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Mysteries, thrillers, home of PI Thomas Black

Q & A with the Author for INTO THE INFERNO

Q: Into the Inferno is about the members of a mostly volunteer fire department who unknowingly become contaminated by a lethal substance while responding to a road accident and months later begin to succumb to its effects one by one. Jim Swope, the protagonist, wakes up one morning with the first symptom and knows he has seven days before he will be brain dead. What is the likelihood of something like this actually happening?

A: On a book tour ten years ago I was approached by a firefighter from Montana who told me a story about a hardware store fire he’d fought with an all-volunteer fire department. Since the store was in an isolated rural town, it carried just about everything from bullets to paint thinners and wood sealers. Within nine months of the fire eight of the fourteen people who’d responded had either suffered heart attacks or strokes. The last I heard, the state was still refusing to acknowledge their problems might have come from the fire, yet it was pretty clear to those involved that there was some chemical compound in the smoke that had made them all sick.

Q: Why wouldn’t the state acknowledge this?

A: Like everything else, it comes down to money. If those health problems were caused by the fire, the state would have had to pay for them because the state insures volunteer firefighters. The same situation exists in my story, Into the Inferno, except it’s a private company denying their product has caused any harm.

Q: Was this story the impetus for Into the Inferno?

A: This and others like it. My first week in drill school in the Seattle Fire Department I heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a group of nine volunteer firefighters in a remote county in California who were dispatched to investigate an unmarked barrel that had rolled off a truck onto the highway. It was leaking what turned out to be an industrial-strength insecticide. Six of these volunteers ended up in nursing homes—brain dead. I never forgot the story.

One morning in Seattle years later a similar event happened to the crew we were relieving on Engine 27. A container truck had overturned at Continental Freightways, spilling an unknown substance into their parking lot. When we arrived, two firefighters were in the back of the medic unit, their pulse rates and blood pressures soaring. Nobody knew what happened. They simply got sick. Two of them. Within minutes of each other. Same symptoms. The truck had been carrying jeans, clothing, Coca-Cola concentrate, and some containers from a rocket fuel company in San Jose.

Yet when they were contacted by telephone, the rocket fuel people denied any responsibility in the illnesses. Despite their denials, they were keenly interested in all the symptoms our men were experiencing and wanted us to list every detail and even give them updates. We called them at eight in the morning. By noon, they’d flown two chemists to Seattle from San Jose. That’s interested. The company never did take responsibility for what happened to our people.

Q: That’s pretty much what happens in Into the Inferno, isn’t it? What was the outcome for the firefighters?

A: They had severe symptoms of high blood pressure, dizziness, weakness and syncope for a couple of days. The doctors monitored their blood for six months because their immune function went to hell and their red blood cell counts were dangerously low. It took six months for the numbers to return to normal. As far as I know, they both recovered fully. Ironically, twelve years later one of them died in a fire.

There was a lot of frustration with the company that made the rocket fuel. These two guys didn’t know if they were going to die or be permanently affected or if there was an antidote, or what, and the company wouldn’t tell them a thing.

Q: Why, in Into the Inferno, did you chose the device of having these firefighters go brain dead rather just dying?

A: Probably because of the image I’ve had in my head for twenty-five years of volunteer firefighters sitting in wheelchairs in a nursing home drooling because they happened to touch the wrong barrel. I think a lot of active people feel going brain dead is worse than death. Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. And, since I was telling the story in the first person, it was a wonderful opportunity to flirt with different modes of consciousness, to take the reader first-hand through all that happens to a man or woman in that situation.

Q: You do a good job of depicting Swope’s agony. Without giving away too much, it’s fair to say one character even contemplates suicide rather than submitting to his fate.

A: We all know any number of people who have made out living wills telling doctors and loved ones to pull the plug rather than let them go on in a vegetative state that might last years. It’s a complex moral issue and very personal. It was interesting to delve into it with my character, Jim Swope, who couldn’t quite figure out what he was going to do when it came to the crunch. Of course, his job was to find an antidote before he went brain dead in seven days. It was a story with an automatic clock.

Q: Yet, Swope’s father is in a nursing home and he’s more or less brain dead.

