Sunday, July 9, 2023

Q&A with Rachel Beanland



Rachel Beanland is the author of the new historical novel The House Is on Fire. She also has written the novel Florence Adler Swims Forever. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write The House Is on Fire?


A: The inspiration for this book came from a couple different places. I had learned about the story of the Richmond theater fire when I first moved to Richmond, back in 2007, and had always been fascinated by it.


But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I began thinking about how I might turn the events of December 26, 1811 into a novel.


My first novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever, was about to be published, and while I had originally been interested in writing a second novel that was set further afield, it suddenly felt impractical to write anything that would require a lot of travel.


Because the Richmond theater fire happened in my own backyard, it felt like the right time to write that story.


Q: Your characters are based on actual historical figures--what did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the book?


A: I do a ton of research to write my novels, and I always want to stay true to the historical record, whenever I possibly can. I use the facts as my scaffolding, then I build the story by focusing on what we don’t know, and possibly will never know, about what happened.


Even when I’m dealing with the distant past, I try to remember that the characters I’m writing are people, and that people—regardless of time period—have wants and needs, likes and dislikes, etc.


If you go into it with that approach, it’s not hard to write fiction that comes off believable and true.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Despite the fact that many people today don’t know about the Richmond theater fire, it’s actually an event that has (thankfully!) been well documented and researched.


Back in 2012, Meredith Henne Baker published an incredible history of the fire called The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America’s First Great Disaster, and in Richmond we’ve got lots of primary source material at the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, and the Valentine Museum.


For me the biggest surprise was the fact that, in the aftermath of the blaze, many people behaved very, very badly.


Q: The NPR review of the book, by Gabino Iglesias, says, in part, “While much research went into this historical novel, the biggest challenge Beanland had was navigating the rampant racism and misogyny of the times, and she pulled it off with flying colors.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: One of the biggest gifts a writer can receive is to have their work reviewed by someone who really sees what it was they were trying to do.


Because the Richmond theater fire occurred in Virginia in 1811, because the fire affected both white and black theater goers, and because enslaved people were initially blamed for starting the blaze, I always knew that at some level, this book would wind up touching issues of race. The same goes for gender, but for different reasons of course.


I didn’t want to shy away from writing the hard stuff, but I wanted to do it with as much care as possible, and to have Gabino Iglesias recognize that meant a lot.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: It’s too soon to say, but I promise I’m hard at work on something. :-)


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Rachel Beanland.

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