In 'Long Way Down,' The Ghosts Of Gun Violence Chill A Plan For Revenge

Oct 30, 2017
Originally published on October 30, 2017 11:15 am

Jason Reynolds' new novel Long Way Down is focused on a moment of decision. It happens in an elevator — teenaged Will is on his way to take revenge for the murder of his brother, but his plan is interrupted by a few visitors on the way down to the ground floor.

"Will is growing up in a community where there are certain rules," Reynolds says. "There's a code of conduct, and what those rules are is number one, no crying, number two, no snitching, and number three, always seek revenge."

Those rules ring true to Reynold's own experience: At 19, one of his best friends was murdered, and he considered revenge himself.

"I'm grateful that we didn't do the thing that we thought we were going to do," Reynolds says. "When you start to sort of work through those things and you come back to reality ... you're, like, 'Whoa, my entire life could have changed.' "


Interview Highlights

On the ghosts who visit Will

What I wanted to do in telling a tale about gun violence is not create one-dimensional characters that fall into cliches, and so I think what we can do with devices, like using ghosts of the past, is we can create a space where the writer, the author — quote-unquote me — doesn't have to teach a lesson. Instead, it's about us, a community, thinking about those of our family members and our friends who we've already lost to this thing, and allow their haunting to be the thing that creates our psyche and our conscience.

On the clichés and misconceptions Reynolds wanted to avoid

One, that young people who engage in this, especially the back and forth, the revenge, that there is a fearlessness, that these young people are sort of without feelings, without emotion, that they're cold as ice, right? The truth is that everyone who's ever been around anyone who has been in these environments knows that the people who pull the triggers are terrified.

On his own experience of pain and revenge

I was 19, I got a phone call at two o'clock in the morning from one of my best friends, who informed me that another one of our best friends was murdered ... the news hit like a Mack truck. I'll never forget the next day, being at his mom's house, overrun with anger and having to admit to myself that in that moment, I was fully aware that we could all leave that house, go in search for whoever we think may have done this, and end their lives. And that I would have been able to go home that night and sleep like a baby. Because what happens is when you feel that kind of pain, time suspends itself, and you believe that you'll be 19 forever, you believe that the way you feel in this moment will last forever. And I remember his mother standing in front of us and telling us that no other mother needs to feel what she feels in that moment, and because of respect for her, all of us sort of standing down.

On why the book is written as poetry

I need my young brothers who are living in these environments, I need the kids who are not living in these environments to have no excuses not to read the book. The truth of the matter is that I recognize that I write prose, and I love prose, and I want everybody to read prose, but I'm also not — I would never, sort of, deny the fact that like, literacy in America is not the highest, especially amongst young men, especially amongst young men of color. It's something that we've all been working very hard on, and my job is not to sort of critique or judge that. My job is to do something to help that, and to know you can finish this in 45 minutes means the world to me, so that we can get more young people reading it and thinking and having discussion about what this book is actually about.

This story was edited for radio by Justin Richmond and Jacob Conrad, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The writer Jason Reynolds has a new novel out this month. It focuses on a moment of decision that occurs in an elevator where a young man is on his way to avenge the killing of his brother. The novel is called "Long Way Down," and Jason Reynolds came by our studio. I asked him first if he'd read a passage from the book.

JASON REYNOLDS: (Reading) I stuck the cannon in the waistband in the back of my jeans, the handle sticking out like a steel tail. I covered it with my too-big T-shirt, the name-brand hand-me-down from Shawn. The plan was to wait for Riggs in front of his building. Me and Shawn were always over his house before Riggs joined the gang, and since then Sean had been up that way a bunch of times to get Mom's special soap. I figured it would be safest if I went in the morning. If I timed it right, none of his crew would be out yet. No one would ever suspect me. I'd hit his buzzer, get him to come down and open the door. Then I'd pull my shirt over my mouth and nose and do it.

GREENE: So tell me who we're hearing from here. Who is this young man in the elevator?

REYNOLDS: This is William Holloman, who goes by Will. He's a young man who, unfortunately, has just lost his brother to gun violence the night before this is all happening. And Will is growing up in a community where there are certain rules. There's a code of conduct. And what those rules are is, number one, no crying. Number two, no snitching. And number three, always seek revenge. And so he is upholding the rules, and this is rule number three. He's going to find the man who murdered his brother, and his plan is to murder that man. Unfortunately, there are - he has to get on the elevator to go down to the ground floor to do this, and that's where he's met by a few visitors.

GREENE: A few visitors. And I don't want to give too much away because I want people to read the book, obviously, but this elevator trip, it almost takes on "A Christmas Carol" type feel.

REYNOLDS: Absolutely.

GREENE: He's being visited by ghosts of his past.

