'Only Child': A Story of Loss, Grief And Hope Rhiannon Navin's Only Child, a novel about the aftermath of a school shooting came out shortly before a fatal school shooting in Florida. NPR's Michel Martin talks to Navin about overcoming tragedy.
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'Only Child': A Story of Loss, Grief And Hope

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'Only Child': A Story of Loss, Grief And Hope

'Only Child': A Story of Loss, Grief And Hope

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Four days ago, we received word about another one of those stories that we hate to report and you hate to hear - 17 people, many of them teenagers, were killed in a school shooting. And as journalists, I have to be honest with you, we often struggle to make sure that things don't seem mundane, they don't become ordinary, things especially like this that should never happen to anybody despite the fact that this follows a familiar pattern. And we find ourselves trying to make sense of it.

And remarkably, in this moment, there's a work of art that gives us insight. It's a novel. Just eight days before last week's tragic shooting in Florida, Rhiannon Navin released her debut novel "Only Child." It's a story about the aftermath of a school shooting told from the perspective of a 6-year-old who survived the shooting but his brother didn't. And Rhiannon Navin is with us now from our bureau in New York. Rhiannon, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RHIANNON NAVIN: It's an honor to be here. Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And, you know, it seems almost a ridiculous question, but I do have to ask, you know, what made you want to write this book?

NAVIN: Well, you know, it was a very kind of personal experience that I had a few years ago when my twins - when they just started kindergarten, they, you know, were 5 years old. They were sitting on their rug and deciphering their first words and just, you know, innocent and happy to be there. And then they experienced their first lockdown drill. And, you know, a voice comes on over the loudspeaker, it says lockdown. And their teacher locks the door, turns off the lights, ushers them into a closet or instructs them to hide under the desk.

And that same afternoon, I found my little guy, Garrett, hiding underneath our dining room table. And I said, you know, Buddy, what are you doing under the table? And he said, I'm hiding from the bad guy, Mommy. And, you know, he cowered there. He refused to come out. So I got under the table with him and held him. And he was petrified. And I was petrified. And that led me to wonder - what would that feel like or look like from the perspective of such a young child to have to live through an actual shooting and the aftermath, everything that comes afterwards?

MARTIN: Why a novel? I want to note that this is your first novel. This is actually the first thing you've ever published. But why a novel?

NAVIN: I had so many worries and fears that kind of came out of that experience. And I was desperate for an outlet. And it was really for me. It was just for me. It was an exercise for me to sit down and deal with all my feelings and my worries. And before I knew it, I came out at the other end with a novel.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask, if you wouldn't mind, reading the beginning of Chapter 7 - Sky Tears.

NAVIN: Absolutely.

(Reading) Andy was dead. That was the news Daddy told me when we stood in front of the hospital. It was raining still, so much rain all day long. The raindrops reminded me of all the tears, and it was like the sky was crying together with mommy inside the hospital and all the other people I saw crying today. Your brother was killed in the shooting, Zach, Daddy said, and his voice sounded very scratchy. We were standing together under the crying sky. In my head, the same words went round and round in a circle. Andy is dead, killed in the shooting. Andy is dead, killed in the shooting. Now I knew why Mommy acted crazy when Daddy came in because she knew Andy was dead, only I didn't know. Now I knew too, but I didn't start acting crazy. And I didn't cry and scream like Mommy. I just stood and waited with the same words doing circles in my head. And it was like my whole body didn't feel normal. It felt really heavy. Then Daddy said we should go back to check on Mommy. We went back inside slow, and my heavy legs made it hard to walk. The people in the waiting room stared at us, and their faces looked like they were feeling very sorry for us. So they knew Andy was dead, too.

MARTIN: Rhiannon, it's, you know, it's a hard read. And I have to be honest with you that it was, in a way, hard to get through because every couple of pages, you know, my eyes would fill with tears. And one of the things I think that stands out for me is that these people are not, you know, all perfect people. You know, they are not angelic people. And I just wondered how you came to that idea that these were the people who you would want to tell this story through.

NAVIN: I wanted to show an average family. You know, being married is, under the best of circumstances, difficult. Having children under the best of circumstances is difficult. And then you take this average family that deals with all the normal things and toss them into a situation where they kind of have to face the most unspeakable, horrifying tragedy for their family, and they are going to act like humans. And they're going to make mistakes. And their grief is going to make them do things that they wouldn't want to do, but they're grieving. And they're terrified. And sometimes they're lashing out.

MARTIN: In art, just as in journalism, sometimes there's a line between observing something and being felt to be exploiting it. And I wondered if you considered that in any way that you might be exploiting something that you have not, thankfully, had to experience yourself.

NAVIN: You know, I - especially, obviously, in the last few days, that's been very much at the top of my mind. You know, when I wrote this story, I had the hope that by telling the story, I could share my journey with other parents who have the same kind of fears and worries that I have. But of course I am very sensitive to the fact that it could be seen as me trying to exploit, you know, a tragedy. But I feel this incredible sense of urgency that I want to be helpful to hopefully change.

MARTIN: And to that end, that was going to be my question. What do you think you learned as a result of taking yourself on this journey? Is there something that you would hope people would draw from this?

NAVIN: I hope that the story that I told and that the perspective that I chose will remind all of us - I know it reminded me tremendously - of kind of the emotional depth and wisdom that our children and our young people possess and that they have to share if we take the time to listen. And I hope that after my readers grieve with Zach and his family that they come out at the other end and that they feel hope and that they discover that there is a chance that we can heal together and move forward and create a safer future for our children. And I think it really begins with our children, that we take the time to listen, hear their voices, have them help guide us and support them - that we come together and we support our children.

MARTIN: Rhiannon Navin is speaking to us from NPR studios in New York. Her debut novel "Only Child" came out on February 6. Rhiannon Navin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NAVIN: Thank you so much for having me.


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