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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sean Grigsby and Smoke Eaters

It was a real pleasure to have Sean Grigsby on the show! He's the author of Smoke Eaters, one of the most high-concept novel ideas I've encountered. It's basically "firefighters versus dragons." I was eager to hear how, as a firefighter himself, he'd approached depicting the firefighting realistically and not just on the basis of speculation. Sean told us he was surprised how many internet references to firefighters are actually romance- or erotic-leaning, and assured everyone listening that that's not what Smoke Eaters is all about. He also remarked that there are an astonishing number of stories involving firefighters who turn into dragons. The whole shirtless thing doesn't make a lot of sense when you're trying to protect yourself from fire.

Sean told us he's been a professional firefighter for eight years. He didn't get into it via volunteer fighting, but was fortunate enough to be paid right away. He started out working in a small town in Arkansas, and then from there moved to a department in Little Rock.

The Smoke Eaters of the title are people who have the ability to breathe smoke, even dragon smoke, like air. They have high heat resistance, though they can still catch on fire if the fire touches them.

Sean told us he came up with the idea while going through Fire Academy for the second time when he moved departments to the big city. He says, "My writer mind is always working." The instructor at the Fire Academy referred to firefighters as "modern-day knights," which put him on to the idea.

In the book, Sean asks, what would it be like for someone at the end of his career to have to give up retirement because of dragons? The main character in the book, Cole Brannigan, is on his very last fire call, and all is going smoothly until a dragon shows up in the basement of the building.

Sean chose the name Cole because it sounds like "coal," and the name Brannigan because Francis Brannigan wrote the book on fire and architecture. Most deaths in fires are caused by building collapse. They say you are supposed to know your enemy, but when you are fighting fire, your enemy is at least as much the building as it is the fire itself. After Smoke Eaters came out, Sean was contacted by the family of Francis Brannigan, asking whether the main character had been named after their relative. Sean's first reaction was "don't sue me!" but in fact they were thrilled to see Brannigan referenced.

Firefighters often refer to each other as "The Brotherhood." This group does include women firefighters. It's a family, says Sean. Many don't get along, but it's a culture these people have shared since Revolutionary days in the United States.

Smoke Eaters is set in Ohio because the first fire department was in Ohio, and Sean's agent was looking for a book set in Ohio. Part of the process of finishing the book involved toning down the swear words! However, swearing is a big part of firefighter culture. Sean had to find a balance between keeping it real and not kicking people out of the story with too much swearing.

This book is a cross between the real world and fantasy on several parameters. Sean told us that some people have described it as Urban Fantasy, even though he never had any intention of writing to that genre. He leans toward science fiction, but not hard science fiction. "I really wanted to mix things up," he said. He set it in the future because he wanted the characters to have an easier time fighting the dragons by using things like lasers and laser swords and foam.

Perhaps this is the inception of the #Foampunk genre...

The book deals with questions of PTSD and other health issues faced by firefighters. Firefighters have a high rate of cancer because of exposure to toxins in smoke. There is a lot of interesting realism built in.

I asked Sean about the wraiths that appear in the story, and when he had the idea for them. He said he saw them in his head before he started writing the book: an ashen landscape with a terrifying ghost floating across the wastes. He decided they drew dragons to certain areas. When a dragon kills someone, it creates a wraith, which attracts more dragons to the area so they can mate. In the book, there are wraith-trapping guns invented by Canada.

Sean gave us a few hints about Book 2, telling us it includes a phoenix as well as wraiths and dragons. He told us Skyrim was a big influence on him, particularly the dovahkiin who have the soul of dragons. This is part of the inspiration of the Smoke Eaters. He wants to explore the history of the Smoke Eaters' DNA.

In Smoke Eaters, Cole realizes he's a Smoke Eater when his team is killed and he loses his air mask. That's when he breathes in the smoke and doesn't die. The Smoke Eaters find him, identify his power and take him against his will because there just aren't enough Smoke Eaters for them to be allowed to opt out.

Sean calls this book "not totally post-apocalyptic but close." I think readers will likely feel like it's thoroughly post-apocalyptic.

In the end, Cole does feel an inner calling to the job he's been forcibly recruited to.

