Stewart O'Nan, writer of such acclaimed novels as A Prayer for the Dying and The Speed Queen, accomplishd his first major work of nonfiction with The Circus Fire. In this Bold Type interview, he discusses taking a break from fiction to tell the true story of a horrific fire that struck a Hartford circus in 1944, killing one hundred and sixty-seven people and leaving innumerable others physically and emotionally scarred for life.Many of us fondly remember childhood excursions to the "greatest show on earth." Do you have such memories?
I remember going with my Grandmother O'Nan to the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh in the mid-'60s to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show. I remember lots of sawdust or woodchips, and elephants, but that's about it.
You have published mostly fiction in the past. How was the writing process different when working on The Circus Fire?
As a fiction writer, my favorite tools are my imagination and the peculiar opportunities offered by different points of view. Fitting together The Circus Fire, I had to substitute legwork for making things up, and the voices of the survivors for point of view.
In the forward, you assert that truth is "stranger" than fiction. Is it also more powerful?
The facts of the circus fire are fantastic and overwhelming--like seven-year-old Elliott Smith's experience, surviving only because the pile of people on top of him burned alive. In the writing, I thought the best thing to do was to step aside, to state things clearly and plainly (since that had never been done before with this tragedy). I always squirm when I read what's called "creative nonfiction," and the writer is lobbing gobs of emotion and language at the world, hoping some of it will stick.
You claim you did not want to write this book. How did you ultimately decide to do so?
As the research progressed, I became more and more interested in what happened to the survivors. I finally decided to go ahead and write the book because their stories seemed important, and hadn't been told before.
How did you gather information? You must have interviewed many survivors.
I worked in the archives of the Connecticut State Library, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, digging up official documents, photos and news reports, all the while soliciting interviews with survivors, firemen, doctors, nurses--anyone with a connection to the fire--then checked and doublechecked the facts against everything I had. I wanted to make sure I got the story right.
When war veterans are interviewed, some are often grateful for the opportunity to speak, while others are reluctant. How was it interviewing the survivors of the Hartford fire?
Yes, some didn't want to talk at all, or only talked to honor those who died or helped, while others were eager to talk. Many feared that the story would never be written and were glad I had taken on the project and recommended other survivors to me.
In the book, you go into great detail describing the burns, injuries, and deaths that occurred in Hartford. Was this painful for you to write?
Describing the burns was hard but necessary. I tried to use whatever powers of understatement and indirection I'd developed as a fiction writer, but at heart the fire was about what these unlucky people suffered, and to skip over that would be to falsify the story.
Did Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus's desire to make a few bucks interfere with its ability to provide safety for its patrons? I am thinking of the way circus employees tied down the tents extra tight so no one could slip in for free, but at the same time this, presumably, prohibited people from slipping out to save their lives once the fire began.
No, the circus didn't skimp on safety precautions because of money. They'd always treated their canvas with paraffin and gasoline, and the fact that they didn't distribute their fire extinguishers was due, it seems, to carelessness. The court saw this as criminal negligence and sent five circus officials to prison--a judgment that, at the time, many thought unfair.
Did the Hartford Circus fire change the way the circus was run?
The circus fireproofed their tent the next season, and within a decade they changed to fixed seating rather than loose chairs, but their basic day-to-day operations remained the same.
This is your first major work of nonfiction and it is so well sculpted. Do you plan to continue chronicling true events?
After I finished the book, I said I'd never write another nonfiction book, it was just too much work, but if a subject draws me in again, I'm sure I'll follow. That's the freedom and responsibility--and terror--of writing; it takes you places you're not sure you can or should follow.
--interview by Cara Hall