Saturday, September 29, 2012

Killer Show, America's Deadliest Rock Concert

JAN BROGAN -  More than one hundred concertgoers lost their lives in 2003 when the band Great White set off pyrotechnics inside the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. It was a tragedy of epic proportions that didn't have to happen. 

John Barylick, the lead attorney representing the victims had an inside look at all the disturbing evidence and has written a non-fiction narrative account that Publisher's Weekly praised for its storytelling and called: "An exploration of the perils of greed and corruption as well as testament to the strength of the human spirit.: And added "Barylick has created a modern cautionary tale that will take your breath away." 

We are extremely lucky to have John as our guest today and even luckier to have three copies of Killer Show, America's Deadliest Rock Concert (University Press of New England) to give away to names chosen at random from our comments page, so get your comments and questions for John ready. 

 Drinking From a Fire Hose 
by John Barylick

My need to write Killer Show  arose when both the criminal and civil actions resulting from The Station nightclub fire resolved (by plea bargains or settlements) without trials.  There was a pervasive sense in Rhode Island of questions remaining unanswered, and frustration that facts suggesting culpability of many persons (some of whom did not face criminal charges) would never come to light.  

There would be no “Perry Mason moments;” no public accounting.
Also, when I’d tell friends about some of the back stories I learned about the Station Nightclub Fire, their reaction would be, “You couldn’t make this stuff up!  You’ve got to write a book about it.” They encouraged me to try to write a book that would, hopefully, become the definitive account of the tragedy.

I figured that’d be easy enough. Lawyers write stuff, right?  Lots of “whereas,” “heretofore,” and “party of the first part”.  Nothing to it.  A friend gave me Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and I started right in.

Lamott helpfully instructs fledgling writers to just “get that Shitty First Draft on paper.” An initial draft in my house was called an “SFD.”   My first cut at chapter 1 put the “S” in “SFD.”  Heavy on facts, light on description, it read like the introduction to a legal brief.  “More show, less tell,” advised my researcher friend.  I’d show her.

The second draft of chapter 1 was ALL show.  A forced metaphor here, a strained simile there….  Hmm, this writing a book might not be so easy.  Subsequent attempts eventually struck some kind of balance, and I was off and running for three years.

The problem wasn’t a lack of material for KILLER SHOW.  The problem was an overabundance of evidence and stories.  Thousands of pages of witness statements and grand jury testimony had become available to the public in response to a public records request made by several newspapers.  To use an unfortunate analogy in the context of the case, making sense of it all was like trying to drink from a fire hose.

The eventual solution was to record bits of story arcs on small strips of paper and put them into thirty separate manila chapter envelopes.  When approaching a chapter, I’d lay out all the strips in its envelope, arrange and rearrange them, then begin writing.   I’m sure that there exist software packages designed to computerize this task, but I just can’t imagine doing it without having physical story chunks to manipulate.  It at least gave me the illusion of control.
From a writer’s standpoint, my challenge was to present all this information while maintaining a fast-paced narrative – and without exhausting the reader.  One of the devices chosen to accomplish this was insertion of “lesson chapters” amidst “action chapters.”  The lesson chapters address subjects such as fire science, crowd behavior, sprinkler systems, burn medicine and tort law.  Hopefully, these breaks from the action not only provide richer context for the story, but also provide the reader a short breather, particularly from the actual fire chapters, which can be emotionally exhausting to read.

I’m wondering what level of technical background JRW bloggers prefer in their non-fiction narratives?  What are their favorites in the genre, and how did those authors handle the delicate balance between “action” and “lessons”?  (Personally, A Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, and Devil in the White City are some of my favorites for striking this balance between research and narrative. I don’t think I’m the only reader in whose brain Sebastian Junger’s detailed description of drowning is forever imprinted!)

The Epilogue was added at the urging of my editor at University Press of New England, who felt that readers would like to “catch up with” characters they met in earlier chapters.  I’m very glad for that suggestion, because the Epilogue provided an opportunity to relate a final poignant vignette about one of the fire’s heroes.