Sean says he likes putting mystery aspects in all of his books. In Smoke Eaters, it's the question of why dragons are appearing more and more often.

I asked Sean to give us more detail on the specific experiences he'd had that he incorporated into the book. He said that he really brought in the camaraderie, and sometimes brought in specific things he's heard people say, like "That's not worth two dead flies." He wrote in a scenario in which a woman overreacted to a turtle in a bathroom to reflect weird non-emergency 9-1-1 calls. He says firefighters who have read the book have given him their vote of confidence.

In the technical areas, the book is quite precise. Sean considers the book science fiction, and brought in a lot of fire science. He checked his sources. He told us about The Art of Reading Smoke by David Dodson. You can learn a lot about what a fire will do by looking at the volume, velocity, density, and color of smoke. The eye is drawn to flame, but especially in a structure fire, smoke is more informative. It tells you what the fire is doing, and what it's about to do. If you get thick black smoke, it might mean you're about to get flashover, which means that everything in the space will reach ignition at the same moment... including you, if you are in the room.

Sean says he gets swamped with fire questions. He does like feeling useful to his author community. He also made a connection with Scott Lynch, who was a volunteer firefighter. When Scott followed Sean back on Twitter he thought, "this is the greatest day of my life." Sean admits, "I snoop on Twitter." He likes to see what people are saying about his book. He likes when people say it's like a better Reign of Fire, because he loved Reign of Fire and had the video game.

On June 4th next year, the sequel Ash Kickers will come out. He was worried about missing his deadline, but he turned the manuscript in before Worldcon. He says the ending of the book is divisive.

Sean also has another book out, Daughters of Forgotten Light. (There is no "the" in the title.) The idea for that book popped into his head when he was out running. In the far future, Earth has brought on a new ice age, and enviroshields have been put up to keep the cold at bay. The United Continent of North America has technology that others want. The government decides to allow people to sell their children either to the military or to a prison planet called Oubliette. This was a name he picked up from the movie Labyrinth.

On this prison planet, there are three motorcycle gangs: the Daughters of Forgotten Light, the Ons coalition, and the Amazons (who are cannibals). People who live there are generally called Dwellers. There is a fragile truce between the gang when a new shipment of supplies arrives which includes a baby. Who gets the baby? Sean says it's very grindhouse with a late 70's-early 80's Escape from New York vibe.

Sean says he was trying to get away from the soft-core porn aspect of many women in prison films. He wanted real people with bigger concerns.

In all of his books, Sean portrays as much diversity as possible. He doesn't treat it like window dressing because he says "this is reality." Sean said his mom told him, "All the characters are women? I don't think it's going to get published." We're glad she was wrong. Sean says there are plenty of books where the characters are 99% men, so "why can't I do that with women?" He says there is a lot of his own personality in Lena. Our discussant Paul agreed that she is "deeply described." He compared the book to the movie Doomsday.

The major motivator for people in this book is hunger, since they have no way to get regular food. They receive shipments of a nourishing mono-food called "mana" that tastes terrible. Some of Sisters is very gruesome. "I get visceral on some things," Sean says, but he could not show violence against children.

I asked Sean if there was a climate on Oubliette. The prison colony has a fabricated atmosphere contained by a force called "The Veil." There is a hyperdrive gate where all shipments come in. He thinks of it like a snow globe, or like a plate with a dish cover. It's invisible until a shipment arrives. The colony also has a core which maintains their air and processes waste, etc. It has an interesting origin - this was a city in space that the rich had built for themselves. It was meant to be a refuge for them and keep people out, but instead it was seized by the government and used to keep people in.

They use "Sheila" as a term of endearment. Sean explained that he lived in Australia for six months.

A lot of his villains are politicians. The mayor of Parthenon City in Smoke Eaters wants to replace people like police and firefighters with robots.

Sean is also writing a new book called Robots Don't cry, a 1940's style crime noir with a city divided into the robot side and the human side. The plot begins when a human is found dead in the robot half of the city of Vomisa (Asimov backwards!). He's currently in edits with this book and has yet to send it to his agent.

Many thanks to Sean for coming on the show! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, October 31 to talk about Travel and Time. I hope you can join us!



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