When I asked Kathleen Donohoe if she ever envisioned another profession for herself – for example, following in her family’s footsteps to become a New York City firefighter – she replied that she never wanted to be anything but a writer. An English major in college, she also rejected the expectation that she would become a teacher, recognizing early on that she wanted every last possible bit of her energy to go into her writing.
Her well-received debut novel, Ashes of Fiery Weather, is the result of years of focusing that energy, working diligently at the margins of the day job and home life to craft an expansive story about a family similarly bound to and shaped by their own professional calling.
While Donohoe’s fictional Irish-American firefighting family shares some features with her own, don’t expect the easy familiar in this complex, intricate novel. Donohoe manages to take “write what you know” to a new level: as each of her seven female protagonists gets the story to herself for a chapter, the reader is centered in a new timeline and perspective, experiencing a beautiful family tale built as much out of disconnection and alienation as out of intimacy and solidarity.
Ashes of Fiery Weather is Donohoe’s first published novel, but the third she has written; the first two, while they did get representation, didn’t find their audience. She credits her new success to the kind of perseverance and persistence that many Bloomers can relate to, but it’s her certainty about being a writer that commits her to doing more than just moving past rejection. It means using every scrap of time to write and finding support from creative people who are similarly striving. It means knowing that no matter what you do for a living, you live as a writer.
Bloom: Publishers Weekly’s review of Ashes of Fiery Weather, your new novel, says, “Her depiction of 9/11 is by far one of the best fictional accounts of that terrible day in which 343 members of the FDNY perished.” What was it like to relive those very personal traumatic events and how did you turn that into such an evocative and humane narrative?
Kathleen Donohoe: On the morning of September 11, I was at Southampton College, of Long Island University, getting ready for my first Fiction workshop in their MFA program. I turned on the television and saw one of the towers on fire. After the second plane hit, I started calling my parents. My father was an FDNY lieutenant in Queens and my cousin was a firefighter in Brooklyn. My uncles had all retired by 2001. It never entered my head that either my father’s or my cousin’s companies would be responding. But when I got my mother on the phone, she told me that my father was on his way there.
My family was very lucky. My father, who was not working that day, got there after the collapses and my cousin had worked the night before and was actually on his way home when the first plane hit. He immediately turned around when he heard the news on the radio and went back to his firehouse. Six men from his firehouse were killed. Had he been working, he would have been one of them.
I did not intend to show September 11 itself in the novel. My model was Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. The one scene that’s never shown? The wedding. I planned to similarly skip Tuesday, September 11 and go right to the aftermath.
But it didn’t work out that way. In my initial plan for the book, there was no woman firefighter. It occurred to me fairly early on that there should be, but I ignored my instinct and kept writing.
I had three, maybe even four chapters, when I gave up and had to accept that if I didn’t have a woman firefighter, that unwritten chapter would haunt the book. I then had to answer the question of who she was and how she fit into the family. It was obvious that she should be one of the first women on the job, and that she had to be shown on September 11.
The core difficulty in reliving that day was shedding the perspective the passage of time gives you, even about the most horrific event. I had to return to the mindset of before in order to accurately portray the shock of the day itself and following weeks and months. Obviously for fifteen years, I’ve known how many firefighters were killed, but for the purposes of writing this book, that number had to be raw again.
Of course I knew that my father and cousin (and uncles) ran into fires. That’s the job. Yet firefighter-talk about the fires always comes after it’s out. Good or bad, by the time you, as a family member, hear about it, you know how it ended. On September 11, though, we all saw the fire they were running into as it was still burning. And nobody knew what was going to happen next. This is something I wanted to bring to Ashes, that whole sense of abject disbelief and absolute terror as it was experienced, in real time.
Bloom: Though the novel focuses on the experiences of this extended family, it is rich with many social and political themes beyond the familial. Did you plan to explore issues such as LGBTQ relationships, job equality, war, and immigration, or did these themes emerge as you dove more deeply into your characters?
KD: These themes definitely arose from the story. Their particular stories emerged from a combination of who they were, as people, and then the particular circumstances of their time. When I began writing each chapter, I usually only had a general idea of what it would be about. A couple of times, a chapter was intentionally centered on an historical event, like the burning of the passenger ship Slocum in 1904, but more often, there was no specific agenda. I just started writing and waited to see what would happen.
