Kerbeck interviewed more than 200 people for his essay collection about the Woolsey wildfire that devastated Malibu in 2018. During our interview, he expressed his fear that “with the planet becoming hotter and drier each year... these extreme fires are the new normal. I am very worried about the future of California and other wildfire-prone areas.”
Malibu Burning originated as an essay for the New York Times. How did it evolve into a full-length work?
Writing a book about my harrowing experience with Malibu’s Woolsey Fire was never a thought in my mind—until I received an email from the New York Times. Two days after the catastrophe, an editor wanted to know if I’d heard any good fire stories. When I told him what my family had been through, fighting to save our home while 17 of the 19 homes around us burned, he asked me to write an op-ed, which was eventually published by the Los Angeles Times. Two months later, a New York publisher emailed me while I was in the midst of working on a book about my career as a corporate spy. The publisher was looking for a book on wildfires and had seen my op-ed. I felt strongly that the book had to be released by the one-year anniversary of the fire, which was 10 months away at that point. I spent 12 hours a day writing and interviewing and finished the book in five months.
Malibu Burning is a mix of memoir and investigative journalism. How did you balance both without one overwhelming the other?
The book opens with my family fighting the fire and closes with us on the slow path to recovery. The other 22 chapters are focused on various individuals—teachers, landscapers, surfers, firefighters, and yes, the occasional celebrity—and their personal experiences. While I occasionally make appearances to provide context about Malibu and the many misconceptions that surround it—that everyone is rich or famous, for example—I remain in the background as much as possible during their stories. In most cases, the only reason people were willing to speak with me was that I was a local who had also fought the fire. Many times, I had to fight to remain calm as they told me their stories.