Photo: Karen Fies, Courtesy: Abrams Books
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“On Monday, my house disappeared,” begins Brian Fies’ memoir “A Fire Story.”
The five words — frank, lacking pathos or nostalgia — set the tenor of Fies’ restrained tale. A wildfire memoir can easily devolve into melodrama. Fies resists the temptation; instead, he tells his fire story — Fies lost his Coffey Park home to the 2017 Tubbs Fire — with a directness that colors his narrative with organic emotion and surreality.
The graphic story starts at a slow sizzle. Fies’ wife smells smoke, notices a glowing sky. The next frame is a list of “Stuff We Grabbed”: photos, jewelry, clothes, two pairs of tighty-whiteys. We see the flames briefly, rendered in sweeping strokes of orange and black marker, before we’re shuttled into the car with Fies and his wife as they sit in traffic attempting to flee.
“A Fire Story,” published last month by Abrams ComicArts, started as a webcomic, which Fies posted to his blog days after fleeing the flames. The drawings — created hastily using Sharpie pens, highlighters and Target paper — were circulated widely by national news outlets and eventually became an Emmy-winning video short produced by KQED.
If you plan to read “A Fire Story,” I suggest you begin with these drawings. Their simplistic renderings sing of the importance of art in the face of tragedy, as well as the drive to self-mythologize after experiencing a massive loss.
And Fies and his wife, like many survivors of the deadly Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people, lost much.
“A two-story house full of our lives was a two-foot heap of dead smoking ash,” he writes after a visit to the plot of land that once held his family’s home.
Fies, an acclaimed cartoonist, polished his rough sketches and expanded the scope of his work to create “A Fire Story.” Though a personal account of natural disaster, the graphic memoir also includes the “fire stories” of Fies’ neighbors, daughters and others — of various ages, backgrounds, socioeconomic standings — touched by fire.
We spoke with Fies recently to learn about his life post-wildfire, the production of “A Fire Story,” and the objects he’s glad he grabbed before fleeing. The interview has been condensed and shortened.
Your first book was about dealing with your mother’s illness (“Mom’s Cancer”). Why are you drawn to these — for lack of a better word — tragic, highly personal subjects? Why are comics an ideal medium for discussing them?
Both “Mom’s Cancer” and “A Fire Story” were stories I felt I had to tell. No choice. If nobody had read them or wanted to publish them, I still would have done them.
I think there’s a reason the most successful graphic novels — Maus, Fun Home, Persepolis, Smile — are memoirs. First, comics excel at symbolism and metaphor. You don’t have to use 500 words to explain your metaphor; you can just draw it, and the reader instantly gets it.
Second, I think comics work like our memories work. We don’t remember exact photographic or audio recordings of an event. We don’t remember the color of the curtains, or the title of every book on the shelf. You remember who was there, what happened, how it made you feel. Comics work the same way. They omit the details that don’t matter and focus on the details that do.
Comics are abstract and impressionistic. If you want an accurate record of an event, shoot a video. If you want to know what it felt like to be there, read a comic.
Did you begin “A Fire Story” as a therapeutic exercise? How did the project evolve since you first started working on it?
My wife, Karen, said the same thing she said when I did “Mom’s Cancer”: “Well, it’ll be good therapy for you.” And it kind of is — although how much is debatable — but that’s not why I did it.
Even as I walked back into my destroyed neighborhood, before I was sure my house was gone, I understood that I was an eyewitness to a historic disaster. I felt compelled to bear witness to it. Right after college I was a newspaper reporter for a few years, and doing “A Fire Story” felt like journalism to me. I looked at it like an old-time war correspondent dispatching sketches from the front lines.
I noticed, especially at the start of the story, you approach the fires with a straightforward, almost emotionless, tone. Why?
I really want “A Fire Story,” and the book in particular, to stand as a respectable piece of first-person journalism. “I was there, this is what I saw, this is what happened.” Just tell it as straight as I can, understanding that the situation has tremendous drama built into it. If anything, I think underplaying the pathos can actually heighten a reader’s reaction to it.
My style reflected something I learned on “Mom’s Cancer.” When I sat down to do a comic about cancer, my first thought was to draw it dark and Gothic, with deep shadows and lots of scritchy-scratchy cross-hatching. I can draw like that, but decided to go the opposite way and make my artwork light, open, airy. I didn’t want the art to repel readers. I wanted them to feel comfortable and welcome, then hit them with a story that I knew was strong enough on its own. Same with “A Fire Story.”
You include a list of items you grabbed when you were fleeing. What were you most grateful to have saved?
As a practical matter, the best thing I grabbed was my computer’s backup drive. My life’s work, and future work, was on there. I would’ve been really sunk without it. We pulled out a desk drawer that had all our important papers, which spared us a lot of trouble later.
Sentimentally, I’m grateful we saved some family photos. I think the best save of the night was Karen thinking to grab our grown daughters’ favorite stuffed animals from childhood. It would have broken our hearts to lose Boo Bear and Piglet.
Was anything salvageable from the wreckage?
Some ceramic and metal objects came through. We collected a few big plastic bins of stuff we sifted from the ashes. A year and a half after the fire, we still haven’t looked through them. I suspect that when we do, we’ll throw out most of it, but at the time every bit that survived became a holy relic. I don’t know, but suspect we’ll put a few things in a display case and have a little shrine to our old lives in the new house.
How are rebuilding efforts going? Is the house being built in the same place as before?
Karen and I rebuilt in the same spot. We loved our neighbors and neighborhood, and couldn’t think of anywhere else we’d rather live. Many of our neighbors are also coming back, which is unusual. A lot of neighborhoods scattered after the fire, as people either couldn’t afford to rebuild or just didn’t want to.
We moved into our rebuilt house in late March. The footprint is about the same as our old house, and it looks almost the same from the outside, but we changed it a lot. We’re in a different part of our lives than we were 20 years ago, and our new house reflects that.
Any plans for a follow-up book to “A Fire Story”? What are you working on now?
I don’t plan on doing more work about the fire. After the events shown in “A Fire Story,” I stopped taking notes. I think there is a good story to be told about insurance, demolition, clearing, permitting, reconstruction, and just generally figuring out how to get on with life. I don’t know how to tell it and will leave it to someone else.
Before the fire, I’d been developing two graphic novel projects. Now I think I’m going to drop one and maybe continue with the other. The one I’ll probably drop just doesn’t interest me as much anymore. I’m not the same writer and artist I was back then. The fire has changed how I see my work in ways that I can’t quite articulate.
A Fire Story
By Brian Fies
(Abrams ComicArts; 160 pages; $24.99)
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