The Smoke Jumper

Interview

The following is a conversation with Nicholas Evans about The Smoke Jumper.

Q: You’re English … but you don’t write “English” novels. What is it that draws you to writing about the American West?
A: This is my third novel, and the third in which the action (though not all of it) takes place in Montana. A lot of people find it odd that an English guy should be writing about the American West. The truth is I have always been obsessed with the place. Long before I got a chance to travel there, the images of that landscape had a great influence on me. When I was quite young my parents moved way out in the English countryside, a long way from all my friends, so I spent a lot of time on my own, most of it playing cowboys and indians. I used to watch all those great old TV western series – Wagon Train, Rawhide, Hawkeye and The Last of the Mohicans. I was also an avid reader and devoured westerns. The first writer that I really connected with was Jack London. His books completely captivated me. It wasn’t until my twenties that I first got the chance to visit the American West and when I did, of course, I realized that most of those TV westerns had been shot on the back lot of some LA studio. The real countryside was so much bigger and more dramatic. But it wasn’t until I was researching The Horse Whisperer that I got to go to Montana. It felt like coming home. Now of course I have a lot of friends there and it has become the place that I yearn to be in.

Q: What was the inspiration for your new novel, The Smoke Jumper?
A: I had the idea for The Smoke Jumper while I was researching The Loop. I know the exact date-April 17, 1996 – because I got a speeding ticket! I was driving down from Montana’s Nine Mile Valley toward Missoula after a weekend of wolf watching with a wolf biologist friend. By the road I saw this road sign, saying “Smoke Jumpers” and I thought “what’s that?” Just then, as I looked at the sign, I saw a police car had stopped in front of me and I went past him too fast, almost took his mirror off. He came after me and stopped me and I played the dumb Brit and he let me off with a warning. I have the ticket he gave me framed. It says I made an “Improper Pass.” I went on to discover what a smoke jumper was, and with the help of two jumpers in particular whom I thank in the book, I learned about their work. And a story began to take shape, starting with this central character, a smoke jumper, someone who braves the flames for something that he wants, something he must have. It’s not really a story about fire fighting. The fire in the story is more of a metaphor, something the characters must pass through to become fulfilled. I became interested in the whole notion of fire; how it harms and heals, purges and cleans, brands and cauterizes and clears the way for life to be reborn. In the west there are even trees that can only reproduce in the extreme heat of a forest fire.

Q: What is The Smoke Jumper about?
A: The Smoke Jumper is about many things, but centrally for me, it’s about choice, and the choice that many of us have to make in our lives between passion and loyalty. When you make the choice, as most of us must at some point in our lives, do you choose to walk through fire to get your heart’s desire or do you stay in place, because of honor or friendship or a commitment you’ve made? One always has to calculate, am I going to be so badly burned by this journey through the flames that it’s not worth doing it? Will there be anything left of me? It is sometimes safer and more honorable not to brave the flames. But for some there is no choice; they are impelled to make that journey. So The Smoke Jumper is about a triangle: two men, best friends – Ed and Connor – and a woman, Julia, who is Ed’s girlfriend. Ed and Connor spend their summers working as smoke jumpers and in the summer that the story starts, Julia joins them in Montana. She gets a job as a counselor with a youth program that takes troubled teens to the wilderness to learn about themselves. These three people care very deeply for each other and in one shattering moment, at the height of a wildfire when everything goes horribly wrong, they have to make choices that will change the course of their lives forever. Now that The Smoke Jumper is completed, I realize that its driving inspiration was about a big decision that I had to make in my own life about whether to brave the flames or not. It all flowed from that.

Q: You’ve written before on an epic scale in both prior novels. What was your plan for The Smoke Jumper, and does it differ in any way?
A: I had this intention for The Smoke Jumper that it should be a big story. The Horse Whisperer and The Loop were big, too, but this was to be on a bigger scale. When I worked at documentary filmmaking, I made a film about David Lean, the great film director who did Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia – everyone knows his great movies. And he became a mentor and a friend and was the one who gave me the courage to step out on my own and start writing, first screenplays and then books. His films had always had a great impact on me – that of intense human drama set against a huge backdrop. I wanted to write a book that had that same kind of epic feel to it that the films of David Lean had: human drama, against a vast landscape – first with The Smoke Jumpers fighting forest fires in Montana, and then the world of frontline photojournalism, life in the warzone.

