Heather Ezell’s Debut Novel: Nothing Left to Burn

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Both in what I read and what I choose to write, I have a great weakness for troubled characters. They draw me in, they keep me guessing, they have me cheering for them. When I read an advance readers’ copy of Heather Ezell’s beautiful debut, NOTHING LEFT TO BURN, Brooks and Audrey’s story sucked me deep into the pages…and kept me there. This is a disturbing, lyrical, heartbreaking gem of a book. I’m so thrilled to be able to chat with Heather about it on the blog.

Heather, I had the great privilege of reading an ARC of NOTHING LEFT TO BURN, and it left me breathless . . . it’s dark and hopeful and mysterious and emotional all at once. The story spans the course of just one day—but it also includes flashbacks to moments that inform the main characters’ journey. How did you determine the structure of the book, and was it a challenge to put on paper?

Thank you so much! You’re giving me some major heart flutters over here.

Back in 2014, I was a writer who did very little planning and it wasn’t until I hit page 100 in the manuscript I realized that NLTB would to take place over a single day with include flashbacks—I was a hundred pages in and it was only the late morning of Audrey’s evacuation day! I’d haphazardly envisioned a weeklong timeline with spare flashbacks. But, gosh, did not outlining serve me well: the daylong structure came intuitively and was painless, actually really thrilling, to draft. (My current WIPs are NOT being so kind.)

However, NLTB’s structure absolutely caused headaches in revisions. So many index cards and Post-It time stamps and moving scenes back and forth and scrolling up and down my manuscript when I was too lazy to use index cards. I also turned to Google maps a lot to ensure it was possible for it to take Audrey twenty minutes to get from Point A to Point B and so on. But—most importantly—the effort that went into the structure during revisions focused on the placement of the past and present chapters, guaranteeing the order of scenes created the best possible tension and development.

And, ha, the daylong timeline continued to be a nightmare even after my final proofread. Thank goodness for the copy editing team over at Penguin, who solved my timestamp woes in the final hour.

It’s hard to believe, but NTLB is your debut novel (congratulations, by the way!). Please share your journey with us—did you always know you wanted to be a writer? What’s the story behind the story, so to speak?

Woof! The story behind the story is LONG. I indeed always knew I wanted to be a writer. My earliest memory is sitting in the principal’s office in the first grade, wearing a giant poufy dress, eagerly showing her the “book” I’d written over the weekend (sketches on colored construction paper complete with scissored edges!). Allegedly, going to her office to share my book with the principal was my idea.

And from there, well, I don’t remember ever not considering myself a writer and not wanting to be an author. But my writing really kicked into gear when I discovered Harry Potter fan-fic in the eighth grade—mere months later I started my first novel and began (prematurely) querying at fourteen. I revised and rewrote and revised and wrote another two books and revised for some ten years until I landed with my agent in 2014.

Perhaps I should mention that the novel I wrote when I was thirteen was a very different version of NOTHING LEFT TO BURN. Or, rather, it was a different story for Audrey. There was no Brooks, no wildfire, no Maya or Grace, no ballet, and the story spanned six months. There was, however, Hayden—and he was present in a much louder way!

Speaking of the story behind the story, what was the inspiration for NLTB? And did you need to do any research over the course of writing the book?

I didn’t live in Audrey’s community of Coto de Caza but I was in a community on the other side of the trails she and Brooks walk on, which is to say that the setting and fire of NLTB was inspired by my childhood surroundings and torment in regards wildfires.

The fire that likely sealed the fiery deal for NLTB was the October 2007 Santiago Fire: I was sixteen, incredibly lost and devastatingly depressed, angsty and hell-bent on getting out of California. I hated where I lived and had for years. But, that fall, I remember standing on my parents’ balcony watching the flames zigzag in nearby hills and having an incredibly particular realization that I in fact didn’t hate my home. What I felt was a fear for it, an anger at its vulnerability, and a struggle to understand its divisions. Like Audrey, it took my home being under threat to finally let myself accept my love for the land I’d resented my entire life.

In terms of Audrey and Brooks’ relationship, which is the core of NLTB, I’ve always been intrigued by the blurred lines within intense relationships—obsession and love, passion and dependency, the ways in which these relationships define us. As a teenager, I was in an extremely fraught, co-dependent relationship. We were both intensely passionate and volatile, in love and painfully young, and we both (I believe) built our identities around the idea of us. It took many, many years to truly cut the threads. My finally coming to terms with the realities of that relationship is what fed Brooks and Audrey’s story.

Throughout the novel, fire itself is both setting and character. What fascinates you about things that burn?

