Rhodes Review: Who are some of the writers you enjoy? Books?
Tim Wendel: When I was beginning to write fiction in the late 1980s, I was fortune to attend the Squaw Valley Writers Conference several times. There I met Richard Ford, Carolyn Doty, Oakley Hall – among many other top-notch writers and teachers. In fact, Oakley Hall (WARLOCK, THE DOWNHILL RACERS) was gracious enough to endorse RED RAIN. It may have been the last book he blurbed before dying late last year. Reading-wise, my tastes tend to be pretty eclectic. I just finished MANHUNT, the story of the Lincoln assassination and chasing down John Wilkes Booth. I’m following that up with WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL? by Lorrie Moore, which I’m teaching in my fiction workshop this summer at Johns Hopkins University. There are certain writers I tend to return to, especially when I’m struggling with a project. They include Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sarah Vowell and Michael Ondaatje.
Rhodes Review: How do you come up with Story Ideas?
Tim Wendel: When I go to a party, especially in the Washington, D.C. area, where I live, I really listen to what the buzz in about. In a roundabout way, that’s what led me to writing RED RAIN. It was in the last few months of Bill Clinton’s administration and several us were discussing how jaded things had become, how may be it wasn’t best that all the secrets were out, so to speak. That’s when a complete stranger asked if we knew about the best-kept secret of World War II – the Japanese fire balloons. He was with the Smithsonian and he told us a bit about the balloons. How close to 10,000 were launched from Japan. How they started forest fires throughout the West. I couldn’t get the story out of my head and a few days later I was at the National Archives and then the Library of Congress beginning to research the novel.
Rhodes Review: How do you get your inspiration/muse to write?
Tim Wendel: I try to write every weekday morning. That’s especially true if I’m working on a rough draft for a project. I really believe you have to be open to things, have that notebook available. If not, those insights or ways to do a scene will move on to somebody else. I wrote my first novel, CASTRO’S CURVEBALL, on the Metro, D.C.’s subway. I had an intense day job at the time with USA Today. I didn’t have much free time, but I tried to write at least a page in my spiral notebook every day on the Metro going to work. One day I almost didn’t write. It seemed to be pointless. But with my stop only minutes away, I got out my notebook and started to write in a voice that I like to think is more desperate and innocent than my own. I ended up rewriting the novel in that voice, the voice of Billy Bryan, a washed-up ballplayer in Havana. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t picked up my pen that day, that voice/character would have moved on to some other writer.
Rhodes Review: What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Tim Wendel: The time alone. Sticking to the task at hand. You have to have some fun, change things up. That’s why I write both fiction and nonfiction. Recently I’ve had great success with a nonfiction book called HIGH HEAT: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE FASTBALL AND THE IMPROBABLE SEARCH FOR THE FASTEST PITCHER OF ALL TIME. Certainly there are constants in my work like history, narrative even parallel storylines, but you have to find a way to keep yourself interested.
Rhodes Review: What’s the best thing about being an author?
Tim Wendel: Your time can be your own. At least sometimes. Writing can be difficult and pulling together a real scene of dynamite may seem impossible some days. But I haven’t found anything else as satisfying when it does come together.
Rhodes Review: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
Tim Wendel: Put in the time. I don’t think there’s any formula were X amount of time equals a quality short story or novel. But you have to carry the story with you for a time. You cannot just work on it when you’re inspired. Sometimes the most “blah” days can lead to real revelations and epiphanies about your story. And, please, listen to your characters. It’s OK if somebody starts to take over a piece, really kick butt and take names. Let them, even if that isn’t part of the working outline. Often that’s a real sign you’re on to something big.
Rhodes Review: What is your current writing project?
Tim Wendel: I just finished a new novel set near Niagara Falls, where I grew up. It’s entitled OVER THE FALLS, and the characters and setting are all somewhat star-crossed. My next project will probably be nonfiction, perhaps set in the 1960s. Things seem so divisive today, so I found myself wondering when were things as or even more divisive. That’s the ’60s for me, so I think there are some lessons and great stories to be found there.
