Earl Emerson: Writing Fire
Excerpts from the interview by Lynn Kaczmarek in the June/July 2002 issue of Mystery News
I got hold of Earl Emerson at 8:30 on a Sunday morning in May. He had just returned from a call -- he and his crew had to think their way through a tricky one. Somebody had locked themselves inside their apartment. "Well, how about you give us your key; we'll open the door and let you out?" Earl Emerson is a Lieutenant on the Seattle Fire Department, where he's been stationed for the last 16 years. Earl Emerson is also a fine mystery writer. His Thomas Black private investigator series and Mac Fontana arson investigator series together total sixteen books. His new stand-alone thriller, Vertical Burn, hit the bookstores in May. And from what I can tell, he thinks his way through writing as well.
"Well, I learned the quiet part first," says Emerson when I asked him about what came first, firefighting or writing. "Then when I got in the fire department...the first couple years it was really tough because I'd be home writing for two days on my off time and I'd come in and everybody's yelling, and everything was going on, and there was all this hoo-rah about the fire they had last night, and we gotta get this ready on the rig 'cuz it isn't yet and then the bell would hit and off you'd go...and then I'd go home and I couldn't unwind. I'd sit down by the computer and I'm bouncing off the walls. It took me a couple of years before I figured out how to switch my focus. The easiest switch is to come [to the fire house] because I love this place; I love these guys Iwork with...I really love this place."
Vertical Burn is a drop-dead, nail-biting, sweaty-palms thriller. The fire scenes alone are worth the price of admission. But Vertical Burn doesn't stop there, the insight into the heart of a firefighter is fresh and new. John Finney is a fireman, the driver of an aerial ladder truck in the Seattle Fire Department. And after the opening scenes of the book, a fire in a huge firehouse, Finney is in a very bad place -- his crew doesn't trust him. And after a few questionable fires, Finney begins to distrust his crew.
Two more stand-alone thrillers also set in the firefighting culture will follow Vertical Burn. The second, already in the can, will be out in the Spring of 2003.
The process of writing the thrillers has been a difficult one for Earl Emerson. Like starting all over again. "I think I'm a little more sure-footed in the second one and I'm thinking about the third one and am sort of half-way through the planning process. And now I feel like I'm back to where I was with mysteries where I really felt I had control of all of the necessary elements."
Earl Emerson has been writing for 34 years, fighting fire for 24. And it was hard to tell, during our conversation that Sunday morning, which one was more important to him. Although he describes his writing as his passion, it is with an equal, maybe even greater, sense of passion that he spoke of firefighting.
Read the complete interview in the June/July 2002 issue of Mystery News