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Inside the heads of homicidal teens, Lexington writer finds confusion, shame

Sarah Combs, author of the young adult book, "The Light Fantastic"

"The Light Fantastic" describes an online plot among a group of students nationwide who have been bullied or are otherwise estranged from their peers.
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"The Light Fantastic" describes an online plot among a group of students nationwide who have been bullied or are otherwise estranged from their peers.

Sarah Combs worries that readers will think she’s writing outside her range of experience.

She is, Combs points out, a cisgender straight white female, the holder of a master’s degree in classical language and literature and a professional writer.

In her second young adult novel, “The Light Fantastic,” the Lexington writer takes some breathtaking risks: Multiple narrators speak across various media, including computer conversations. The time period during which the events occur is only a few hours, but there are flashbacks backward and forward.

“The Light Fantastic” also explores shame, as experienced by young people, their teacher and their often befuddled parents.

More troubling, the students are either involved in or witnessing a planned school shooting. Some have been bullied, including a brilliant girl whose infamy was spread through social media and another who was catfished by an online “suitor.”

There’s “The Mastermind,” who recruits students from the lower 48 states to what he calls “The Plan,” referring to each “conspirator” by the name of their state. A teacher, emotionally damaged herself from the loss of an infant son, struggles to decipher the motivations of her honors English students before violence erupts.

Students huddle in a supply closet once shooting starts, among them a student who probably has the most challenges, but turns out to be gracious and forgiving and appreciative of acts of grace, even for his beloved dog. Meanwhile, a student with an advantaged background and a capacity for brilliance alternates between rage and shame and just being a vulnerable kid.

It’s tricky territory, and Combs admits it came almost literally knocking at her door. Combs was alarmed when one of her then-preschool sons came home and told her about a lock-down drill at his school.

Initially, she asked herself why she brought two boys into such a dangerous world, then decided that despite the risks, “I find the world and everyday life to be a really enchanting place. In that moment it was my answer to myself.”

However, the question lingered about how youthful shooters make the shift in their minds that turns them from discontented to murderous, and how the rise of social media abets the process.

“I don’t think I necessarily set out to write a book about school violence,” Combs said.

She also saw a piece on the CBS-TV program “60 Minutes” about a condition called “highly superior autobiographical memory,” and decided to give the condition to one of her characters to see “what things she would hang onto, and how that would shape her.”

It was important to her to show complicated families, with imperfect parents, Combs said. After a shooting, people “try to come up with reasons because it distances us from them.” Like the parents were bad or the kids didn’t get enough supervision, enough help, enough watchful eyes.

Sometimes those reasons are heartbreaking, Combs said, because the real reasons are things that can’t be known. And she doesn’t have the answers, either.

“There are no answers here,” Combs said. “I was writing my way toward the questions.”

Combs, who also wrote the young adult book “Breakfast Served Anytime,” said she usually writes in two-hour bursts. She doesn’t use an outline and can’t see the end of the book from the beginning.

“I write the same way I read, which is on the sentence level,” she said.

Combs teaches writing at the Carnegie Center and at the Lexington Senior Center. Three things keep her life in perspective: being around children, seniors and animals.

She describes her own youth in Louisville as fairly placid, with “a rich inner life” and the support of friends who became like family and a father who encouraged her ambitions.

For those growing up today, adolescence is fraught with constant processing — of news, the gathering of enough “likes” on Facebook posts and posting the appropriately outrageous or enviable content to supply those “likes,” constant texting.

And that’s for young people who are advantaged. Those with disadvantages, struggling to even get into college, face a whole additional set of challenges: “They don’t have a choice about whether they want to be an activist,” Combs said, because being an activist is thrust upon them.

Combs is married to attorney Huston Combs, who she met while at the Governor’s Scholars Program for academically talented Kentucky students, and has two sons, 7 and 8 years old.

“I so badly hope that I rendered this story with sensitivity, but if I got it wrong, it’s my job to own it,” Combs said.

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

Excerpt

From “The Light Fantastic,” by Sarah Combs (Candlewick Press, $17.99):

“Among the very first players the Mastermind recruited was a girl named Phoebe, for instance. Phoebe from Idaho. He found her the same way he found all the others: in online news articles about kids who had been targets of one or another kind of cruelty, thanks to their awesome peers.

“That was in the beginning.

“Later, by some curious Internet sorcery that nobody can really put a finger on, people were coming to him. To the Mastermind. The original Delaware, for instance, defected long ago, following Ohio’s lead. Then — just two days ago, as if fallen from the sky — a new Delaware arrived to take his place.

“Phoebe, though, Idaho, she’s one of the long-haulers. The article about her — Teen Catfished — first appeared in what turned out to be her own father’s newspaper. Once it hit the Internet, it was almost immediately reblogged by hundreds — thousands? — of people, people who had never met Phoebe, never heard her voice or touched her hair.”

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