A Way Out: Dave Cullen Doesn’t Want to Write Another ‘Columbine’

February 25, 2019 | 2 books mentioned 5 min read

A few years ago, I read Dave Cullen’s gripping and horrifying masterpiece Columbine over the course of a few weeks, which is a lifetime for a quick reader like me. With Columbine, which is deeply researched and devastatingly detailed, Cullen seemed to have written the book on school shootings. Yet he’s continued to report on mass shootings for the nearly two decades since—sometimes to the detriment of his own mental health.

On Valentine’s Day 2018, Parkland became (in a lot of ways) Columbine’s other half. The two tragedies broke through the media cacophony for different reasons. Where Columbine was shock and confusion, Parkland was understanding and action. The aftermath of Parkland was unlike any other mass shooting this country has ever seen. Just a few hours after the most devastating moment of their lives, the Parkland kids gave the nation their voice, tears, and a call to action. Thankfully Cullen was there, with his keen eye and sharp writing, to lend them another megaphone.

Cullen’s newest book, Parkland: Birth of a Movement, is out this month—just two days before the one-year anniversary of the shooting. Reported, written, and edited in less than a year, Parkland is a very different book than Columbine—and rightfully so.

Last weekend, Cullen and I spoke for a few hours over the phone about the Parkland teens, how Columbine ushered in the “horrible school shooter era,” the shifting cultural and political climate, and his next project (a book about gay soldiers that he’s been working on and off for nearly two decades). Our interview has been condensed, with far too much wonderful material left on the cutting room floor.

1. Comparisons to Columbine

The Millions: Obviously people are going to compare this book to your previous book Columbine, which I always say is a masterclass on school shooting reporting. But Parkland is very different in terms of subject and scope. What made you want to write this kind of book versus a Columbine-esque book?

Dave Cullen: I never wanted to do a Columbine book again…I had already done that. It’s kind of a selfish and unselfish part. The selfish part is that I couldn’t handle that.

I never thought I would do this again…[Parkland] feels like a possible way out…But my hunch, my best guess and hope, is that these will be the bookends—neither the first nor the last—Columbine was the one that really ratcheted up and set the rest of this in motion, and [Parkland is] the beginning of the end and the way out.

So with Columbine, since it’s the one that set it in motion and took the survivors by shock, that seemed like the appropriate story to tell: both why this happened and what’s going on with these killers, and what it did to a community and how they overcame it. That seemed like a relevant story to me, both of those two different stories. And this time: If this is the way out or a way out…then I want to do their story of the way out, the exit strategy. This is a different time, different situation, different need, and if this is the way out: Why would I do another book on the causes?

There have been hundreds of mass shootings since Columbine…and we don’t need another book…What’s unique about Parkland is it’s these kids who did something and took America by storm and led this uprising. America was so ready and desperate for something—we didn’t expect it to be these kids—but we were desperate for a way out, and they arose and let us out. And that’s amazing and that’s what grabbed me, and I think America. That’s the story I wanted to tell.

2. The Parkland Difference

TM: I think some of the [Columbine] expectations speak to what you’re outlining in the book: Parkland deserved a different kind of book. They created a different kind of narrative.

DC: Exactly, and these kids flipped the script. I say in there too: We have this ongoing problem. There are three big problems and potential ways out of this disaster. People say mental health but I would put it much more narrowly as teen depression. Treating and identifying teen depression early before it becomes a problem. Two is guns obviously. Three is the media giving the stage to the people who want to create this spectacle.

So they picked one, or we’d fritter our message or fragment it. Nobody has had success on any of these and if we try to do all of them, we’re going to be one more failed group. They decided very, very quickly on guns…They may have solved the media one, too, inadvertently.

Timing is everything and these kids—it was such a perfect storm of things—but the luck of their timing was perfect in a couple different ways. First, the country was so angry partly because of the Trump situation and really ready for something. There’s something called the “Resistance” but that didn’t have an agenda or a positive purpose…The country was waiting for someone to lead us on something.

3. The Changing Tides

DC: Being the mass murder guy, unfortunately I have a keen awareness of a lot of these things by doing the shows and answering these questions and getting emails.

I would say about the first 17 years after Columbine, and there was no exact moment, but the first question of every interview was always “Why they did it?” “Why did they do it?” was the burning question. I don’t get that as a primary question anymore starting two to three years ago. …The media was actually starting to pay less attention and the phenomena of “no notoriety” was catching on and showing them less and using the name less.

We were losing interest and still doing it because we didn’t have anything to take its place. And then suddenly the kids came in at just the right moment and so okay here’s something to take its place and they did.

I’ve been asking other people who have been interviewing me and so far no one can even name the killer…We really won that battle without intending to. He’s invisible.

TM: I don’t think I’ve read anything about him since that initial week or even seen a photo of him.

DC: I know, right? I did see photos of him early on but it didn’t stick. He’s just a nobody. I think they really solved that problem. David Hogg, I believe, became the first person who became more interesting than the person who attacked him—more interesting and more famous and he did that within 24 hours. And two days later, Emma González was much more famous than David.

The media doesn’t have to go back to its old ways. We have a better story. The kids created a better story for us. They slammed the door, not all the way shut, but slammed it. Some other perpetrators will force their way through it but I think it’s closing. I think we’re on our way out.

TM: Let’s hope so. So what’s next for you? I assume you’re back to the gay soldiers book.

I am and I can’t wait to get back to that…I am really excited. This is such a different kind of story. It’s the kind of stuff I like doing. It’s like really in-depth character work. I didn’t know how to say this without sounding pompous or full of myself but I don’t know of any journalistic enterprise where someone spent 20 years with their subject.

I want [the book] to be two things: America’s role in the Middle East—misadventures, I would say—for almost 30 years, and the gay rights struggle. …The main story I’m focusing on is gays in the military and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. What I try to do…is telling the larger story through the small. There’s the bigger picture going on with this vast change in American attitudes toward gays and gradual acceptance. …I’m trying to tell two uber stories through…two specific guys.

is an associate editor for The Millions. She works in academic publishing by day and is a freelance writer and book reviewer by night. She tweets at @CarolynQuimby.

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