Dragons are ubiquitous, and as a result, it can be difficult for a writer to find a new way to present them. Sean Grigsby, a fellow west Tennessean, has found a great approach: he combines dragons with his own experiences as a firefighter in his first novel, Smoke Eaters. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of it, and Sean was kind enough to answer some questions about it.
Your protagonist is no spring chicken; in fact, he’s on the verge of retirement when the story starts. Why did you go this route instead of the more typical handsome young hero?
The short answer is: it’s been done to death. I wanted to do something different.
I also hadn’t seen an older protagonist since Old Man’s War. When I came up with the idea for the book, I myself was back in fire academy again, even though I had gone through it five years before. I’d moved to a bigger city department and, although I had all the credentials, I had to prove myself all over again because that’s what they required. For Smoke Eaters, I wanted to see how someone with a full career behind him, and experience as an officer, would deal with having to start all over as a rookie. It created a lot of funny moments. Brannigan takes no crap.
Do you consider Smoke Eaters fantasy, or science fiction?
Both! You could call it future fantasy or science fantasy if you had to put a label on it.
I couldn’t live in a world where I could only choose vanilla or chocolate when I could have swirl. And look at all the zany things Ben & Jerry’s comes up with. I’m very eclectic in my reading, and I love mixing genres and tropes together in my writing. I’m a total pantser and, with Smoke Eaters, it was even more so. I really let my imagination take the reins.
The premise of firefighters vs. dragons was established, but I placed it in the future for a few reasons. The awesome laser weapons and power suits in Smoke Eaters are much better tools for fighting dragons than what I have on my fire truck right now. The robots, besides being a physical threat, are also taking everyone’s jobs and I liked examining that. There are people today who believe this is a real possibility. Setting it in the future opened up a whole lot of fun and crazy technology to sprinkle throughout, especially when the smokies go to Canada. Also, Ray Bradbury is someone I look up to as a writer and he had his vision of firefighters in the future. Smoke Eaters is mine.
The wraiths were a complete surprise, even though I open with one floating over the ashen wastes of Ohio. I saw this image in my mind and I just went with it. But of course, the dragons are the stars of the show.
What fictional dragons were your favorites?
Smaug has always been an awesome villain to me. Dragons are dangerous enough as it is. Add sentience and speech, and they’re nearly unstoppable.
How did you come up with your conception of dragons?
A lot of fantasy books show dragons to be friends, pets, or transportation. I didn’t want to do that. My dragons are mean, terrible bastards and range in size, shape, and deadly attacks like toxic gas and electric shock. They’re animals for sure, but they’re driven by a desire to burn, eat, and mate with abandon. They’ve been hibernating underground for centuries, sort of like cicadas, and now they’re back, burrowing up from the ground and burning things down to make their ash heaps and lay their eggs.
It’s been seven years since E-Day, the day the first dragons emerged, but people are still getting used to living with the threat. The dragons are a metaphor for fire, and in my own profession, every fire is different. It’s one of the aspects I love about being a firefighter, but it also makes it very important to be vigilant for the unexpected.
My dragons throw a ton of unexpected at Brannigan and the other smoke eaters.
Outside of your own book, of course, what’s your favorite depiction of fictional firefighters?
Rescue Me is definitely my favorite, and probably the most accurate. We’re still human beings, and deal with a lot personal issues on top of all the terrible things we see on the job. Plus, they got the firehouse humor right.
Backdraft, while being one of my favorite movies as a kid, gets a lot wrong. It’s insane. No, one cannot see clearly in a structure fire. It’s filled with dark smoke. And I’m all for attacking a fire aggressively, but holy hell did they do some dumb things that would get anybody killed within seconds. But that’s Hollywood.
Ladder 49 is okay, and pretty accurate. But damn, it’s sad.
Chicago Fire is probably my least favorite. Very inaccurate, and I want to make it clear that we do not have sex with our significant others or do drugs while at the firehouse. That’s a quick trip out the door. We have to be professional.
What was your favorite real-life firefighting detail that you slipped into the story?
The fire science is all true to fact.
One recent reviewer said a favorite scene was when the smoke eaters get a false call for what is clearly not a dragon. I’ve responded to really dumb non-emergencies. A lot of it is just annoying, but every once in a while, they are some of the funniest and strangest experiences of my life.
The biggest detail from my real-life experience is the camaraderie and firehouse humor. I used a few lines I’ve heard people say around the job. We also really call each other “dub” like Brannigan and his firefighters do. I have no idea where the term of endearment came from. I heard that my fire brothers and sisters tracked down the oldest living retired firefighter at our department and he said that the term had been around long before him.
The fire service is big on tradition, and sometimes we have no idea where the traditions came from.
Smoke Eaters is available March 6 from Angry Robot Books. You can pick it up from all the usual suspects.