Bloom: Ashes of Fiery Weather features the voices of seven different women – what were the benefits and challenges of writing a story with seven different protagonists? Did you find conflicts in their voices that added new, unexpected intricacies to the narrative?
KD: Each chapter of the book is from the point of view of a different woman, and they are all members of the same family, with one exception.
The central challenge was to fully realize each woman’s voice within the boundaries of her chapter, and to make her both compelling and consistent in her other appearances in the book. The reader has to believe, for example, that the 60-something woman seen through the eyes of her daughter-in-law in Chapter One is the same person who is the young wife and mother in the 1950’s, and then later still in the book, a twelve-year-old girl in the mid-1930’s.
One benefit was evolving this family over a century, and doing so from so many different vantage points. Usually, as a writer, you have an idea of your characters’ backstories, even when they are not in the book. In Ashes, the backstories of each of the protagonists are the book. Most of them appear in the novel before their own chapter. They are introduced, either in a supporting role or no more than a cameo, and then later, the reader get their stories.
The novel is structured to be very intricate but yes, it became so in ways I hadn’t foreseen once the characters were more than just an idea in my head. This had to do with how they related to each other, as family members, what they expected from each other, and how those expectations were meet, or were not. Another factor was not what they said to each other, but what they did not. In other words, what each doesn’t know about the others, is poignant, I think, whether it’s because of secrets kept or because the passage of time has made it impossible.
Bloom: The story is also non-linear in time, and I imagine that also presents its own set of benefits and challenges in the writing. How did you puzzle together the different chronologies to support your narrative? Did you always picture the story as moving back and forth through time, or did your protagonists define and shape the timeline?
KD: Once the first chapters were written, the book had a form, its own continuum, and though I don’t do any kind of detailed outlining, I stopped and made a list of the protagonists’ names and decided then the order of the rest of the chapters. It was a joint answering of both who? and when? because in the context of this book, it was essentially the same question.
I very frequently had to go back and revise. For example, I would be writing a scene in Chapter Four that takes place in 1897, and then because of a development in that story, I’d have to revisit Chapter Two, in the early 1950’s. It could have been as simple as changing a name, or adding a few sentences, or it might have meant a thorough unpicking and re-stitching. And typically, there were implications across several chapters, not just one. Writing this book often felt like one long exercise in the butterfly effect. It was maddening, fascinating, absorbing work, very much like putting together a puzzle. But imagine a puzzle where the pieces constantly change shape.
Bloom: This being Bloom, where we focus on writers who have found literary success a little later in life, I have to ask how writing this well-received novel, your third, was different from writing your first when you were in your early twenties. Can you offer any insight to other writers who are trying to bloom later in life?
KD: I wrote my first novel when I was a senior in college and finished it six months after graduating college. I got an agent but that novel didn’t sell. I began another novel but I also started working full-time as an administrative assistant/receptionist. It took ten years to finish that book. I signed with a new agent (after sixty rejections), but that novel also didn’t sell. I was, by then, thirty-six and I knew it would be years before publishing a novel was even a possibility again.
With two unsold novels behind me, I set aside the third book I’d just started and turned instead to a short story I’d written about September 11 that I’d always thought could be a novel.
But I no longer believed that getting published was a matter of mere perseverance. Yes, it’s key for any writer. You’re not going to succeed if you don’t keep moving forward past rejection and failure. With regard to the first two books, either they weren’t good enough or the manuscripts simply never crossed the right desk at the right time. It’s likely the former, but I don’t know, and it’s irrelevant now. I do know that Ashes is a far better book than either of them, and I am glad that it is my first published novel. Yet, I will never pretend that I only wrote the first two as practice, to hone my craft.
At twenty-two, I genuinely assumed my first book would be published and so I wrote it with a sense of eyes on my back. The second novel, I was less sure about, but I did believe it would sell. Because I’d written the drawer novel. Because I’d spent a frustrating decade in various day jobs. Dues, paid.
The end result is that I wrote Ashes of Fiery Weather in a strange kind of solitude, with no expectation that it would ever find an audience. This is the main difference, I think, between writing my first novel and writing my third.
