When I first heard the concept of Smoke Eaters, the new fantasy novel from Sean Grigsby, I admit, I was intrigued! So, naturally, I asked him to tell us all about his new book and the story behind it for O&FP!
A story idea is like spontaneous combustion.
I was sitting in the middle of fire academy—again. Five years earlier, I’d been in the top of my class, graduated, certified, bada-bing, bada-boom. But I’d recently left a smaller fire department to work for the big city, and they demanded that I sit through the same shit again. So, I had a lot of time to zone out and think about my next novel.
I’d just finished a feminist science fiction about female motorcycle gangs in space and had no idea how to top that concept. That’s when the idea flames erupted into three words: firefighters versus dragons.
With all the machismo that gets slung around the firehouse, you would sometimes hear fighting a structure fire compared to slaying a dragon. Even one of the instructors in fire academy told us that firefighters are the modern day knights.
Damn. It was all there. For some reason, I’d always avoided “writing what you know,” but this was just too good to pass up. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it sooner.
Ray Bradbury is one of my idols, and Fahrenheit 451 inspired me at a young age to not only become a firefighter, but a speculative fiction writer as well. I wanted to set my new book in the future. Bradbury had his idea of firefighters in the next few generations. This would be mine.
Now, if firefighters were to battle ancient scalies, they had to have some awesome tech to back them up. Pickhead axes and water streams weren’t going to cut it. In fact, I wanted the smoke eaters to be an elite and secretive offshoot of the fire department. And they had to have something special no one else did—the ability to breathe dragon smoke and resist heat. And there wouldn’t just be dragons to deal with. Let’s toss in some robots, ghosts, and evil politicians!
The idea was to mash up of all my favorite genres to create something different. There’s horror, fantasy, and even a splash of cyberpunk when the smoke eaters visit Canada, where the canucks have taken up dragon worship.
But who would we follow in this story?
Since I had to go back through rookie school, I wondered what it would be like for someone who’d already had a full career, someone too old to put up with bullshit, but experienced enough to be an invaluable smoke eater. Would that work, though? I mean, would people read about a sexagenarian firefighter-turned-dragon slayer?
I remembered another fictional geriatric who goes on an adventure: John Perry from Old Man’s War (which I reference in Smoke Eaters). I said, “Hell yeah! Let’s do it!”
It starts like this: After thirty years, Cole Brannigan is a week out from retirement from the fire department. It’s 2121 and America is a ravaged, ash-covered wasteland, except for the isolated city states, where the people do their best to ward off any dragons and stay away from quarantine zones where the ghosts of dragon victims prowl.
For Brannigan and his crew, a routine house fire turns ugly when it becomes clear—a little too late—that a dragon rages inside. When Brannigan enters in order to save his people, he discovers he can breathe without his air mask, and after the smoke eaters arrive and take care of business, they bring him in for recruitment. He has a loving wife, a Korean-speaking robot dog, and the outlook of taking it easy for his last years. So, now he’s conflicted about sticking to the retirement plan or doing what he was born to do for the betterment of mankind.
I flew through the writing process. The idea was now a full-fledged inferno. Creating the different types of dragons, the wraiths, and the menacing fire droids was a blast. And Brannigan was incredibly fun to hang with the whole time.
Six months later, after great editorial input from my agent, I finished the book and we had it out the door to editors.
Thing was, we already had that female motorcycle gangs in space book on the market, and we didn’t know which manuscript was going to stick. Of course, we hoped someone would buy both, but time was dragging for the first book and I had this whole new novel with a more commercial hook.
My philosophy from the start was to keep writing no matter what. After all, you have a better chance at catching a fish with more poles in the pond.
Starting a fire is one thing. You also have to have the persistence to keep it stoked. I’d written four novels prior to Smoke Eaters, and I would have written five more if I had to. Soon, you find yourself surrounded by conflagrations and a whole world to set on fire…er…with fun and entertainment, that is. Stick-to-itiveness is invaluable.
After half a year, Angry Robot fell in love with Smoke Eaters, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. They’ve been one of my favorite publishers for years, and I just knew my style would fit well in their already-fantastic lineup. All paperbacks have a lovely smell, but theirs has something extra special. I think it’s opium.
I can’t wait for you guys to read Smoke Eaters. Seriously, feel free to message me through my website or on Twitter to let me know what you think.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few more dragons to slay.
SEAN GRIGSBY is a professional firefighter in central Arkansas, where he writes about lasers, aliens, and guitar battles with the Devil when he’s not fighting dragons.