To Build a Fire (The Easy Way)

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

Anyone who pays attention to me on Twitter (@VictorGischler) knows I like to grill. Ribeyes, bratwursts, burgers, chicken, whatever poor creature has yielded up the ghost so I might take a whack at grilling it, I’m game. I’m a charcoal man. Not gas. We’ll get into that later. I have a pretty good setup. As the result of what I proudly think of as a minor feat of redneck engineering, I’ve run a cable line though the cat door in the kitchen, across the patio and through the sliding glass door out to the grilling area where an old TV plays football while I grill. I got the game on. I got cold beer. I got ribs cooking low and slow.

Okay, this is getting a little too testosterone-ish, isn’t it? I mean it’s not like I’m rubbing two sticks together to grill a wooly mammoth I’ve slain with a spear.

Nor do I plan to bombard you with various recipes and suggestions for rubs and sauces. Oh, I could do that. I COULD. There is a strange joy in the minutia of a hobby, but no. This isn’t about that. We’re not really concerned with food here. This is about the experience of grilling.

What it’s really about is fire.

Some clever person (so clever, I forgot who) once said that a campfire was the original television. Most of us have had the experience of sitting around the campfire, watching the flames dance and flicker. Stories are swapped across campfires. It is communal. It is entertainment. It is warmth. I mean, it’s just fire, but that’s a lot, isn’t it? I think it’s that whole communal thing that connects the history of fire and the history of storytelling.

My parents are divorced, and some of the best quality time I spent with my father was on long summer camping trips. This was roughly between the ages of 12-15. There’s a routine to camping, or at least there was for us. Whether we were camping in the desert of Death Valley or in the dank Louisiana swamps or on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, one of the first things I always did was gather wood for the fire. The fire became the center around which our camp was built. The fire was for cooking, but we also sat around it, talked around it. (And charcoal often substituted when conditions were too wet or firewood not plentiful.)

As a kid, I remember clearly the first time I was put in charge of a camp meal. Ribs. I built the fire, arranged the glowing coals perfectly for cooking. The ribs had been well seasoned. There was sauce all ready to go. I have never eaten an old leather shoe, but chomping into one of those ribs must certainly have been a similar experience. I’d completely overcooked them, charred them as black as the abyss of hell. The meal was a complete and utter failure.

Ah, but the fire. I’d made one really great hot fire. The coals glowed like the forges of Sauron.

They say smell triggers memory better than most of the other senses, and I believe it. I can’t light a campfire or a pile of charcoal without thinking of my father and those camping trips. Memory is important to a writer because memory and imagination are kissing cousins, I think. I think some part of a writer—no matter how remote or slight—works its way into that writer’s fictional world. When my memories stir, so too does my imagination. Out by my grill, I have a little table where I can often be found with my laptop working on a novel or comic book script. I’m many centuries removed from the early cave dweller who perhaps stood back to admire his own work on the cave wall by the light of a flickering fire. Some story in pictograph form. Perhaps how he’d slain some kind of saber-toothed something or other to impress a potential mate. I’d like to think that some tidbit of DNA connects me to that ancient storyteller, that I am part of a tradition as old as fire itself.

And maybe that’s why I prefer charcoal instead of gas. People say gas is “cleaner.” I suppose if you’re trying to cook a hunk of tuna as quickly and as efficiency as possible and then be on your way, then maybe gas is your choice. But nobody gathers around the tiny ice-blue flame of a gas grill. Please. There needs to be smoke and soot and ash, like maybe something terrible has happened. An airstrike. This is a fire. Otherwise, you might as well gather around a microwave oven. Don’t we owe our cave dwelling ancestors better than that?

So I propose we all try to get in touch with that primal, ancestral storyteller within. For me, it happens around my charcoal grill. I must confess, I’ve made some lousy meals—dried out chicken, overcooked steak—because I lingered too long. Because I just wanted to hang around outside by the grill, smelling the charcoal and thinking about my next story. Getting to know some new character. Wondering where we’d all end up together. I almost always end up out there by the end of the day, and yes obviously it’s about preparing a meal too. I do most of the cooking in my family. But it’s also about a time and a place where my brain works just a bit differently, where I’m not trying too hard to solve a story problem, but somehow it gets solved anyway. Maybe for you it’s sitting quietly with a fishing line in the water. Or maybe the click click of knitting needles is your best thinking time. Me? I’ll take fire.

Squarely into middle-age now, I no longer galumph off into the wilderness. I have neither the desire nor the ability to hunt the saber tooth whatsit. A few years ago when my son was nine or ten, we pitched a tent in the back yard and spent the night. This endeavor taught me dire things about sore muscles and bad backs. No more camping for me, no tents or long hikes.

But the fire remains. I must admit there have been rare occasions where I’ve lit a little charcoal fire without cooking anything at all. I just want that charcoal smell. I want to remember. And maybe through the smoke, I might even spy the ghost of that cave dwelling ancestor, that prolific original storyteller to whom I can trace my authorial DNA.

Or that might just be the beer.

Victor Gischler is a world traveler and beer-swiller. He lives with his family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’s been nominated for the Edgar and Anthony Awards. His latest novel Gestapo Mars was published by Titan Books.


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