New Asian Writing Interview with John Maclean

John Maclean

John Maclean was a writer, editor, and reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 30 years before he resigned his job there in 1995 to write Fire on the Mountain. Maclean was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1943, the second of two children. An avid fly-fisherman, Maclean divides his time between his residence in Washington, D.C. and the Maclean family cabin in Montana. He is the award-winning author of three previous books on wildfire disasters and his latest, The Esperanza Fire, is available now. Visit him here.

NAW- Tell us about your book, The Esperanza Fire. How did you get the idea for it? Did you carry out any research for the book? How long did it take to finish the book?

The story of the Esperanza Fire found me, to be honest about it. I was giving a presentation at a fire conference in Reno and one of the Forest Service captains who fought the fire strode up to me in a bold manner and said, “Are you doing a book on the Esperanza Fire?” At the time, CalFire, California’s fire agency, had ordered employees not to talk about the fire and especially not to talk to me. So I told the captain, No, I wasn’t doing a book, because it was a CalFire fire and the agency had blocked my access.

“It’s not CalFire, it’s a Forest Service story—and we’ll give it to you,” he replied. In fact, the fire was run by CalFire but the five men of the engine crew who were killed worked for the Forest Service. Over the next several years, the captain and other Forest Service personnel did as the captain promised: I had their complete cooperation. Then toward the end of the reporting process CalFire lifted its ban on me, thanks to a public information officer named Julie Hutchinson and a new CalFire director, Ken Pimlot, and the agency became fully cooperative. You have to give CalFire a little leeway about its gag order: the fire was started by an arsonist who was quickly caught, and CalFire was worried, among other things, that something I or others might say would interfere with the prosecution, which ultimately was successful. I covered the six-week long arson-murder trial in Riverside, California, at the end of which Raymond Oyler, a local auto mechanic, was convicted of five counts of capital murder and sentenced to death. He and I carried on a correspondence after he was sent to Death Row in San Quentin State Prison: he claims he’s innocent of setting the Esperanza Fire but he won’t talk about other fires he set, two of which had ignition devices with his DNA on them.

NAW- Why this fascination with fires? Is there a particular reason you write about fire tragedies?

Yes, there are strong reasons I’m drawn to fire, but it takes a little telling. I spent 30 years at the Chicago Tribune writing about foreign policy, national politics, finance and other subjects before I quit the newspaper and started writing about wildland fire. My dad, Norman Maclean, wrote a book about the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, Young Men and Fire, but he was unable to finish it in his lifetime. After his death, his publisher, the University of Chicago Press, edited and brought it out. I helped with fact-checking and other chores—I did not rewrite or finish my father’s book for him, popular misconceptions to the contrary. I wound up, though, getting in touch with the one living survivor of the Mann Gulch Fire, Bob Sallee, who died just this spring, and several other people with ties to the fire. When the South Canyon Fire came along in 1994, just a couple of years after Young Men and Fire came out, it was in many ways a mirror image of what had happened in Mann Gulch—smokejumpers killed, a blowup on a mountain, a race with fire. Storm King Mountain, where the South Canyon Fire occurred, and Mann Gulch are so similar in topography that the Forest Service made up a poster showing the two places side by side, and it looks like a Rorschach test with an inkblot that makes identical images both sides of a paper. I knew I was destined to do something about South Canyon, and a year later I quit the Tribune and embarked on my first book, Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire. This year is the 20th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire, which has been a landmark for a generation of firefighters.

I hoped and expected to move on to other topics. But the fire community now expects me to tackle these stories. A friend of mine said he likes my fire books but wishes the circumstances for doing them didn’t keep repeating. The latest big fatal fire is the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013 that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and I’ve started looking into that one.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

I spent 30 years with the Chicago Tribune, most of that time in Washington, DC, and the easiest way to describe what I did is to say that I flew around the world with Henry Kissinger during the period of shuttle diplomacy. I was the diplomatic correspondent for the Tribune for over a decade and later the Foreign Editor. I covered a lot of other beats and stories, too. But I suspect that’s not what you want me to talk about here.

I’ve written five books about fatal wildland fires and am working on a sixth, about the Yarnell Hill Fire. I used to think I would branch out and take on other non-fiction subjects about the outdoors, which is my natural inclination. I started a book on the 1976 Big Thompson flood, the deadliest flood in the history of Colorado, which took an estimated 143 lives, but then another big fire came along and I switched and did that story. I’ve come to accept my fate, which is to provide a service to the fire community by writing about their big tragedies and to write he books as though they were novels, inviting the general reader to become acquainted with the world of wildland fire.

NAW- You come from a family of writers. Your father was one and your son also writes. Do you take feedback from each other and critique each other’s work?

Both my sons have written books—my older son, Dan’s, first book, Paddling the Yukon River and its Major Tributaries, is the perennial No. 1 best seller in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, which is the put-in place for paddling the Yukon. My other son, John Fitzroy, is polishing the draft of a mystery novel, his first—he’s a public defender for the state of Maryland, so he knows what he’s talking about. My wife is a writer, too, for newspapers and magazines, and is currently writing an historical novel based in Haiti.

Sure, we all talk about writing and books. But it’s not like we’re an editing chain, passing all our work around for constant comment, although once in a while that does happen. To paraphrase a famous literary line, in my family, there is no clear line between observing life and writing about it. We do encourage each other, we are supportive of each other’s writing.

NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey. How difficult (or easy) was it getting your first book published?

Oddly, it was easier to get my first than my last book published. The first one, Fire on the Mountain, was a natural. The South Canyon Fire of 1994, which it describes, was a major national event. My dad’s book Young Men and Fire had come out to excellent reviews only a few years before. The publishing industry was in good shape financially. Fire on the Mountain went to auction and did well. Today, publishing is a different business. Since the Great Recession and the revolution in how books are made and sold, publishers are scared to death of trying anything that isn’t almost guaranteed to make money.

