BookBrunch | Discussing gun deaths in America with Gary Younge

This week for the BookBrunch interview I had a really strong conversation with journalist Gary Younge about his new book, Another Day in the Death of America (Faber). You can read the whole thing over on BookBrunch, or get started with the snippet below…

Gary Younge photo.jpgThe Guardian‘s Gary Younge has been undertaking serious investigative journalism since the mid-nineties, exemplified more than ever in his latest book, Another Day in the Death of America. Here, we discuss the book, how he researched it, how journalism has changed over the past two decades, and what that means for storytelling

With five books already under his belt, Younge launched Another Day in the Death of America (Guardian Faber) on 28 September. It has already been featured on Radio 4’s Book of the Week and received reviews fromThe Spectator, The Times, and The Guardian itself among many others. It’s no surprise, because the book’s contents are shocking and moving in equal measure.

“It takes the basic statistical premise that seven children are shot every day on average in the USA and then tries to make it human by picking a random day and finding out who they are,” Younge explains. “It tries to get to the humans stories behind that statistic: how these kids lived and who they were, and maybe showing a bit more about America beyond those particular incidents.”

The idea grew from a piece Younge wrote for The Guardian’s magazine in 2007. “Several of the stories were really compelling and deserved more space. I thought at the time, this could be a book,” Younge reflects. However, time got away from him and it wasn’t until six years later that he had another chance. “Gun violence had never really been out of the news but it was in the news in that moment in a big way and an American publisher asked if there was anything about that which I was interested in. I sent them that story and said, ‘I’d like to do this, but for a book.’ I think they said yes pretty much within the hour.”

The concept was reliant on that one statistic, however, which was entirely out of Younge’s control. “You had to have faith that the statistic – and the day – would produce the stories. You just don’t know until the day who’s going to die and how. I did have some concerns when I spoke to my editor just before the day. I said, ‘How do we make this book not just an unrelenting tale of woe?’ She said, ‘Well, you’re just going to have to see. The power of the idea is that you just don’t know and that will be one of you challenges.’ It is a hard book and people find it harrowing but in the end I do think it’s a bit more varied than that unrelenting tale.”

Although the day was picked randomly – “it was pretty much the first day I could do” – Younge did hedge his bets. “I wanted a weekend, because I assumed seven kids a day on average are shot but more kids are shot at the weekend. More kids are shot in the summer too but I couldn’t wait for the summer. That Saturday was the first weekend day I could do, which was the weekend before Thanksgiving.”

Ten children were killed that day, Saturday 23 November 2013, all boys, and the book is divided into 10 chapters, one for each of them. The names form a list down the contents page, followed by their home town and state, making The Panoptic comment that “This may be the only book you read where the contents page itself gives you food for thought.”

“This could be your kid”
Once the date had been selected, Younge had to conduct his research. “The first challenge was finding out who’d got shot. For example, Pedro Cortez, I didn’t find out about him until I was maybe four or five months in. His death just somehow hadn’t been on anybody’s radar, so I hadn’t been able to get him on Google searches or anything. After that you had to try and contact their families. A lot of these people are hard to reach and if the kids were shot at home or near home, the families had moved often moved. America’s a very big place, you can just say, ‘I’ll jump on my bike and head off there and see what’s what.'”

Younge used Facebook searches to find people who were close to the victims or who had organised the funerals. With none of the references you would normally have for research, Younge even matched obituary reports with the phone directory, looking for addresses. “Then I would just literally show up. I would put a note through the door, usually with that piece I’d done in 2007, and I would say, ‘I’ve read these reports, I know how your son died, I’d like to know how he lived. Everything you’d like to tell me about them, I would like to hear.’ For eight of the 10 kids, somebody called me back, and I got to meet quite a lot of their families and carers and coaches and teachers and friends and so on.” After they called, he would go and visit in person, talk for a little while, and then ask if it was OK to come back for a longer conversation.

Younge explains his research methods objectively, but nothing about the way he talks about the children or their families is cold. “I did find it hard,” he says. “Some of it was just very hard journalistically and as a human being: to approach someone and say, ‘Look, your kid’s been killed and I’d like to talk to you about that.’ That’s hard. You can say it in a more polite way than that but that’s what you’re saying.

“The stories are all heart-breaking, because they’re all kids, and they’re all dead. Sometimes the hardest thing was reading the death certificates, which would explain how a bullet shattered a skull, or that at 3.57pm, the body was declared non-viable, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, that was a life.’ Also seeing them on social media. For example, Kenneth Mills-Tucker’s Twitter feed, you see him just a few hours really before he was killed saying, ‘I’m out with my guys, it’s my last weekend as a teenager,’ and you think, ‘God, when you Tweeted that, you didn’t realise it would be your last weekend ever.’ There is something about the social media profiles that is quite chilling because you see them living in their own words sometimes up until quite soon before they die.

“The last child I found was Edwin Rajo from Houston. His mum is undocumented and we weren’t sure for a while if he was undocumented or not – it turned out he wasn’t – but at one point I sent this imploring email to somebody who might have been able to help me saying, ‘Look, it would be terrible if one of the few kids who doesn’t get written about in this book is someone who was also invisible in life because they were undocumented.’ I was on a mission to find and tell their stories, and I think in a way that drove me through the harder emotional bits.”

With such a challenging subject matter, surely Younge must have had an aim from the start? “I developed an aim,” he says. “At the beginning my aim was to write a book about gun violence in America that might cut through the partisan nonsense. I don’t know if it will or not, but it might. But as time went on, I realised that if you read the comments under the stories about these kids dying, quite often they are assertions that it’s clearly a question of bad parenting or that the kids were out of control. There’s no empathy. There’s no sense that this could be your kid, or this kid is like your kids.

“In a way I spent 18 months with those kids, I got to know them all as well as I could. They played Minecraftand Call of Duty. The older ones might be smoking a little bit of weed and had girlfriends. The two younger ones both liked Duck Dynasty. Maybe because you’re white or because you’re wealthy – or both – it’s unlikely to be your kids, but are they actually so different from your kids? And are you as a parent so different from their parents? So after a while I hoped that the book would be and could be an exercise in empathy…” [READ MORE]