On August 1, 1966, the world heard Charles Whitman‘s gunshots as he shot and killed people he didn’t know from the top of the tower at UT Austin. It was the first mass shooting captured on television in the heart of a college campus and in full view of the Texas state capitol dome.
But before his public rampage, Whitman killed two women–family members–in the privacy of their own homes: his mother, Margaret, and his wife, Kathleen (“Kathy”). Kathy was 23 years old, a recent graduate of UT Austin, and a science teacher who had just completed her first year at Sidney Lanier High School.
At the AWP Conference in Minneapolis last year, I had the honor of participating in a panel of writers addressing the subject, “Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art.” The latest edition of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies offers a special conference issue, and it includes our panel discussion alongside three other panels: two from the 2015 Nonfiction Now Conference in Flagstaff, and one from the 2015 ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) Conference in Moscow, Idaho.
This Sunday, like all Sundays, in another mass I will not be attending, there is a space of prayer between the creed and the offering of bread and wine. Catholics call this the Prayers of the Faithful. A man has had surgery. Someone’s baby died. A priest has gone away for a family visit in another country–Italy, Romania, Argentina. The war continues. There are homeless. Repairing a leak in the church will cost $700. Often there is a petition for “those who have lost their faith” to return. Lord hear our prayer. Lord have mercy.
If the success of Orange Is the New Black offers any indication, it seems fair (and gross) to say that prison has become “pop”—for a Twitter moment, anyway. Even the cover of the Economist June 20-24 proclaims, “Jailhouse Nation: 2.3 million reasons to fix America’s prison problem.” Progressive-glam MSNBC has been boosting its ratings with weekends of Lockup since 2005.
Everybody (white? middle class?) seems suddenly if temporarily agreed upon the disgrace and “inefficiency” of prison conditions. We all exchange nods over restaurant pasta and craft beers about how we need to “change the system.”
For almost four years now, as I’ve completed a second book, 1966 has weighed heavily on my mind. Maybe you were born that year, or one of your siblings was. Maybe you got married then, or your parents did. Perhaps you graduated, or got drafted. Maybe you lost someone—to distance, disease, or drinking; to random violence or Vietnam.
In May that year, The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, an album that received some critical acclaim despite mostly popular failure. Love and Mercy, a stunning biopic about Brian Wilson released last weekend (starring John Cusack and Paul Dano), devotes an amazing amount of detail to the creation of songs for that album. It wasn’t an easy process.
Thanks to Joshunda Saunders for inviting me to participate in this blog tour! Joshunda is one of the most insightful and prolific writers I’ve had the good fortune to meet, read, and commiserate with in the past two years. You can check out her terrific blog, including her own reflections on process, right here.
1. What are you working on?
Two and a half years ago, I started working on an an essay collection about public performances of violence in America. As I began, I thought that the section about the 1966 clock tower shooting at UT Austin would be the first chapter, alongside nine other chapters including San Diego, Waco, and Tucson. What I’ve discovered is that the UT Austin research and writing has demanded a space of its own. I’m almost finished with a stand-alone triptych about that event. It’s 12o pages or so: two lyric essays at beginning and end, with a centerpiece of narrative reportage/investigative journalism. I haven’t abandoned the larger project, but it was important to recognize and respect the full weight of the box inside the box.
Thanks to Donna Hilbert author of the new poetry collection The Congress of Luminous Bodies (Aortic Books) for tagging me in THE NEXT BIG THING
What is the title or working title of your book?
Tripwires and Trigger Fingers.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
For my first book, Teacher at Point Blank, I explored about how we can work and live under bizarre, unhealthy conditions that encourage a certain amount of denial. As I was waiting for the book to be published, I had to keep revising the last chapter because it began with a litany of rampage shootings at schools, and for about five years I had to keep adding names and dates to the list. It was a hideous feeling. It’s still true that every time a drastic event happens, we tend to treat it like something from Mars. But there I was, facing that list in my book. I wanted to examine that phenomenon of denial on a larger American scale, connecting different public performances of “mass violence” we have buried or forgotten about–starting with UT Austin in 1966.
What have you made from scratch lately–whether it’s something to eat, wear, use at home, or give away? We may live in a world that often feels prefabbed, but there are plenty of opportunities for us to contribute pieces of ourselves to make things better or more interesting. Tune in to the Writer Ninja Podcast, available on iTunes and on this site. Then post your ideas in the comments section below!
Also listen to Jo’s interview with four smart writer-editor-artist people–John Brantingham, Ann Brantingham, Elder Zamora, and Scott Creley–who came together to organize The San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival from the ground up.
You may have missed Stephanie Barbé Hammer’s fabulous reading from Sex with Buildings (Dancing Girl Press) at Riverside Arts Walk September 6, but it’s never too late to visit her website, Magically Real.
Also catch our chat about genre bending and blending on the latest Writer Ninja Podcast, available on iTunes and on this site.
Recommended books from this episode include:
Short Takes, edited by Judith Kitchen
Flash Fiction Forward, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas
Looking for the perfect blend of literature and community? Visit the San Gabriel Valley Litfest, coming in 2013.
Meanwhile, as promised, here are links to the most recent books recommended on the latest episodes of Writer Ninja Podcast. Check them out!
From Episode Four, “Mothers and the Others”
Bearing Life: Women’s Writing on Childlessness, edited by Rochelle Ratner
The Mommy Myth, by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels
Misconceptions, by Naomi Wolf
From Episode Five, “The Gift of Consent”