Lucky continued his Saturday morning fires throughout that summer and started bringing a friend along with him. The man had an unkempt beard, greasy hair, and always wore jeans that hung low around his waist, exposing his butt.

“Mom, who’s that guy with Lucky?” I asked the first time he showed up. “He looks like one of those guys we see hitchhiking along the highway.”

My mother walked to the living room window and looked out. Without saying a word, she turned and locked the front door. Then she crossed the trailer and locked the back. She had never done this before. Something was wrong.

“Mom, who is he?”

“His name is Ricky Trutt,” she said. “And you are not to go outside when he’s here. Do you understand me?”

“I don’t go out anyway.”

She knelt next to me and placed her hands on my shoulders. “Do not go outside when he’s here. Do you understand?”

“Okay,” I said, even though I wondered why.



Every Friday night we went to Lewistown for groceries. Small shops lined Valley Street, the main street through Lewistown: Kay’s Sporting Goods, Video Vendor, Foss’s Jewelers, and C. G. Murphy’s, which still had a lunch counter. Families and couples walked the streets at dusk and window shopped. Teenagers cruised past the cannons perched on the lawn of the Civil War – themed town square. While my mother shopped for groceries at the Giant Store, my father sometimes took me along with him for a visit to the Coleman House, the hotel Lucky and Helen owned.

The building sat on that town square and dated back to the late 1800s, when Lewistown had begun to transform into a tidy little city. Once it had been a popular and respectable place. A man named Harry Gardiner, who my father said was called the Human Fly, had as a publicity stunt climbed the outside of the seven-story hotel in the 1920s. In the years since then, the quality and care had declined. By the time my grandparents purchased it for next to nothing, the hotel housed Lewistown’s riffraff — the low cost of rooms was cheaper than renting an apartment. Most of the residents were men soaked in cheap liquor and dressed in stained clothing. Many were also Lucky’s friends.

“Grandma and Pappy will be glad to see you,” my dad said as he opened the glass door to the building’s lobby. “I bet Grandma will even give you some candy.”

“No, Dad, please no candy. Last time it was terrible.”

At Halloween the year before, my dad had painstakingly painted my face in a clown disguise and insisted on taking me to the hotel to show his parents. As usual, Helen cooed and hawed; Lucky, though, propped his feet on the counter and stared at the opposite wall. The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups Helen gave me that day looked like they were covered with cataracts, misshapen and hazed over with the kind of whiteness teachers at school warned us not to eat. I was certain that the candy in that display case near the front hotel’s desk hadn’t been freshened since last Halloween.

A television in the lobby blasted Wheel of Fortune. Three grizzled men sat on couches and stared in silence at the screen. The upholstery was ripped in spots, revealing yellow foam. The tiled floor had probably been white at one time; it now resembled the crusted bug shield on the hood of my father’s truck.

Helen, wearing a flower-print dress, stood behind the display case and wrote inside a log book next to the cash register. She looked up and smiled.

“Oh Lucky, look who’s here,” she said. “It’s Jay and Denton.”

Lucky sat in a recliner behind the counter reading National Geographic. He stood and placed the magazine on the seat of the chair.

“You ever read National Geographic, boy? You should. It’d make you smart.”

“Come on back here and give your grandma a big hug,” Helen said. She opened the flimsy particle board gate to let me behind the counter. “You want some candy?”

“He doesn’t need any,” my dad said. I squeezed his wrist and smiled up at him — if I held on to him, perhaps I wouldn’t be forced behind the desk for that dreadful hug. The scent of Helen’s cheap perfume always seemed to cling to my clothes.

“Well, guess what?” my dad said. He smiled and paused, letting the tension build. “We found a house.”

Lucky tongued at his toothpick. “Did you now?”

“Looks like we’ll be moving in by March or April,” my dad said.

“Oh Lucky, can you believe it?” Helen said. She turned to Lucky and smiled. “A new house. I can’t wait to see it. How big is it? Does it have a dining room? You should at least have a dining room. And you’re still going to build a basement, right?”

My dad nodded and explained that the double-wide was twice the size of our current trailer. He’d already made the calls to contractors for estimates on a basement.

