The Big Idea: Jerry Gordon
Posted on April 19, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 8 Comments
In today’s Big Idea, author Jerry Gordon tackles truth, pandemics, religious cults and the possible end of world. You know, as you do. Here’s how it all comes together for his novel Breaking the World.
In 1993, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians predicted the end of the world. What if they were right? That’s the question lurking behind Breaking the World, my apocalyptic thriller set during the largest and longest standoff in law enforcement history.
Twenty-five years ago, over one hundred ATF agents in full body armor stormed the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas. Military helicopters circled overhead as both sides traded gunfire. When the smoke cleared, four agents and six church members were dead. A fifty-one-day standoff followed the botched raid, dominating the news.
At the insistence of the FBI, reporters were kept a mile and a half away from the site of the actual stalemate. This forced the press to depend on the FBI’s daily briefings for all their information about the standoff. Officials portrayed the church as a military-style compound. They branded the Christian congregation, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists, a cult. And David Koresh, the pastor of the church, became a madman with a messiah complex.
This all took place in a time before the Internet and cell phones. Controlling the crime scene meant controlling the flow of information. In the middle of the standoff, desperate church members unfurled a banner fashioned from a white bed sheet. The message, which hung from a third story window, had been spray painted in letters big enough for the news media’s telephoto lenses. It read: WE WANT PRESS.
The Branch Davidians never got their audience with the press. The standoff ended in a tragedy so profound it sparked multiple investigations. Congressional hearings questioned the justification for the raid, autopsies conflicted with official accounts, and enough evidence was lost or destroyed to spark calls for a special prosecutor to look into obstruction of justice charges against agents of the ATF and FBI.
Twenty-five years later, the myth of Waco still eclipses reality.
I’m old enough to remember watching the fifty-one-day standoff play out on CNN. My step-father worked for the FBI as a field agent, so it should come as no surprise that I took the official account at face value. It wasn’t until years later, when I tried to write David Koresh into a short story as a religious boogeyman, that I started to question the myths of Waco. The more I researched Koresh and the Branch Davidians, the more I found reality far different from the official story I had been told.
That’s not to say I found the Branch Davidians without fault. David Koresh and his congregation bore significant responsibility for the tragedy of Waco, but they had been held accountable in a way the ATF and FBI had not. Long after I wrote and sold the short story, I continued to seek out obscure interviews, devour documentaries, and sift through congressional testimony. My questions about the standoff multiplied until they demanded to be answered in a novel.
The story needed to be told from an impartial point of view. I wanted characters that could question, as I do, both the actions of the church and law enforcement–characters in conflict with all sides of the struggle. Luckily, the nurses and lawyers and retired police officers that lived and worshipped at the Branch Davidian church brought something with them genetically designed to question everything: teenagers.
I decided to tell the story from the perspective of three atheist teens, a trinity of nonbelievers dragged to the Christian commune by their born-again parents. Trapped together, these teens would struggle to survive the historic conflict between David Koresh, an erratic FBI, and a pandemic that seems to confirm the worst of the church’s apocalyptic prophecies.
I stumbled onto the big idea for Breaking the World by asking a simple question with profound real and fictional implications. What if David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were right? Not just right about the raid or the injustice of their treatment. What if they were right about the end of the world?
Twenty-five years later, it’s time to find out.
Breaking the World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks|KoboRead an excerpt.
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
Oh my. I have reached the age where people unironically write “I’m old enough to remember” about seeing things that happened when I was a fully legal adult. Time to go yell at someone for being on my lawn.
“the myth of Waco”
WTF? Koresh and his suicide cult had a cache of illegal machine guns and grenades. What do you mean “myth”?
Myths occur about events that actually happened. There is a myth of Julius Caesar, of Cleopatra. There is the myth of George Washington. It’s a sensitive subject, but it certainly doesn’t look like the author is attempting to excuse David Koresh, and there is much criticism warranted with the FBI’s actions there. For example, having a plan that relied on an element of surprise, then going ahead with the exact same plan even when it became apparent that the element of surprise was gone.
Robby: “but it certainly doesn’t look like the author is attempting to excuse David Koresh”
That’s exactly what it looks like.
From the op: “What if David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were right? Not just right about the raid or the injustice of their treatment. What if they were right about the end of the world?”
Maybe, and I know this is a radical option, but just maybe read the entire article? Maybe? Not just the one line at the end that seemed to have set you off? You might have read lines like “That’s not to say I found the Branch Davidians without fault. David Koresh and his congregation bore significant responsibility for the tragedy of Waco, but they had been held accountable in a way the ATF and FBI had not.” Or the bit about “The story needed to be told from an impartial point of view. I wanted characters that could question, as I do, both the actions of the church and law enforcement–characters in conflict with all sides of the struggle.”
Or for that matter, consider the fact that people can still be wrong or awful and right about an apocalypse. There has been a bit of exploration in fiction lately of awful people doing awful things and when they are defeated, it turns out they were doing so because of something that was really a problem. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn for example. Being right about the End of the World prophecy is definitively not the same thing as being right about molesting children or stashing illegal guns, grenades or drugs.
I sense that people may be getting a little spun up, so I’d suggest to everyone that they take a moment and collect themselves before commenting further.
I remember watching this play out from my home in N. Cal as a teenager. Now I live and work in Waco, TX. Around here, there was just a remembrance for the people who died. It was truly a somber time. Several people from both sides were interviewed. People who left the Branch Diavidians spoke about it for the 1st time in 25 years. I have learned more about what happened here 25 years ago than I ever knew before.
Yes, the Branch Davidians were doing some highly ileagal things. David Koresh was a nutbag who was doing some awful things to some very vulnerable people, both adults and children. But a lot of people died who needn’t have because the DOJ bungled the whole thing. And most of those directly responsible never faced any sort of justice.
Waco is a good place. It’s sad that many people still instantly think about David Koresh and what happened when they hear the name of the city.
I was legally adult at the time of Waco. (Yep, like Pearl Harbor, the name of that good place is mixed in with history)
My opinions at the time, which I still remember, are no doubt expressed on the World Wide Web by more informed people, so I won’t express any of them here. (‘Cause you can do your own research, right?)
I sure do want to express my delight at Jerry Gordon’s phrase, “genetically designed to question everything: teenagers.”