Rhodes Review: What was the writing process like for Red Rain?
Tim Wendel: It was swirl when it came to research and writing. Some of my peers like to do a huge block of research before they start writing. But with RED RAIN, I’d research some and then write and then research some more to make a scene or character really pop. For example, I read several biographies about General Douglas MacArthur. Looking back on it, I did much the same thing with Fidel Castro and the first novel. I even traveled to Japan to get the scenes in Kyoto and Nara right. Fortunately, those places suffered little damage during World War II. So, with RED RAIN, I found myself moving back and forth. I’m lucky that National Archives and Library of Congress are near my home.
Rhodes Review: Do you think we’d ever be able to pull off something like Red Rain in Today’s environment?
Tim Wendel: I think it would be difficult to launch such a campaign, one of paper balloons, about 33 feet diameter, with incendiary bombs attached, in this day and age. Still, we must remember that evil is almost close by, and often the most ingenious attacks or schemes are so simple in design. Of course, I’m also thinking about 9/11 here.
Rhodes Review: What made you want to write this book?
Tim Wendel: The untold story of the fire balloons was the starting point. But writing RED RAIN helped me finish writing about a world and force that I’d gotten to know many years before. What I’m talking about is fire and the people who fight forest fires for a living. Two decades or so ago, when I was barely out of college, I was on a Hot Shot crew in Arizona. These guys and the smokejumpers are the top fire fighters in the West. I filled up notebooks about that experience and in RED RAIN I finally found a home for that material. Much of fire scenes, where the crew is battling the blazes ignited by the fire balloons, comes from those times. It’s certainly based a real life and moments I participated in.
Rhodes Review: Were things like the giant fire taken from your experience or based on real life events?
Tim Wendel: They were taken from my experiences on the fire-line and also subsequent experiences covering large-scale events. For example, I covered the Yellowstone Fires for The Washington Post and did an investigative front-page story about the Storm King Fire in Colorado for USA Today.
Rhodes Review: If you can, tell my readers about your fire fighting experience.
Tim Wendel: I think I’m one of the few writers who has fought fires as a job and also covered several of the biggest blazes in recent memory. So, I’ve seen forest fires from several different angles and perspectives. When things go badly, it’s often a result of people not trusting each other in a basic, necessary way. For example, on my fire crew, we often debated politics and national issues. I was from the East and sometimes didn’t see eye to eye with my crew members, who were mostly raised in the West. But deep down I trusted my crew leader and squad bosses. In essence, they earned my unmatched trust. On a fire if they said we’re going this way and doing this, my reaction was no questions asked. I trusted those guys with my life. Other fire crews lack that common link and I fear for them when things get hairy, even out of control.
Rhodes Review: You mention a famous Mascot in the narrative, was this a real connection to the balloons, or just a fictional account? I remember the story from the forestry service when I was young, and just wondered now, if it had been a propaganda film.
Tim Wendel: Much of the discussion and scenes involving Smokey the Bear are based in fact and the research I did. Besides learning the real story behind his inception, that he was the brainchild of a D.C. government worker, I wanted the reader to know that there’s often a real disconnect between the policy at the top and what needs to be done in the field. We cannot stop all wildland fires. It may be next to impossible with the way the world is changing climate-wise and more people building near parkland. The old adage of fighting fire with fire makes as much sense today as it ever did. To simply prevent fire, as Smokey advises, simply delays the day of reckoning. It allows the fuel loads to build, for people to perhaps become complacent, before a major fire happens again.
Rhodes Review: Are there any appearances/conventions you’d like to announce to our readers?
Tim Wendel: Just look for more such interviews on the web. It’s a great way to hear from readers and they can always contact me at www.timwendel.com or on Tim Wendel Books on Facebook. Thank-you.