1. Luke, what inspired you to write Children of Violence?
I've always enjoyed storytelling, the art of it, being engaged by it. I read a lot and always wanted to try writing. I dabbled in writing short stories and decided to take the plunge of making a narrative that felt real, that people could relate to. The goal was to entertain, shock, and talk about topics that are not necessarily 'taboo', but topics that people generally don't address in common fiction/literature. Topics in the book include racism, radical religion, abuse (physical and mental), and drug/ alcohol abuse. It's not all sad, though; there are bits of humor. The idea of someone reading my book and liking it and possibly being engaged is absolutely thrilling and frightening. It was a dream that I never really knew I could accomplish.
2. What is it about?
The book is about kids that grow up around violent adults and how that shapes their lives. There's Gracie, Robbie, Cole, and Reeves. Gracie's life in the Suburbs is perfect from the outside, but her dad is an abusive drunk that moonlights as a hitman for the mafia. Robbie lives in a project in the inner city, his mother is a prostitute, his mother's boyfriend is a drug-dealing pimp. Robbie is set on getting enough cash to get him and his little brother out of the hood, and where he gets that money doesn't matter. Reeves grows up in a radical cult that believes the end times are here. He trains as a child soldier so he and the other Christians can survive until the return of Christ. Cole lives in a trailer in the country. His neglectful alcoholic father suffers from PTSD, hoping for one day to fight again. All of these stories connect, and the outcomes are unexpected and shocking.
3. How much of it is inspired by your experiences or real-life events?
I recently went through the book again and tallied up the stories that are true/ based on real life. There are around 20. Some are true with minimal changes from what actually happened and some are completely fictionalized to fit the narrative of the chapter. The true stories that are in the book usually stem from my life as a kid, growing up in a strange church setting, and stories about my dad and his bizarre life. I also added subtle details of real people's habits and tastes for descriptive purposes. Anything slightly off. For example, my dad once escaped from a nursing home to go to the grocery store and bought four items -- a bottle of gin, two watermelons, and a butcher knife. He then went back to the nursing home. How could I not write about that?
4. You say on the back of your book: “Children are brought in this world expected to grow up and be functional adults. This is not that story.” Why not?
It's about kids that live in unusual and extreme circumstances. I'm conveying to the potential reader that this is not a typical story about kids growing up and having issues that they would have to go through like other books about middle- or high schoolers. Normal issues like school, grades, dances, bullies, etc. This is about the darkness in American society. Racism, religious brainwashing, physical/mental/sexual abuse, drugs, and alcohol. If adults can't even really deal with these issues, how much harder would it be for children? It's also about the adults around them, some good and some bad, and how the violence shapes their lives.
5. In your book, four kids, all from different backgrounds, fight for a place in the world. However, getting in their way of living normal, healthy lives is abuse, racism, extreme religion, and hate. Why is the world so messed up?
It all starts in the home. Children need stability and accountability to even have a chance to make it out and be productive members of society. People as a whole are tribal and cyclical. They fall into patterns and repeat. Even if they come from a ‘good’ home, sometimes societal pressures can force people into flawed lifestyles. If too many people have no purpose, things fall apart and fast. On the opposite end, if large groups as a whole have a purpose, but for a wrongful cause that harms people, that also messes up societies. All of the things mentioned in the question -- abuse, racism, extreme religion, and hate -- are all toxic learned behaviors that can be overcome. But it is rare that one overcomes them. People are creatures of habit and those bad habits have a tendency to harm them and the people around them.
6. Can we raise a generation that doesn’t have to know about the ugly side of life?
No. Some people are born lucky, some aren’t. There will always be shitbag people, drug and alcohol abuse, and poverty. As a society, we can make it better for people, but in the end, it's individual responsibility that will give us the potential for societal success. On a big scale we need the potential for social mobility to be greater, meaning people that are on the lower end of the financial spectrum need to have the ability to move up in society, If so inclined. The more out-of-poverty families are, the more chances they have to gain generational wealth. On the individual end, we need to promote healthy eating habits, sleep patterns, physical and mental health, fiscal responsibility, and good old-fashioned not breaking the law.
7. Your message seems to be: A sucky environment dominates one’s upbringing, and there may be not be any way out. But we must do something to help those who desperately try to escape their circumstances, right?
Maybe on a one-on-one basis, as in helping the people around you. You can only do so much, and can only help the people that actually want help. It’s not popular to say, but there are a lot of terrible people out there, ready to use and rob you at any given opportunity. Then there are the people you can’t help, people that are mentally unstable or mentally challenged to the point of not being able to function in society. You have to know who is who before even trying to help. If not, you’re just going to end up wasting time and hurting yourself. A lot of people need help and can get help from various social services; it’s up to them to choose to do so.
8. So, you had a very challenging, dysfunctional upbringing and managed to survived it. What happened to you – and did you manage to escape the fate your parents wrote for you?
Most of the religious sections in the Children of Violence are true. I escaped because I waited it out. At 17 I packed up my car and was going to drive until I ran out of money, live in my car, and try to find work in a different city. This was obviously a bad idea. A friend called me and convinced me to just wait it out another six months. Then I would be a high school graduate at least, and 18. So, I waited. And he was right. I ended up moving out and starting my own life, for better or worse. I didn’t know what the future held, but I knew it would be better than the past.