Q: What kind of research did you have to undertake?
A: When I started the novel, I thought I would have to do much less research than I undertook for The Horse Whisperer or The Loop. Actually, there was about five times more research involved! First, I had to find out about smoke jumping and with the help of two particular smoke jumpers in Missoula, I learned about their life. And while I didn’t actually jump myself – it isn’t a game, or something for amateurs to experience – I spent time talking with them and hanging out with them, getting a feel for their lifestyle and work. I also had to find out about the children’s wilderness program. This program assigns court-order kids to a wilderness program to help them learn empathy, to reinforce a sense of humanity and community. So I spent time with a wonderful organization called Alternative Youth Adventures. But there was more. One of the characters is a diabetic, and becomes blind, so I needed to research both of those areas. And then there’s Connor’s career as a photojournalist; his journey takes him to Bosnia, to Rwanda, and to all kinds of places all over the world where he records human events. I had to research how a photojournalist operates. I knew a little about that because I had worked myself as a television reporter in my early career and had visited a war or two, but there was still a lot I needed to find out about photography. And finally, there are the child soldiers of Africa. Their stories are so shocking and moving and powerful and I spent a lot of time researching them. The third part of the book is set in Africa, in a war where children are abducted and forced to become soldiers. I have been to Africa a few times, once spending a year in southern Senegal, where there is now a war on. I drew on this a lot.

Q: Can you tell us about the writing process? What do you do each day?
A: I think a lot of writers try to surround what they do with this mystique of inspiration or creativity and all that sort of stuff. Actually, I think writing is mainly hard work — like 80% hard work! I know that if I do not get myself sitting down at my computer by at least 9:00 in the morning and work through the day as if it was some sort of factory job, I would get nothing done. I generally go through what I’ve done the previous afternoon; I get up to speed about midday and then I take a little break at lunch and then come back and get started on new stuff. As the afternoon progresses, things (hopefully!) get rolling a little and I try to go with the flow and not to get too fussy about how elegantly (or not!) I’m writing, because I will go back the next morning and sort it all out, make sense of it. It’s basically a process of two steps forward and one step back. When I see writers who are on the 18th book, I’m so in awe of them because it gets so much harder each time. I feel I’m learning all the time. I don’t even like to call myself an ‘author’ or ‘novelist’. Maybe when I’ve completed my twelfth novel, I’ll dare to do that. For the time being, I’m just a writer.

Q: You mentioned the early influence of Jack London, and later of David Lean, on your imagination and writing. What other authors or artists inspire you?
A: As a child, London and Kipling were the two writers who had the most profound effect on me. But a lot of movies had an effect on me – I couldn’t get enough westerns. Ernest Hemingway was my great passion in my teens, and still is. Graham Greene too. And then the classics – in particular Dickens and Hardy and Tolstoy and Chekhov. More recently, Cormac McCarthy and Jane Smiley are two writers who have had a profound effect on me. I find it hard to read fiction when I’m writing it, but I devour fiction avidly when I’m researching. I’ve always read more American fiction than I have English fiction, quite why I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with American writers not being afraid to confront big emotion. British writers often seem reluctant to to do that, and hide instead under a cold irony in case anyone criticizes them for being sentimental or melodramatic. It is also something to do with scale: American writers go for the big picture, whilst, so often, British writers prefer to explore the parochial. And there is the tedious business of social class: so much British fiction ends up being about class.

Q: You described the inspiration for The Smoke Jumper – where will inspiration strike next?
A: I find stories that attract me everywhere. I’m constantly reading something and making a note. I’ve got tons of notebooks in which to record story ideas. Sometimes two or three separate ideas will coalesce and I’ll think “there’s the start of a book.” One spark by itself isn’t enough, but then a little cluster will happen and I can see something materializing from it. I sometimes have several things on the boil. At the moment, for the book after The Smoke Jumper, I have three ideas among which I know there is a connection … but I’m not quite sure what it is yet. But suddenly, it will come into focus and then nothing else can get in until I begin to write it.
The following is a conversation with Nicholas Evans about The Smoke Jumper.

