Atlanta-based novelist Jack Riggs follows up his award-winning 2003 debut When the Finch Rises with The Fireman's Wife, an introspective tale involving a firefighter's strained marriage in small-town South Carolina in 1970. Writer-in-residence at Georgia Perimeter College's Writer's Institute, Riggs will discuss the book Thurs., Jan. 15, at the Decatur Library's Georgia Center for the Book.
Did you do much research on firefighting for the book?
I would like to say that I rode on a fire truck for a month, but I didn't. I starting out reading Larry Brown's On Fire. Larry's a friend of mine, and the book started out as a tribute to him and the type of firefighting he did in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the equipment was very different than it is now. I talked to some firemen and read some true-account stories to get a sense of the language, but did most of my research online. Some of the scenes came from reconstructing my memories as a child, driving by terrible wrecks or things like that.
Did Sept. 11 influence your perspective on firefighters?
When I decided to write a book about firefighting, I certainly thought about the 9/11 situation. When I was in the middle of writing it, however, I was at the beach with my family in June of 2007 when there was a huge fire in Charleston, S.C. We were with my parents and the TV was on, and this scroll about the fire started rolling at the bottom of the frame. It rolled on and every now and then the news got worse, until they announced that nine firemen had died, which was the largest loss of fireman life since 9/11. I thought about that a lot, and considered dedicating the book to the nine firefighters, but I didn't want that to look like some kind of marketing tool, so I dedicated it to Larry Brown as "LB."
You set your two novels in 1968 and 1970, respectively. Is your writing informed by your childhood?
When the Finch Rises was certainly informed by my childhood, even though the characters aren't very much like me. What's me is the pop culture elements in the book, like Myrtle Beach and Evel Knievel on television. The Fireman's Wife is set in 1970, and it's really strange how a book finds its life. When I started it, it was going to be 1974 – I don't really remember why – and it was really going to be the story of Peck, the fireman, and how he handles his wife Cassie's change of direction in her life.
Cassie's life was going to be particularly different, involving a pregnancy and a back-alley abortion, so I had to drop it back to 1972, before Roe v. Wade. I was at a stalemate with the book a few years ago, and was visiting Tallulah Gorge and saw the old towers Karl Wallenda used when he crossed the gorge on his tightrope in 1970. I immediately knew that was where Cassie would be at the end of the book, so the book had to be in 1970. I think the story is a timeless kind of idea, so in some respect, the date is unnecessary.
Do you think Southern authors face a different expectation for writing about the Southern land and climate than writers from other regions?
Other people better versed than I could speak to this, but I believe that because of the nature of our seasons, because we've grown from an agrarian South to a modern-day, changing South, when we write about the South, the land and the heat is something we take notice of. If I was a writer up north in New England or the Midwest, I think I'd probably write about winter more. Here, the heat and humidity lays upon us. For me, geography and place is very much what defines us. Whether it's Southern fiction or any other kind, it's important to me that you feel the environment. As I tell my writing students, "Make me feel it. Make me taste it." As long as writers are brought up with Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner as the stanchions or anchors of Southern fiction, I don't think it'll be any other way.
You lived for 10 years in Los Angeles working as a story analyst for HBO and were involved with the production of music videos. How did that influence your writing?
When I was there, for a year and a half or so, HBO was still just doing movies and things. Mostly I read two to three scripts a day and would turn in analyses of the stories. My goal was to read scripts and write, but that never happened, because the reading's so intense, and it used up the whole day. In the finality of it, I think I have a strong sense of picture and a sense of place, and I think that comes from my time in the film industry.
I was mostly an assistant director on music videos, which doesn't add much to the writing process, but you learn to fill the frame with information. I do a similar thing with the page. It helps me think about the frame and what's inside it when I'm writing. What's interesting about film is that you have all these people who come together and create an image on the screen, then place it before the audience, who have a singular experience – they all see the same thing. But you can have 150 people read a chapter of a book, ask them to describe it and you'll get 150 different responses, because it's all in the mind's eye. The book gets personalized by everyone who reads it. I think that's partly what makes fiction such a great art form.