Beck McDowell is stopping by PTB today to answer a few questions I had about her new book This is Not A Drill.
Your first book is based off of a true story and This is Not a Drill seems like something that could be ripped from the headlines. Have you always been inclined to write about strong, brave characters that do amazing things in the face of danger?
THIS IS NOT A DRILL probably was inspired, indirectly, by my non-fiction work LAST BUS OUT – since they’re both about high schoolers leading ordinary lives who act heroically in a crisis. When I heard about Courtney Miles, who stole a school bus and drove over 300 people to safety after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I HAD to know more. After months of phone conversations with him, I knew I wanted to tell his story. LAST BUS OUT was the result.
Jake and Emery in THIS IS NOT A DRILL are not so different from Courtney – and from the teens I taught. I think all of us have the innate courage to help others when the opportunity arises. The amazing heroes in the Aurora, CO shooting are examples of this bravery. We all aspire to act selflessly, but we don’t really know how we’d behave if the worst happened. THIS IS NOT A DRILL explores that quest for our inner hero.
Jake talks about how good Emery is with these kids – why doesn’t he see how amazing he is with them as well?
Jake is at such a pivotal point in his life. He’s just starting to really figure out what’s important and who he is. His genuine affection for the first graders develops over time, but he feels uncomfortable at first because he has no experience with kids. Jake has this big personality and such a deep connection with people that kids of all ages are drawn to him.
I honestly think most high schoolers DON’T see their amazing qualities; it’s a time in life when we tend to focus on our shortcomings, sadly. Jake, like lots of teens, is insecure and he’s on especially shaky footing because of his recent arrest and his betrayal of Emery. You get the feeling he’ll figure it all out, but Jake’s definitely a work in progress. There are so many good things about him that make us pull for him; he’s such a great guy, deep down.
Did you know when you were writing the story what Jake would do in the end or were you surprised by his bravery?
I honestly don’t know where stories are headed when I write. I had a pretty clear image of who Jake and Emery were as people, and I just let their personalities and strengths and weaknesses dictate the outcome. It’s a fun way to craft novels – but pretty terrifying at about the mid-point when you’re staring at the computer screen and hoping the characters reveal themselves to you in a way that fits the story. I have to say I love Jake; he’s such a composite of some of my favorite guy students – so funny without even meaning to be and so open and friendly and real. He’s not the most self-aware person on the planet, but he’s trying in his own way. Jake kept me entertained during the writing process and he did not disappoint me in the end.
What do you think are your characters best feature?
Both characters are extremely compassionate and empathetic, but in different ways. Emery is able to see past Stutts’ terrifying “present” by exploring his “past.” At first her impulse to draw him out is driven by her desire to help the children, but she begins to genuinely care about him as a person after he opens up to her. Jake is too blinded by his anger at Stutts to try to understand him – and yet, generally, Jake is the kind of guy who looks out for the underdog. He makes up for his lack of sympathy for Stutts with his focus on Patrick, the small son of the troubled soldier. Emery is more open in her love for the kids, but we get glimpses of Jake’s tender side through his small bits of interaction with Patrick, Simon, Kenji, and the other kids.
Both characters have issues with their parents – after something like this where they able to talk to them and repair the problems?
I think both make progress in the story with their parent issues but, again, in different ways. After Emery reaches deep within herself to find the courage to stand up to Stutts, she seems to be a little more willing to fight back with her domineering mom. I think readers will feel that her newfound “backbone” will serve her well in carving out her own identity. And she’s also committed to reaching out to her dad, even though her mom has tried to keep apart.
Jake’s brief reunion with his Dad in the school hallway is also a little peek at the strong bond they had before it was damaged by his mother’s death. I think Jake matures so much during the story. We see him earning his father’s respect minute-by-minute, and there’s a sense that this respect will help repair their relationship.