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Interview: Jay Varner, author of Nothing Left To Burn

September 20, 2010

I’m happy to host today another interview by Tara Laskowski, chatting this time with Jay Varner, a former classmate of hers at Susquehanna University and a graduate of the MFA program at UNC-Wilmington whose debut book is being released this week. Tara introduces the interview and the new memoir here:

Jay Varner‘s memoir Nothing Left To Burn, released this week by Algonquin Books, is a story about family, a story about fires, firestarters and firefighters, and a story about coming to terms with who you were and who you are. Jay explores the lives of his father, a local small town firefighter, and his grandfather, a serial arsonist, and how each man’s obsessions reflected on and was driven by the other’s.

Jay and I first met in undergrad at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, and I’ve been looking forward to this book for several years now. Maybe because we share an alma mater, or because we’re both from small towns in Pennsylvania, both loved visiting Hershey Park as kids and both worked at small town newspapers after graduation—in short, shared similar pasts and paths—I felt very attuned to the story here. However, whether you’re best friends with Jay or you wouldn’t know him if he bumped into you at the airport, the story he tells in this memoir—his first book—has universal themes that anyone will be touched by.

Father and son relationships; guilt, redemption, family illness and death; growing up poor; rites of passage—it’s all here in this story about a son, his father and his grandfather and how their choices change and affect their family and their futures.

I had a chance to talk with Jay recently about the book, his process of writing it and future projects.

Tara Laskowski: You talk in the book about how you originally envisioned this story as a novel, but then ended up writing a memoir. Can you talk a little about both the process of transitioning your writing to a different form, and also about writing a memoir itself? Just how difficult is it to write about your life and your family, especially when they don’t want you to?

Jay Varner: At the time I started writing this as a novel, it was the fall of 2001. I was trying to write about my father and some painful things in my past. And of course on television were images of the World Trade Center and the hundreds of firemen who not only searched for survivors, but also the ones who lost their lives. If my father were alive then, he’d have been in his truck driving on I-95 to help out. Perhaps that’s what really caused the novel to not work—I think for my own health, I needed to have distance. Not just by writing the story as fiction, but also jumping from different narrators and not focusing on myself.

Now, I had a professor who loved the story to the novel and asked how I ever came up with such a thing. I shrugged and said that it was true. Until then, I never told anyone at my college about my past—I’d been told to keep quiet, that my family’s history with fire was something to be ashamed about. But my professor’s eyes lit up and he politely mentioned this genre called nonfiction and memoir.

It took me a few years to really get to a place where I felt comfortable writing about this. A lot of that came from working the police and fire beat for my hometown paper—and going to many fire and accident scenes. There was a lot to work through on my own, especially how I felt about my father and the amount of time he invested in the firehouse, thus keeping him away from me. But once I started, I hadn’t thought of that novel in some time, and I just tried to remember as much as I could that was true.

By then, I knew that this wasn’t something to be ashamed about. Though I wish my father had spent more time away from the fire company, I started to truly understand what it meant to be a fire chief. And I didn’t resent the reasons he became a fireman. If anything, I understood this complex, flawed, heroic, and loving man even more. And even though my family probably wishes this weren’t on the shelves, I hope that in some way it does honor the sacrifice that both my parents made.

Small towns. Both you and I came from small towns in Pennsylvania, and I really like how you describe that experience in this book. It strikes me that small towns have this way of being both secure and smothering. How do you feel about your hometown now that you’ve written about it and moved away from it?

Jay Varner

I still very much love my hometown and Pennsylvania. My friends would probably tell you that I talk about PA as though it were the Fatherland! I think small towns are one of those things you don’t appreciate until you don’t have it anymore. There are certainly some feelings of claustrophobia, but I’ve lived in a city for the past six years of my life. I feel like I’ve lost that close-knit feeling—neighbors would do anything for you, you knew everyone in your street (in my case, a country road), and there was a sense of safety, though that might not always be the case. Of course, the grass is always greener—sometimes I do long for the solitude and anonymity that a suburban street provides. And, it’s especially interesting viewing my hometown in light of recent economic times. We were always about 1-2% ahead of the nation in terms of unemployment, and sadly that’s still the case. When I read stories about poverty and closing factories, it might be news to other parts of the country, but not mine.