Oh gosh, I think it’s less fascination and more utter fear! Repeating myself here a bit but I grew up on the border of what feels like endless national forest land in Orange County and, like Audrey, under what like a constant threat of wildfires. As a child, I prayed every night that no “scary man” would come into my room and take me away, that there would be no earthquake, no flood, that my parents wouldn’t die… and that the hill across the street wouldn’t catch on fire and burn down my home.

It’s worth mentioning, I suppose, that I was evacuated for a fire when I was three and that the mountain adjacent to that house was indeed very much on fire. My mom said there was a lot of screaming on my end and this was something I mentioned in fear a great deal in the years that followed. I have no memory of the evacuation, though I can very much picture it, and, hey, I probably have that traumatizing experience to thank for Nothing Left to Burn being what it is.

I’m fascinated by fear of what we can’t control. I’m terrified of droughts, of the dry land that surrounds my childhood home, of the forests in the West that seemingly burn more each year. And I suppose I’m fascinated too, sure, because the fact of the matter is that wildfires are natural and “supposed to happen,” as Brooks says. Fire is a part of the big life cycle of land. And that’s unnerving—an awareness of how small we are, of how easily we can be thrown by natural disasters, of how quickly devastation can reign.

So, yes, I think, ultimately, I’m fascinated by my own primal fear, as well as with people like Brooks who find a perverse sort of beauty in someone so horrific.

Brooks and Audrey are both damaged characters, in their own ways. At one point, Audrey wonders whether “broken people should date other broken people.” How did their chemistry inform NLTB? How do their dysfunctions bring them together—and drive them apart?

Oh this is a tricky question and one I’m still working to answer even in regards to my own life. As I mentioned previously, I was in a not so healthy relationship as a teenager, one that Brooks and Audrey certainly mirror to a degree. Writing NOTHING LEFT TO BURN allowed me to unknowingly unpack the ways in which our individual dysfunctions kept us tied together, connected even years after we’d split… And still, after writing NOTHING LEFT TO BURN, there isn’t a simple, clear explanation on how our personal demons brought us together and kept us together and drove us apart (and then back together and so on) that I can confidently, eloquently articulate.

Brooks wants someone to believe in him and his story, to see him in bright light, while Audrey is aching for a passion, something (or someone) to claim as her own, something to fill the void she feels and can’t name (depression). And so they instinctively fall into those roles: They become what the other person needs, and naturally that escalates.

I think it comes down to the common yearning to want to “save someone”—I know this was what I felt fiercely when I was struggling with mental illness as a teen. If I could save this boy who was also deeply scarred, then there would be meaning, there would be proof that I was significant …and, to add to this, while I was “saving” him I wouldn’t have to take care of myself, which is often the hardest thing to do when you’re battling mental illness. It is so much easier to cling and fixate on another’s pain instead of your own.

That savior complex definitely exists in both Brooks and Audrey, and it’s something that absolutely keeps them locked in together. And (~spoiler~) it’s ultimately Audrey acknowledging this—that she doesn’t need him, doesn’t need to save him, doesn’t need him to save her—that allows her to move forward.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should have? Whatever it is, please answer it here! 

My dog’s name is Bellatrix and she’s a glorious black lab that accompanies on my forest walks. You can find a plethora of photos of her on my twitter and instagram! 😉 But no, really, thank you for such beautiful questions, Emily!

Back Cover Copy

The autumn morning after sixteen-year-old Audrey Harper loses her virginity, she wakes to a loud, persistent knocking at her front door. Waiting for her are two firemen, there to let her know that the moment she’s been dreading has arrived: the enormous wildfire sweeping through Orange County, California, is now dangerously close to her idyllic gated community of Coto de Caza, and it’s time to evacuate. 

Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, as Audrey wrestles with the possibility of losing her family home, she also recalls her early, easy summer days with Brooks, the charming, passionate, but troubled volunteer firefighter who enchants Audrey–and who is just as enthralled by her. But as secrets from Brooks’s dark past come to light, Audrey can’t help but wonder if there’s danger in the pull she feels–both toward this boy, and toward the fire burning in the distance.

Bio

A Southern California native, Heather Ezell was evacuated for a fire at the age of three and subsequently grew up with an obsessive fear of wildfires. She has been chasing reprieve from California’s heat ever since–from the Rocky Mountains to Interior Alaska. Heather graduated from Colorado College with a degree in English literature and creative writing, and she currently lives in the Pacific Northwest where she writes, practices amateur ballet in the forest, and obsesses over the weather.

twitter – https://twitter.com/heatherezell

instagram – https://www.instagram.com/heathermezell/

website – heatherezell.com

Buy links

https://www.amazon.com/Nothing-Left-Burn-Heather-Ezell/dp/0448494264/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498288199&sr=8-1&keywords=nothing+left+to+burn+ezell

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/nothing-left-to-burn-heather-ezell/1126606286?ean=9780448494265#/

https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780448494265

Both in what I read and what I choose to write, I have a great weakness for troubled characters. They draw me in, they keep me guessing, they have me cheering for them. When I read an advance readers’ copy of Heather Ezell’s beautiful debut, NOTHING LEFT TO BURN, Brooks and Audrey’s story sucked me deep into the pages…and kept me there. This is a disturbing, lyrical, heartbreaking gem of a book. I’m so thrilled to be able to chat with Heather about it on the blog.