A: The result of a stroke. It is one of the ironies in Swope’s life that at 34 he was headed for the same fate that had overtaken his father in his seventies, forced to come to terms with his mortality long before most people and also with the life he’s lived up to this point, in particular with the way he’s ignored his father.

Q: It wasn’t a particularly exemplary life, was it? Swope is almost an anti-hero. The main characters in your mysteries and in your previous thriller were genuine good guys. Why the switch?

A: I got tired of writing about good guys and thought it might be fun to write from the point of view of an obviously flawed character. Swope is a complex guy who, like a lot of womanizers, distances himself from women. It turned out this was the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book. I think it shows in the product. Swope is a passive-aggressive womanizer trying to make up for abandonment issues in childhood, although he hasn’t really confronted any of this when the book opens. He’s made fun of by the people he works with and has made a lot of enemies among the women he’s dated, even though he likes to believe they’re all still friends. In the beginning of the book Swope is actually running from an ex-girlfriend. I thought if I took somebody who was close to despicable and put him in this kind of a bind, it would be a chance for me as the author to watch him dissect his own life and personality. My main worry was that people wouldn’t empathize with him, but so far he’s been called deep, sexy, you name it. Go figure.

Q: There’s not quite as much of the hardcore firefighting in this book as your previous Vertical Burn, but there is one scene in which Swope fights a horrendous house fire.

A: One early reader said that scene had him in tears and then laughing all in the same chapter. There may not be as much actual fighting of fires in this book as Vertical Burn, but there is a broader look into the firefighting life. The reader goes on aid calls with Swope and company. There’s the hazardous materials spill that starts the book off. An aid call where they visit one of their co-workers who’s brain dead. A fatal car wreck. In Vertical Burn I focused on fires. Into the Inferno gives a broader look at what firefighters do and how they do it.

Q: Having been a firefighter for twenty-five years now, do you find the firefighting scenes the easiest to write?

A: Writing fire scenes is more fun than the rest of the novel but absolutely not any easier. I love firefighting and I want to get it right. I like these scenes. I like being in them. There is no part of my firefighting novels that I give more scrutiny to than the fire scenes. I would hazard to say that the house fire in Into the Inferno got three times as many rewrites as any other single section of the book. Maybe thirty-five rewrites. Part of that is that I know there are going to be a lot of volunteer and professional firefighters looking over my shoulder and I don’t want to get letters telling me I got the technical parts wrong. So far I haven’t received any. Also, I want to put readers into a firefighter’s mind without overwhelming them with technical details. I want the reader to know what it’s like to crawl into a fire so hot it melts your helmet. To know what it’s like to search for victims in the total blackness of a smoke-filled building.

Q: Once again small-town politics and fire administration politics enters into your story. Is it hard to write this stuff?

A: I don’t think of it as politics so much as simply human nature. You find people unjustly wielding power in city administrations, in business, and in fire departments. In this story we have the mayor of the town—a former volunteer firefighter—trying to run things, even though he doesn’t have the practical knowledge to do so. That has been a problem for fire departments, both large and small, since the beginning. To complicate matters, Swope has had a brief fling with the mayor’s daughter, but then, who hasn’t Swope had a fling with?

Q:  You obviously had two ways to go with the ending. Swope could get cured or he could become a vegetable. How did you make your decision?

A: It wasn’t easy. In a traditional thriller there would have been no choice. He gets the cure in the nick of time. I kept changing my mind right up until I was writing the final scenes, and even then I vacillated. I’m not going to spoil the finish by giving it away, but in one sense, I went right down the middle. I made both choices. People who read it will know what I’m talking about.

Q: Sort of a lady or the tiger ending?

A: A variation on that. But a more satisfying variation, I hope.

Q: Do you miss writing mysteries, and when are you going to go back to them?

A: I definitely miss both Thomas Black and Mac Fontana, my two series characters. I know my readers miss them, too. I get letters every week asking when I will return to them. Unfortunately, I can only write a book a year, and for the present I’m committed to at least one or two more suspense novels. They are fun too, and I’m hoping my mystery readers will like them as much as my series books. The essential writing and characterization that made people read an Earl Emerson book is still there, if not more so. I try very hard to get better with each book.


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