Elissa Wald's Holding Fire Is a Very Different Novel Today than It Was a Few Weeks Ago
Elissa Wald's second book, Holding Fire (Context Books, 275 pages, $24.95), is a very different novel today than it was a few weeks ago. When I read it a few weeks ago, I thought it mildly interesting that Wald had become so enthralled with firemen that she would spend roughly six years researching a novel about them and their unique culture of heroism and public service.
That was a few weeks ago. Then the World Trade Center massacre happened, and now we all share Wald's admiration for the FDNY.
And her grief. When I spoke with her last week, she was still in mourning for her many firefighter friends who perished on Sept. 11. And one firefighter in particular: Capt. Patrick Brown, with whom she was very close, and whom she credits with largely inspiring the book. Brown was a real-life hero firefighter, well known and highly regarded around the city. He was going on 49 when he died.
Holding Fire is quite a different book from Wald's first one, Meeting the Master, a collection of stories and poems about being a sexual submissive, which she self-published in 1995. (It was later commercially reissued.) Holding Fire is a romantic novel but with a hard edge of reality and an inherent melancholy, deftly weaving together stories of a number of relationships within FDNY culture?among older, crusty fire chiefs and the younger, passionate firemen who work for them; wives and girlfriends; straights and gays. At the center is an heroic fireman in his 40s and a pretty younger woman, a writer who pays the bills through exotic dancing, who becomes his wife and then struggles to maintain their fiercely unstable marriage. Knowing what I do about Wald, I see some unmistakable autobiographical strains in these characters, though she chooses not to identify any one of them with specific actual people.
Wald came by my office last Tuesday looking exhausted, draped in a large, battered FDNY t-shirt that she wore like a mourning outfit. She'd been going to Brown's firehouse, Ladder 3 off Union Square, every day for a week. "That has probably been the best part of my day, with these men," she told me. "They bring me in the back and talk with me, cry with me, try to feed me. That's been the single most comforting part of my day. It's good to be around other people who knew him and loved and respected him. I've also talked to his family, talked to some of his friends. I've called the hotline. In the first few days it was every two hours, in the last few days it's gone to every 12 hours, because they just don't have anything new to say."
Of Brown she says, "We were all devastated when we found out he was missing, but none of us were surprised. There was nowhere else for him to be. And I've been telling myself that had he survived and buried 350 of his men, it would've killed him anyway. He would've wanted to go out like this. He died doing what he lived to do and loved to do. And that has given me a lot of comfort. In some ways, my grief is very selfish. I really already miss him so much, and the idea that I'll never see him or talk to him is so hard to fathom still."
She tells me she believes Brown "will live on through the book. And it will immortalize him and celebrate his life and honor his life and his choices. One of the main themes in the book is the tension between personal priorities and firefighting. Because there's a certain kind of fireman who gives everything to firefighting. I think it's fair to say that the people who put their lives at risk on a daily basis tend to have priorities that outweigh the rest of their lives."
She references the central characters of her book. "The fireman's wife wants him to become a chief so that he'll be standing outside fires directing the action, and that's impossible for him. He has no interest in that kind of promotion, because his whole life is fighting fire. Really, when push comes to shove, firefighting remains the most important priority for him. Ultimately the book is a celebration, an affirmation, and it honors those choices, even if it isn't what the women in the book would've wanted. Even if he wasn't making the choices she would've wanted him to make. There's still the utmost respect and tribute paid to those choices. Because they have a lot of integrity and beauty in their own right."
Wald and Brown met at a firemen's benefit. "I was dating a different fireman at the time, whom I just happened to meet in front of his firehouse. Most women have an unapologetic fascination with firemen. I think most people do. Most men can remember wanting to be a fireman when they grew up?and to women, they're the quintessential, archetypal hero, protector, knight in shining armor, the person who is going to risk his life to save you. In writing the book it was kind of amazing to me that there's so much material on police culture, there's tons of cop books and cop movies?and despite the intense public fascination with firemen, that firefighting mystique has not really been penetrated in literature. There's been one movie and there's been a few nonfiction accounts. There's been very little fiction."
