Award-winning short story writer and author of two novels for adults, Brent van Staalduinen brings us a powerful YA debut that sheds light on a story that is commonly left untold. In Nothing but Life, we follow the story of Dills whose memories are raw from the day a shooter came into his school library and opened fire. He struggles to talk about the day, but most of all, he struggles to come to terms with the stepfather he loves who has committed the crime. We asked Brent to share some insight into the making of Nothing but Life:
Nothing but Life centers around a school shooting and the complex relationship between a father and son. What inspired you to tell this story?
Dills and Jesse took their first breaths in a short story I wrote a number of years ago called "Skinks." In that story, as with Nothing but Life, Jesse’s in the hospital because he did something really bad, and Dills is a kid just trying to figure out why his beloved stepdad can’t come home. Jesse’s crime isn’t known to Dills, nor is it revealed at the end of the story, which is like many challenges we face when we’re young. We simply don’t have the experience and knowledge to figure a lot of things out, and too many issues remain unanswered.
After the Parkland school shooting in 2018, I was shattered by the senseless loss of young lives and the horrific physical and emotional wreckage left behind for the survivors of gun violence (again). I wasn’t alone, of course, and we all watched a familiar story arc emerge: an upswelling of solidarity for the victims and condemnation for the crime, the appearance of well-meant resolutions and hopeful legislative movements, an increasing resistance and helplessness to change, and lastly, the inevitable stasis of forgetfulness and inaction.
But away from the headlines, I found myself thinking of the peripheral stories, the ones left untold or forgotten when the camera lights fade. What happens to survivors who aren’t physically injured and receive no attention? Who has been left behind by the shooter? Who loved him, and, more pressingly, who might love him still even though he’s done the unthinkable?
And just like that, Jesse’s crimes had a name, and Dills’s struggle had a grieving, heartbroken face. Then, as I began my research and found myself immersed in the horrifying detail of school shootings and their unrepeatable witness stories, I looked for artistic context to provide some relief. When I encountered Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s devastating Newtown poem "26," I was taken apart line by stunning line; when I managed to put myself partially back together, I really knew I had to write this book.
What made you want to include an element of magic when telling this particular story?
I suppose we can never outrun the voices of those who make us who we are. Dills runs with his mother to Hamilton, hoping to begin anew, yet he can’t escape either the tragedy itself or the agonizing fact that the person he admires most in the world committed the crime. I really like the idea that it can be perceived as magic, but I also know that scarred hearts and wounded minds can convince us of almost anything, even things that might not be real.
Were there ever moments where you felt like you had to censor the initial plot to cater to a younger audience?
Not at all! It was clear early on that my story wouldn’t be about the tragedy itself, nor would Dills be describing in detail what happened to him. He’s profoundly traumatized, naturally, but is also simply a young person trying to figure out his day to day. Figuring out what to wear. Staying fed and hydrated. Trying not to mess up his words. Attempting to meet the expectations of his mother, aunt, and Gramma. Learning to love. Wondering if it’s love at all.
I wasn’t really interested in writing about the day of the shooting in a craft sense, either: others have explored the subject far better than I could. A few novels that spoke to me while I was in the throes of this thing were Anne Valente’s sublime Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, Rhiannon Navin’s Only Child, and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Tough reading, of course, but so worth it. I’m continually amazed at the capacity for a heart to break and heal and break and heal and break and heal. We do the worst things to each other, and yet we can be magical in the face of unspeakable loss, too.
You have two previous coming-of-age novels for adults, award-winning Saints, Unexpected, and Boy. What made you want to write in the YA genre?
Honestly? Not to sound camp, but Dills told me to. I tried writing it from a younger kid’s perspective like the voice of the original "Skinks," but Dills stepped in and said he needed to say a few things as a teenager. He understood that it was up to him to figure out whether it was possible to still love a hero who’d fallen so far. My job was to make space on the page for him to do so.
Writing-wise, there’s a challenging simplicity to telling a YA story in first person that I enjoy, too. You have to look for plainer ways to speak poetry.
Do you have any advice for aspiring YA writers?
The best advice applies to all genres, I think. Write the story YOU want to tell and that YOU would like to read. Also, listen to your characters: they’ll teach you a thing or two.