My students and I are happy to be part of Beck McDowell’s blog tour for her debut novel This Is Not a Drill. Many of my students are fans of realistic fiction and aspiring authors, so they always appreciate the opportunity to interview an author. Thank you so much, Beck, for asking us to be part of your tour!
Summary of This Is Not a Drill (From Goodreads):
Two teens try to save a class of first-graders from a gun-wielding soldier suffering from PTSD
When high school seniors Emery and Jake are taken hostage in the classroom where they tutor, they must work together to calm both the terrified children and the gunman threatening them–a task made even more difficult by their recent break-up. Brian Stutts, a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq, uses deadly force when he’s denied access to his son because of a custody battle. The children’s fate is in the hands of the two teens, each recovering from great loss, who now must reestablish trust in a relationship damaged by betrayal. Told through Emery and Jake’s alternating viewpoints, this gripping novel features characters teens will identify with and explores the often-hidden damages of war.
- What made you choose this title for the book?
You’re the first person who’s asked that. Good question, Felicia. I really don’t think I’m very good at titles, but in this case – we do SO many drills at schools, we always assume it’s another drill when the alarms (especially fire alarms) go off. So the words, “this is not a drill” kinda sent chills through me – like you’re lulled into a sense of false security by all the boring PRACTICES and then – bam – you realize THIS is the REAL thing and your life is in danger.
- Do you know someone with PTSD?
Yes, a few who were diagnosed and lots who were undiagnosed. I’ve talked with many students who still suffer from a traumatic event from the past. I’ve seen how keeping a secret, especially in the case of physical or sexual abuse, can keep you from living a full, happy life – until you’ve said it out loud and dealt with it. And post-traumatic stress can follow a car accident, a serious injury, a natural disaster, the death of a loved one – lots of things other than fighting in a war. What makes it so scary with military victims is that they are reluctant to get help – for fear it will damage their careers in a field where physical and mental toughness are perceived as critical traits for success. And when it goes untreated, it often manifests itself in dangerous ways.
Right now a lot of my former students are having nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD after surviving the tornadoes that killed a number of University of Alabama students in Tuscaloosa last year. I just want to encourage ANYONE who’s suffering to look up the symptoms and treatment options online and seek out a professional in your community. You are NOT alone and there IS help for you!
- How long did it take for you to write the book and get it published?
THIS IS NOT A DRILL took about a year, and then there was a year of revision with my wonderful editor, Nancy Paulsen, at Penguin. I was really lucky to find a terrific agent (Jill Corcoran) and a top-notch publisher within just a few days of sending out the manuscript, but that followed a long process of rejection with my first book and a run of bad luck with my second, a non-fiction called LAST BUS OUT, which I eventually published as an e-book and then a paperback. There’s more information about that process on my blog at www.beckmcdowell.com if anyone’s interested in the details.
- Why was his son taken away?
When there’s a divorce, there’s often a custody battle – one parent who doesn’t want the other to see the kids. In this case it’s obvious that Patrick’s mother has good reason to fear that Patrick won’t be safe with his dad; he’s so emotionally troubled that she assumes he can’t properly care for their son. School administrators are usually alerted when this happens, and they’re generally very careful to make sure any parent who checks out a child has the legal authority to do so. When Stutts goes directly to the classroom, we can assume that he knows the office won’t allow him to take Patrick out of the building. And Patrick’s behavior shows that he’s suffering from his father’s problems and the conflict he’s caused at home – as we see how withdrawn he is in class.
- How long did you research information on this subject?
I always take LOTS of notes and do a ton of research before starting a book. Some topics are easy to look up online and, because my next book (now in edits with Penguin) features a New Orleans cemetery, I’ve spent a lot of time at the Williams Research Center in the French Quarter. Since I’m an English major/Journalism minor, research is fun for me (especially right now because I’m researching voo-doo practices!) Jared, your question made me realize that, in addition to the specific research for each book, writers are ALWAYS researching EVERYTHING. Every conversation, every visit to another place, every book we read is full of ideas that might spark another book or part of a book. It’s a fun way to approach life!
- Did you find it easier to write from a guy’s point of view or a girl’s?
It’s very odd, but I actually prefer writing in guy voice. Maybe it’s because of a natural tendency writers have to tune in more to people who are different from us so we can learn more. I love guy humor and in teaching, I found that high school guys are more likely to be brutally honest – which I prefer to trying to figure out what someone really thinks. No offense to girls. I will be the first to admit I do the “silent-treatment” girl thing now and then of “What’s wrong?” “Nothing.” I try not to generalize, but there are some key differences in the way we’re put together – emotionally as well as physically. To be honest, I might not like that kind of truthfulness in my girlfriends (“Does this dress make my butt look big?” “Yes.”) that I find so charming in guys!
- Do you feel that dialogue is important to your character’s development throughout the book?
Great question! I LOVE writing dialogue. You’ll notice that it’ a BIG part of the book. I just learn more through listening to what people say than through hearing or reading descriptions of their lives and characteristics. I’ve been told my style is a cross between screenplay-writer and news reporter – and I’m fairly happy with that assessment. I think readers would rather “listen” to a character than read about him. Do you agree?
- Why did you decide to write about this topic?
I never worried about violence in my classroom when I taught, but I had nightmares about it several times, so I knew it was a topic my subconscious needed to address – that fear of how I’d react in a crisis and whether I’d be able to keep my students safe. Also, when my nephew was in second grade, he told me the teacher said if they were in the bathroom and heard a “lockdown” over the intercom, they should lock the stall door, sit on the toilet, and pull their feet up so if a bad man came in, he wouldn’t know they were there. It was so heartbreaking, thinking about him – or any little kid – hiding there, alone and terrified. But I knew it was probably a good thing to tell them. It makes me sad to think that now we have to tell kids to drop to the floor and cover their heads if gunfire erupts in a school or a mall or a movie theater. But the reality is that the more we do to prepare them for the kinds of terrible things that we know can happen any day in our crazy world, the safer they are.