Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Q&A with Sarah Ruiz-Grossman


Sarah Ruiz-Grossman is the author of the new novel A Fire So Wild. A former reporter at HuffPost, she lives in California.


Q: What inspired you to write A Fire So Wild, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: When I started writing A Fire So Wild, I had been working for years as a reporter for HuffPost in the San Francisco Bay Area, covering the climate crisis and other social justice issues.


The first weekend that my partner and I moved to the Bay from my hometown of New York in 2017, the city underwent a historic heat wave with temperatures reaching a previously unheard-of 100 degrees.


A few weeks later, a devastating wildfire tore through Sonoma and Napa counties just north of us, destroying thousands of homes and killing dozens of people.


I drove up the next day to cover the story and came upon a neighborhood entirely turned to ash. I interviewed people sifting through still-hot scraps for what was left of their lives. “Everything that we had is charcoal,” one woman told me.


That was the first seed of what would later become this novel. 


Over the years, I covered the aftermath of other fires, including in Paradise the following November, the deadliest blaze in state history.


Living in the Bay, we hadn’t had to evacuate from a fire ourselves, but we’d stayed up nights with our go-bag ready, monitoring moving flames nearby, and lived through weeks of ash-filled air, which made it impossible to keep our windows open, all while record heat made it torturous to keep them shut.


Amid the pandemic, my partner and I moved into the upstairs apartment of a house in the Berkeley hills, and a couple weeks in, we woke up to blood-orange skies from a far-off fire.


I started writing this novel soon after, with the cast of characters coming quickly based on survivors I’d had the honor of speaking with for my reporting, as well as what I’d witnessed as a resident of the Bay, including the man-made housing crisis pushing more and more people into homelessness.


It all coalesced into one idea: Three families living in Berkeley. One wealthier couple in a house perched up in the hills. Another family in affordable housing down in the flats. And two people living in their van by the shore. A wildfire slowly growing in the distance. 


Q: As you mentioned, the novel is set in Berkeley--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: This novel is a love letter to California, and specifically to the Bay Area, which I had the privilege of calling home for five years. I was living in Berkeley as I wrote and the city, as well as its lush nature, became characters of their own.


I wrote during the peak of the pandemic, working on the book by night and as a reporter by day, and my partner and I were isolating from others.


The trails, trees and birds of Tilden Regional Park became a refuge for me, and their solace, as well as the threat to their continued existence due to the greed-fueled climate crisis, was threaded through every page of the book.


For my work as a journalist, I had the chance to interview unhoused people and community advocates who spoke to me of the lack of affordable housing in the Bay, the rapid development pushing long-standing residents and communities out, and the dangerous exposure that unhoused people and outdoor workers faced amid worsening heat and smoky air.


This darker underbelly of Berkeley, a city that prides itself on its progressive politics, became a central focal point of the book: when we love a place, we hold it to account. 


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I chose the book’s title fairly early on in the writing process.


A Fire So Wild felt fitting not only because it contained the central organizing concept of the book — an oncoming wildfire — but also nodded to the unprecedented nature of these climate events that shock and upend our idea of what is normal year after year.


It also allowed for fires and wildness that were not only literal: what are the blazes lit in our characters’ hearts by the events of the book; what are the wilds they are pushed to explore? 


Q: The writer Charlotte McConaghy said of the book, “A complex dissection of the impacts of climate change, with an array of characters who feel true and affecting, A Fire So Wild tackles not only a terrifying natural disaster, but the scorching inequality of the aftermath, and demands that we don't look away.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m so grateful to Charlotte for her generous words — they mean a lot to me especially given how much I love her books, Migrations and Once There Were Wolves, which delve into the dire consequences of the climate crisis for both humans and animals.


Her reading translates my vision for this book and what I hoped it would accomplish: that readers ask themselves not just about the seeming inevitability of the next climate disaster they could face, but also how we respond as individuals and communities, and whether we really want to look at our complicity in the stark inequalities that lead to a fire (or flood or storm), and remain long after it has passed.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on another novel, unrelated to this one. I am not ready to share too many details just yet, but similarly to this one, it questions how we make meaning of the beautiful, tragic gift of our short existence on this earth, and how we reckon with the complexities of the world we created and the difficulty of our relationships to one another. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I am so grateful for the opportunity to share this book with readers.


If you are looking for ways to support the fight against the climate and housing crises in the Bay, here are a few local organizations you can join me in donating to: Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Berkeley’s Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center, and the East Oakland Collective. Thank you so much.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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