The job of a fiction writer is to transport the readers, to allow them to feel as much of the story as possible. You want their senses involved, you want them to feel the joy of some scenes, and the horror of others. When you’re working on a draft, trying to achieve that, it’s inevitable (or it should be) that the experiences you’re writing about become very vivid for you, personally. After all, if the book doesn’t make you feel any emotional connection, how will it possibly do that for a reader?
So you write it as well as you can, you try to transport and you try to create those emotional connections, and though you feel for your characters, you know that it’s a fictional creation.
Until the days when it doesn’t feel like that at all.
I spent the spring of 2013 writing about a traumatized young woman named Hannah Faber, a former Hotshot firefighter who had survived a horrific blaze from the confines of an impossibly small and impossibly flimsy-looking fire shelter. The rest of her crew, unwilling to trust their shelters, perished while trying to do the impossible—outrun a fire that was moving as fast as the wind, and burning at around 1,300 degrees. When the book picks her up, Hannah is attempting to edge back to the world in which she feels she belongs, but she can’t go all the way back, not to the fire line. She’s taken a job as a lookout in one of the lonely towers in the West (there are a few hundred towers still occupied as the first line of defense, even in these days of satellites and drones.) The story, inevitably, returns her to the fire line at a later point.
Emotional authenticity is something I strive for on the page, and so I spent a lot of time, and a lot of rewriting, trying to understand the way Hannah felt. Mixtures of fear and guilt and a sense of duty to the dead occupied much of that. In the quest to understand her better, I tried to focus on the sensory detail of what it might be like to attempt to wait out an inferno inside of something that looks like a child’s tent. I wanted to know what it would feel like, sound like, smell like. I spent a lot of time inside that shelter with Hannah, while the rest of her crew ran, and screamed, and died.
I was done with the book on June 30, the date on which 19 Hotshots died fighting a fire at Granite Mountain in Arizona. I listened to the news reports with the horror and sadness we all felt, and with something far more personal as well. My characters weren’t real, their story was imagined, but here it had just played out in a way that was so uncomfortably close to the scenario I’d conceived of that it felt terribly surreal. These firefighters were the best, they were a tight unit with close relationships, and they found themselves in a deadly situation when the elements of wind and terrain played a fatal trick on them. It was mostly men on the crew—except for one woman. Some of them tried to use their shelters; others didn’t trust them and tried to run.
It’s a profoundly uncomfortable sensation to write an imaginary horror and see a real one unfold that feels so close to it. I’m glad that I’d already written the book, and written those scenes. To attempt to create a fictional tragedy that fits so closely with a real one would have been difficult, and I’m not sure that I would have done it. Any sense of dishonoring the dead would be a crippling thing for a writer, and I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to think I was borrowing a real-life tragedy for fictional gains. Now, a year later, the book is reaching publication, fire season has started in the west, and 19 families are trying to cope with the memories. Somewhere, I’m sure, a firefighter from that crew is returning to work, and trying to cleanse some trauma. I don’t know that I would want that person to read my book. But if he or she did, I’d hope that they thought that I got it right, that the emotions rang true to them. Even when they are imagined, I’ve always believed you owe your characters that much.