The fire next time

A Reno firefighter explores flames and faith in his debut novel

Photo By lauren randolph

On the surface, Aidan O’Connor’s struggles and challenges seem like he’s the one-in-a-million facing them. Aidan must come face-to-face with the powerful demands of fire—a fire that kills, a fire that only knows to do one thing: destroy.

“Even smoke runs from the fire,” author and firefighter Shawn Grady writes. “But I find myself compelled to enter hell’s havoc and the swirling chasm, to take for my own the taming of the element, screwing my courage to the sticking place. When blackness billows heaven-bent from hallways, and flame tips lick lintels like a serpent’s tongue, the Sirens stand singing. Mast ties won’t hold fast. Enter the cloud. Enveloped by heat. Vanquish the destroyer.”

Is this Grady’s autobiography? It’s true that in his debut novel, Grady pulls from his own experiences of being a Reno fireman and paramedic for more than a decade. But this is a story of despair and redemption, a story about a spiritual and emotional journey. It’s not about Grady, but about the main character, Aidan.

“I chose someone who I could realistically get in the head of and depict first-person wise,” says Grady, a Reno-resident whose novel Through the Fire was published in July. “In some ways he’s similar to me, but in other ways I had a lot of freedom to give him these struggles and challenges.”

Fire walk with me

Meet Aidan. Aidan is a Reno firefighter and paramedic. His fiancée has just left him, and under his supervision, one of his rookie firefighters ends up in the hospital. On top of that, it’s the anniversary of his father’s death. Five years ago his father, who was also a firefighter, died in a fire. Since then, Aidan hasn’t been the same. He is tormented knowing he could have saved his father. He’s also tormented by the suspicion that an arsonist, still on the lam from the law, set the fire responsible for his father’s death. This arsonist may also be linked to a string of recent fires that Aidan must now deal with. Sound familiar? Maybe not yet, but just wait.

It’s a suspense-thriller replete with leads and violent encounters. Aidan’s primary conflict ultimately is his loss of faith in God. Yes, this is a Christian novel and, who hasn’t dealt with loss? Or anger? Or confusion? When his father dies, Aidan feels an overwhelming sense of unnecessary pain and suffering. The consequence is that he neglects his faith. He feels as if he can only depend on himself. Aidan descends “literally and figuratively” into hell, says Grady. He’s lost his talent of hearing the fire, and the fire becomes an anthropomorphic character, teasing Aidan and pushing him to the curb. After a near-death-by-drowning experience in Mexico, Aidan is, in a sense, baptized by the ocean’s waves, and he takes the first steps in his spiritual awakening and begins again.

Grady is not preachy. There’s only one significant Bible verse in the novel. “I just set out to tell a good story without any of the facets of it jumping out at the reader and distracting them,” says Grady. “I did this in an effort to tell a story that made sense for the character, his spiritual growth and his faith journey and his personal journey.” While reading the novel, glimpses of Reno’s culture can be caught. The fire trucks screams down Virginia Street. Aidan meets people at Dreamer’s Coffeehouse and at Pneumatic Diner. The firehouse in the novel is meant to parallel the firehouse recently torn down where the Aces Ballpark now stands. Even Mike Alger, Channel 2’s meteorologist with “Weather Coverage You Can Count On,” reports the weather. Throughout, the novel is a page-turner.

In the line of fire

Through the Fire is the first of a three-book deal Grady has with Bethany House Publishers, a Christian publishing house. His second novel, Tomorrow We Die, is scheduled for release in the summer of 2010. Meanwhile Grady is already seeing great success with Through the Fire. He was named Most Promising Writer at the 2008 Mt. Hermon’s 39th Annual Writer’s Conference, a conference of Christian writers from all across the country. The book launch at Sundance Bookstore on July 11 sold the first 100 novels to a flock of eager readers that included a slew of firefighters who brought a fire truck right to the front of the store. That day, under the banner of “A debut novel of arson, murder and second chances,” Grady gave 50 percent of the proceeds to the Firefighter’s Community Assistance Program Fund.

Not bad for someone who at first didn’t consider becoming a writer or a firefighter. In fact, Grady, originally from the Bay Area, studied theology at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego with the idea of becoming a pastor. While there, he witnessed a mover’s leg get crushed by a piece of furniture. Moments later, a nursing student rushed over, and she and Grady were able to administer basic first aid. When the fire medics came to the scene, Grady knew he found his calling—being a firefighter and a paramedic was a way for Grady to help people and to serve God.

In 1996, at 19 years old, Grady experienced his first season as a wildland firefighter and slowly, his experiences have become unforgettable memories that he’s relayed into his novels.

“My first fire in the line here in the city, a couple kids were pulled out of a single-wide trailer,” recalls Grady. “Before I knew it, I was working with guys to work with two kids who weren’t breathing. Experiences like that sear themselves into your subconscious and your conscious mind.”

The trailer was almost completely enveloped in flames, and firefighters crawled through the smoke and flames to pull the children out, similar to one of the fires in the novel.

The novel took Grady two years to write, but it took almost a decade for Grady to muster the courage to put pen to paper, taking Ernest Hemingway’s advice of writing just “One true sentence” to heart.

Then, about five years ago, Grady finally decided to pursue writing seriously and began to send out manuscripts, speak to editors and attend conferences. That’s when he decided to write what he knew. Grady says when he came up with the character of Aidan, he envisioned a person who maybe we have all been, at one point or another.

“Aidan’s big beef is that there is a sense in all of us that there is injustice in pain and in suffering and in death,” says Grady. “It’s as if it’s written in our DNA: We aren’t meant to end. We aren’t meant to die or to suffer or have pain. And for Aidan, his peace comes from realizing in this life, yes, there’s death in life. There is the ‘Wheat and Tares.’ But his hope springs forth from a faith in having an eternal life, where there is no more pain and suffering. There is no more crime. There is no more death.”