When the Wildfires of Your Novel Come to Life Around You
Julia Dixon Evans on the California Wildfire that Destroyed 282,000 Acres
My husband’s childhood home burned to the ground in the Thomas Fire in Ventura this December. “My parents just got evacuated,” he told me that Monday night, December 4th, 2017. It was very late; I had been out hiking. I remembered the first blush of a Santa Ana, wind from the east, from the desert. I always love that first blush, before the dryness turns the skin around your fingernails to lizard-like scales. That whipping wind, something brewing. The fragrance of it. The disconcerting nature of a December Santa Ana meant that the wind was cold at night in the mountains, not warm. It didn’t seem like my California. It felt like somewhere else. And at the same time, like something new.
“I didn’t even know there was a fire,” I said.
I stayed up until 2 am, refreshing Twitter and listening to the Ventura police scanner. I heard that a single house had burned at an intersection a block away from their house and then, what seemed like seconds later, that 50 houses near that intersection were gone.
The day we all drove up to see the remains, to rifle through the rubble, one of the first recipients of my forthcoming book tagged me in a picture of the galley. I looked at the cover: the title How to Set Yourself on Fire hovering above charred slips of paper against a reddish-orange background. I saw the way it looked in someone’s hands as we drove up the hill where dozens of homes were incinerated in a frighteningly short period of time. I didn’t say anything to my husband.
Just beyond the tiled entryway, the charred remains of my mother-in-law’s cookbooks were the only things I could safely reach. The entire house had imploded into the basement, into the crawlspace. Stepping anywhere other than on the concrete foundation seemed stupid at best.
I picked one of the books up. In the bright sun, the first clear, smokeless day since the fire, I could tilt the pages and still make out the lettering. The page disintegrated at my touch. Nothing lasts forever, especially not books. “2018 is gonna be dope,” that reviewer had captioned, beneath that Instagram picture of my book. I was supposed to be so excited that day and for the year ahead of me, but I turned off my phone. Nothing felt right.
We’d struggled with the title. I spent the entire drafting period with a filename of “sheila,” my main character’s name, and when it came time to query agents, it was difficult to not just title the book Sheila. Ultimately, I plucked a line from the final third of the book—Other Burning Places. The manuscript was picked up by an agent, and eventually by an editor. Everything was going fine. I didn’t love the title.
I never love the titles.
We went through a million possibilities. I asked friends for input and then shot down their innocent, decent suggestions like a shithead. You can Google my name and find at least three titles for this book, because over the past year, we thought we’d solved it, twice.
“How about How to Set Yourself on Fire?” I finally said.
My editor loved it. The sales people loved it. No more changes, they didn’t have to say out loud. We’re going to print. A stranger tweeted at me saying I had the best book title ever. I wasn’t used to loving titles, so I basked in the strange, cozy sensation. Yes, I eventually thought. Yes, I agree.
My husband’s family lives in Ventura, and they’ve always lived there. It’s a beautiful town, tucked between imposing, wild foothills and the Pacific Ocean. Those imposing, wild foothills would spell its demise. My father-in-law is a realtor, the kind everyone in town knows, his name on countless for sale signs throughout the city, including at least two signs I noticed on their street this Thanksgiving, the week before the Thomas Fire turned them all to dust. My mother-in-law is equal parts wry, compassionate, and kindly-reserved, and my god, can she take care of a house. Theirs was beautiful, built in the 1920s. Gorgeous Spanish tile in the kitchen, vivid greens, yellows, and blues. Ancient green appliances, not so much “vintage” as they were “energy-inefficient,” but there’s a part of me that just understood that my mother-in-law was not going to let go of them.
“Although I am excited to see my book out in the world, I know that I’ll never separate these things. This book, the fiery demise of that house, forever intertwined.”
When I’d visit, I’d retreat into that darkened kitchen late at night, after the kids went to sleep, and sip a glass of my mother-in-law’s secret stash of Crown Royal beneath the light of a single dim bulb. No ice, because that ancient freezer didn’t have the capacity for ice. Every visit, I’d take a picture of the way the glass of whiskey looked against that tile in the low light. I’d decompress there, in that kitchen. I’d understand my mother-in-law there, in her kitchen. I’d feel at home there.
I probably wrote tens of thousands of words of How to Set Yourself on Fire in that house. And I was visiting them, brushing my teeth in the blue bathroom, when my agent emailed me to say she’d received an offer on the book.
When we went to see the rubble, the Thomas Fire still aggressively burning in Ventura county and Santa Barbara, I spotted the Spanish kitchen tile in mangled sheets, the paint nearly melted all the way off. Instinctively, I wanted to go touch them, to press my hands flat against what was left of the tile, but it was too dangerous. The fridge, once-avocado green, lay belly-down, tipping precariously towards the lower floor. We tiptoed around the entryway, careful feet not straying from the exposed foundation, but we didn’t venture further. I wanted to raise a glass of whiskey to this place one more time, but all the glasses were gone.
I stand next to my husband in the ashes and try not to say the wrong things to him. I try to be quiet enough, supportive enough, pensive enough.
Instead of any of that, I say something like, “So are you thinking about your old baseball card collection?” He doesn’t answer, maybe just a polite chuckle.
Things feel better when we try to figure out which piles of rubble belong to which rooms of the house. It feels productive and up until that point we felt out of control and helpless. “I think this is the blue bathroom!” and “Look, this must have been our room,” and “Oh, the piano.” But it’s not like I expected. We can’t sift through anything. It’s just piles and piles of mangled and disintegrated building materials. The possessions, the things shaped like belonging and the things shaped like a house are nowhere to be found.
Afterwards, we go to a brewery downtown and watch the constant stream of fire trucks merging onto Highway 101. A few tasters into it, my husband tells me about his baseball card collection.
The opening line of How to Set Yourself on Fire: “It’s the third day of a wildfire to the east and we’re all used to the smell by now.” On the first day of the Thomas Fire, over 150 homes in Ventura burned to the ground, and that smell stuck around for nearly a month.
I imagine the look on my mother-in-law’s face when she holds my book for the first time, thinking about the house they bought when she was 21. Will she be able to read chapter 52? Will she make it past the first page? Will she make it past the first line?
Although I am excited to see my book out in the world, I know that I’ll never separate these things. This book, the fiery demise of that house, forever intertwined.
Four days before I wrote this essay, authorities finally listed the Thomas Fire at 100 percent containment. It burned for over a month, the largest fire in California’s history, razing nearly 282,000 acres, evacuating over 100,000 residents, destroying my in-law’s house, and the house next door, and the one next to that, and so on and so on. What didn’t burn was left vulnerable for the deadly mudslides that followed just over a month later. But my in-laws are resilient. They’ll rebuild their house, and so will their neighbors, and their neighbors’ neighbors.
I think about this pursuit, creating stories and writing books, and how naïve it all felt that day, galleys landing while I crouched amidst the ashes of someone else’s books. Nothing lasts forever, I kept repeating to myself, but it still felt worth it. My favorite art is always the stuff made despite the reception waiting for it. Nothing lasts forever, but my god, that short time that that it does is magic. The kitchens, the whiskey glasses against Spanish tile, the wild, barren California landscapes, the pages upon pages, the resilience of people and neighborhoods and stories. I’ll take it.