Q: You’re English … but you don’t write “English” novels. What is it that draws you to writing about the American West?
A: This is my third novel, and the third in which the action (though not all of it) takes place in Montana. A lot of people find it odd that an English guy should be writing about the American West. The truth is I have always been obsessed with the place. Long before I got a chance to travel there, the images of that landscape had a great influence on me. When I was quite young my parents moved way out in the English countryside, a long way from all my friends, so I spent a lot of time on my own, most of it playing cowboys and indians. I used to watch all those great old TV western series – Wagon Train, Rawhide, Hawkeye and The Last of the Mohicans. I was also an avid reader and devoured westerns. The first writer that I really connected with was Jack London. His books completely captivated me. It wasn’t until my twenties that I first got the chance to visit the American West and when I did, of course, I realized that most of those TV westerns had been shot on the back lot of some LA studio. The real countryside was so much bigger and more dramatic. But it wasn’t until I was researching The Horse Whisperer that I got to go to Montana. It felt like coming home. Now of course I have a lot of friends there and it has become the place that I yearn to be in.

Q: What was the inspiration for your new novel, The Smoke Jumper?
A: I had the idea for The Smoke Jumper while I was researching The Loop. I know the exact date-April 17, 1996 – because I got a speeding ticket! I was driving down from Montana’s Nine Mile Valley toward Missoula after a weekend of wolf watching with a wolf biologist friend. By the road I saw this road sign, saying “Smoke Jumpers” and I thought “what’s that?” Just then, as I looked at the sign, I saw a police car had stopped in front of me and I went past him too fast, almost took his mirror off. He came after me and stopped me and I played the dumb Brit and he let me off with a warning. I have the ticket he gave me framed. It says I made an “Improper Pass.” I went on to discover what a smoke jumper was, and with the help of two jumpers in particular whom I thank in the book, I learned about their work. And a story began to take shape, starting with this central character, a smoke jumper, someone who braves the flames for something that he wants, something he must have. It’s not really a story about fire fighting. The fire in the story is more of a metaphor, something the characters must pass through to become fulfilled. I became interested in the whole notion of fire; how it harms and heals, purges and cleans, brands and cauterizes and clears the way for life to be reborn. In the west there are even trees that can only reproduce in the extreme heat of a forest fire.

Q: What is The Smoke Jumper about?
A: The Smoke Jumper is about many things, but centrally for me, it’s about choice, and the choice that many of us have to make in our lives between passion and loyalty. When you make the choice, as most of us must at some point in our lives, do you choose to walk through fire to get your heart’s desire or do you stay in place, because of honor or friendship or a commitment you’ve made? One always has to calculate, am I going to be so badly burned by this journey through the flames that it’s not worth doing it? Will there be anything left of me? It is sometimes safer and more honorable not to brave the flames. But for some there is no choice; they are impelled to make that journey. So The Smoke Jumper is about a triangle: two men, best friends – Ed and Connor – and a woman, Julia, who is Ed’s girlfriend. Ed and Connor spend their summers working as smoke jumpers and in the summer that the story starts, Julia joins them in Montana. She gets a job as a counselor with a youth program that takes troubled teens to the wilderness to learn about themselves. These three people care very deeply for each other and in one shattering moment, at the height of a wildfire when everything goes horribly wrong, they have to make choices that will change the course of their lives forever. Now that The Smoke Jumper is completed, I realize that its driving inspiration was about a big decision that I had to make in my own life about whether to brave the flames or not. It all flowed from that.

Q: You’ve written before on an epic scale in both prior novels. What was your plan for The Smoke Jumper, and does it differ in any way?
A: I had this intention for The Smoke Jumper that it should be a big story. The Horse Whisperer and The Loop were big, too, but this was to be on a bigger scale. When I worked at documentary filmmaking, I made a film about David Lean, the great film director who did Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia – everyone knows his great movies. And he became a mentor and a friend and was the one who gave me the courage to step out on my own and start writing, first screenplays and then books. His films had always had a great impact on me – that of intense human drama set against a huge backdrop. I wanted to write a book that had that same kind of epic feel to it that the films of David Lean had: human drama, against a vast landscape – first with The Smoke Jumpers fighting forest fires in Montana, and then the world of frontline photojournalism, life in the warzone.

