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Finding the Language of Fire

            My 1992 novel, Festival in Fire Season, has just come out as an e-book.  So when the publisher asked me to look through it after the (very old) files were converted, I found myself reading it for the first time in twenty years.

            Festival in Fire Season is about three people in a small beach town who get caught up in a raging wildfire that comes through during the annual Azalea Festival.  A Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection when it was first published, it was inspired by real fires that swept through coastal North Carolina in the mid-1980’s – and that scared me badly when the flames were burning at the end of the block and I was home without a car, with my four children and two nieces. 

What critics liked most about the book were the fire scenes. 

But oh!  Even two decades later, I remember all too well what a project it was to write them.

One of the main characters in the book is a firefighter.  He battles some house fires early on, and at the end has to deal with the swiftly-approaching forest fire.  Making those scenes authentic and exciting was the key to the success of the book.

I knew nothing about firefighting – just that I was afraid of fires. This was before Internet research was an option.  I read one book by a NY city firefighter but found few others.  I interviewed several local firefighters, including one who had been in charge of operations during our terrible wildfires.  They were all enormously helpful.  They lent me training tapes to watch.  Explained how heavy the hoses can be when they’re charged with water.  Told me their secret – not sanctioned, but effective – for clearing their face masks when they fogged up.  In time, I had enough technical information to work with. 

But what I wanted was a sense of what it’s like, emotionally, to fight a fire.  What it looks like, what it feels like, in a visceral way. 

This, I discovered, would be much harder to come by. 

My firefighter contacts, macho-men all, were knowledgeable, skillful, helpful in a myriad of ways – but emotional?  No.  It seemed a source of pride with them to describe even the most devastating fires in the flattest possible language. 

What was it like?

Oh, we knocked it down in about ten minutes.

Oh, it was goin’ pretty good when we got there. 

Oh, it was kind of nasty.  But we got hold of it.

Were you ever scared?

Oh, yeah.  Sure. 

End of discussion.

At a loss, having exhausted the good will of the firefighters and the resources of the county library, I drove out to the university, expecting to find more of the same.  But among the “more of the same” was an old book – very old – that contained various accounts of the devastating but nearly-forgotten Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin, that consumed more than a million acres of land and killed more than a thousand people.  The librarian presented me with a volume that shouldn’t have been in circulation at all – dusty, tattered, and certainly rare.  But no one seemed concerned, so I carried it home and found . . . everything

Back in the 1870s, there was no telephone service, no email, no TV, nothing to ease the linguistic task of describing the direct experience of a devastating fire.  And so there it was, in many renditions, in the rich, evocative language of the times, the horror and (to my surprise) the beauty, of a terrible wildfire.

From those accounts, I learned how sap could hiss as it turned to steam, how flames could hurl themselves into the night, “screeching and cackling, a Halloween beast sending out curling wisps of smoke,” how two walls of fire could become a “sudden last fountain of light” before the two fires canceled each other out. 

I learned how to juxtapose those descriptions with modern ones, as when a boy watching a fire yells to his friend, “The ultimate fireworks, man!”

And so grew the novel.     

It shouldn’t have taken me so long to find my sources.  I had read Civil War letters and diaries; I must have known that the vibrant language I was seeking would be in accounts from a hundred years before.  Today, you can read all about the Peshtigo Fire on Wikipedia – and no doubt many other places.  But if you’re ever looking for the true language of something folks want to mute and subdue, along with their fears, I suspect you’ll find it right where it’s always been, burning in the flame-lit annals of the past.

 

 

 

 

 

Autobiography? Or not?

“Is it autobiographical?” 

 It’s a question I’m asked about almost every book – and one other women’s fiction writers I know deal with just as often.

 For me, the answer is always yes.  And always no. 

 My newest novel, THE ART OF SAYING GOODBYE, is based on a real event.  In the suburban neighborhood where I lived for many years, a beautiful, vivacious woman with two children was diagnosed with a terminal cancer that claimed her after only a few months.  I didn’t know her well.  Saddened as I was to hear about her family’s tragedy, I didn’t expect to be affected in any profound way. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Along with the rest of my neighbors, I went through an astonishing range of emotions, from shock and sorrow to a kind of guilty joy at being healthy – for which I felt deeply ashamed.  Above all, I felt helpless. What good did our casseroles do?  Or the white ribbons tied around trees in our front yards?  Or the prayer meeting that felt a little like a neighborhood coffee klatch?  It was a terrible time – and yet, as it turned out, a remarkable one.

The book I finally wrote deals at one level with the very different ways four longtime neighbors react in a similar situation.  On another level, it is about the universal need to face our own mortality in the shadow of a friend’s illness – only to come away, finally, with a kind of transcendent thankfulness for our lives, and the realization that a person is never the illness that claims her, but always herself, someone capable of leaving us a legacy of strength and joy. 

 The four neighbors whose stories make up the novel are nothing like me.  There’s a nurse with an eerie gift of diagnosis.  A cynical widow.   The owner of an upscale hot-tub store.  A housewife whose marriage suffers because of a troublesome child.  I am none of these people.  Not even close. 

 But the emotions of these fictional characters are exactly the ones I felt in real life when my neighbor was sick.  None of the women are “me.”  And yet all of them are.

Does this make it autobiography?  Not really. 

Like many of us who write mainstream women’s fiction, mine is a blend of fact and feeling and imagination, set into prose, with hopes it will reach other hearts than mine. 

 

Women’s fiction, women’s lives

Okay, this is why I’m doing this: I’ve always loved women’s writing but hated the way some people use “women’s fiction” as a slightly derogatory term for beach books (many with the word, “beach” in their titles) and light reading. There are plenty of those, sure, some quite marvelous . . . but if that’s “women’s fiction,” then why isn’t there something equivalent called “men’s fiction”?   

For me, women’s fiction has always meant the whole, broad world of women’s concerns (which is not to say men aren’t concerned with many of these things as well).

What do I write?  Women’s fiction, often about women’s friendships, sometimes serious, often on the edge of “literary,” always with real issues at its core.  What do I read?  Women’s literary fiction, women’s historical fiction, women’s mystery fiction, women’s political fiction – everything from the brainy novels of  Louise Erdrich and Barbara Kingsolver and Anne Patchett, to Janet Evanovich’s laugh-out-loud thrillers and Alice Hoffman’s magical realism.  For me, women’s fiction includes equally Anne Rivers Siddons’ lush depictions of the Carolina coast and Lionel Shriver’s biting attack on the American health-care system.  I’m tickled by the way Elizabeth Berg’s lyrical novels have given a generation of career women permission to find beauty, as well, in the small rituals of domestic life.  I admire Erica Jong for being brave enough to publish her funny and fearless, Fear of Flying nearly forty years ago, and I admire Allegra Goodman for taking on the difficulties of the fast-moving digital world we live in today.  Women’s fiction is not inconsequential.  It entertains us, teaches us, nourishes us.  Sometimes it changes our lives.

That’s what these posts will be about.  Why we read what we do.  Why we write what we do .  How the fiction impinges on our “real” lives (and vice versa).  How it deepens our understanding, empowers us, makes us more whole.  At its best, that’s what women’s fiction does. 

Think of this as a celebration. 

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