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

Feb 18, 2018
Originally published on February 18, 2018 4:30 pm

In the wake of tragedy, confusing and conflicting feelings like fear and anger can be overwhelming. In her breakout novel, Rihannon Navin takes readers on the emotional journey that explores some of these feelings.

Only Child centers around a family reconciling with the aftermath of a mass shooting at an elementary school. It's told from the perspective of 6-year-old Zach, who survived the shooting in which his brother Andy died.

The book comes in the midst of an American tragedy; just eight days before it was released, a fatal mass shooting at a high school in Florida claimed the lives of 17 people.

NPR's Michel Martin talked to Navin about Only Child and the feeling she hopes the book leaves reader with: hope.


Interview Highlights

On the inspiration behind the novel

It was a very kind of personal experience that I had a few years ago when my twins, who actually turn 8 today, just started kindergarten.

They were 5 years old and they were sitting on the rug and deciphering their first words and just innocent and happy to be there, and then they experienced their first lockdown drill. A voice came over the loudspeaker and said "lockdown" and their teacher locks the door and turns off the lights and ushers them into a closet or instructs them to hide under a desk.

And that same afternoon I found my little guy, Garret, hiding underneath the dining room table. And I said, "Hey, buddy. What are you doing under the table?" And he said, "I'm hiding from the bad guy mommy." And he cowered there and refused to come out so I got under the table with him and held him and he was petrified and I was petrified for him and with him.

And that led me to wonder what that would feel like or look like from the perspective of such a young child to have to live through an actual shooting and the aftermath and everything that comes afterward.

On the writing process

It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. It was incredibly tough. I had to put myself and my family into that position. I had to envision us in that situation. And that was incredibly draining. But, at the same time it kind of gave me a way to show and to feel how it is to move through this time — without minimizing how hard it is — but come out at the other end feeling a sense of hope and a way to look towards the future.

On creating the characters

I wanted to show an average family. A regular family — like my family — that deals with everyday problems. Being married under the best of circumstances is 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 have to face the most unspeakable, horrifying tragedy for their family and they're going to act like humans and they are going to make mistakes and their grief is going to make them do thing that they never thought they would do — and they wouldn't want to do, but they're grieving and they're terrified and sometimes they're lashing out.

On what she learned on the journey

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 – of the emotional depth and wisdom that our children and our young people possess and that they have to share e if we take the time to listen

I hope that even though my book is incredibly hard for some people to read that after my readers grieve with Zach and his family that they feel hope and that they feel energized maybe and driven by this hope and discover that there's a chance that we come together that we can heal together and move forward and create a safer future for our children.

NPR's Digital News intern Asia Simone Burns produced this story for the Web. NPR's Tyler Hill and NPR's Ammad Omar edited and produced this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TULPA'S "THE BIRDS AND BEES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.