Litchfield author dedicates novel to victims of Sandy Hook school shooting

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This story about “Streaks of Blue” ran on the cover of A&E in today’s Republican-American …

BY ALAN BISBORT
REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN 

Like so many people in the area, Litchfield author John Cullen could not get the unspeakable horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School out of his head. The father of 2-year-old twins, he was forced to think the unthinkable: How safe are my kids, really, if such a thing can happen at Sandy Hook?

Even for someone who has worked in newsrooms for 22 years, and thought he’d seen and heard every permutation on human tragedy, Cullen was left dazed by what happened in Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012.

“This event will never go away,” said Cullen, a layout editor at the Republican-American whose pen name is Jack Chaucer. “It seemed like the rock bottom of civilization had been reached. Twenty first-graders are gone just like that? It was a hopeless and helpless feeling, but you want to do something on top of donating money to change the world your kids live in. It almost forced me to write about it.”

He said he felt numb for a month after Sandy Hook.

“As a novelist, my mindset was either I write nothing for a long, long time, or I tackle this head on,” said Cullen, who previously wrote the futuristic thriller “Queens are Wild” (2012). “Any other subject seemed trivial.”

So, he did what came most naturally to him — he began writing. Before long, he realized that the act of writing had gone beyond the therapeutic and he suddenly had a cast of characters, a setting and a plot that carried him along as much as he helped shape it.

“I knew I wanted a girl with blue hair as the main character,” he said. “Thematically, we are in a streak of blue with all of the shootings that have happened. But I also knew that I wanted the students to be older, in their teens. And I didn’t want to saddle any specific town, so I made up a fictional town and set it in New Hampshire.”

The end result is a newly published 259-page novel with a long title: “Streaks of Blue: How the Angels of Newtown Inspired One Girl to Save Her School.” The book is available in both trade paperback edition ($11.99 at Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington, Conn., and Amazon) and as an e-book ($2.99 at Kindle, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and smashwords.com). Cullen is donating half of the proceeds to the Newtown Memorial Fund, which supports the families of all 26 victims and others affected by the massacre.

Though the general plot backdrop was inspired by the Sandy Hook tragedy, the danger lurking within the story bears more resemblance to the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., in April 1999. At Columbine, two boys filled with hostility toward their classmates plotted out their shooting rampage with military-like precision weeks ahead of time.

With a slightly futuristic cast to it — set mostly in the weeks leading up to the two-year anniversary of Sandy Hook in December 2014 — “Streaks of Blue” imagines a similar story arc taking shape at Lakeview Regional High School in New Hampshire. The would-be Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are Adam Upton (echoes of Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook) and Thomas “Lee” Harvey (as in Oswald, the alleged shooter of JFK). Their main “beef” is the contempt with which the majority of the school holds them for being “trailer trash.” They also come from broken families with a history of drug and alcohol abuse.

The only person standing between them and their goal of annihilation is 17-year-old Nicole Janicek. A sensitive, outdoorsy girl who likes to dye her hair blue, “Nikki” has a scary premonition while camping under the stars on Mount Washington just before her senior year. In the dream, the “angels of Newtown” appear and urge Nicole to reconnect with Adam, a boy she used to know in elementary school.

The angels not only warn Nicole about the shooting plot, but they also give her hope that a friendship with Adam could prevent it.

“My hope was to channel their bravery, strength and goodness into Nicole,” Cullen said. “So far, based on the positive reaction to the book — and especially Nikki’s character — I think that’s how it turned out.”

During its launch this fall, “Streaks of Blue” garnered 345 requests for advance copies from around the world on the website NetGalley. To date, the book has been reviewed by 47 readers on Goodreads and 17 on Amazon. The interest and feedback, particularly from teens and teachers, has been particularly gratifying, Cullen said.

“A teenage girl in Georgia (Asia) wrote in her review that she felt as if I had actually been to her own high school,” Cullen said. “She was inspired to reconnect with former friends after reading the book. Another teen in India wrote that she wanted to start mountain climbing. I love that the story had such an impact on two young people from the other side of the world.”

He noted that he tapped into his own experiences from growing up in Rhode Island. One particularly effective scene in “Streaks of Blue” — in which a teacher makes Nikki’s class discuss the lyrics from the album “Synchronicity” by The Police — was drawn from real events in Cullen’s high school classroom experience.

“My English lit teacher Paul Richards did that exact same lesson with us back in 1985,” he said. “My point in using it in ‘Streaks of Blue’ is that same discussion becomes very different today. You can’t talk about a song like ‘Murder By Numbers’ the same as we did in 1985. Back then there were no Columbines or Newtowns.”

Whether Nikki succeeds or fails in her attempt — no spoilers here — “Streaks of Blue” directly addresses the issue of school violence, but in a creative, compelling and non-preachy manner.

“I don’t attack guns. I don’t focus a lot on mental health. I do focus on human relationships and having the courage to be friends with people who don’t have many friends,” Cullen said. “At the end of the day, I wanted to write something meaningful. If you can reach out and inspire a kid to help another kid before he or she does something terrible, then I would be happy.”

For information, visit the author’s website, https://queensarewild.wordpress.com, and Goodreads page,http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6445477.Jack_Chaucer.

BOOK TALK AND SIGNING AT HICKORY STICK

Litchfield author John Cullen will appear for a book discussion and signing Dec. 1 at 2 p.m. at the Hickory Stick Bookshop, 2 Green Hill Road, Washington, Conn. Both Cullen and Hickory Stick will donate a portion of the proceeds to Newtown-related charities. 

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