On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior and English major at Virginia Tech murdered 32 of his fellow students and professors in the dormitory, West Ambler Johnston, and the academic building, Norris Hall, before killing himself. During the harrowing events of April 16, Suzanne Higgs, a rising junior and journalism major who did not know Cho, was part of the team responsible for continually updating local student-run website planetblacksburg.com with breaking news of the massacre. In the aftermath, during which national and international media descended on the campus, Higgs participatedalong with several fellow studentsin a program run by journalism professor Roland Lazenby in producing the upcoming book, April 16: Virginia Tech Remembers (Plume). Intended as a memorial to the murdered students and professors and as a tribute to the Virginia Tech community, the book is constructed as a series of oral narratives and relies on the testimonies of both students and professors who either experienced or knew people who experienced the events first-hand. Higgs spoke to TIME's Maxwell Bryer on the massacre, its immediate aftermath, and the process of compiling and editing the interviews that make up this book.
TIME: What were you feeling as the crisis unfolded?
Higgs: As soon as it started I didn't really believe it. After I heard about the first gunshots, I tried to reach my parents and a couple of other people to say "I'm fine, we don't know what's going on yet, but I'm in a classroom, I'm nowhere near it." As soon as we heard about the other [gunshots], we just started reporting and you get so attached to that, stuck in reporter mode. All you know is that you have to find information and put it out there.
TIME: When did the realization of what was happening sink in?
Higgs: It was gradual, little bits and pieces like seeing all the media and watching all the news and seeing the people you saw around campus on TV the next day. It took a little while for it to hit me. During the crisis, the only time I left [the building] was to go get my phone charger and my laptop charger because we were still reporting. I wasn't really processing anything. I was just reporting because it needed to be reported.
TIME: You write that you thought some of the media coverage was distasteful? How so? And what did you do that was different?
Higgs: The media really made me angry, not so much to local media but the national media. Being a journalism major with a background in broadcast journalism, it really bugged me. They were sticking cameras in kids faces at the candlelight vigil. With all the events we had, they were everywhere. It was all just a little too intrusive. We only contacted people who were already speaking. When we [started] the book, we decided we weren't going to call. We sent out an email to the campus on as many servers as we could, that if they wanted to write something, they could email it. We used Facebook, MySpace and the VT websearch.
TIME: Did you find the process of compiling and writing the book cathartic or embittering or somewhere in between?
Higgs: I was only a couple of buildings away, but I didn't know anyone [killed], so it didn't hit me the same way. But in speaking to these people who knew them and were telling me about their lives, some days I couldn't handle it. The week before the book was due I said to Roland, "I can't deal with it, I have to go home." He would constantly check up on us asking us if we were doing okay, if we needed to see a counselor, and he was talking to a psychiatrist. For me it was such a roller coaster, fine one moment, crying the next. Having to do these interviews and then go home and transcribe them. I'm glad we did interviews because it was comfortable for some people, but it absolutely killed me to have to listen [to the tapes] again and again.
TIME: Was there any one interview that you found particularly harrowing?
Higgs: Karan Grewal was interesting and hard because he was [Cho's] suitemate. Clearly there was something wrong with [Cho], but to have his own suitemate not think he was capable of something like that just through me for a loop. [Victim] Lauren McCain's pastors were really helpful, very open and understanding of the project. Those were the harder [interviews], talking about the victims and those who knew them. Through talking to people, I feel I really got a sense of who they were.
TIME: Did you run into any problems in the interview process, people who were antagonistic to the process?
Higgs: Really I only had one person. If you wanted to be interviewed, you could let us know. If you wanted to write, you could do that too. Derek O'Dell wrote 7,000 words. The only person I had shoot down the book was Lauren McCain's roommate. I knew her. I emailed her and I saw that she and Lauren were Facebook friends, not knowing they were roommatesbecause if I had known that I would have never emailed. She came at me, called me insensitive, why the hell am I doing this? I had to get out of it very professionally. I don't have to defend the project, I had support from people closer to her than me. She was the only one that hurt more because I knew her, which was kind of a slap in the face. We knew we might run into that.
TIME: Did you detect any of that sort of animosity from other students or professors?
Higgs: More online than anything else. There were some nasty comments, like we're only doing this for money. We each got a scholarshipwhich I needed because I pay for my own education. But we're not getting any royalties and neither is Roland. That all goes to the fund. The more copies of the book that are sold, the more money goes to the victim fund. It's a show of how strong the hokie community is and when the backlash comes, I'll stick to that. It's a memorial to the victims. I'm proud of it, and I can't wait to get my copy.
TIME: At the end of the book, your mother asked you if you would consider changing schools, but you told her you wouldn't switch. Why stay at Virginia Tech?
Higgs: There were a lot of fingers pointed at the administration. I thought they did as good of a job as they could. As a student, the only thing that bothered me was that you were getting all these opinions from outside people, but the only opinion that really matters is ours as a community, and as students. Honestly, I've always felt safe on campus. I can walk from one end to the other at 2 AM and not be bothered by anyone. It's my home now. It's beautiful, I love my family there and the administration, and they take care of me. People are always pointing fingers, but if it were you in that position, what would you have done?