“And you’re still putting it where our old house used to be?” Lucky asked. He flicked the toothpick into a trash can behind the counter. “Lot of good memories there.”

“Remember my ring, Lucky?” Helen asked. She turned to me, her mouth loose and smiling. “The first wedding ring your grandfather bought me, I took it off to wash dishes and I put it on the windowsill. And wouldn’t you know, it fell out the window and onto the ground. I never found it after that.” She scratched at her knee and lifted the purple dress up so high that it exposed a thick, panty-hosed thigh. I’d noticed this habit before — she often pulled up her dress, exposed her legs, and sometimes caressed her thighs.

“I looked high and low for that ring,” Lucky said. “I didn’t want to lose it.”

A lost treasure hunt flashed in my mind, a Saturday spent climbing over those busted concrete slabs, gliding a metal detector over the ground, all in search of that lost diamond ring.

“So it’s still there?” I asked. “Do you think it might still be worth something?”

“’Course it’s worth something, boy,” Lucky said. “It’s a diamond. You think they’re free? In Africa, little boys like you get told to go into mines to dig them out. And if they don’t dig in the mines, they get sold to people who’ll make them behave.”

My dad and his parents chatted for a few minutes about the trailer and about the fire company. Lucky listened with a blank stare while Helen nodded and smiled. When Lucky asked my father to look at a window in one of the rooms upstairs, I begged him to take me along with him. The only remotely fun part even about visiting the hotel was riding the elevator — an old-time contraption with a lever that had no doubt once been run by a bellhop. My father pulled the latticed metal gate across the elevator’s doorway and then yanked the lever. After a jerk, the cables grinded and we rose to the third floor, where my dad stepped out and told me to wait inside the elevator. He walked down the hallway and went into a room. The mud brown carpet looked polka-dotted with black stains. The entire place smelled of turpentine and dirty socks. After a few minutes, my dad came out of the room and we descended back to the lobby.

“Fixed it,” my dad said. “The spring inside was busted. I left the window open. Stunk pretty bad in there.”

Lucky nodded and thanked him. He eased back into his recliner again, the National Geographic in his hand. “I think Ricky Trutt and I might be up again soon. Got some old mattresses I want to burn up.”

My father dug both hands into his pockets. “Didn’t I tell you what Teena said about Ricky?”

Lucky stared back, unblinking and angry. “You told me. And you can tell her that it’s my ground. I can do what I want on my ground.”

“Dad, come on,” my father said. “I’ll help you burn them. He doesn’t need to come along.”

“If she doesn’t like him, then you tell her to leave,” Lucky said. “I don’t tell her who she can talk to. Ricky’s coming and that’s all there is to it.”

My dad didn’t speak. The sound of Jeopardy! spilled over the lobby. He glanced at his watch and said that we should leave. He took my hand and we walked out of the hotel. I wondered what my mother had said about Ricky Trutt and just why she always locked the doors when he came around.

My father stared blankly out the windshield as he drove.

“Dad, what happened to that house near our trailer?” I asked.

“Which house?”

“Your old house, when you were a kid,” I said. “The one we’re going to put the trailer on?”

He held his stare for a moment and cleared his throat. “You know, that’s funny. It burned down.” He voice softened. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as if nervous. “I remember losing all my toys. Slot cars, Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Lincoln Logs, and LEGOS. Board games too, like Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders.”

These were the same toys that he had bought me for Christmases and birthdays. If he never played with them as a child, I wondered why he never wanted to play with me now.

“All the photos burned up too,” he said. “I don’t even have any pictures of me when I was your age.”

“How did it catch on fire?” I asked.

“Just an accident,” he said sharply. “It was an accident. That’s why you should always be careful with matches and things like that. Fire is dangerous.”



Lucky stopped his weekly fires at the hole — it would soon be excavated with backhoes, and then bricklayers would arrive to lay the cinder-block foundation. One Saturday night at the end of August, my mother and I walked around the heavy, iron I beams that sat next to the hole. I begged her to watch me balance myself on the beams like a tightrope walker. My dad promised to come outside and play Wiffle ball with me once he got off the phone. Probably talking to one of his friends in the fire company, I thought.