Throughout my twenties, when I told people I was, yes, a receptionist, but really a writer, they were often impressed. After thirty, this changed, though it took me some time to recognize the nod was not interest, not anymore, but a kind of pity. Because clearly, if you’re going to make it you would have already.
As for what insight I can offer, I would say that you have to find a way to stay focused. Even if you can only write in the margins of your life, you have to find a way to keep your goals in the center of your vision. Use the time you do have, to the minute.
Bloom: You’ve spoken openly about how the support of other writers and writing groups was key to honing your writing discipline and persevering through difficult times. Can you talk a bit about how sharing with fellow writers helped you create and refine this novel? How has your success with Ashes of Fiery Weather changed your writing process?
KD: I actually didn’t show Ashes of Fiery Weather to anybody as I was writing it. Living in Brooklyn, there are plenty of opportunities to join writing groups but I was working full time and about a year into writing the book, I had a baby. As far as strategies for finishing a novel go, having a baby is probably right after sitting at your desk, crying. If you’re going to be part of a writing group, you need to be able to dedicate time to reading others’ work and commenting thoughtfully. That wasn’t something I could not do at the time.
One day, for some reason I can’t recall, I googled Irish-American, writers, and the website for an organization called Irish American Writers & Artists popped up. They had a reading series, called Salons, where members could read their work. Eventually, I went and read part of Ashes, which was by then close to being finished. The support I received that night, and since, has been amazing.
My writing process, how I write, hasn’t changed since the book came out. I am still getting up between 4:30 – 5 am to write before going to my full-time office job. I live with my husband and son in a four-room apartment so I belong to the Brooklyn Writer’s Space. I go there on the weekends, for about four or five hours on Saturdays and Sundays.
What has changed is that I am now writing with the understanding that my next book will be published. It was sold along with Ashes of Fiery Weather. When I sit down to write, there is that extra bit of work to focus solely on the writing and block out everything else.
Bloom: Which authors and books inspired you to begin writing? Who inspired you to keep writing? Who are you reading now?
KD: I was definitely one of those kids who was always reading. I knew when I was eight years old that I would be a writer, so my initial inspirations were writers like L.M. Montgomery, not Anne of Green Gables, but the Emily trilogy, which were about a girl who wanted to be a writer. Lois Lowry’s A Summer To Die is the first book I read that I can recall being struck by the writing itself, by the sentences. Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming was the first book I read that could be called an epic.
During my freshman year of high school, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I knew before I even opened it that it would be a touchstone. And it is, both for its subject and its scope.
Other writers who have been important to me, and this list is far from complete, include James Joyce, specifically Dubliners, Carson McCullers, and then the A’s. Alice McDermott, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, Ann Patchett.
Bloom: If you weren’t a writer, what other professional adventures would you explore? Did you ever think about being a firefighter?
KD: No, I never thought about becoming a firefighter. My father, who retired as lieutenant, once suggested my two sisters and I take the test. We politely declined.
I majored in English in college, and the expectation was very much that I would be a teacher. It’s not that I thought I’d be bad at it. I sensed that any stage fright would disappear with practice. I simply didn’t want to. I still don’t know how I understood at twenty-two, right after college when I’d only worked part-time or summer jobs, that teaching would drain me of the energy I needed for my own writing. I needed a job that didn’t come home with me at the end of the day.
At one job I had, my co-workers very kindly gave me a card for Administrative Professionals Day. I took it home and set it on fire. I was thinking, I’m a writer. Give me that card. I never wanted to be anything else, ever.
For those who are working at day jobs, I’m not suggesting you torch your performance review or the office birthday card where you’re the rabbit. Nobody should be playing with matches, really. I just mean even if you don’t tell anyone, always remember it yourself.
Sometimes, I try to imagine my reaction if I’d been told in my twenties that I would finish the first draft of my debut novel on my 40th birthday. It’s tempting to be dramatic and talk about fainting or crying but the truth is, I can’t imagine things would have been much different.
I think the fact that I am publishing my first novel post-forty will make many assume, with good reason, that I must have had another career and came to writing later. As in, what have you been doing for twenty years then? Writing. Trying. Writing.
Read an excerpt from Kathleen Donohoe’s Ashes of Fiery Weather here.
Correction: The original post erroneously stated that Ashes of Fiery Weather is Donohoe’s third, rather than her first, published novel. Ashes of Fiery Weather is her debut.