When I was writing Centerville, I struggled with the characterization of George Fowler, my fictional character who carries the bomb into Centerville’s drugstore. In some ways, my questions about the man who had done this in the town where I was growing up a number of years ago were the ones that had been the most persistent, the ones that had forced me to re-imagine the events I’d witnessed as a child and to keep the killer alive after the bombing. I wanted to know how someone would be brought to the place and time where he would do something so deliberately—collecting the parts he needed for the bomb’s construction, studying how to make it, and then placing it in a bag and carrying it into a populated store. I wanted to be able, as writer, to follow this man and get inside him so that I could figure him out.
But George Fowler as a character eluded me, and the chapters I attempted from his viewpoint came off sounding stiff. While I received advice from some very good readers to illustrate his motives, any time I attempted to show them, the realism of the novel was challenged. The more I wrote about the man, the less I felt I knew him.
The realization about George Fowler that I needed as writer in order to finish the book came late in the process, after I had put away the manuscript for more than a year and just before it was accepted for publication. That realization was simple: I couldn’t understand George Fowler, because he was not understandable. He had evaded my attempts to develop him as a character because he was an enigma, and I knew at that moment that I needed to present him as such. Any details that I used, such as his statements about his wife’s deserting him, needed to be matched by details that would show contrasting elements, such as his desire for her. A character like George Fowler, who is capable of a deliberate, planned mass killing, has so many contradicting sides that he can’t be grasped, at least not fully. These contrasting sides are part of what make it possible later for someone like the minister of his church to question how the man could have seemed so much like any other parishioner.
This is the uncomfortable truth we grapple with after any horrible incident like the one in the Connecticut elementary school—we can’t understand what made the killer do it, and we can’t find a formula or a diagnosis that would allow authorities to predict mass violence in advance. While a mass killer might seem strange or different from most people in retrospect, before the act of violence, he will usually elude recognition. The only answer, then, becomes tighter weapon control. While it may not prevent every act of violence (you could argue that a person who wants to plan a mass killing will find another way if he can’t acquire an assault rifle), we can certainly make these tragedies less easy to accomplish. While the moment of national mourning might not be the best moment to bring up a controversial issue like gun control, I hope our elected lawmakers will hear the nation’s need for change. If we don’t wake up after an event like the one in Connecticut where so many young children were slaughtered, when will we?