Heather, I had the great privilege of reading an ARC of NOTHING LEFT TO BURN, and it left me breathless . . . it’s dark and hopeful and mysterious and emotional all at once. The story spans the course of just one day—but it also includes flashbacks to moments that inform the main characters’ journey. How did you determine the structure of the book, and was it a challenge to put on paper?

Thank you so much! You’re giving me some major heart flutters over here.

Back in 2014, I was a writer who did very little planning and it wasn’t until I hit page 100 in the manuscript I realized that NLTB would to take place over a single day with include flashbacks—I was a hundred pages in and it was only the late morning of Audrey’s evacuation day! I’d haphazardly envisioned a weeklong timeline with spare flashbacks. But, gosh, did not outlining serve me well: the daylong structure came intuitively and was painless, actually really thrilling, to draft. (My current WIPs are NOT being so kind.)

However, NLTB’s structure absolutely caused headaches in revisions. So many index cards and Post-It time stamps and moving scenes back and forth and scrolling up and down my manuscript when I was too lazy to use index cards. I also turned to Google maps a lot to ensure it was possible for it to take Audrey twenty minutes to get from Point A to Point B and so on. But—most importantly—the effort that went into the structure during revisions focused on the placement of the past and present chapters, guaranteeing the order of scenes created the best possible tension and development.

And, ha, the daylong timeline continued to be a nightmare even after my final proofread. Thank goodness for the copy editing team over at Penguin, who solved my timestamp woes in the final hour.

It’s hard to believe, but NTLB is your debut novel (congratulations, by the way!). Please share your journey with us—did you always know you wanted to be a writer? What’s the story behind the story, so to speak?

Woof! The story behind the story is LONG. I indeed always knew I wanted to be a writer. My earliest memory is sitting in the principal’s office in the first grade, wearing a giant poufy dress, eagerly showing her the “book” I’d written over the weekend (sketches on colored construction paper complete with scissored edges!). Allegedly, going to her office to share my book with the principal was my idea.

And from there, well, I don’t remember ever not considering myself a writer and not wanting to be an author. But my writing really kicked into gear when I discovered Harry Potter fan-fic in the eighth grade—mere months later I started my first novel and began (prematurely) querying at fourteen. I revised and rewrote and revised and wrote another two books and revised for some ten years until I landed with my agent in 2014.

Perhaps I should mention that the novel I wrote when I was thirteen was a very different version of NOTHING LEFT TO BURN. Or, rather, it was a different story for Audrey. There was no Brooks, no wildfire, no Maya or Grace, no ballet, and the story spanned six months. There was, however, Hayden—and he was present in a much louder way!

Speaking of the story behind the story, what was the inspiration for NLTB? And did you need to do any research over the course of writing the book?

I didn’t live in Audrey’s community of Coto de Caza but I was in a community on the other side of the trails she and Brooks walk on, which is to say that the setting and fire of NLTB was inspired by my childhood surroundings and torment in regards wildfires.

The fire that likely sealed the fiery deal for NLTB was the October 2007 Santiago Fire: I was sixteen, incredibly lost and devastatingly depressed, angsty and hell-bent on getting out of California. I hated where I lived and had for years. But, that fall, I remember standing on my parents’ balcony watching the flames zigzag in nearby hills and having an incredibly particular realization that I in fact didn’t hate my home. What I felt was a fear for it, an anger at its vulnerability, and a struggle to understand its divisions. Like Audrey, it took my home being under threat to finally let myself accept my love for the land I’d resented my entire life.

In terms of Audrey and Brooks’ relationship, which is the core of NLTB, I’ve always been intrigued by the blurred lines within intense relationships—obsession and love, passion and dependency, the ways in which these relationships define us. As a teenager, I was in an extremely fraught, co-dependent relationship. We were both intensely passionate and volatile, in love and painfully young, and we both (I believe) built our identities around the idea of us. It took many, many years to truly cut the threads. My finally coming to terms with the realities of that relationship is what fed Brooks and Audrey’s story.

Throughout the novel, fire itself is both setting and character. What fascinates you about things that burn?

