The BKBF Interview: Dave Cullen

The BKBF Interview with Dave Cullen, author of Parkland: Birth of a Movement.


Where is your favorite place to read?
My overstuffed couch with the big puffy arm-rests. I like to be comfy so I can get lost in the book. (New challenger: the cozy new zero-gravity chair on my tiny balcony among the trees. It’s too hot out there until late night in July, but that’s when I tend to read anyway. Mornings, sometimes, too, for inspiration to jump-start my day.)

What books are currently piled in your “To Be Read” stack … and where can the stack be found in your home?
Daunting stack: Human Smoke, The Overstory, Unbroken, The Road, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Plague … and at least 20 more. And I just came home from the Nantucket Book Fest with more: The Breakthrough, The Library Book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and The Time Machine—and dove right into Washington Black, which is amazing.

I just moved from Hell’s Kitchen to Prospect Heights, and used the forced packing to cull and reorganize. I always buy more books than I can read, and every time I finish a book, the ideas I’ve gathered are scattered throughout my collection. So this time I pulled the two dozen top candidates that have been calling to me all these years, and used them to fill a small corner bookshelf with five shelves, but only room for about six books each. That’s my go-to corner now.

What book do you return to most often, whether passages or whole?
Conclusive Evidence, my all-time favorite, and inspiring on every page. (That sits on my Russians shelf, BTW. I think the biggest surprise in my reading career is that the cluster of writers I feel the strongest connection to is the (mostly 19th Century) Russians: Nabokov, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky. I can’t explain it, just is. (Same with my feeling of kinship to some of the Southern gents, Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.) Hennnnyway, in the foreword to the 1966 edition, Nabokov explains why he’s changing the title to Speak, Memory fifteen years later. OK for him, but I’m not accepting that title. Hehe. When he explained the original title—conclusive evidence of my having existed—I was even more madly in love. When I started a blog for several years around 2000, I titled it “Conclusive Evidence of Dave Cullen’s Having Existed.” Clunky title for a blog, but made me smile every time I wrote there.

What’s the last book that had you reading past your bedtime?
Motherless Brooklyn. That feels like a suck-up answer, but I only realized that a second after typing it in. I never got around to plunging into this until February. It floated around my shelves in that hazy someday ether for decades, but for some reason, I kept putting off reading it, or anything else by Jonathan Lethem, despite all my writer friends raving. Actually, I know why: I had the impression it was some hipster bullshit genuflecting to Brooklyn as the Paris of the Twenties. Oh. Just a stunning book set in Brooklyn. I guess I finally pulled it down and I was mulling the big move across the river, after nine years in Hell’s Kitchen. I don’t think it affected my decision, except perhaps a bit of comfort in getting a sense for a few of the neighborhoods and their recent history. And now it’s forever caught up in my move. Just a personal bonus there. How giddy it makes me though, now riding my citibike down Bergen Street to the gym.)

If you had the power to create your own fantasy BKBF panel – any writer or artist, dead or alive – who would you love to see discussing books?
Easy. Lucia Berlin. She was my favorite person to talk to about books, life and the universe before while she was breathing, but now: How amazing to ask her how it felt to become a surprise bestseller and declared a genius by the New York Times (and half the literary world) eleven years after her death. (That’s when FSG published her breakout story collection, A Manual For Cleaning Women. It has been published in 21 languages in the past four years, with ten more translations underway, and new ones added nearly every month. It’s been a worldwide bestseller, with many of the other countries dwarfing the U.S.)

And I couldn’t resist the selfish questions about what she thought of my books. Columbine took ten years, and she was instrumental in advising me through the first five of those, but never saw it to completion, and probably wondered whether I ever would. Actually, I’d love to ask her that, too. She radiated confidence in me, and was ceaseless in encouraging—but what did she really think? Plus, and this is really selfish, but the biggest gift she ever gave me was telling me she loved me. She was the first person not dating me or giving birth to me to ever say that. Which gave me permission to say it back. God, how I’d love to hear it one more time.

BONUS QUESTION: In honor of the 5th anniversary of Children’s Day, we’re asking everyone, What’s your favorite children’s book?
This required one glance toward the wall of my writing studio. There is exactly one literary quote framed on the wall, delivered by a cheerful red fox in blue gloves and sox:
“Very well, then,
Mr. Knox, sir.
Let’s have a little talk
about tweetle beetles. . . .”

That’s my favorite hairpin turn in literature, and illustrates how to raise a silly game of wordplay to a climax, and set up suspense in the simplest possible terms: language. And it makes me giggle every time.

Most of the book is simple one-syllable rhyming riffs spiced with alliteration: first on fox, sox, blocks, and Mr. Knox woven with bricks and chicks clicking and clocks going tick tock; then Slow Joe Crow sewing Sue’s clothes and Luke Luck’s duck liking licks of Luke’s lake. But then, three-quarters through it, the fox introduces the tweetle beetles—with ellipses and a page to turn. And it’s a whole new book: “…when tweetle beetles battle with paddles in a puddle, they call it a tweetle beetle puddle paddle battle.” I’m smiling just typing that, and the doctor is just revving up. “AND . . . When beetles fight these battles in a bottle with their paddles and the bottle’s on a poodle and the poodle’s eating noodles . . .” Well, I want to be careful about spoilers. You should definitely read it. Most likely it will be a re-read—or rehear, this time without the cozy lap—but you might just hear it with new ears.


Dave Cullen is the author of the New York Times Bestsellers Columbine and Parkland. Columbine won several major awards, including the Edgar and Goodreads Choice Award for best nonfiction in 2009. Cullen has also written for the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vanity Fair, Politico Magazine, Times of London, New Republic, Newsweek, Guardian, Washington Post, Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, The Millions, and NPR’s On The Media.