I went to see the film “The Wrestler” this winter, and could barely take it. I’ve seen most of Aronofsky’s films, and they are intense, but I wasn’t on the verge of leaving the theater before. (And this was much less than “Requiem for a Dream.”) After several brutal fight scenes, I had a little conversation in my head about it: “OK, I can take one more of these. If he throws more at us, I have to leave.” Luckily, the violence was mostly front-loaded in the first 40 minutes, and for the most part, that was the end of it, so I stayed the whole way through.

    Ten years ago, I never would have had a response like that. (Or known to set limits if I did.)

    I think it’s not just violence and pain that gets me worst, but brutality: intentional cruelty. That’s how those fight scenes in the film struck me: in this case, brutalizing themselves and each other for benefit of an audience that was drooling for pain and paying for it. I think the cruelty I felt was from the audience which was very directly driving them to do it to themselves. Ugh.

    That’s what I’m susceptible to now, though. Maybe it’s a good thing, as it’s also helped clarify some things about what is truly vile. Cruelty goes way beyond.

  6. Pingback: More on Dave Cullen and Columbine « Dog-eared and Well-read

  7. gmdavis says:

    On Nov. 21, 2008, the Harris and Klebold parents were sent the same letter requesting cooperation. “Your stories have yet to be fully told, and I view your help as an issue of historical significance,” it said. “In 10 years, there have been no major, mainstream books on Columbine. This will be the first, and it may be the only one.” The letter came not from Mr. Cullen but from Jeff Kass, whose Columbine: A True Crime Story, published by the small Ghost Road Press, preceded Columbine by a couple of weeks.

    “Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen.” –Janet Maslin, New York Times

    “A decade after the most dramatic school massacre in American history, Jeff Kass applies his considerable reporting talents to exploring the mystery of how two teens could have planned and carried out such gruesome acts without their own family and best friends knowing about it. Actually, there were important clues, but they were missed or downgraded both by those who knew the boys best and by public officials who came in contact with them. An engrossing and cautionary tale for everyone who cares about how to prevent kids from going bad.” —–Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists

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