Rachel Beanland, THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE

Rachel Beanland, THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE

Zibby speaks to award-winning author and repeat MDHTTRB guest Rachel Beanland about The House is on Fire, a propulsive work of historical fiction about a fire that ravaged a theater mid-performance and forever entwined the lives of four very different Americans: a young stagehand, a society widow, an enslaved woman, and a blacksmith. Rachel talks about her meticulous research of the real 1811 Richmond fire and her use of fiction to fill in the gaps in the historical records and create a gripping narrative. She also talks about what it was like to write this book mid-pandemic, her ultimate goal of giving a voice to those who were rarely written about, and the books she has read recently and loved.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rachel. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The House Is on Fire: A Novel.

Rachel Beanland: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks for being here. As you know, I loved Florence Adler Swims Forever. We had such good talks about it. It was so successful and won all these awards. You must have been so excited. Now this is a totally different direction, much further back in the past, strict historical fiction with so much research. I can’t believe how deep you dove into all of it, all of the resources that you used and recreating people’s lives. I have to say — I was just saying I was in bed reading this. The anxiety I felt trying to escape this fire, I was like, oh, my gosh. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about why you chose this fire in 1811, Richmond, Virginia, and what happened to four different people? Why did you choose this to write a book about? Just go into all of that.

Rachel: The book is based on the 1811 theater fire that happened in Richmond. When it happened in Richmond, it wasn’t just a big fire in Richmond. It was a big fire internationally. Seventy-two people died, including the governor of Virginia. There were former senators, the president of the Bank of Virginia. All of these bigwigs were in the theater that night. It really also affected a cross-section of people. Of course, remember, at that time, we had many fewer states. Virginia was kind of a big deal in the grand scheme of things. It was a hugely traumatic event for, of course, everyone there, but then even people as far away as London were reading everything they could get their hands on about the fire. It’s very, very well-documented. That being said, it’s not an event that many people know about, even if you live in Richmond. I would say more than half the people who live in Richmond don’t know that this theater fire happened. I had finished Florence Adler Swims Forever. I remember we had our interview. It was the beginning of the pandemic. It was April or something. The book came out in July. It was a pandemic book.

I was sitting around thinking about what I was going to write next. The book that I had been playing with was international. It was going to require all this travel to get right. I’m looking around, and the flights are grounded. I’m thinking, when am I ever going to get back up in the air, let alone be able to flit off and do the kind of book research I want to do? I started thinking about what I could write that was set in my own backyard. The Richmond theater fire was a natural subject for me. I had learned about it the very first day I moved to Richmond. Just by chance, a realtor had told me about it. I’d always been fascinated. I’d always paid attention when I’d hear little bits and pieces about it. In regard to your question about the people I chose to follow, I thought long and hard about how I would capture this incredibly scary scenario. Because the fire had affected such a cross-section of Virginians, I wanted to document the full range of experiences.

I chose to focus on one young boy who’s behind the scenes working as a stagehand and has a pivotal role to play in the starting of the fire. I chose to follow a woman, who’s actually the daughter of Patrick Henry, who’s up in the box seats. The box seats were the most expensive seats in the house. They were the hardest to get out of. I’ve got her up in a third-floor box. Her name’s Sally. I have an enslaved woman named Cecily who has come to the theater as an escort with someone but is in what was called the colored gallery at the time. An interesting thing about that gallery was that it was a little easier to escape because they had their own entrance. She becomes someone that we’re following. Then there is a lot in the historic record about this man named Gilbert Hunt, who was an enslaved blacksmith in Richmond, Virginia. He ran towards the fire that night and ended up saving about a dozen white women from the blaze. Of course, it’s 1811, do they give him his freedom for this? No. He ended up buying his freedom in 1829. His story is just endlessly fascinating. Those are the four characters that I chose to focus on, but I could’ve chosen any number of people.

Zibby: You said he had actually moved back to Virginia at the end. He had gone to Liberia or something and then moved back and lived the rest of his days free.

Rachel: He’s a really, really interesting person. In this time period — we’re in 1811, so we’re not near the Civil War yet. What happened in the 1800s in Virginia and a lot of slave-holding states was that the rights of freed and slaved Blacks were slowly stripped away so that by the time you get to the Civil War, they have far fewer right than they had even in the early part of that century. Gilbert Hunt is watching those rights be stripped away. For instance, there was a day when you could be an enslaved Black person and be able to be taught to read. Then once people figure out, no, that’s no good, then they take that away from them. There was a lot happening in that century long before the Civil War gets started.