The back screen door on the trailer slammed shut and he walked across the driveway and onto the dirt. He glanced at my mother, sighed, and then looked toward the horizon. He often did this when nervous, as if he wished he were following the sunset to somewhere else. He jingled change in his pockets.

“That was my mother on the phone,” he said. “Dad’s on his way up here to burn some things from the hotel.”

“Some things?” my mother said. “You said he wasn’t coming back.”

My father tugged the bill of his hat, rubbed his neck, and said, “It’s his ground. I can’t tell him not to.”

She crossed her arms and looked toward the highway. “Well, it’s too late now. Here he comes.”

Lucky’s pickup crowned the hill, and as he slowed, I saw that the bed was piled with mattresses. The trailer hitched to the back of his truck was also filled with them. Another truck followed behind. I instantly recognized the driver’s scraggly brown beard and hollow face as Ricky Trutt. His truck was also piled high with mattresses.

“Go inside,” my mother told me. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

I ran across the yard and up the porch steps. I turned and saw the trucks drive over the lawn, past my jungle gym and the tool shed, and then stop. They had parked next to the cement floor leftover from where the workshop had once stood.

When my mother came inside, she locked the door behind her. We huddled around the kitchen window and watched.

My dad climbed onto the back of the truck and grabbed one end of a mattress, Lucky grabbed the other. Together, they swung the thing back and forth and finally tossed it onto the ground. They continued until both trucks and trailers were empty. My father talked with Lucky and Ricky for a few moments. Then he walked across the yard, unlocked the door, and came inside. My mother sat on a chair at the kitchen table. When my dad crossed his arms, leaned against the wall, and looked toward her, she continued to stare out the window.

“What?” he asked.

“What are they doing?” she asked. “It’s almost dark.”

“He’s just burning some old mattresses from the hotel.”

“I thought you told him not to bring Ricky Trutt here anymore.” Her words came slow yet forceful, as if holding back a scream.

My father shrugged and said, “Dad needed the help.”

“He needs help,” my mother said. She turned from the window and looked at my father. “He’s sick. They’re both sick. And did you have to help them? They shouldn’t let that man have matches. It’s illegal for murderers to have guns.”

“What do you mean?” He laughed and shook his head. I could tell that he wanted her to drop the issue.

“You threw those mattresses off the truck with them.”

“My father can’t do things like that anymore,” he said. “Do you want him to have a heart attack?”

“How dare he keep coming here with that creep, in front of his grandson no less.” She stood, pressed a hand against her cheek, and said, “You know why Lucky comes here, Denton?”

My father pointed at her. “Don’t you say it.”

“Why? You don’t want your son to hear it?”

“Hear what?” I asked.

My dad squinted at my mother and clenched his jaw. He marched toward the door again, stomping his feet so hard that I thought they were going to pound right through the floor of the kitchen. He slammed the door and then walked back across the yard toward my grandfather. My mother and I continued watching out the kitchen window.

Lucky and Trutt circled the mattresses and splashed them with gasoline. Then, just as he had done for those Saturday morning blazes, Lucky poured a small trail through the grass and away from the mattresses. He struck a match and dropped it onto the ground. He and Trutt hustled backward and watched the flames erupt. Air hissed and the crackling roar sounded like a jet engine. A ginger-colored lambency spread in ripples across the yard and leaked through the windows of our trailer. That glow from the flames swirled on the ceiling, bounced off the walls, and the trailer felt submerged in some kind of intangible hell.

My mother and I stepped onto the porch and watched the roaring fire. I felt the warmth of the flames press against my face. Heat devils shimmered in the air and smoke clouded up into the blackening evening sky. The inferno was perhaps thirty yards away from us, and my grandfather and his friend stood beside it, their postures relaxed as though watching a fireworks display. The smell of smoke thickened the air. I had never seen anything like it, and my heart beat hard inside my chest in fear. My grandfather had done this, I thought.

My dad walked onto the porch and stood next to my mother and me. Sweat beads sparkled on his forehead.

“Can’t you make them put it out, Dad?” I looked up at my father but his eyes were fixed on the fire. I tugged at his jeans and asked again.

“It’s his land,” he said. He shook his head and looked to the ground. “I can’t stop him.”

