At age 14, Brent Runyon doused himself with gasoline and sethimself on fire, resulting in burns on 85% of his body. The Burn Journals, written 13 years after the incident, recounts the author's devastating experience and his slow journey towards recovery.
PW: At what point did you decide to write this book?
Brent Runyon: I'd written a version of one of the stories from the book for a radio show called This American Life. I showed the story to a radio producer, Christina Egloff, and she said, "You've got to write the whole story down and call it The Burn Journals."
How did you go about finding a publisher?
I read the first chapter of [the book] on air during another segment of This American Life. [Editor] Nancy Siscoe heard the show and gave me a call.
When you were writing the book, was it difficult to recreate the traumatic events?
It was absolutely awful. It was all I could do to write 500 words, then I would be emotionally ruined for the rest of the day.
Did you keep a journal as an adolescent? How did you go about recalling and piecing together the events of your book?
I didn't have my own journals, but my mother kept a journal while I was in the hospital, and my father wrote newsletters to keep friends and family updated on my progress. There were also a lot of photographs taken of me in the hospital. Sometimes, while writing the book, all I had to do was look at one of those Polaroids and entire scenes would come rushing back.
Details of your suicide attempt and hospital stay are written with remarkable clarity. Did those details stay with you, from your adolescence, or did you find they came back to you as you prepared the manuscript for the book?
Trauma—especially physical trauma—freezes memory. I didn't feel a lot of things during my hospital stay. It was just too painful. Later, when I was writing this book, it was like I was thawing out all of those old frozen memories.
How do you think your life would be different if you had not set yourself on fire? Do you think that you still would have become a writer?
I don't know. Maybe I would have become an actor. I was a very outgoing kid, but being in the hospital—being outside of social action for so long—turned me into an observer. Actually, right after I got out of the hospital, I did start writing a novel, but the book was so transparently about me that I stopped.
In the book, you mention that psychologists kept asking the "wrong questions" while you were in the hospital. What would have been the right questions?
The psychologists were asking for reasons why I set myself on fire. Setting myself on fire made no more sense to me than it did to them. They should have asked the question: "How are we going to get this kid back together so he can continue his life?"
The book ends with Brent on the threshold of a new beginning as he prepares to re-enter society after prolonged hospital stays. Is there any chance that you will write a sequel telling about readjustment to "normal" life?
I don't think I need to write a sequel. It would end up being very repetitious with people asking the same questions and me giving the same answers: "What happened to you?" "I was in a fire." "What kind of fire?" "Uh, electrical..."
Now I'm trying to work outside first person. I do plan to write more books.
Did you have a certain audience in mind for your book as you wrote?
While I was writing, my audience was internal. It was like I was setting things straight in my own mind.
What do you hope readers will gain from reading The Burn Journals?
Insight into the adolescent mind. What I truly wish could happen would be that this book could somehow travel back in time and land in the hands of me when I was 13 years old. Then I would read the book and not set myself on fire.