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Years ago, during my work in at-risk schools and psych hospitals, I heard a story of a brother and sister and their secret home life that deeply troubled me. In that kind of work you hear some disturbing stories, but this one really got under my skin and I began to imagine what it would be like to live under those conditions on a daily basis. Further, how that would play out for the entire family, and still further, the surrounding community. That rumination became the inspiration for The Interrogation of Gabriel James.
When a family is twisted, the members often feel powerless at home, and instead, act out their rage and frustration in some way in their neighborhood, or in their town. Or maybe they keep it under wraps, hide it as a child and teenager, and it bursts out later in criminal behavior or mental illness or alcohol and drug addiction. I wanted to work with my feelings about this situation, so I wrote a story about the girl and the boy who discovered what was happening in her house.
I read that to my writing group and, after that evening, put the story in a file and expected to be done with it. A couple of years after that, life circumstance (translation: I got in a huge disagreement with the owner of the school where I was Academic Dean and he fired me.) gave me the opportunity (translation: six months of unemployment checks) and encouragement (translation: Chris Crutcher, my old at-risk school Director and the hugely talented author of several young adult books like Staying Fat for Sarah Burns, told me I should write a book since I had wanted to for years).
My wife was fully behind the idea (translation: willing to continue her work as a psychotherapist and help support our family) so, like many first time authors do, I wrote a book about my own coming of age and starting shopping it to agents. While I was waiting I had time to keep writing and there had been another story that kept troubling me, the disappearance of a girl my daughter’s age in our community. Gone, after a day at high school, never seen again. Did she get a ride with someone that kidnapped her? What did the person do with her body? An awful story. I began to write about that, hoping to get it out of my system.
That story grew into my first published book, Dead Connection. While that was being revised, I thought about what I would write next, remembered the brother and sister and their difficult home life, unearthed the story, and wrote the first version of The Interrogation of Gabriel James.
I set the book in Billings not only because I grew up there, but because I knew the city had become a national symbol for rejecting racism and hate crimes with the "Not In Our Town" movement in the early nineties and has continued to the present day. When I had moved to Billings from the South in the 5th grade, I had been astounded to hear Indians sometimes described with the same terms that had been applied to African Americans. I was struck at how fluid racism was, geographically. Just pick your local minority and give them negative qualities. So racism was based on fear and ignorance with no necessary experience or interpersonal contact.
I wanted to include that situation in the book and developed the character of Danny Two Bull, a runner from Crow Agency, who had come to the much larger high school in Billings to run against the best competition in the state and win. I knew that would make him a hero for many and a target for some.
Finally, I wanted to include a character with a mental illness who possessed qualities both admirable and humorous. Durmond Williams, patterned after men I met working at the county psych unit, was a dumpster diver with a hundred scams, an irrepressible spirit -- the rhyming prince of street warriors. I fleshed out the cast of characters: Gabe -- the tenacious boy who uncovers the secret, his cross country teammates, his girlfriends, his mother, the mentally ill and staff of the local community center, the local law officers, and so on. I showed the book to a publishing professional and the person said, "this is four books, way too complicated, cut it."
Over the next three years I wrote two new books and about 12 complete versions of The Interrogation of Gabriel James from different points of view. The one from the brother, Doctor Death, was upsetting, unsettling to me as I wrote and I stopped before I finished. I couldn’t stand even imagining living in his world. Fortunately for me about three years ago I had an idea that changed the form of the book. What if I could start at the end, the aftermath, and convey the events that followed the deaths from the point of view of a police interrogation. Two months of action would be collapsed into one day! I was actually hopping (you can ask my wife) with the excitement of the challenge. Of course I didn't realize what it would take to literally shuffle the story like you would a deck of cards and then rearrange the cards in suits so in the end the reader would get all the information in a comprehensible package. Sheesh. Never again?
At finish, I wound up with a book that thrilled me, which I was finally proud to offer as The Interrogation of Gabriel James.