Amye Archer holds an MFA from Wilkes University and is the author of Fat Girl, Skinny: A Memoir. She is the co-editor of If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, Scary Mommy, Brevity, PANK, and Hippocampus. She is a CNF editor at The Citron Review and teaches writing at The University of Scranton. Follow her everywhere @amyearcher.
Curtis Smith: First of all, congratulations. The book and topic are so timely and relevant. If I Don’t Make It, I Love You focuses on the personal stories—80 of them—of survivors of school shootings. When did the idea of reaching out to all these people come to you? I imagine these conversations were difficult, and there were no doubt times when you, as you collected and read their pieces, found yourself heartbroken. In those moments, what motivated you to move on?
Ayme Archer: My co-editor, Loren Kleinman, and I had worked together on another anthology. We knew we wanted to do another project together, and gun violence in schools had been at the forefront of our minds. As memoirists, Loren and I believe in the power of story and thought that if people could hear the stories of what that particular loss and grief is like, they would be moved to action. Then, Parkland happened, and we knew we couldn’t stay silent any longer. We had to get these narratives out into the world.
What kept me going, personally, was my twelve-year-old twin daughters. This was without a doubt the most difficult writing project I’ve ever worked on. But the emotional toll it took on me was no worse than the overwhelming grief and despair I was feeling on a daily basis by feeling helpless. When I felt overcome by grief, I thought about the families in this book, who had to get up every single day and put one foot in front of the other under the extraordinary heartbreak of grieving a murdered child. They inspired me with their strength and their determination. I kept going for them, and for my daughters—who I hope will never have to experience terror in their classroom.
CS: I’m guessing there are a number of images and stories you can’t shake. I believe it’s these details others need to hear, the items that can connect these horrific experiences to the lives of a public that has grown numb to this kind of violence. Can you share some of the moments that have touched you the most?
AA: There are several, and I’ve written about these moments in some other places. Most of the moments that stay with me are seemingly small-things that you don’t read about in the news. Like the mother from Santa Fe who sent her daughter a text and prayed with everything in her to see the read receipt, but never did. Or the father from Parkland who, during our phone call, walked through his son’s now-empty bedroom and read to me the last line of the book his son was reading when he was killed—the book he will never finish.
CS: In going over these stories, have you discovered any patterns, especially in the lives these survivors live in the years following these tragedies?
AA: The recovery or the road to healing looked different depending on the school and the climate surrounding the shooting. Many of the more recent schools and communities took to some form of advocacy right away, while some of the communities affected earlier, specifically before Columbine, were left with no plan or guidance for recovery, therefore they attempted just to “move on.” What is interesting is many of these older survivors have since become parents themselves and, inspired partly by congress’ lack of action on this issue and partly by the Parkland group, they’ve now started organizations and advocacy groups to work towards solving this problem.
CS: For many of us, Sandy Hook was a blow doubled by our government’s unwillingness to take any sort of action. Do you see any hope in our current climate that would lead you to believe we can do something to enact common-sense gun laws?
AA: I think 2018 was a banner year for gun safety and commonsense gun reform. The midterm election saw a record number of candidates running on and talking about this issue, and we saw most of them—if not all—win their seats. I’m also optimistic as I see the Democratic candidates talk about gun violence at their events and in their debates. And of course, the Parkland kids, who have picked up the mantle on this and have consistently been the adults in the room. What they’re doing for my kids and or every kid in America cannot be overlooked. When we finally get a handle on this issue, when I can finally send my daughters to school without a knot in my stomach, it will be because of them.
CS: Thankfully, the vast majority of schoolchildren will never experience this—but all kids must engage in regular active-shooter drills. Do you think this is having an impact on kids? What messages are being sent by the adults of this world?
AA: This is hard for me to answer. It’s complicated for me, and for any parent, to think about this issue in a logical way, because the idea your son or daughter can be killed in their school is just illogical. On one hand, I think drills for the staff and administrators are helpful and necessary. On the other hand, if you read the accounts from students who’ve lived through these shootings, it seems instinct takes over and it’s hard to focus/remember what you’ve prepared for. I just cannot fathom that we live in a world where children must prepare to be shot. It sickens me on a daily basis. If you’re an adult and you’re not involved in this fight- you need to be.
CS: What do you see as the way forward? If you could look back 20 years down the line, what would you hope this book accomplishes?
AA: When we started this project, Loren and I told the survivors that we had two goals. One is to get this book in the hands of every single person in this country. We are fundraising to make this happen. Two was more of a wish. We hoped that in 30 years, our children and grandchildren will read this book with the same historical distance as I had when I read The Diary of Anne Frank in sixth grade. And that much like Anne Frank’s story, you will have those who looked away and those who fought for change.
CS: What’s next for you?
AA: As you can imagine, this book took a toll. I needed a break, and I’m taking one. Yet, I feel the immense privilege in that statement, and in knowing I can take a break from gun violence when so many can’t. But after a few weeks off, I’ll be focusing for the next few months on launching this book and spreading the word, all while enjoying my daughters and fighting every day for their right to be safe in a public space.
Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).