Zibby: You have another storyline which you write about. I love how you make theories. You have this long author’s note at the end of, this is based on this family, but maybe it was the husband, the dad who actually was the one who ordered the chandelier to come down. Basically, what happened, it sounds like, is this chandelier, the pulley wasn’t working properly. It was lingering in the middle of the scene. They had to pull it up. They should’ve put it down, but they didn’t want to disrupt the flow of the show. Instead, they yanked it higher where it caught fire to the top of the backdrops, which are these huge prop elements. The man who insisted on that happening, his daughter ends up passing away. The wife can never recover at the loss of the daughter. You assert it’s possible that in real life she knew that, actually, it was her husband who caused the death of her daughter. She just couldn’t live with that.

Rachel: This is the fun part about being a novelist. You don’t have to have historic facts to back up everything you want to say. What I like to do when I’m writing historical fiction is I like to stay as true as I possibly can to the historical record. I look at all of the documents. I was in the archives. I read the inquest report. It’s very clear when you’re reading the inquest report that someone is being kind of protected. You can almost just read between the lines and figure out, okay, what are they not saying here? That’s probably where the story is. For me, the fun is getting to fill in between the lines and say, what’s the most logical thing that could’ve happened here? Who is the person they were likely protecting? As I built out the story of the theater fire and what was happening backstage, I could take that inquest report, take the circumstances of who ended up going where after the fire, and then try to rebuild what happened that night. I can remember — I was at a residency with a couple of writers. We were out on a walk in Maine on this beautiful little island. We’re talking. I’m saying, “Okay guys, how could this have worked? I know the chandelier went up. I know it went down. What happened? What do we think happened?” That was really fun to be able to — I had a big whiteboard in my office. I had the chandelier. I’ve got arrows up and down trying to figure out because it just wasn’t that well-documented in 1811.

Zibby: Wow. It is totally fascinating. I recently interviewed James Stewart, who wrote Unscripted and DisneyWar. He’s a fabulous reporter/journalist type, nonfiction writer. He was literally saying when I talked to him, exactly what you just said but from a reporter’s standpoint. The story is often in what you don’t know, not in what you do know. That’s what you really have to focus on. That’s exactly what you’re saying. What is not in the record? How can I make a story out of that? Where are the leaps? How can I piece things together? I find that just incredibly fascinating.

Rachel: In our day and age, historical fiction, one of the reasons we love it is because we’re going back in and inserting the people that weren’t written about at the time. We’re writing about women. We’re writing about people of color. We’re writing about the people who didn’t get stories written about them. That’s the other fun part, is just figuring out — in the case of the fire, the fire killed seventy-two people. Fifty-four of them were women. Yet in 1811, there are zero stories written about the women, and so to go back reading between the lines and say, what was going on with those women? How might they have reacted to this?

Zibby: It’s almost not a surprise that you wrote this during the pandemic because the escalation of emotion required to insert yourself in this scene in every aspect, it’s like you’ve literally put yourself in a burning building. That’s what you’ve done over and over again. How do I get out of here? It’s like watching all of our fears play out in how you delved into this. The tension of even the — now it’s getting dark. It’s getting smoky and hard to breathe. This person can’t see. It’s like, oh, my gosh.

Rachel: I am sure that all of my pandemic anxiety went into this book. Also, it’s funny, people said one of the things they like about the book is the chapters are really short. I was writing this book when I had three kids at home for eighteen months. They never went to school. My husband and I would swap places. He would do a little homeschooling. I would go up to the office. No wonder the chapters are short. I only had these little chunks of time to write it. That’s kind of half in jest, but I think there are these real ramifications. I’m interested from your perspective. You talk to authors all day. Now you’re reading all the books that came out of the pandemic. I’m sure you’re seeing lots of themes.

Zibby: I am, yes.

Rachel: I was writing this book in the middle of the pandemic, but I was also writing this book in Richmond, Virginia, in the summer and fall of 2020 when we also had a lot of amazing, incredible protests. The monuments in Richmond came down that summer. We were able to get this front-row seat to that and participate in it. Especially when I think about Gilbert and Cecily’s stories, I was in this wonderful position to be able to see Richmond elevate itself. It was two hundred years in the making or three hundred years in the making. It all went into the book.

Zibby: Wow. Ultimately, what the book is showing us, which, of course, we all need reminders of, apparently, but we are all the same, people trying to live our lives and make sense of it and get from one place to another and just make it through. At its core, it doesn’t matter if you’re seated at the very top or you’re seated underneath. It almost reminded me of Titanic. I’m sure people have compared it to that, but I feel like this is a brilliant insight of my own. I’m going to go with it. There were the people dining in black tie. Then there were the people in steerage. What happened when the water started filling up? Where did you want to be? How did you handle it? All the different viewpoints from the same ship, I feel like it’s the same thing. It’s just a different catastrophe.

