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September 19, 2008

When a Book Sweeps You Up....

Posted by admin

Last Friday night's event at The Clinton Bookshop was one of the most memorable evenings that I spent with an author and readers.

The day had been overcast and grey with driving rain. Ike was raging somewhere in the country and I am not sure if these rains were related to that or the hammering from another storm. I had lost track. I had spent the day writing since about 6AM and thus by 6:15PM I was eager to pack it in, grabbed my slicker and head to the bookstore.

The evening's event featured Robin Gaby Fisher discussing her book, AFTER THE FIRE. I had followed Robin's coverage of the survivors of the Seton Hall in our local newspaper, the Star Ledger, back in 2001. Coupled with the haunting Pulitzer Prize winning photography work of Matt Rainey they created a magazine-like series that delved into the amazing recovery of those burned by the fire.

For those of you who are not familiar with the chain of events, a fire broke out in the freshman dorm, Boland Hall, at Seton Hall University in the wee hours of a January morning in 2000. When it was over, 3 students were dead, 58 were injured; 3 of them critically burned. The fire had started when students lit a paper sign in the common area lounge on the third floor. It quickly spread out of control.

I had read the newspaper pieces and saved them. (When I told Robin later this evening I had done this she was not surprised saying she had heard from many people saying they could not throw them away.) There was something about writing that tugged me in even when the reading was hard. I remembered being really excited when I heard that the series had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize since I knew the impact it had had on me and many others.

Hearing that the story had been reframed as a book, I wanted to meet Robin. As someone who recognized the power of this story, I wanted to ask her how she came to write it and also learn how it had affected her. I also knew that two of the survivors, Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos were going to be at this event. After reading about their fight to survive, I wanted to meet both of them and hear how their lives were going now.

After wading through a really deep puddle in a nearby parking lot, I got to the store and there was a small crowd milling about chatting. At least fifteen folks had called to say the rain was keeping them away. (I have to say it always amazes me how people can let a little rain get in the way of their plans.)

After a bit of milling about Robin, Shawn and Al made their way to the small table where they would read and talk. Robin, a very attractive blonde had a softness to her voice and manner that I had not anticipated. She introduced the book and then shared that Shawn would be reading the book's opening chapter, which described the night of the fire.

As he read his voice was appropriately animated. If you closed your eyes you could quickly picture the scene that night. The audience watched with rapt attention, many including myself, filled with emotion. The scenes Shawn was reading vividly described what he and Al had gone through trying to escape the fire and caught their bewilderment and palpable fear. As a mom all I could picture was my own child being that scared and alone and that thought stirred up a number of emotions.

As he read I saw Robin reach over to rub Al's back and saw her tearing up as well. Seeing this I realized how amazing it was that this story still moved her and that hearing the words that she had written gave her pause. It's a powerful moment when you realize that an author's own words had that kind of an impact.

Once Shawn finished reading the first question asked how they both felt hearing their story like that. For both of them they mentioned that they had moved on and the fire was from another time in their lives. Instead they were focusing on more positive things like their own families now. They both spoke over and over again about how lucky they were to still be here. They spoke over and over again about being there for each other.

Al, who was injured more gravely than Shawn, still bears noticeable scars. He is the shyer of the two. They both were positive, upbeat and pragmatic about talking about what had occurred. Robin, who clearly was pleased to have them sharing the platform with her, took my question about how she came to write the series.

Her editor called her in shortly after the fire and asked her if she would be interested in writing a story following the victims through their treatment and recovery. She said "it was a story of a lifetime." Negotiations were made with St Barnabas Hospital, who is very proud of its burn unit and wanted to share the story. Both families agreed provided that the boys wanted their story told when they awoke. They did.

Throughout the night we talked about the fire, we talked about what had gone wrong that night and it was like there was no question people could not ask. Robin, Shawn and Al made it really comfortable for everyone to share thoughts and ideas. Few of those attending had read the book, but we all knew the story.

It became an experience, not just an author appearance and signing. I realized what was happening. It was like we were having a book group discussion BEFORE we read the book. Instead of us all waiting until we had read the book, we were getting our questions answered up front.

I stayed at the store for nearly an hour after the event chatting with people in the audience as well as Robin, Shawn and Al --- and Harvey and Rob who work at the bookstore. It was one of the most interesting --- and inspiring --- evenings that I had spent in a while. I found myself calling people and telling them about it. I got home knowing I really wanted to read this book.

The following day I started reading about 8 in the morning after the phone rang waking me with that annoying automated solicitor on the line asking me yet again if I wanted to extend the warranty on my car. The annoying call that seems to come daily as my "last chance."

Once I started reading I could not stop. I had planned to do errands. Every time I got near the door, I would turn and move back to the couch and read. I literally did not move far away from the book til about 11:30 when I finished it. And then I moved into that post reading trance that a well-told story can put you into. The courage of these two boys, as well as the way they supported one another throughout their recovery was so gripping.

I found myself dropping Robin a few notes telling her much I had enjoyed her talk and the book. I wrote the bookseller and did some back and forth dialogue with him. I wrote the publisher. With these notes I know I was looking for a connection with someone who understood what I had read. Then I dropped notes to a couple of friends who clearly would understand why this book had taken me somewhere. I wished I could talk to others who had been in the store that night to see what they thought of the book.

I found myself thinking of issues the book brought forth. The boys who started the fire, even innocently, have gotten minimal prison terms. I confess that the one thought that burned deepest in my head was a thought that what would have happened if the white boys had been burned by boys of color, instead of the other way around. I could not help it. I found myself wishing these boys had to read this book in prison, over and over. I wanted the parole board to read it.

I also thought of one scene in the book where Al is celebrating his birthday and a candle is lit. I wondered how he now feels about fire. And wished I could ask him that.

When a book makes a reader think like this, it's a wonderful thing.

As a side note, the tragedy at Seton Hall has made schools even more vigilant about fire safety. My older son started college a few weeks ago. When he received housing information it was noted that he would not be allowed to bring candles, incense and any furniture. Everything at the school was fire-retardant. I remember hearing his dorm assignment and being happy that he was on the 3rd floor of the housing tower thinking that in a fire he could walk down easily. Then reading, I was reminded that Shawn and Al also were on the 3rd floor.

Years ago my sister's best friend, Katie, had been killed in the Providence College fire in December 1977 in which seven students were killed. At the time we both were at Fordham. I never will forget walking across the campus to talk to my sister after we learned the news.

Books like this sober you up about the fragility of life. Both Shawn and Al signed my book saying how lucky they feel and how they clearly they understand their being alive is pretty special.

They thrived through what happened to them, which says something about their inner core, their values and who they are. And the fact that Robin was able to share their story so well made it clearly a gift for readers. AFTER THE FIRE is a book you don't want to miss --- and you will want to talk about it.