REYNOLDS: Absolutely.

GREENE: Why does that happen? What plays out here?

REYNOLDS: What I wanted to do in telling a tale about gun violence is to not create one-dimensional characters that fall into, like, cliches. And so what I think what we can do with devices like using ghosts of the past is, we can create a space where the writer, the author, quote-unquote, "me," doesn't have to teach a lesson. Instead it's about us, a community, thinking about those of our family members and our friends who we've already lost to this thing and allow their haunting to be the thing that creates our psyche and our conscious.

GREENE: What is an example of the cliche when it comes to gun violence that you might have fallen into?

REYNOLDS: One, that young people who engage in this, especially the back and forth, the revenge, that there's a fearlessness, that these young people are sort of without feelings, without emotion, that they're cold as ice. Right? The truth is, is that everyone who's ever been around anyone who has been in these environments knows that the people who pull the triggers are terrified.

GREENE: For young people who decide ultimately to pull the trigger, does the fact that they were afraid and fearful, does it ever justify the pulling of that trigger? Or, excuse it. Maybe excuse is a better - does it ever excuse the pulling of the trigger?

REYNOLDS: I don't know if I would say it excuses it because I think that a life lost is a life lost and gun violence is gun violence. But I will say that, like, there are reasons, there are circumstances that lead to these moments and that lead to the behavior and the mindset of young people in particular environments, and that we on the outside, people who are the voyeurs of these experiences, the people on the outside of the fishbowl, have to be very careful about passing judgment and should extend some grace and should try to figure out how to better humanize the people involved.

GREENE: I wonder if you could take me to you as a 19-year-old living just outside Washington, D.C., because this story is very personal to you, right?

REYNOLDS: Absolutely. I mean, I was 19. You know, I got a phone call at 2 o'clock in the morning from one of my best friends who informed me that another one of our best friends was murdered. And he was, you know, I think about my friend all the time, and he was one of the greatest guys. And you hear that all the time, but the truth is that for us he really was. And so the news hit like a Mack truck. And then I'll never forget the next day being at his mom's house, overrun with anger and having to admit to myself that in that moment I was fully aware that we could all leave that house, go and search for whoever we think may have done this and end their lives, and that I would've been able to go home that night and sleep like a baby. Because what happens is, when you feel that kind of pain, time suspends itself and you believe that you'll be 19 forever. You believe that the way you feel in this moment will last forever. And I remember his mother standing in front of us and telling us that no other mother needs to feel what she feels in that moment, and because of respect for her, all of us sort of standing down. Of course moments later, a month later, I'm grateful that we didn't do the thing that we thought we were going to do, right? When you start to sort of work through those things and you come back to reality, time re-animates and you're, like, whoa, my entire life could've changed.

GREENE: You decided to write this book in the form of poetry. Why did you decide to go that route?

REYNOLDS: I need my young brothers who are living in these environments, I need the kids who are not living in these environments, to have no excuses not to read the book. The truth of the matter is that I recognize that I write prose and I love prose and I want everybody to read prose, but I'm also not - I would never sort of deny the fact that, like, literacy in America is not the highest, especially amongst young men, especially amongst young men of color. It's something that we've all been working very hard on. And my job is not to sort of critique or judge that. My job is to do something to help that. And to know you can finish this in 45 minutes means the world to me so that we can get more young people reading it and thinking, right, and having discussion about what this book is actually about.

GREENE: Yeah, you're right. You open the pages and you immediately see, I mean, just a few verses on each page, and it does feel like this is not intimidating. This is not an hours-long commitment.

REYNOLDS: Nope. You know, we talk all the time about how do books - how can books compete with all the other distractions and, you know, stimuli that exists for young people today? The truth is, is that the best thing we could do is figure out what's working and then translate that to the page. It doesn't mean you have to lose the integrity or the sophistication of your work, but it does mean if you really want to affect change in these young people's lives and they're not reading books, figure out how to make them read them.

GREENE: Can I finish by asking you to read something that really struck us from your website 'cause it feels to me - and tell me if I'm wrong, but - it feels to me it really sums up who you are as an author and what you're trying to do?

REYNOLDS: For sure. For sure. (Reading) Here's what I know. I know there are a lot, a lot of young people who hate reading. I know that many of these book-haters are boys. I know that many of these book-hating boys don't actually hate books. They hate boredom. If you are reading this and you happen to be one of these boys, first of all, you're reading this so my master plan is already working. (Comical evil-villain laughter). And second of all, know that I feel you. I really do. Because even though I'm a writer, I hate reading boring books, too.

GREENE: Jason Reynolds, thanks for coming in.

REYNOLDS: Thank you, man.

GREENE: The book is called "Long Way Down" by the novelist Jason Reynolds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.