Beanland’s The House Is on Fire (Simon & Schuster, Apr.) traces a historic calamity and its immediate aftermath.
Though your novel takes place in 1811, its situation—a public tragedy, unreliable reporting, the inflammation of racial tensions—feels very contemporary.
Yes, the Richmond theater fire, which killed 72 people, was the biggest American mass catastrophe to date. It occasioned widespread shock and grief up and down the East Coast and was extensively covered in the press. In the aftermath, people had to work hard to figure out what had caused the fire and who—if anyone—should be held accountable. They also had to decide how to mourn and memorialize the dead. Once I did my research and could see that everyone had their own agendas, I knew I had the makings of a novel.
Why did you employ multiple viewpoints?
The 600 people in the theater represented a cross-section of Richmond’s population, and their race and class affected their chances of survival. People in the gallery, for instance, did better than those in the boxes. I felt the book called for a cast of characters that represented the breadth of those experiences.
Two of the novel’s protagonists are historical figures. Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved blacksmith, ran to the theater and saved a number of lives. Unfortunately, because of his race, his heroism wasn’t publicly recognized until years later. Sally Henry Campbell is the widowed daughter of Patrick Henry, so she’s someone who has access to power, even if she doesn’t personally have much. As a woman who was in the boxes that night, she also has firsthand knowledge of just how much the official story differs from real events.
What about Cecily Patterson, an enslaved woman who views the performance from the gallery reserved for people of color?
On the official list of the dead, Black or multiracial victims were listed separately. I was fascinated by a notation, “supposed to have perished,” that appeared next to one woman’s name. The phrase implied that whoever was making the list didn’t believe she had really died. Historians suspect some enslaved people may have used the chaos of the fire as an opportunity to escape. That story became Cecily’s.
Were there any surprises as you researched and wrote the novel?
Of the 72 people who died in the fire, 54 were women and girls. The accounts of white men were the only ones published in the local papers, so the men come off sounding like heroes. But as news of the fire spread, you begin to get people from further afield raising questions. Why had so many women died in the blaze? Had the men who survived really been as chivalrous as they claimed? Men in Richmond were quick to defend themselves, but for me—as a novelist—the trick was to read between the lines. That’s usually where the story is.