Oh gosh, I think it’s less fascination and more utter fear! Repeating myself here a bit but I grew up on the border of what feels like endless national forest land in Orange County and, like Audrey, under what like a constant threat of wildfires. As a child, I prayed every night that no “scary man” would come into my room and take me away, that there would be no earthquake, no flood, that my parents wouldn’t die… and that the hill across the street wouldn’t catch on fire and burn down my home.

It’s worth mentioning, I suppose, that I was evacuated for a fire when I was three and that the mountain adjacent to that house was indeed very much on fire. My mom said there was a lot of screaming on my end and this was something I mentioned in fear a great deal in the years that followed. I have no memory of the evacuation, though I can very much picture it, and, hey, I probably have that traumatizing experience to thank for Nothing Left to Burn being what it is.

I’m fascinated by fear of what we can’t control. I’m terrified of droughts, of the dry land that surrounds my childhood home, of the forests in the West that seemingly burn more each year. And I suppose I’m fascinated too, sure, because the fact of the matter is that wildfires are natural and “supposed to happen,” as Brooks says. Fire is a part of the big life cycle of land. And that’s unnerving—an awareness of how small we are, of how easily we can be thrown by natural disasters, of how quickly devastation can reign.

So, yes, I think, ultimately, I’m fascinated by my own primal fear, as well as with people like Brooks who find a perverse sort of beauty in someone so horrific.

Brooks and Audrey are both damaged characters, in their own ways. At one point, Audrey wonders whether “broken people should date other broken people.” How did their chemistry inform NLTB? How do their dysfunctions bring them together—and drive them apart?

Oh this is a tricky question and one I’m still working to answer even in regards to my own life. As I mentioned previously, I was in a not so healthy relationship as a teenager, one that Brooks and Audrey certainly mirror to a degree. Writing NOTHING LEFT TO BURN allowed me to unknowingly unpack the ways in which our individual dysfunctions kept us tied together, connected even years after we’d split… And still, after writing NOTHING LEFT TO BURN, there isn’t a simple, clear explanation on how our personal demons brought us together and kept us together and drove us apart (and then back together and so on) that I can confidently, eloquently articulate.

Brooks wants someone to believe in him and his story, to see him in bright light, while Audrey is aching for a passion, something (or someone) to claim as her own, something to fill the void she feels and can’t name (depression). And so they instinctively fall into those roles: They become what the other person needs, and naturally that escalates.

I think it comes down to the common yearning to want to “save someone”—I know this was what I felt fiercely when I was struggling with mental illness as a teen. If I could save this boy who was also deeply scarred, then there would be meaning, there would be proof that I was significant …and, to add to this, while I was “saving” him I wouldn’t have to take care of myself, which is often the hardest thing to do when you’re battling mental illness. It is so much easier to cling and fixate on another’s pain instead of your own.

That savior complex definitely exists in both Brooks and Audrey, and it’s something that absolutely keeps them locked in together. And (~spoiler~) it’s ultimately Audrey acknowledging this—that she doesn’t need him, doesn’t need to save him, doesn’t need him to save her—that allows her to move forward.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should have? Whatever it is, please answer it here! 

My dog’s name is Bellatrix and she’s a glorious black lab that accompanies on my forest walks. You can find a plethora of photos of her on my twitter and instagram! 😉 But no, really, thank you for such beautiful questions, Emily!

Back Cover Copy

The autumn morning after sixteen-year-old Audrey Harper loses her virginity, she wakes to a loud, persistent knocking at her front door. Waiting for her are two firemen, there to let her know that the moment she’s been dreading has arrived: the enormous wildfire sweeping through Orange County, California, is now dangerously close to her idyllic gated community of Coto de Caza, and it’s time to evacuate. 

Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, as Audrey wrestles with the possibility of losing her family home, she also recalls her early, easy summer days with Brooks, the charming, passionate, but troubled volunteer firefighter who enchants Audrey–and who is just as enthralled by her. But as secrets from Brooks’s dark past come to light, Audrey can’t help but wonder if there’s danger in the pull she feels–both toward this boy, and toward the fire burning in the distance.

Bio

A Southern California native, Heather Ezell was evacuated for a fire at the age of three and subsequently grew up with an obsessive fear of wildfires. She has been chasing reprieve from California’s heat ever since–from the Rocky Mountains to Interior Alaska. Heather graduated from Colorado College with a degree in English literature and creative writing, and she currently lives in the Pacific Northwest where she writes, practices amateur ballet in the forest, and obsesses over the weather.

twitter – https://twitter.com/heatherezell

instagram – https://www.instagram.com/heathermezell/

website – heatherezell.com

Buy links

https://www.amazon.com/Nothing-Left-Burn-Heather-Ezell/dp/0448494264/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498288199&sr=8-1&keywords=nothing+left+to+burn+ezell

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/nothing-left-to-burn-heather-ezell/1126606286?ean=9780448494265#/

https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780448494265

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