Last modified: 9/9/2015 7:37:10 PM
In the wake of a mass shooting, most focus their attention on the killer. Why did he do it? What makes him different? Could the atrocity have been prevented?

While these are all questions that run through Donna Decker’s mind, the Franklin Pierce University professor chose to focus on the victims of mass shootings, rather than the killer, in her first book, “Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You.”

“There is so much out there about the killer and the media’s effect and coverage of the event, but you don’t see a lot about the people who were affected by the massacre,” said Decker, whose book was released in May. “I don’t spend much time in the book talking about the killer.”

The focus of Decker’s book is the Dec. 6, 1989, Montreal massacre, where 14 female engineering students at École Polytechnique de Montréal were separated from the male students and gunned down in the classroom.

“He had said that he hated feminism,” said Decker, of Marc Lépine, the murderer. “He left a suicide note that had a hit list with the names of 19 other women he wanted to kill.”

Decker, an English professor at Franklin Pierce, teaches an elective about school shootings titled, “Intentional Venom: Making Meaning of School Shootings.” She will be at the Toadstool Bookshop on Saturday at 2 p.m. for a discussion and book signing.

Coming from a journalistic background — Decker previous worked for the Gardner News and the Worcester Telegram and Gazette — meant researching the shooting came easy. Although the story is centered around three fictional characters, much of the book is rooted in non-fiction.

“The bulk of my information came from interviews,” said Decker. “I read everything that I could find published about the massacre.”

Decker interviewed a number of people who were intimately familiar with the massacre, including the sister of one of those gunned down. Decker said that she had to tread lightly while interviewing, showing compassion for those involved, while also trying to pry and to ask some of the tougher questions.

“For the longest time, I thought I was writing nonfiction, but some of the women I interviewed were concerned about their involvement,” said Decker, of her interviews with women involved with a “No Means No” campaign that went awry on a college campus in Kingston, Ontario, months before the massacre.

In order to protect the identities of all involved, Decker chose to create fictional characters who interact in a setting rooted in reality. The book focuses not only on characters’ lives leading up to the tragic event, but also the families of those slain and other survivors.

“Story is everything,” said Decker. “I moved into the fictional realm because I wanted the story to reach a broader audience.”

While developing the story and getting her sources to trust her served as two major challenges throughout the writing process, another struggle was to get the book published. After 18 months of searching for a publisher, Decker said, Inanna Publications and Education Inc., based in Toronto, Canada, approached her and agreed to publish the book.

“Right now, I’m the only American they have published, which is pretty cool,” said Decker.

With her book now in print, Decker has been enjoying dialogue with fans of the book. While she has been happy about the response so far, one of her biggest triumphs came from one of the people she interviewed for the book.

“The sister of one of those killed reached out to me and said she loved it,” said Decker. “The response has been great. I did a reading at Toadstool in Keene recently and the book was sold out before I arrived.”

Decker is already working on another book, one that she says is currently in the “I think about it every day” phase. She has about 40 pages written and is working out the plot details. The book revolves around two sisters, one of whom is coming to grips with a past trauma.

While Decker has been teaching her class on school shootings for several years now, this will be the first year that she uses her own book as a required reading. For those who read the book, Decker hopes that it will create a sense of inquisitiveness about school shootings.

“It’s an experiment at this point,” said Decker, of using her book as a teaching implement. “I’m hoping that it will help raise questions for my students. That’s what my class is all about. I’m not expecting anyone to discover the answer to stop school shootings. I just want people to think.”

Nicholas Handy can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or He is also on Twitter @nhandyMLT.


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