Rachel: Yes. I was very interested in how different members of the community were able to, number one, escape the theater and physically save themselves, but then also pick up the pieces and move forward and process the event and all the things that came after. It’s interesting, both my novels — Florence Adler Swims Forever was also an aftermath story, but it was a family grieving the loss of a daughter, and so looking at how all of these people who were connected to her grieved that loss. Then I moved forward to this book, and I’m looking at this whole community and how they’re grieving this gigantic loss. There are a lot of connections that came out of writing it.

Zibby: Also, we get some history too. I feel like I learned. I didn’t know about the fire. I’d never even heard of it. I feel like I’ve only really heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. People talk about that all the time. Why? Why that one? I know, obviously, a lot of people perished. It’s awful.

Rachel: We were not very good at keeping theaters from burning in prior centuries. When I started reading about all the pyrotechnics, it’s no surprise that theaters burned down. You’ve got fourteen-year-old stagehands back there running the show. They’re dealing with live flames. Of course, anything can go wrong. Anything did.

Zibby: Of course, it’s not like they’re just using the lit chandeliers for effect. This is literally how they were seeing.

Rachel: Right, that’s the lighting.

Zibby: Otherwise, it would be dark. There were no lights.

Rachel: I remember reading something in the research that was about the sound that the chandeliers made. If you’re in the audience and it’s quiet, you could hear the wax dripping onto the floor. I just thought that was such an interesting image. I hadn’t thought of the audio of that. It’s a different world going to the theater.

Zibby: You think they could’ve put some sort of a tray. Even those tall candles now, taper candles, they have those little glass round things on the bottom.

Rachel: There was wax dripping everywhere.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. People would have to wear hats. What are some of the main messages to you after going through the intensity of reenacting this scene and figuring it out from your very logical side of your brain and all the intersecting timelines and all of that? What did you take away from this whole thing? What are some of the main messages, you feel like?

Rachel: There are some pretty big messages about equality and wanting to give everyone a fair shake and the ability to not just save themselves from a burning building, but have a good life. There’s a lot there, particularly as you look at the intersecting storylines. We’re looking not just at the lives of enslaved people in Richmond, but also women and a lot of people who just weren’t able to tell their stories and weren’t able to advocate for themselves in the same way. I was really interested in pursuing that path, that avenue as I was writing, thinking about, what is it like if you can’t tell your story? If you notice in the world around you that things aren’t fair but there’s nothing you can do about it, I spent a lot of time thinking about that as I was writing. One of the things I thought a lot about was, yeah, we’ve made a lot of progress, of course, in the course of two hundred and something years, but there are also some institutions and practices that are in play today that you can trace back directly to what was happening even two hundred years ago. When we look at something like policing now as opposed to what was happening to Gilbert and some of his contemporaries in the book, there are direct lines you can draw. Those are some of the big thoughts I was having, along with just trying to keep my plot from tanking itself.

Zibby: It’s hard to have a plot tank in the most dramatic thing ever. You are inherently on edge and engaged and empathetic. I guess you could’ve made it bad, but you didn’t. I guess there’s a way.

Rachel: Keeping it all straight was the challenge.

Zibby: I love how one of the parting thoughts that you leave the reader with is, yes, this is a horrible event, but for some people — there are a couple undocumented question marks about some of the people who escaped, and that maybe this horrible thing actually was the best thing for some former slaves to escape and find a new life. Where are those families descended from that person? What happened to that person? You just never know.

Rachel: That was an interesting storyline, and the one that I had to do the most imagining. This is Cecily’s storyline. We had some information about a woman who had potentially — historians believe she might have escaped the fire. There’s some documentation that — at the time when they were keeping records of the list of the dead, there are a few enslaved people where there are notes beside their name. They’re not just, oh, these people are dead. It’s like, “Supposed to have perished,” little notes. It brings up the fact that somebody at that time thought that maybe that’s not what had happened. Cecily’s storyline allowed me to experiment with this idea of, what if for someone that fire was the best day of their life because it gave them an opportunity to disappear?

Zibby: Wow, heavy stuff. After you finished writing this and handed it in, sold it, what happened after that? What did you start working on? Is that actually a book? What happened next in ?

Rachel: This one, I sold on contract. I probably had seventy-five pages when I sold it. I kept writing for a long time and panicked that I was never going to finish it because my children, again, were never going to leave my house. Eventually, I did conclude the writing of this novel. Thank god. Now I’m in the early stages of a third novel. I’m excited about it, but it’s like a little baby. It’s like when you’re pregnant and you don’t want to tell anyone the name of the baby because you don’t want them to judge the baby name that you’re going to select. It’s like that. I hope it goes well.

Zibby: I did not tell my family my third kid’s name until she was born. My entire extended family, both sides, staged an intervention about the name and how it was such a bad name.