“But you’re the fire chief,” I said. “What if it spreads into the fields? What if it comes toward the house?” Vast fields of fire spread through my imagination — helicopters hovered in the sky, dropping bursts of water onto the scene, and men with axes raced toward the flames. My father commanded all of them like a general in battle.

“I don’t know,” my dad finally said. “I don’t know.”

In the end, he did nothing. When the fire finally dwindled, Lucky and Ricky climbed into their pickups and drove off into the night. Later, before I went to bed, I looked out the window once more. The glowing embers looked like a thousand wicked eyes peering through the darkness.

Author’s note:  It had been a long time since I wrote an honest-to-God interview.  When I took this assignment, I was a little rattled.  While I spent a year as a reporter, covering the police and fire beat and the municipal circuit, I haven’t pursued any straight journalism in years, devoting my writing life to memoir, personal essay, and fiction.  But when TNB asked me to interview Jay Varner, I thought what the heck—I could dust off the press credentials and break out the notebook again.

I didn’t know much of this fellow, but after a little time on Google, I soon discovered that Varner was supposedly the hot new writer on the block—hot in more ways than one, since Nothing Left to Burn, his debut memoir, is about his fire chief father and arsonist grandfather.  His book was certainly a page-turner.  I couldn’t stop reading the strange, true tale of that small-town fire chief father, the terrifying grandfather who was a sadistic pyromaniac, and the secrets that rise to the surface.  Surely a good sign, right?

I asked few literati friends about him.  As I called some of Varner’s friends and fellow writers, all of them had nothing but great things to say.  According to them, he’s fiercely loyal, deliciously funny, and generous.  Strangely, all of them also mentioned his heartbreaking, Don Draper-esque handsomeness, but I decided to reserve judgment until I met the man in person.  The way they talked, it was like some genius editor had combined Nabokov, Hemingway, Salinger, and Proust into one super-writer whose fingertips shot lightning into the keyboard.  He could make someone laugh and cry within one sentence—sometimes within a single word.  And he was supposed to be a nice guy as well—gracious, courteous, personable, and self-effacing.

But as I conducted more research, it turned out that he also cut his teeth as a small town newspaper reporter.  Coincidentally, both of us were raised in Central Pennsylvania.  When I discovered that he now lived in Charlottesville, Virginia—my home as well—it seemed like passing up the opportunity to interview him would be one of those life-defining mistakes, when things were divided up to before or after I turned down a chance to meet Jay Varner.

One day this summer, we met at his favorite restaurant The White Spot, which I also love, near the University of Virginia campus, where neither of us teaches.  It’s a greasy-spoon lunch counter famous for the Gusburger, one of those monstrosity burgers that I always feel guilty eating.  Two beef patties topped with cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and—the coup de grace—one fried egg.  My wife discourages me even thinking about such things and, I later found out, Varner’s wife does as well.

Varner, dressed in Penn State T-shirt, offered the kind of firm handshake that only a man of confidence and grace could possess.  Apparently the cooks at The White Spot knew him.  They threw their hands into the air and forced a group of burly construction workers to give up their stools just for Varner and me.  Ever the gentleman, Varner waited for me to sit down first.


Memoirs are huge right now.  What’s going to make yours stand out?

Well the story is certainly something that’s never been told before.  A fire chief father, an arsonist grandfather, this kid in the middle trying to figure everything out.  It’s about fathers and sons, which has certainly been covered.  And it’s about the search of redemption and meaning—and that’s universal.  I think there are people in here that every reader can love or hate.  It’s certainly not just about the men—I think the female characters are incredibly strong.  It also looks at a distinct section of the country—Central Pennsylvania is unlike anywhere else.  All of that sounds dark, and sure, there was genuine pain living through it, but I hope people can see the oddball absurdity of some of the characters and happenings as well.


Why did you write about this?  You mention a few times in the book that your family didn’t want this to happen.

No, some of them didn’t.  I understand that feeling.  When you experience something—and in this case, we had this really intense, strange, heartbreaking, weird life—you want to lay claim to it.  When someone else writes about it, who takes ownership?  I’m not sure I have the answer there.  Obviously, what I wrote in this is my truth—this is how I remember everything, how it was told to me in some cases.  Certainly some people will have different memories.  But it has to be a strange feeling for some people in the book—this family history, and in some cases dark secrets—will be on bookshelves or inside iPads.