9. Your parents got divorced when you were a young age. Your dad would take pills and drink excessively. He lived in a dangerous part of St. Louis. Your mom was clean-living but was a religious zealot who lived in a safe suburb of St. Louis. You split time with each of them, each suffering from their own demons. What grounded you in normalcy?
To say I’m normal is a bit of a stretch. Hahaha. One positive thing I had in my life was that I didn’t move a lot. I went to the same school and churches (one with my mom, one with my dad) most of my childhood. I’ve always been one to study and watch people. See how they move, talk, walk through life. You see patterns after a while of what works and what doesn’t. I’d see the parents of my friends, and the successful ones all followed a few key steps in life to ensure success. Get some sort of education, work, eat healthy, exercise, don’t buy things you don’t need, stay away from drugs, don’t drink to excess, and don’t break the law. It sounds simple enough, but if you mess up in any one of those key areas it’s a domino effect and everything around you can crash.
10. What challenges did you have in researching, editing, and penning this book?
The main challenge I had during the writing process was fear. I was scared of what people I knew and grew up with would think. I would write and think to myself, I can’t write about this topic, or use that kind of language. Eventually I overcame that and wrote about whatever topics I wanted to and used language that was necessary for the believability of each character. It was such a relief. Since most of the story was based on real events the research was minimal, just thoughts put on paper. When I was done with the ‘final’ draft I read it two times a day for weeks, always finding another mistake, and had about 10 friends read it and give me back notes as well. I finally hired an editor and she found sooooo many mistakes and chopped it up even more. Very glad I hired her, otherwise the final product would have been an embarrassment.
11. You focused on developing really well-drawn characters in your book. Many are irredeemable. How important is it to paint your characters this way?
As far as character development I tried to give each main character a background into who they are as people before going into any plot. When I tell people stories in real life, just talking, I always give a backstory before I tell the real story so when I tell if the listener(s) know and understand the decisions the person is making and why. I did make a few irredeemable characters, but how they end up is a product of the combined decisions they’ve made. Almost as if that’s their fate. Unfortunately, as in real life, innocent people also get caught up in the train wreck. It was important to me to show the result of what happens to people that make bad decisions and the aftermath of the people around them.
12. Kirkus Reviews labels your book as: “A bleak, engrossing tale of the seemingly endless damage that brutality causes.” Fair assessment? Why?
Yes, very fair. It’s about mental and physical survival from the worst possible conditions with not really great odds, with people that mentally live on the fringe of society. Most people don’t change, especially if they have narcissistic tendencies. I put a few characters in the book that were so dark as people I surprised myself with how horrible of a person I could write, and at times from their perspectives! One character is Frederick. He’s a lottery winner that is a hardcore southern racist that dreams of joining the KKK, lives off of welfare, physically abuses prostitutes, and is drunk at all times. Other characters that are around the kids that cause them harm mentally or physically include: a camp leader that is an ex-military prepper, a bank robber, and a drug-dealing pimp.
13. You say your book really does not have a traditional hero or protagonist. You seem to have characters that are supposed to be good but are actually bad – and characters that are bad – or think they are – but want to be good. Please explain.
I didn’t want a traditional hero because a hero is somewhat predictable, at least in morals, ideals, goals. My characters have positives and negatives to their personalities, so guessing what they are going to do or how the storyline is going to end up is not really possible. So, it boils down to the characters' intentions versus their actual actions. For example, I have one character that loves his daughter, but doesn’t really know how to show affection, and as a job is an enforcer/ hitman for the local mafia. Another character is a high school-aged boy that wants to provide for his brother, but not old enough to get a job (if he could get one) and turns to petty crimes for cash that get riskier as time goes on. Most of the characters have some redeemable qualities, even if their actions are bad.
14. Your novel seems to take us behind the scenes of what really takes place in the dark corners of life. How difficult is it to convey the despair, violence, and desperation of a dying neighborhood?
It’s all in the details. It’s all real and I saw the decay over a few decades, plus listened to the stories of the old-timers that lived there. The news and FBI statistics are helpful as well, showing the decay of the community. The shock I had was moving to a different city where this wasn’t the norm. Sure, there are bad things that can and do happen where I am now, but not on an enormous scale-like back home. And it’s getting worse, especially since city-wide riots break out every few years. Over the last 70 years, St. Louis has lost over half a million of its population. That can’t be done with famine, disease, or an atomic bomb. It’s all due to bad political policies and violence/ gangs/ drugs.
15. Your story unfolds in an unconventional manner. As one reads it, they really don’t know what will happen next. How did you come to present the story the way that you did?
I messed with the timeline a lot when putting the chapters together. I want the reader to piece together the weaving narratives, without making the ‘universe’ too complex. I leave clues along the way of events that have happened or will happen in other chapters, and characters mix in and out of each other’s storylines as well. This works well because of the size of the book; it’s only 130 pages. Many people have told me they’ve read it in one sitting. I cut a lot out that didn’t need to be in there (which was difficult). I pack a lot of information in, and the key points are placed in strategically so the reader doesn’t lose interest or get confused.
© 2021 Luke Gherardi
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