Every book has a back-story, a where-did-it-come-from. Some are obscure, others a crystal clear moment.
Some, on the other hand, come from a feeling. An exploration of uncertainty.
I promised I’d tell all of you the back-story for why I wrote All Roads Lead to Hell. I’m a little hesitant to, because it’s weirdly personal. Not scary personal, but nevertheless, it involves a rather strange event in my life that makes me deeply uncomfortable.
So where did it come from?
Let me tell you a true story.
A year and a half ago, I sat at my parents’ kitchen table eating breakfast when my dad walked in with the local newspaper.
The headline read: Local Teacher Caught Having Sex With Students.
I glanced at the paper, then at my dad and said, “Let me guess first.”
I got the name right the first try. It wasn’t, it turns out, very difficult.
The fallout was swift and decisive. The teacher in question had already been arrested the day before, removed from his classroom in the middle of a lecture to be handcuffed in the parking lot. Within two weeks, he had pled guilty to having a sexual relationship with a student and was sentenced to the maximum sentence in the state of Ohio, five years in prison. He lost his teaching license, he lost his career. The superintendent resigned. Fingers were pointed at others.
And I became mildly obsessed with the whole proceedings.
It’s not that I liked the teacher; I didn’t. It’s not that I didn’t think he got what he deserved; I thoroughly did. But nevertheless, I was intensely bothered.
Because I’d known.
Not that I had known about the relationship that eventually got the teacher in trouble, no, but I knew about one of the previous six that came up during the court proceedings, yes. I’d heard the rumors when I was in high school and believed them.
And did nothing. I thought there was nothing to be done.
Looking back, I believe I was right. As a bullied girl with a clear chip on my shoulder, I had no credibility. I couldn’t keep people from hurting me; how the hell could I help anyone else? I couldn’t. And anyway, if she didn’t like it, she could tell someone herself. It was just a rumor.
Looking back, I believe I was wrong. There were teachers who would have listened, and raised an alarm. They knew that I was smart and that I told the truth, and that I wasn’t the type to say this for nothing. Even if nothing was done, someone would have heard, and remembered.
These days, I am the person who does what I believe needs to be done regardless of whether I’ll be believed. I believe it’s better than living with regret. But for the month after that announcement, guilt and the helplessness of being fifteen came back in full force. That was the age I was when I first heard the rumors. Three years from being eighteen, an adult. Three years from twelve, the year I’d been good friends with the girl the rumors concerned.
Fifteen, the year I had that teacher ninth period every day.
He was a popular teacher, a well-liked one, and for good reason: he was excellent at what he did, doing that magical teacher thing where a dry subject comes to life and takes form as something far beyond the abstract. To this day, I can recite his jokes, remember random bits of trivia I otherwise might not, because he made them interesting, and relevant. As a teacher, I respected him greatly.
But I did not like him. He was young and good-looking, and he knew it. Students who normally disliked his subject paid attention in his class. When they picked on me, as they inevitably did, he chided me for making a fuss in front of the class, thus giving them free reign with whatever verbal taunts they wished. After all, I shouldn’t be so mean, reply so sarcastically, now should I? I was only provoking them.
Looking back, I was not the only one he silenced. Looking back, I wonder if he did it on purpose, or if, really, he just thought it was his right.
I was in the high school the day he was arrested, that evening actually, to talk to the principal about some petty vandalism that happened to our house. I’d thought she’d looked at me strangely as I walked in. Of course she did; she was probably waiting with bated breath for what horrors I’d confess, a woman of the right age.
That’s a chilling thought.
And so the winter before last I became obsessed with trying to find out what everyone else was thinking about the situation. Every time I saw someone I knew in high school, or just someone who went to my high school, I asked them: “Did you hear about that teacher?”
“Did you know beforehand?”
And inevitably, the reply would be: “Well, yeah.”
Not just me.
The week after the trial, a newspaper headline asked how could no one in the high school know what was going on for all these years? It was a question that begged the correct answer: they knew.
A group of students had written on his car that he should stop sleeping with a certain student. There were student aids who hung around his classroom who were a little too, well, too. He was always popular, and there were always, always rumors.
