Like a page ripped from the headlines, the Sunbury Press release of American Roulette takes readers inside a mall where a mass shooting has taken place. It’s a grisly and up-close look at a wholly preventable, if common, occurrence.
The novel was written by eight authors, each of whom introduces readers to someone caught in the rampage. Two of the characters, Will Humphreys and Roger Elliot, are young, disgruntled white men who are eager to retaliate for years of familial and schoolhouse bullying, and provide a window into the minds of people driven to the edge and then given access to assault weapons.
Other characters include a minister struggling with medical debt; a young woman battling a depressive disorder; an elderly gun aficionado; a homeless mall security guard who has been living in her car; a local television personality; and a man hired by the mall’s owners to do damage control.
Bader: What prompted you to write a novel about gun violence?
Rev. Matthew Best: In January 2023, I heard about a mass shooting – at this point, I don’t even remember where it took place – but the fact that it happened moved me and I felt the need to both lament and do something concrete. I’d noticed that wherever there’s a mass shooting, there’s a cycle, with debate about guns as well as thoughts and prayers. What’s missing is a discussion about the humanity of the shooters as well as the humanity of the victims. As I thought about what I could do, I had several ideas and talked to Pat about them. We agreed that writing a novel would be a good approach since the facts are so ghastly. Fiction gives people an entry point that encourages empathy. As we talked, we wondered if we could ask different authors to write different characters and said, ‘Sure. Why not?’
Pat LaMarche: I work with the Charles Bruce Foundation in Pennsylvania. We publish a small number of books about social issues and early on, I brought Cheryl Bycheck, an editor who has helped the Foundation navigate single-authored books, into our editorial process. I also know a lot of people so I reached out to other writers as well as to a disaster management expert and a psychologist to see if they’d be interested in writing sections of the book. Once we assembled the all-volunteer team – none of us will earn royalties and we intend to donate the proceeds of book sales to different groups working to end gun violence – we began writing. We later wove everything together. All told, the process, from concept to publication, took just seven months!
How did you ensure that the different pieces fit together to make American Roulette a coherent story?
LaMarche: We had an in-person retreat in June where we reviewed everything we’d written and made changes. For example, contributor Robert Bradshaw, the disaster management expert, knew that malls have security offices, and he pushed us to include their efforts to stop the mayhem once the shooting began. We also met on Zoom every three or so weeks.
Best: Each writer had complete freedom to make the character they were writing their own, and each of us wrote between 9000 and 12,000 words. I know it sounds impossible, but the storyline and the characters just fell into place. None of the plotlines were premeditated. We listened to Cheryl and to each other and we knew what needed to unfold. It was a challenge, but it was also exciting. The bottom line is that we all agree that American Roulette is a book that should never have had to be written.
How did you decide on the characteristics of the would-be shooters? Do you worry that they might come off as stereotypes – white incels who were relentlessly victimized by bullies?
LaMarche: Roger and Will fit the profile of the majority of people who kill others in mass shootings. That’s the reality. It’s mostly young white men who do this.
Both Roger and Will are clearly mentally ill. Do you think this validates the argument of gun proponents who say that mental illness, not guns, is to blame for the upsurge in violence?
LaMarche: Caitlin, one of the characters in the novel, is a young woman who is coming out of a recent mental health crisis, and she does not shoot anyone. There needs to be awareness that if people don’t have easy access to assault rifles and weapons of war, massacres cannot happen.
Best: The character I wrote, Rev. Chris Dietrich, is incredibly stressed by financial and family pressures and talks to himself a lot. This is something many people do when they’re feeling pressured. But like Caitlin, Chris does not shoot anyone; he does not become violent.
At the same time, it is very important to me that readers see the humanity in both Will and Roger. They, too, are victims.
American Roulette does not offer suggestions about ways to end gun violence. Was this intentional?
Best: We felt that presenting solutions would be a distraction. As a pastor, I think of this book as a sermon, a way to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I hope readers will close American Roulette and be disturbed enough to say, ‘We need to talk about this, not just in the twitter-sphere, but in public.’ We need to come together and ask why we’re not doing anything to end the violence. We need to ask who and what we’re protecting. If we have these conversations, I believe we can make the needed changes. Gun advocates repeatedly say that guns are just a tool, but we can no longer let the tool dictate national policy.
LaMarche: I look at the facts, People began to be slaughtered after Congress got rid of the assault weapons ban in 2004.
How do you plan to promote American Roulette?
LaMarche: That’s our biggest challenge. We’re hoping people will hear about the book, buy copies, and tell others about it. There are 10 of us involved in this project – eight writers, an editor, and the author of the book’s Introduction. If each of us does 10 appearances, that’s 100 book events. And since gun violence is everywhere, we’re hoping it will provoke a discussion that goes viral.
American Roulette by American Roulette Team. Sunbury Press, October 2023.
Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, NY-based journalist who writes about books and domestic social issues for Truthout, Rain Taxi, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Indypendent.