By Katy Grant
TW: References to domestic and gun violence.
Sometimes, we are deeply affected by events that don’t touch us directly. My verse novel, Three Shots, was inspired by three cases of domestic violence. They were all shocking enough to receive widespread media attention, at times on the national level.
In each instance, I didn’t know the people involved. But I felt touched in some tangential way. And each case haunted me. They still haunt me.
* * * * *
One morning driving to work, I saw a column of black smoke rising above the cloudless blue Phoenix skyline. That evening, the news story was everywhere: a man had killed his wife and two children in their beds and set the house on fire. Then, he vanished like the smoke on the horizon. More than 20 years later, he has yet to be found.
The other two incidents of domestic violence that stayed with me hit closer. On the day my son was graduating from high school, my doorbell rang. The woman on my doorstep wanted to know where I’d gotten the giant banner hanging on our garage door, congratulating our graduate. Her daughter was also graduating, and she was planning a party for her. As we chatted, we discovered that our kids went to the same high school and knew each other.
Three nights later, our family heard what sounded like firecrackers. Since it was Memorial Day weekend, we weren’t alarmed—until we saw blue and red flashing lights and heard the wap wap wap of choppers overhead. Multiple police cars were around the corner of our street.
The mother I’d talked to had been killed by her former partner, jealous over watching her with her current boyfriend at the party she had mentioned to me just hours earlier. News crews zoomed in on the banner still hanging on our garage to highlight that the shooting had occurred at a graduation party. One reporter knocked on our door and interviewed my son and me.
I don’t know if that interview ever aired. Shocked to my core, I’d stopped watching the coverage at that point. Just a few days earlier, we were two moms who’d never met, sharing a moment of joy and pride.
The incident that most inspired Three Shots involved a mother who had killed her two children before committing suicide. My younger son knew one of the victims by name; the boy had been one grade behind him. My son, then a sophomore in high school, asked me to make him a promise. Of course, I said. “Mom, promise you’ll never kill me.”
These stories still live in my head. Even writing about them now, years later, they bring up waves of emotion. Ten years after I saw that column of smoke, I was teaching a composition course at a community college. In the first week I asked students to write a short essay in class. Tell me about your best day. Or your worst day. A student wrote about how his best friend wasn’t at school one day. His friend turned out to be one of the sleeping children killed by his father.
Then there was my friend whose daughters were very close to the two victims of the murder-suicide. He was the one who told me that the mother had carefully planned what she would do.
That story inspired me to create Daniel, the protagonist of Three Shots. Daniel loses his best friend Gracie when she and her brother are killed by their mother, who then kills herself. At first Daniel is confused, even angry that people who didn’t know the victims express more emotion than he does.
Daniel eventually comes to understand something I wanted to express in my novel. I wanted to acknowledge readers who in their young lives have already experienced crippling grief and loss. But I also wanted to explore how shocking events affect the entire community, not just the immediate people involved. Daniel realizes that the deaths were not the proverbial ripple of a stone in water. As he works through his enormous pain with a therapist, he tries to process what he’s experienced. He says:
It wasn’t a ripple effect what [Gracie’s mother] did.
It wasn’t any stone in a pool of water.
it was an earthquake. It shook
everyone and ripped our world open.
we keep finding new signs of
and the ground under everyone’s feet
doesn’t feel safe anymore. And
it might never feel safe again.
As people, we must constantly process all that we experience. We never know what will strike a chord in us that will reverberate. It’s not just news events that affect us like earthquake aftershocks. Literature does the same thing.
Why do we read? To experience a story deeply, profoundly.
These stories stayed with me for a reason. Three Shots is not an easy story, but it’s one I wanted to tell. I hope readers will join Daniel on his journey to find solid ground.
* * * * *
Katy Grant is the author of nine novels for young readers. For many years, Katy taught creative writing and composition courses at the college level. A native of Tennessee, she now lives in Arizona with her husband. She enjoys travel, hiking, biking, and spending time with her two adult sons.