Personally, I cannot believe that not a single teacher at the high school knew. I cannot, and I don’t. Because if I knew? That means it was pretty common knowledge.
But with a principal who I know from personal experience treated the sexual harassment of female students by male ones as a cute joke, I guess no one else thought anything would be done either. Or they told and nothing was—as it came to light a couple had—and isn’t that a worse thought.
The case broke not because the young woman in the relationship—and she did consider it a serious relationship—came forth, or wished to discontinue it. It happened because her mother found out. Otherwise, how long would this pattern have continued? Until he was too old to be considered handsome? Until he preyed on a girl who spoke up? Or would he have never stopped at all?
Don’t think fiascos like Steubenville happen in a vacuum.
In the state of Ohio the age of consent is sixteen. But though the young woman in question was over that age, relationships between students and teachers are not allowed under the law, as they are considered a breach of trust. And it was. The trust of one student, the trust of all, not just of one teacher, but an entire system.
And it bothers me. It bothered me then, and it bothers me still, creeping up on me when I’m washing dishes or walking the dog. All the winter before last it nagged, until finally, in April, I wrote a book to relieve my feelings. Not that I realized quite why I felt so compelled to explore the topics I did, but looking back, it’s obvious. I was deeply uncomfortable that a former teacher of mine had sexual relationships with students my age, and so I wrote a book about a man who misuses his place of authority to have a sexual relationship with someone half his age. Not a far leap.
And now this book is coming out, and isn’t that a terrifying thought? Not because of what I wrote, but because of how people might react.
This is a book told from the point of view of the person with power, not the person without. It gives justifications, not reasons. It is the book of the person who could have stopped what he was doing at any moment, and chose not to.
It is the book of why this should not happen, and why it does.
There are plenty of people who say we don’t need books like this, and they come from both sides of the argument. Some say we do not need this sort of book because we know this narrative. We’ve seen it so many times, the simple story of man taking what he wants and damn the consequences.
To those people, I say: I see what you are saying, and I disagree. Because yes, you’ve seen the light. Not everyone has. You will read this book and know what’s coming.
Not everyone will, because not everyone has made this journey yet. For them that the sick feeling of dread will creep into their stomachs, telling them something isn’t right here. This narrative they know so well is not telling the happy story it usually does. No, it’s telling something they can’t forget because this is the narrative of the powerful written by someone who has been powerless.
To all readers, I say: this is a book designed to show Simon in a light we don’t see him in often enough, that of being deeply human. Part of being human is dealing with sex in one way or another. Mick tells this story, but it is Simon’s, and we don’t see his perspective here for a reason. The reasons will be given in book 3.
It’s the book of a man who will become very powerful at a moment when he was not. A moment he will look back on later, but for now, which seems correct to him.
Can you see why this book makes me nervous?
I like this book. I think it does what it does well. I think it makes these characters human in a way that leaves the page. I hope it makes you gasp, it makes you gape, it makes you stare in open-mouthed horror. I hope the funny parts make you laugh, and there are funny parts, because when people are happy, they joke and play around and amuse themselves.
Even if they are happy for all the wrong reasons. Even if their happiness makes us cover our faces and worry.
What I’m most afraid of is that people will call this a romance novel. It isn’t. It is what it says on the cover: a story in which there are no good answers, just answers. All roads lead to hell; to walk them is to reach the destination.
Mick goes to Scioto to see what he and Simon could have together. He should not have done so at all, but he does, and so life changes. Some good, some bad, in all ways human. PTSD and broken families and hope and the need for human connection, all rolled into a single story.
See for yourself.
All Roads Lead to Hell
debuts tomorrow is out on all platforms. Preorder Buy it now to have it on your ereader first thing. FYI, book 1, What Boys Are Made Of, is at $0.99, so if you haven’t read that yet, now’s the perfect time.
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(Also, every time I look at that cover it gets more perfect. Seriously. It is amazing.)
I’m S. Hunter Nisbet, writer of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels of the dark and gritty type. When I’m not beating my head against my desk while editing, I’m using said furniture as a platform for conjuring nightmares and coming up with stupid fan theories about Top Gear.