Why does she think that is?
"I think the firemen are a closed-mouth group of people. The type of personality that becomes a fireman is very different from the type that becomes a policeman, even though people tend to put them together. Without taking anything away from cops, firemen are not motivated by petty power?they're not gonna get to pull guns on the rest of the world or pull rank on the rest of the world. They're not motivated by money, because the money is not what it should be, considering how dangerous and hazardous?I mean, even if a fireman isn't killed in a fire, they're breathing in smoke and carbon monoxide all the time. A lot of them really have damaged eyes, damaged skin, they get lung cancer. They both stay youthful longer than other men, and they also age, in some ways, harder than other men.
"So it's not the money. And they certainly don't have the societal prestige of, say, doctors. Doctors are lifesavers too, but doctors make a lot of money and they have a lot of societal prestige. Firefighting is the single most noble profession that I can think of. And the compensation really comes from within only. It's the pride and the integrity of their work that is its own reward for most of them. I just can't see what other reward there is. And firemen not only compete fiercely for the chance to become firefighters, but they all really love their work. There's a passion for firefighting. I think a lot of them are addicted to the adrenaline. And they tend to be very good people. I've spent a lot of time in firefighting culture and I've been amazed at just the general goodness. They're good-hearted people who are really riveted on service, community, family."
The fireman who is the central male figure in the book is a complex soul: incredibly courageous, yet incapable of handling an intimate relationship; a former alcoholic; a strong, 110-percent male, yet undone by tormenting memories of his service during the Vietnam War. Wald says the character was based on her years of extensive research into firefighter culture, and represents a very real type.
"I interviewed hundreds of firefighters, and spoke to a lot of firefighters' wives. I found striking parallels in a lot of cases. I found that the extremely gung-ho, risk-taking, most decorated firemen all tended to be [Vietnam] veterans, they all tended to have intimacy issues, they tended to be never married or divorced, they tended to have alcohol either in their present or their past, and they tended to have made this what their life was about. That wasn't every type of fireman?but I would say there was a syndrome of a specific type of fireman that I was very interested in capturing."
What about their wives?
"I believe that firemen's wives are doing a very noble job as well. These women are living every day, in a way that other wives aren't, with the knowledge that their husband may not come home, that the father of their children might not come home. They sign on to that when they sign that marriage contract, and I think there's a part of every fireman's wife that knows that to some extent their husband belongs to them, but to another extent he belongs to a brotherhood so tight that he's ready to make the 'supreme sacrifice,' as they call it, for that. One really nice thing is that when a fireman dies, the fire department really takes care of the family in many, many ways. Emotionally and psychologically as well as financially. I've observed the men in the firehouse become surrogate fathers, they'll often go over and do whatever work the woman needs done on her yard. There's a sense that 'You're our own and we're gonna take care of you as our own, because our brother's no longer here.'"
When I ask Wald how she thinks the FDNY is coping with its catastrophic loss of Sept. 11, she compares it to sitting shiva. "People sit shiva, and neighbors come and family comes, and they reminisce about the people they've lost. In a way that alleviates some of the grief. I think that [surviving firemen] are incredibly broken up about it, but just the flowers and the cards and posters and gratitude and the food?this tremendous gratitude and worship coming from the community?I think that has to be a comfort to them." She's concerned about the point when "the excitement dies down but the pain is still there," and also about the loss of so many of the FDNY's most experienced leaders. "The younger firemen were not done learning from these guys. Some of the guys have said [Capt. Brown] wasn't done imparting all that he had to show them and tell them. Day in and day out, in the weeks and months to come, they're gonna feel that loss on a very regular basis. It's gonna stay hard. It's hard now. And it's gonna stay hard."
Holding Fire is just now hitting the bookstores?the timing a huge quirk of fate that Wald agrees is "very eerie." It's certainly a novel that will be read differently now than it would have been before the events of Sept. 11 thrust it into such an unthinkable new context.
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