Do JRW readers tend to establish an emotional connection to characters, even in non-fiction, and do they want to learn more recent history about them?  (Or, is that what Google’s best suited for?)

 Or more info, check out and on Facebook.

JAN BROGAN - First I want to thank John for a terrific post; next I want to remind you all that we have three copies of Killer Show to give away, and lastly, I want second at least two of John's choices for my favorite narrative non-fiction books, A Perfect Storm and the Devil In the White City.   I'll  add one of my own,  The Big Short by Michael Lewis, and ask, how about you? What are your favorites?

LISA ALBER won yesterday's copy of The Art Forger. Lisa, please email me at 


  1. Hhmmm . . . generally the bad part about picking “favorites” is that either the list becomes unmanageably long or something you really like ultimately gets left out. That said, Joe Domanick’s “To Protect and To Serve,” Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” and Thomas Gallagher’s “Fire At Sea” all join Erik Larsen’s “The Devil in the White City” at the top of my list of “favorites.” I have a feeling, after reading this post, that “Killer Show” is about to jump right up onto this short list.

  2. I haven't read non-fiction in many years, but I bet IN COLD BLOOD is still hard to beat. Plus, I'm a fan of of Hunter S. Thompson, so I'd have to include FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL, although I doubt Hunter actually talked with Tricky Dick while using adjoining bathroom facilities. Sure was fun to read.

  3. Oh my. I am really looking forward to this book. My good friend lost a nephew in that fire and has never really gotten over it. I can't say what my favorite non-fiction book is, but the one that still give me the shakes is Helter Skelter. Living in New England makes this a must read. Dee

  4. Personally, I absolutely feel for the characters in non-fiction and the "Where are they now?" sort of epilogue is almost my favorite part. It's a little bit of "closure" at the end of a relationship.

    I'm in the middle of "Devil in the White City" right now and I have to agree with others, it's fantastic. Also, a local favorite is "The Ed Thomas Story" about the football coach in Parkersburg, Iowa who helped rebuild the town after a devastating tornado and a year later was murdered by a former player. I wouldn't say the writing is anything to take notes on, necessarily, but I think it is a good portrait of Ed Thomas ("lesson" chapters) blended in with the "action" chapters of the day of the murder.

  5. John Barylick: I can't argue with any of the above choices. They're all great. Certainly, In Cold Blood pioneered the genre. The author of Helter Skelter, Vince Bugliosi, kindly provided me an early read and great jacket blurb for KILLER SHOW.

    At every discussion/signing (I did one last night) I meet persons like Gram who lost friends or loved ones in the Station Fire. It is touching to hear their stories and gratifying when they express appreciation that someone has finally "told the whole story."

  6. It's always about the emotional connection with characters, whether I'm reading fiction or non-fiction. So I'd like to know what happened to the people in Killer Show afterwards. Maybe more so because they're real. I actually don't read a lot of non-fiction, but MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL is a favorite.

  7. When I'm reading fiction, as much as I get excited to hear the exploits of a Jack Reacher (or even Chet the Dog now), I know deep down they're made up. There's something inherently more gut-tightening for me about narrative non-fiction because I know it happened to real people.

  8. The granddaddy of them all is still In Cold Blood, and of course throwing in a few Truman Capote bon mots on top of it makes it hard to beat.

    Jon Krakauer is another excellent author of the narrative non-fiction.

  9. Such a horrifying event, that fire... and any of us (or our children) could have been caught in it.

    I remember the first true crime I read was The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, the story of serial killer Ted Bundy, all the more compelling because she'd worked alongside him. I was fascinated... but not really a fan of true crime because you know the ending before you start and because most killers lack the charisma of the truly chilling Bundy.

    Having said that, for me the best crime nonfiction is when there's a personal link that the author has to the crime. Sounds like John Barylick has just that link and the passion to tell the story.