Q: What kind of research did you have to undertake?
A: When I started the novel, I thought I would have to do much less research than I undertook for The Horse Whisperer or The Loop. Actually, there was about five times more research involved! First, I had to find out about smoke jumping and with the help of two particular smoke jumpers in Missoula, I learned about their life. And while I didn’t actually jump myself – it isn’t a game, or something for amateurs to experience – I spent time talking with them and hanging out with them, getting a feel for their lifestyle and work. I also had to find out about the children’s wilderness program. This program assigns court-order kids to a wilderness program to help them learn empathy, to reinforce a sense of humanity and community. So I spent time with a wonderful organization called Alternative Youth Adventures. But there was more. One of the characters is a diabetic, and becomes blind, so I needed to research both of those areas. And then there’s Connor’s career as a photojournalist; his journey takes him to Bosnia, to Rwanda, and to all kinds of places all over the world where he records human events. I had to research how a photojournalist operates. I knew a little about that because I had worked myself as a television reporter in my early career and had visited a war or two, but there was still a lot I needed to find out about photography. And finally, there are the child soldiers of Africa. Their stories are so shocking and moving and powerful and I spent a lot of time researching them. The third part of the book is set in Africa, in a war where children are abducted and forced to become soldiers. I have been to Africa a few times, once spending a year in southern Senegal, where there is now a war on. I drew on this a lot.

Q: Can you tell us about the writing process? What do you do each day?
A: I think a lot of writers try to surround what they do with this mystique of inspiration or creativity and all that sort of stuff. Actually, I think writing is mainly hard work — like 80% hard work! I know that if I do not get myself sitting down at my computer by at least 9:00 in the morning and work through the day as if it was some sort of factory job, I would get nothing done. I generally go through what I’ve done the previous afternoon; I get up to speed about midday and then I take a little break at lunch and then come back and get started on new stuff. As the afternoon progresses, things (hopefully!) get rolling a little and I try to go with the flow and not to get too fussy about how elegantly (or not!) I’m writing, because I will go back the next morning and sort it all out, make sense of it. It’s basically a process of two steps forward and one step back. When I see writers who are on the 18th book, I’m so in awe of them because it gets so much harder each time. I feel I’m learning all the time. I don’t even like to call myself an ‘author’ or ‘novelist’. Maybe when I’ve completed my twelfth novel, I’ll dare to do that. For the time being, I’m just a writer.

Q: You mentioned the early influence of Jack London, and later of David Lean, on your imagination and writing. What other authors or artists inspire you?
A: As a child, London and Kipling were the two writers who had the most profound effect on me. But a lot of movies had an effect on me – I couldn’t get enough westerns. Ernest Hemingway was my great passion in my teens, and still is. Graham Greene too. And then the classics – in particular Dickens and Hardy and Tolstoy and Chekhov. More recently, Cormac McCarthy and Jane Smiley are two writers who have had a profound effect on me. I find it hard to read fiction when I’m writing it, but I devour fiction avidly when I’m researching. I’ve always read more American fiction than I have English fiction, quite why I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with American writers not being afraid to confront big emotion. British writers often seem reluctant to to do that, and hide instead under a cold irony in case anyone criticizes them for being sentimental or melodramatic. It is also something to do with scale: American writers go for the big picture, whilst, so often, British writers prefer to explore the parochial. And there is the tedious business of social class: so much British fiction ends up being about class.

Q: You described the inspiration for The Smoke Jumper – where will inspiration strike next?
A: I find stories that attract me everywhere. I’m constantly reading something and making a note. I’ve got tons of notebooks in which to record story ideas. Sometimes two or three separate ideas will coalesce and I’ll think “there’s the start of a book.” One spark by itself isn’t enough, but then a little cluster will happen and I can see something materializing from it. I sometimes have several things on the boil. At the moment, for the book after The Smoke Jumper, I have three ideas among which I know there is a connection … but I’m not quite sure what it is yet. But suddenly, it will come into focus and then nothing else can get in until I begin to write it.

  • About Nicholas Evans

    Nicholas Evans studied law at Oxford University after serving in Africa with Voluntary Service Overseas. He then worked as a newspaper reporter, TV producer and screenwriter before writing four bestselling novels. His first book, The Horse Whisperer was made into a movie directed by Robert Redford. He lives in Devon with his wife, singer/songwriter Charlotte Gordon Cumming … Read More »

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