In Conversation with Samantha Paige Rosen on "A New Silence"
Samantha Paige Rosen had her piece "A New Silence" originally published in LUMINA’s Volume XVIII, and re-published in the current online issue. LUMINA Journal asked Samantha some questions about writing pieces on controversial subject matters, and the real world implications of writing fiction. As with “A New Silence,” this interview discusses subject matters pertaining to gun violence and we urge our readers to take care of yourselves, whatever that means for you.
Samantha earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence. Her bylines include The Washington Post, Ms. Magazine, The Week, Bustle, Necessary Fiction, LUMINA Journal, Hypertext Magazine, The Passed Note, Beautiful Minds Magazine, and the anthology My Body, My Words: A Collection of Bodies (Big Table Publishing, 2018). Learn more about Samantha on her website.
LUMINA Journal: Let’s jump straight in—what inspired you to write a piece about such a controversial and heavy subject matter as a school shooting?
Samantha Paige Rosen: When I was eight, I found my mom’s People magazine in the trash. On the cover, teenagers and adults were crying. Students were being rolled away on stretchers. That was Columbine—and my introduction to school shootings. I started having nightmares. They continued through Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Parkland.
It isn’t possible to “tackle” something as politically controversial and devastating as school shootings—by way of writing or any other medium of expression. That didn’t stop me from trying to change people’s minds about guns.
Leading up to A New Silence, I wrote a few op-eds on the subject attempting to convey my ideas through an original lens. No matter how [I wrote these], I still felt like my words were lacking, and I grew tired of hearing the same arguments from myself and every other gun control advocate. I hadn’t planned on exploring this subject when I decided to write short stories. But when I started writing for David Ryan’s fiction workshop during the last semester of my Creative Nonfiction MFA at Sarah Lawrence, that’s where I went. This was always the kind of story I wanted to tell—I just didn’t know that I could.
In fiction, I identified an opportunity to defamiliarize concepts and emotions—that is, show readers something they’ve seen before in a way that’s new. When reading something familiar, people tend to pay less attention. I used language (and lack thereof) to create a jarring experience and ensure readers wouldn’t disengage, even though the topic [of school shootings] has been exhausted in the media.
For example, instead of saying, “the air smelled like gunpowder,” I describe it as “100 rotten eggs.” “Her sticky arm” signifies blood, without using the word. “A high-pitched squeal coming from inside her brain” replaces “the proximity of the gun damaged her hearing.” I never say “shooting.” I never say “gun.”
This approach was unfamiliar to me, too. It’s what allowed me to return to the same thing I’d been writing about all along.
LJ: Choosing to tell this story from the present tense perspective of a very young victim was a bold choice. What was your process in coming to this voice—were there other versions of this story? What was important for you about telling the story from this point of view?
SPR: Before grad school, I worked in television. A now unrecognizable version of this narrative had been a small part of a pilot script I wrote six years ago. It was a lot of dialogue with multiple points of view. I think I had a sense then that this wasn’t how the story was meant to be told. After 24 drafts I couldn’t rectify that, so I put it down.
In school, I wrote it completely fresh. The immediacy of the present tense was too valuable to pass up—for this and a lot of my pieces. That initial version wasn’t drastically different than the one you’re reading. Although it was only the second week of my first fiction class, I was really inspired by concepts we discussed. I went for it in one weekend. That’s so not me. It was a rare and bizarre accomplishment.
The first iteration of the short story had a resolution and an entire second half I pushed myself to write for class. But I never liked it, and I tossed it a couple of drafts later. I needed to stay in this little girl’s psyche for those nine minutes (the timeframe of the Sandy Hook shooting) in that classroom closet.
Over the next year I chiselled away at it, making it more clipped, immediate, and abstract. I wanted readers to struggle to understand the worst moments of Cora’s life along with her.
I’ve spent a lot of time with kids, and their feelings and observations are freeing—they tend not to have a filter or preconceived ideas about how they’re supposed to act and react the way adults do. I was a terribly anxious child, so I took those emotions and gave them to her.
When a horrific event occurs, I wonder how it looks through innocent eyes. For me, the story could only be told from this point of view. From the kids holding their breath in spaces that should be safe and where they’re supposed to be learning. There was no other option.