My books take a lot of time, five to six years each (they overlap, of course), and they require a lot of travel and time in the field. In other words, they’re expensive to produce. But I keep on keepin’ on, the books get published, documentaries have been made, and two of the books are being made into feature movies. The mortality rate for books taken up by Hollywood is astronomical, but these two movie projects have stayed on track for quite a while. We’ll see.

NAW- How do you write, planning the complete plot beforehand or do you let the book take its course? Take us through your writing process.

I had a lot of trouble organizing my first book, because I’d never written a book before. After 30 years in the newspaper business I wanted to tell the whole story in the first five paragraphs. I’ve had to wrestle with this compulsion on every book, and I think I’m finally getting past it. Luckily for me, I had a fine editor for Fire on the Mountain, Harvey Ginsberg of William Morrow, and he guided me. By the time I was into the last half of the book I had a good feel for how to write a book.

I also picked up an editor along the way, Kelly Andersson, who knows a lot about fire and has stuck with me through thick and thin. Wildland fire has its own terms and practices and unless you get them right the fire community is on to you in a heartbeat. Kelly has kept me out of that kind of trouble, among other good offices, for many years.

The Esperanza Fire, my fourth book, was a challenge because it’s two stories, a fatal fire and the trial of the arsonist who was convicted of setting it. I wasn’t sure how to start the story, but I knew I had to have a beginning that included both narratives. Finally, I sat down one morning and in a burst of energy hammered out a beginning, the moment the jury brings in the verdict in the arson trial. Once I had established that scene, and not entirely given away the verdict, I cut to the beginning of the fire, years earlier, and told the story sequentially, arriving at the jury’s decision toward the end of the book. I thought I’d been clever and inventive until a friend told me, “That’s a four-one-two-three-five story line.” I had no idea what he was talking about. But it’s a standard movie formula. You begin the story toward the end (point four), one step before the finale, and once you have the audience hooked you skip back to the beginning of the story (point one) and pick it up from there. Think how many movies you’ve seen that follow that pattern. Sometimes the movies even switch from from black and white for the opener to color for what follows.

All my books, though, start with thorough reporting. The writing comes later. The story tells the story, but you have to dig hard and deep to find the facts and details that make it come alive.

NAW- Who are your favourite authors? Are there any who have influenced your work?

When I was young I thought Ernest Hemingway was a soul mate.  I grew up fly-fishing in Montana, where my family spent every summer, and Hemingway made me feel as though I was back on a stream, with a fly rod in my hand and a fish on the other end of the line. I tried to write the way he did for a long time, but so have many others, too many others, and eventually I went on to other authors with different styles. When I try to read Hemingway today the writing doesn’t work the way it used to, except for the short stories, which are masterpieces. My dad was my writing teacher when I was young and he always emphasized writing short, cutting out adverbs and adjectives, keeping the prose clean and lean, though he was more garrulous in his own writing. Then I spent 30 years writing for a newspaper, which demands that you keep it short and tell the story in the first paragraphs. I had to struggle to get over newspaper style when I started writing books, though newspapers taught me so many useful lessons that having to struggle with a few that don’t work for books is a fair tradeoff.

I have fictional heroes, too, who have influenced the way I think and work. They’re all  detectives and gifted observers: Sherlock Holmes, whose stories I’ve read since I was a child; Christopher Foyle (of the BBC’s Foyle’s War); and George Gently, another BBC detective, who is somewhat like Foyle. They approach crime the way I approach fatal fires, as a  puzzle that will require diligence, effort, and a keen eye to solve.

My core audience is the wildland fire community, many of whom are not great readers. They are action people. And so I very deliberately remove speed bumps from my writing. I use short sentences, short words, punchy rhythms. My books can be—and sometimes are—read in a single sitting. It is vital to me to reach young firefighters so they have a sense of their own history and can learn from past mistakes, and stay alive. My writing style is targeted  to the young men and women who take up wildland fire, even for a single season, but I do hope for and try to reach a broader audience. On occasion, I’ll do a riff about tragedy or fate or some broad theme, or become lyrical in describing a scene, and those moments demand more complex and even poetic writing. But the foundation of my books is detailed, credible reporting, told like a good story.

NAW- What are your upcoming works?

I’ve finished an update of my story about the Rattlesnake Fire of 1953, which was started by an arsonist and killed 15 firefighters. A lot has happened since the story first came out in Fire and Ashes, my second book, about a decade ago. The book stirred people up and a memorial has been constructed at the fire site, which had been a forgotten place. Hundreds of firefighters now go there every year, pay their respects, and try to learn from what happened, so it doesn’t happen again. The arsonist, Stanford  Pattan, who I found and was the first to interview at length, and with whom I carried on a correspondence for many years, has died. Families with connections to the fire have visited the site and discovered new things about themselves and those they lost. The redone story is long enough to stand as a book by itself—Fire and Ashes is a book of stories. But I’m holding onto it, at least for the moment, until I see my next project a little more clearly and perhaps put together a package of a couple of books.

The current project, the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013, which killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, is a very troubled story. There are numerous lawsuits, contradictory official investigations, ongoing investigations including by me and a research partner, Holly Neill, and witnesses in the shadows who haven’t fullly told their stories yet. Neill, a retired firefighter, has done remarkable work that has changed the story line of what happened. There’s more to come. Frankly, after The Esperanza Fire, my last book, I considered calling it quits. But the Yarnell Hill Fire came along and the story needs to be pulled together in a detailed, credible way by somebody willing to take a lot of years to do it. That’s my duty station.

(Maclean maintains a website,, with photos, articles, and other material.)

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