I had the benefit of a great liberal arts education, which taught me to think critically about everything.  And at that time, I was just a kid.  All of these experiences had piled up and I hadn’t even attempted to sift through them.  But once I realized that I had to do this in order to define who I am as a man, well, the only way I knew how to do it was to write.  So I definitely started writing this for me.  The longer it went, I started to consider if there was an audience, if a reader would be interested in something like this.


How long did it take you to write Nothing Left to Burn?

About three years.  I actually started writing the story as a novel around 2001.  Actually, I started it around the same time September 11 happened, and since my father was a fireman, that added an ever greater level of emotional intensity for me.  But I was taking a novel writing class at Susquehanna University, where I went to undergrad.  My professor, Tom Bailey, he read the first hundred pages of this novel called Fire Through the Center.  It was about a small town fire chief named Derek Knefler.  Derek’s father was named Buddy, and he had been a serial arsonist around town.  The novel was told through the eyes of Derek’s young son.  Well, Tom read this novel and kind of gave me this strange look.  And he asked how did I ever come up with such a story.  I shrugged and said, “Well, all of this really happened to me.”


Until then, you hadn’t talked about this background?

Definitely not.  I came from such a small town—a deeply religious town that held a lot of old-school Protestant guilt and shame—and my mother and I just felt so awful about all that my grandfather had done, even though we’d obviously had nothing to do with it.  So throughout middle school, high school, some of college—I never told anyone about my past.  Not even my girlfriend at the time.  But when Tom heard this, I think light started to beam out of his eyes.  He was very kind, and said, “Have you heard of nonfiction?”  Of course I had, but I was so green—basically I was a hick who learned how to type and thought I could write—I never knew that you could write an entire book about yourself.  Especially when you were only twenty.


And you got hooked on nonfiction then?

Nope.  I stayed with fiction.  I rewrote one story about twenty-five times to get it right, and then submitted it as my writing sample for graduate schools.  Tom encouraged me to send out to the top-tier places—his encouragement was really valuable, because until then, it wasn’t something I wasn’t used to hearing—and then gradually that spring, I received rejections from every graduate school I applied to.


What did you do then?

I smoked a lot of cigarettes.  I watched a lot of movies.  I played basketball at midnight.  I nearly died from some weird fever that sent me into fits.  Then I saw an ad in the newspaper asking for a reporter.  And that’s how I ended up there.


What was it like covering police and fire?

Well, ultimately, it was a great experience.  But at first, it was not pleasant.  Central PA seems to have a strange rash of odd deaths.  And they happen often.  People die in violent ways—shootings, car accidents, drug overdoses—and I had to cover that.  Obviously, I cared deeply about the region, and it was tough to see some of that darkness.  It was worse when it happened to someone I knew.  I wrote obituaries for two people I graduated high school with.  And the fires were incredible.  I met a lot of my dad’s friends, saw the fire companies in action in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.  But I definitely wanted to get to graduate school in the end.  Luckily I did.  If I hadn’t, I’m sure I’d still be working for a newspaper.  It was tough, thrilling, frustrating work, but it gets in your blood.


And what was grad school like?  Did you see the latest MFA program rankings in Poets and Writers?

I did see the rankings.  I think they’re helpful to some.  I was very happy to see University of North Carolina Wilmington listed as number two for nonfiction. I was lucky to find an environment that wasn’t overly competitive.  You always hear horror stories about workshops and backstabbing.  Never saw anything like that.  Everyone was supportive, the faculty was incredibly helpful.  And it certainly didn’t hurt to be around these talented, driven people who helped each other really push your writing.  I’m still in touch with many of those people.  But ultimately, I think the program at the very end of the rankings could be a great program for the right person.  I had some great teachers—David Gessner, Clyde Edgerton, Wendy Brenner, the whole faculty—who helped me write a thesis.  And that eventually became Nothing Left to Burn.  But I’d tell someone to find an environment that fits, to find a faculty that you want to study under.  I felt that I needed to learn more, and wanted to.  I wanted to experience graduate school.  I was able to teach, I was managing editor of Ecotone: Reimaging Place.  And most of all, I wanted the time to write.  Even at the time, I knew that something like that wouldn’t come along for quite some time.  My whole life revolved around writing and literature.  Words really can’t express how fortunate I was to have that opportunity.