Rachel: My third child is named Florence, which is, of course, a family name, Florence Adler Swims Forever. I got a little pushback on Florence. I totally support people who want to hide their baby names until the last minute.

Zibby: I ended up changing the name.

Rachel: You didn’t stick to your guns.

Zibby: I didn’t, no. For a couple hours there, she didn’t even have a name. Then I changed it. Then we got home. Because I had told a couple people, we had a chair —

Rachel: — You had some baby blankets and stuff .

Zibby: The one person who I was like, this is what the name is going to be. We had to throw those out. They were probably right, but I was very offended. I was literally on the stretcher. I don’t even know why I’m telling this story.

Rachel: It’s a perfect metaphor because I will undoubtedly tell you about this novel, and then it will totally change. Then I will have to undo it.

Zibby: Don’t tell me. It’s fine. I don’t even want to know. Are you reading anything good?

Rachel: Yes, always. Right now, I’m finishing The Marriage Portrait. I am totally a huge fan of Maggie O’Farrell. That’s been really lovely to read. I always have a couple things going at a time. I’m halfway through Hanna Pylväinen’s The End of Drum-Time.

Zibby: I heard that was amazing.

Rachel: Immensely enjoying that as well.

Zibby: Awesome. That’s so great. How is life with the kids back in school? Everything feel good again?

Rachel: Oh, my god, it’s so glorious. So, so glorious.

Zibby: Don’t you feel like you were training at altitude, and now you can coast?

Rachel: The funny thing is that I — I sold my first novel in 2019. It was going to come out in ’20. I quit my job. I finished an MFA program. I was really preparing to be a full-time novelist. I was like, this is the dream. I’ve finally realized the dream. This is what I’m going to do. Then of course, March 2020, the kids come home, and they never leave. It really wasn’t until the following year that I got them all out of the house and was able to tenderly, gingerly put my foot in the water of, oh, is this what it’s like to work from home and write a novel and do all the things? I’m now at that point where I’m like, okay, this is pretty good.

Zibby: It’s interesting. You put something about your kids. “Thanks for dealing with it when I went to my office all time. Sorry for all the time I was in the office,” or something. I feel like I’ve put something in there too. So sorry about this. Then I’m thinking now I actually want to go through and do an acknowledgment study if I had more time, which I don’t, but analyzing what men put in acknowledgments versus women. No man is going to be like, sorry, kids, that I had to go into my office and be a famous author. They would never say that.

Rachel: I know. You know what? I did think of it as I was writing it. I was like, is this weird that I’m apologizing for this? Then I also do feel like, I’m so sorry I didn’t really hang out with you that much.

Zibby: I feel bad too.

Rachel: The month before the book was due, it was December. It was the holidays. You should’ve been hanging out with your family constantly. It was the combination of, it was also when COVID was at its peak with the airlines. All the flights got canceled. My husband and kids took off for Florida. I was going to fly down for three days. They were going for ten or something. It was like, I can only give three because I’m under deadline. Then my flight got canceled. I’m like, okay, I’m not rescheduling. I’m just not coming. I had too much to write. It ended up being a complete godsend because I was writing as they were pulling the Word document away from me. That December, I just sat in my pajamas on the couch while my kids were in Florida having the time of their lives. They didn’t see me. The things we do for literature.

Zibby: Yet they were okay.

Rachel: They were okay.

Zibby: It’s good to remember. All this guilt, it was ten days, and look what you did.

Rachel: I like to think I’m modeling something good for them. I don’t know.

Zibby: Yes, totally. You had a business trip. It’s fine.

Rachel: Right. It was like a business trip, but I stayed home and they left.

Zibby: Business staycation. I totally see why you wrote it. Cultural norms, blah, blah, blah, and all of the pulls with the kids. Anyway, The House Is on Fire, so exciting. Really well-done. You’re so smart, Rachel. The way you write, you’re just so smart. I love it. You could be a history professor if you wanted.

Rachel: Ha! No. You know why I can’t? Because I don’t like citations. I don’t want to have to do footnotes and stuff.

Zibby: All right, fine. You’d need a good assistant or something.

Rachel: As soon as you tell me I have to do it in MLA or whatever, I lose all interest.

Zibby: It’s almost like — I’m sorry I keep saying like my last sentence. There’s this whole series for kids called I Survived…blah, blah, blah. I feel like this is I Survived for grown-ups.

Rachel: I may have my publicist grab that as a blurb, I Survived for grown-ups.

Zibby: Go ahead. You should have that author do a quote. You could share the brand. A brand extension. Okay, goodbye. Have a great day.

Rachel: Thank you.

Zibby: I can’t wait to hear what you survive next. Bye.

Rachel Beanland, THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE

THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE by Rachel Beanland

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