  10. Hello, John. I was just reading a news article this morning about the possibility of the Station property being turned into a memorial.

    I used to read a lot of non-fiction. The titles mentioned were all favorites. THE PERFECT STORM was chilling (so much better than the movie!) and hit so close to home as I had been living in Massachusetts during that time period.

    I like the idea of the Epilogue to catch up on the people involved.

    A well-written non-fiction book continually has me thinking that "this can't possible be true" and then marveling that it is.

    I remember my mother commenting on the similarities between the Station fire and the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston. She and my father had been to the Boston College-Holy Cross football game (a major rivalry at the time) and tried to get into the Cocoanut Grove after the game. It was too crowded so they went somewhere else. Lucky them. I'm sure there are stories like that from the Station fire, too.

    I look forward to getting your book and jumping back into non-fiction.

  11. I enjoyed John Barylick's comments about how he operationalized the writing of this book. It was fun to read that he thought his first attempts were S*****y, since I know John to be a protege, a one-trial learner who excels from the start at everything he picks up. I recently read John Barry's non-fiction "mystery," THE GREAT INFLUENZA. It is actually an unsolved mystery about the cause of the Spanish Influenza that unpacks the history of modern medicine and the use of the scientific method to develop prevention and treatment of communicable diseases. I thought it had better balance between the two major arcs and engaged my feelings better than THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. I purchased John Barylick's book last night at his book signing and am reading Chapter Two, the first chapter that breaks from the fire to talk about West Warwick. I'm wondering how I'm going to get anything else done this weekend! Kudos and Thanks, John!

  12. John,
    I'm fascinated the little strips of paper/story arcs and the physical way you manipulated them.
    By arc, in an non-fiction book,do you mean the purpose of each chapter and its role in moving hte story forwardd

    Everything I've read about Killer Show puts it on my TBR list.

    And Reading Lady - THANKS, I'm going to add The Great Influenza to my TBR list and PAULA, THe Ed Thomas book, too.

    I think a great non-fiction narrative is one of the greatest reading finds.

    Hallie, Lannie (my daughter) actually considers The Stranger Beside Me, her favorite book. She had to write an essay on one of her med school applications and I told her it seemed too creepy for that to be her favorite book.


  13. John, I can't wait to read this. Knowing someone who was there - and who helped save people - and seeing how it affected him was simply haunting. It's one of those stories you can't ever forget. Thank you for writing this.

  14. Marianne picked up on a wonderful development in today's news. Raymond Villanova (featured in the book) , who owns (and owned) the land and building of the Station nightclub finally agreed to give the land to the Station Memorial Foundation as a site for a fitting memorial to the 100 persons who lost their lives there. This came about through the efforts of new members of that Foundation's board, who used reconciliation, rather than accusation, to press their point. As of KILLER SHOW's writing, Villanova had not yielded. It's a wonderful accomplishment by those board members. As Gina Russo (Foundation board president) said, "Yes, words count."

    And the reference to the Cocoanut Grove Fire is apt, as this November will mark the tragedy's 90th anniversary. That fire had many parallels to the Station fire, and provided useful legal precedent for the criminal cases which followed.

  15. Welcome to Jungle reds, John! Your post was fascinating. I'm adding KILLER SHOW to my TBR list.

    As far as my choice for best narrative nonfiction, IN COLD BLOOD, HELTER SKELTER, and DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY are all at the top of the list. I'd also add JUSTINIAN'S FLEA: PLAGUE, EMPIRE, AND THE BIRTH OF EUROPE and a recent book by a friend, FROM ANIMAL HOUSE TO OUR HOUSE: A LOVE STORY by Ron Tanner. It's about he and his (now) wife taking on the redemption of a historic mansion that had almost destroyed in ten years as an unsupervised fraternity house.

    In the more memoir-ish field of narrative nonfiction, Francisco Goldman's SAY HER NAME is a wonderful novelist's to the young, brilliant woman who married him and changed his life, only to be killed in a freak accident, leaving him to pull out of a maelstrom of grief and despair.