LJ: We’ve visited the topic of shootings in public spaces before in famous works of fiction and nonfiction, but often from perspectives of those left behind in the aftermath or the perpetrator themselves. A New Silence starts and ends in the midst of a present snapshot, and the end of this story leaves me, as a reader, in the height of my emotions. It meant I had to sit with the subject matter in a very different way than I’m used to, without the benefit and safety of hindsight. I’d love to hear your perspective on this: what do you hope readers of this story will gain, and what do you hope they will lose in the process of it being structured this way?
SPR: I want readers to feel stuck in their discomfort. If they can’t tolerate it, but they can’t escape, that’s the goal. Structuring the story like this takes away their sense of control and sense of self. Where are we when it begins? Where do we end up? Why can’t we figure it out? That’s real life, especially with anxiety and trauma.
I want readers to lose the politics, beliefs, and theories they have about school shootings and guns. I want to force them to forget what they’ve seen and heard up until this point—everything outside of the pitch-black closet. I don’t know for sure that the structure serves this aim. It certainly makes them feel lost.
When I workshopped this piece, most of the students said they didn’t understand it. It was too extreme. They felt disoriented. But when we discussed it further, they caught a lot more than they realized—almost all of it. The structure and the language made them uneasy. They were insecure in explaining what they thought was going on. I refused to accommodate my readers and as a result, I made them vulnerable, just like the protagonist.
LJ: In today’s digital world, creating art on controversial subjects can be very difficult to navigate, albeit important—it makes me question, how do we navigate giving space to explore these subjects through fiction, without negating the real-life pain that inspires it? What is your advice to other writers who want to write about politically charged and emotionally painful subjects such as this?
That’s a tough question to answer. I had one of those moments as a spectator last week during an episode of a TV show that brought viewers into the aftermath of an assault. I called my little sister sobbing as the credits rolled—she was sexually assaulted in high school—and begged her to skip it. I wasn’t afraid it would negate her pain. I was afraid it would bring that pain back.
It’s hard to truly comprehend suffering you haven’t gone through. My cousin teaches at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Glimpsing that grief from afar, knowing she was there, knowing she loved kids who were killed, and knowing how hard it was to face her students months later, was different than reading about it or watching it on the news.
Whenever I approach a controversial subject, I question my right to do so because my own life didn’t take that turn. Is it my story to reveal? But if I wasn’t telling these kinds of stories, I probably wouldn’t be writing. I wouldn’t know what to write about. It isn’t my place to tell another artist what’s okay, but I’ve decided for myself that if I’m doing it right, I won’t invalidate anyone’s pain. The idea is to help those who haven’t experienced that pain understand it emotionally, which is the only thing that can lead to action.
I try to create space for my characters to speak for themselves—not overwriting or over-explaining—and doing my research. It doesn’t matter that it’s fiction. If you’re going to take on a topic like this, you can’t do it halfway. I read about all the major school shootings, the kinds of guns used, the sounds and smells fired guns leave behind, the effects on your ears if you’re nearby, where your mind goes during trauma.
Even if I didn’t include them in the draft, details from other school shootings were part of the full world I built. No one except me knew that the shooting in my story took place over nine minutes like Sandy Hook. It helped keep me in the right headspace. Not for a second did I lose sight of the fact that I was writing about something that really happened.
SPR: I’m always interested in nonfiction writers, such as yourself, who shift across genres. Considering the placement of stories like this against contemporary politics and circumstances, do you believe in the power of fiction to be a catalyst for real world change?
Overall, yes. Like I mentioned, there’s only so many ways to write an op-ed or yell your opinion in a public place. Real change comes through experience and feeling. As David Ryan says, you don’t want readers to watch your protagonist watching something; you want them to be her eyes. Take the freedom and power that fiction gives you and make people who wouldn’t otherwise know live the pain your characters are going through. Pain and fear are equalizing.
In this specific instance, I’m not sure what could be a catalyst for change that’s sweeping enough to prevent school shootings. It’s so politically charged—people dig their heels in just hearing the phrase.
Fiction completely changed how I think creatively and how I choose to put those thoughts on paper. My hope is that it might change how readers think as well.