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.
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.