  16. "almost been destroyed" Fumble fingers.

  17. Welcome to JRW, John. The book sounds fascinating, as does your process--much like putting together a novel. When I read non-fiction stories like yours, I always want to know "where they are now." If I don't feel an emotional connection with the characters, fiction or non-fiction, I won't keep reading.

    My favorite? Into Thin Air. But as well as your book, I'm putting The Great Influenza on my list, and I've been wanting to read Justinian's Flea since it came out. Oh, and Linda Rodriguez, I think I would love From Animal House to Our House!

  18. Another John M. Berry book that I loved was, "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America".

    It's a fascinating look at a specific time, culture and geographical area.

  19. "Anonymous" prior post was me, who hit the wrong button.

  20. I am taking down all these titles. i hope a few come in audiobook form

    Jan. who cant type on her ipad

  21. Debs, you will love Ron's book. He's an award-winning literary fiction writer. It's a funny and heartwarming book. They've got a website where you can get a taste (though it's more how-to than the book is).

  22. Tech confusion here.

    I meant to say that Into Thin Air is also one of my favorites. Being scared of heights, my stomach was knotted the whole time.

    As for Reading Lady's very kind skepticism about how really bad the first draft of KILLER SHOW's Ch 1 was, my loyal (?) researcher/draft editor, Jenna Hashway, threatens that she "knows where there's a copy and will happily post it if I get insufferably auteur." :)

  23. Ah, the transition from lawyer to writer -- I know it well! Congratulations, John, for successfully navigating that humbling path.

    You are absolutely right to focus on character in nonfiction -- a point I'll be making in my talk next weekend at the Flathead River Writers Conf. An epilogue is a terrific idea.

    I get chills just remembering reading A Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air. Other memorable character-driven nonfiction: Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time and The Big Burn, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and Simon Winchester's Professor and the Madman. Oh, and Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. I think it's harder to hit the emotional core of historical characters than living figures -- and the stories don't punch us the way ones we remember do -- like in Big Burn or Whaleship Essex, but letters and journals help tremendously.

    Good job, John!

  24. Whoops. The book is "The Sacred Acre: The Ed Thomas Story." Sorry!

  25. **My favorite is "To Sleep With the Angles" by David Cowan about the school fire in Chicago. Next would be the Circus Fire (Hartford CT) by Stewart O'Nan. Both show the variance of "chance" and decision making for good and ill.
    **MB Malone


  26. Leslie,
    I will (and I think have) read anything by Malcolm Gladwell. My favorite, though, I think was Blink.

    Ditto Nathanial Philbrick.

    MB, thanks for your recommendations, I am writing them all down.


  27. As John's researcher, the thought of all of those little slips of paper gives me PTSD. And yes, I do have the first draft of Chapter 1, and I'm not afraid to use it. But seriously, I'm very proud of Killer Show, and working with John was a joy. As to nonfiction, count me as another fan of In Cold Blood and The Great Influenza. On that same theme, Gina Kolata's "Flu" was also a great read.

  28. I read Stephen Puleo's "The Dark Tide" (about the Boston molasses mess during WWI) around the same time there was a W.Va. mine disaster -- true crime based in greed is almost as chilling as murder!

    I am feeling uneasy just hearing about "Killer Show" -- uneasy and drawn to it, just as I have been to so much true crime -- Lizzie Borden!

    Thank you for a new classic -- I know this will be read widely, especially in New England.

  29. A light bulb went on last night: it's prodigy, not protege. I wouldn't want to call John the wrong thing!! I have been stealing moments all weekend to read more and more of this book.

  30. I finished the book this afternoon. It was a surprisingly fast read. From Chapter 25 on I was especially engaged. I learned so much. John, I have a new appreciation for plaintiffs' lawyers and their work. You also helped us to recognize the good and decent people in this story. Thank you for taking this enormous risk and for giving it your all. And congratulations on winning!