You finished graduate school in 2007.  What have you been doing since then?

Professionally, I’ve kind of just been spanning time.  Worked an incredibly brain-killing job for two and a half years.  I’m trying to write about that now.  I think it’s something that could be really funny, really sad, and kind of take the temperature of the current economic climate.  But it allowed me to pay the bills and write.


So memoir is something that you want to continue writing?

Well, that was never really the plan.  But life has a strange way of happening.  And sometimes there really are moments that can just be milked for this universal meaning.  I think that’s something that readers really relate to.


Why do you think memoirs are so popular?

When someone asks me that question, I always think of my mother.  One of her guilty pleasures are those made-for-TV movies.  And sometimes she’ll tell me about one.  At the end, she’ll always add, “It was a true story.”  I think there is something about humanity that needs to connect with others.  And knowing that something is true, it adds another layer of experience for people.  You can relate, you can sympathize, you can be amazed that something so crazy actually happened.  Of course, I love fiction as well, and it can do the same thing.  Right now, we’re seeing reality culture boom.  Twitter, Facebook, television.  We have to know what people are doing at all times.  And of course it’s not always interesting.  But I think that’s been happening for a long time.  Memoirs, personal essays—these aren’t new things.  Reading others try to make sense of their own lives helps a reader do the same.  And the best memoirs do just that.


What do you think some of the best memoirs are?

Mary Karr is amazing.  I really love the three memoirs she wrote.  The Glass Castle was also just a tour-de-force.  There’s a great memoir called At Home in Appalachia by John O’Brien that I love.  He relates his family’s story, but also somewhat tears down the stereotypes people think of Appalachia.


Would you call yourself an Appalachian writer?

No.  I relate to stories from that area.  And Central Pennsylvania—well, political strategist James Carvill famously said that Pennsylvania was Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.  I’m not sure about that, but there are parts affected by poverty, that feel as though time has passed them by.  I certainly love Southern writing, especially Southern gothic.  But I think there can be a Northern gothic genre as well.  I’m not sure why the south is the only place that gets that distinction.  Travel to small towns across Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio—there’s just as much richness of character and place, and every bit as gothic.


So you’re working on another memoir, what next?

Right now, I’m getting ready for the book tour, which is just so amazing.  I can’t really believe that I have the chance to do this.  Truly, it’s just been such an incredible experience.  Everyone at Algonquin has been supportive, encouraging, and you just know that they care about each and every project they do.  Beyond that, I actually finished a novel a few weeks ago.  And I don’t know what will become of that.  Definitely needs another pass or two.  It could sit in a drawer forever.  It might not.  Either way, I’m excited about it at the moment.  I’ve started this other memoir about that unique work experience.  And I’m taking notes for another novel as well.  And soon, the academic hiring season will open and it’s off to the races.


Why teaching?

It’s something I really loved in graduate school.  Since I left, I’ve wanted to get back there, but the market has been pretty tough.  I love the collegial environment.  Hopefully I have something that I can offer at a university.  And really, writing, reading, literature, that’s all I know how to do.  Or really care to do.  And sitting in a classroom of students, seeing that excitement come over their faces—there’s no real word for that.  My teachers certainly made the biggest impression on me of anyone, so I hope that I can have the chance to do the same.


What’s your writing process like?

I’m pretty regimented.  I definitely view writing as a job—and I mean that the best way possible.  You have to show up everyday, and I do.  Growing up blue collar, that was really instrumental in defining that work ethic.  I’m always at the desk everyday working for five, six hours.  So if it really is a job, it’s the best job in the world.


Do you listen to music while you write?  I heard you like Christmas music?

Saying I like Christmas music makes me sound weird.  But it’s true.  I actually started a Christmas music blog called 77 Santas.  It’s something my friend Patrick Culliton and I started in graduate school.  We like Christmas songs that are good, that you don’t usually hear on the radio.  And, somehow, I’ve become a bit of an expert on the music.  But beyond that, I listen to music all the time when writing.  I love film scores—I’m also a total nerd when it comes to that.  But that gets me in the right mood, helps me just focus.