More than anything, I hope that I got it right. There are good and bad things—such is most things in life—and if there’s something wrong, I don’t think the people back home would forgive me.

Which scene was the most difficult to write? Which came easiest to you?

Actually, I think they’re the same scene. Anything involving my grandfather in the book came naturally for me, simply because I was forever traumatized by him. There’s a scene where he brings a truckload of mattresses to burn near our house. I don’t remember ever feeling so terrified. In my memory, it was this incredibly visceral scene—the glow of the flames dancing across the yard, reflecting through windows and onto the walls of our trailer. The fire was so intense, we could feel the heat on the handle of the front door, yet my grandfather just stood right next to his creation and watched. It wasn’t until reading back over that scene that I realized how truly scary the man was to me, and then I started to think about the implications of that on my life both then and now. And to think of the fear that my mother must have felt, since she knew the full story of my grandfather’s life and all that he was capable of destroying.

What are some of your favorite memoirs? Why do you think that this type of writing is so appealing to people?

Anything by Mary Karr is definitely worth investing the time to read. Right now, I think she’s the premier memoirist working today. She not only mines her experiences but adds such humor and poignancy that they remain with you long after the final page. The Glass Castle really rang true for me, especially the parts dealing with growing up poor. Definitely On Fire by the great Larry Brown—he’d spent seventeen years as a fireman and that book touches upon some of his experiences. But fiction inspired me just as much. It’s hard not to read Straight Man or Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo and not think of my hometown—he perfectly captures these dying industrial regions. Or the loneliness and heartbreak of Dan Chaon, the hardscrabble Appalachians in Breece D’J Pancake’s stories.

I suppose I’m a bit more of a populist when I think about this, but to me, good literature—while striking that raw nerve of truth—is entertainment. I want a book to take me somewhere both new and familiar, to introduce me to characters I both love and fear, to read stories that are both true and fantastical. And, for better or worse, real life is full of these kinds of experiences. Memoirs have certainly exploded in the past few years, as has reality television, blogs, social media. When is someone sharing just to share, and when are they sharing while paring down their experience to something with relevance for a reader? Like any good literature, the best memoirs offer a way to tap into the human condition. The need to hear and tell true stories goes back to the beginning of time. If a friend tells a crazy story about his day at the Laundromat—if he’s a good storyteller, at least—it’ll be hard for me not to be sucked into it. I’ve been to the Laundromat! That could have happened to me! Or: thank God it didn’t! Stories like this keep us plugged into our neighbors, friends, and strangers in a way other forms cannot.

Can you talk a little about the novel you’re working on now? Does it also draw on real-life experiences, or are you escaping from that?

I can, but I’m nervous to do it. I just finished the first draft of it recently. And I’m not sure what will happen. I think I need some time to let it marinate in the drawer before I really make a decision on how I feel about it, other than excited at the moment.

I still felt like I had some things to say about Central Pennsylvania. While the setting of this novel is in PA and modeled after my home area, it’s very much fiction. It’s a story about two brothers who have to face poverty and make some tough decisions how to survive. There’s drugs, there’s violence, there’s some humor. It’s a landscape that I certainly know well, but fortunately for me, I haven’t experienced the drugs and violence.

And now I’m on to the next project. I thought I’d never write another memoir—I’m not even thirty years old and it felt a bit presumptuous to think that I’d been through enough interesting life experiences to write about myself again. But, in the past three years, I somehow stumbled into a situation with a villain just as chilling as my grandfather. And it probably says something about my need for a father figure that I tried to bend over backwards to please this man to no avail. There’s all sorts of things going on in this story—the recession, the South, racism, technology—and despite all the awful stuff, some of seems very funny to me. So, I’m starting to jot down notes and outline and look forward to seeing where it goes. But, just like before, it’s something that was a really painful experience and I think I still need more time to just process what it all means.

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