As a Californian, Daniel Gumbiner has thought a lot about the aftermath of disaster. What happens long after the emergency workers and news cameras have gone home? In Fire in the Canyon, his latest novel, he follows grape farmer Ben Hecht and Ben’s novelist wife and estranged son as they piece their lives back together after a fire rips through their small Californian agricultural community.
Fire in the Canyon is a richly textured novel that tells the story of one family while echoing the stories of the thousands who are already affected by a new, daunting era of climate change. It’s also wonderfully tender, funny, and hopeful. Like Daniel’s National Book Award-longlisted debut The Boatbuilder, this new novel explores the intersections of community and craft, but this time, instead of boatbuilding, he turns his carefully attuned eye to the art (and science) of vineyard cultivation and winemaking—as well as activist collectives, police raids, local music, and farm dogs.
Daniel joined me over Zoom from the McSweeney’s offices in San Francisco. (As editor of The Believer, he’s been shaping the beloved magazine’s rebirth after it was sold back to McSweeney’s last year.) Following a brief surprise appearance from Dave Eggers, who needed to pull Daniel for a quick photoshoot, we dove into a conversation about everything from the importance of curiosity to insurance policies to remaining sensitive in a painful world. Now that fire season is over in California and hurricane season is almost over in Houston, the looming disasters will wait until next year, and the year after, and the year after that. Until then, we talk about them.
Biz: I wanted to start by asking about your relationship with place in your writing. How has that relationship changed over time and over the course of two books?
Daniel: I think to understand any character, you need to understand where they live and how it impacts their life. So place is one of the starting points for me: I need to understand something of the setting before I can understand what a character would be doing within that setting. As the work goes on, the setting comes into more vivid focus, it slowly gets built up in more detail. I know a setting is working when I feel like I could continue to unspool stories in that place and just keep going forever.
B: You can really sense that in the attention you put towards specific details. I loved all the wonderful sections about the ins and outs of viticulture and farming, and I’m curious what draws you to details and what you think they’re bringing to the book.
D: I think when you’re writing you’re trying to hold onto a thread of curiosity for yourself. If you’re curious, that curiosity shows up on the page. You can kind of feel it in a book when a writer has lost interest in what they’re talking about. So I try to follow those threads of interest, whenever they arise. Then you can step back and look at: how much fire ecology information do we actually need here? Sometimes, if there’s too much detail, you might disrupt the flow of the narrative, or the drama of a given scene. So I try to hold those things in equilibrium, to make sure the story feels balanced to me.
B: Right, following the joy of it–you can see when a writer gets bored, but you can also sense when they’re having a fantastic time.
D: That’s something that, as an editor, I always try to establish with writers. I work for The Believer, and we work with nonfiction, but the storytelling involved in those pieces often has a lot in common with storytelling in fiction. So I’ll often ask writers: what is the thing you’re curious about or searching for? Because if you can identify that, then the reader will go along with almost anything stylistically.
B: To me, close ties to community were at the core of this book. I was thinking a lot about how both the weed and the wine that are very central to Ben’s character and his experiences are both best enjoyed in company–but so is music, so is protesting, so is healing, all of which appear here again and again. What was it like to try to build out the community storyline and how did you balance it with the individual storyline?
D: Part of the origin of this book was a conversation I had with a friend of mine who lost both of his barns in a fire in Sonoma. I’d been witnessing these new, much more devastating fires that everyone around me, all my friends and family, were impacted by in some way. And so I was drawn to writing something about that really stark shift, but I didn’t know what kind of story it would be. My friend started telling me about his experience after the fire and how it put him into relationship with his neighbors in unusual ways. He was at the laundromat and he met this guy who was very wealthy and clearly never goes to laundromat, but he happened to be there because he had to be there. They start talking and he gets to know this guy and they make a connection. I thought that was interesting: how a fire can set in motion these shifts within a community. That was the starting point for the narrative threads in the book. So community, and the way a given social fabric is altered by this kind of event, was very much at the center of what I was thinking about. I ended up doing a lot of research about the different ways people had been affected by fires in order to explore that subject.
B: You sought out people who had been through fires? These were friends, or friends of friends, or random people you found?
D: All of the above. People who I knew. People who I didn’t know. I listened to oral histories. There was a lot of research involved. That’s something that’s a big part of my writing process overall, drenching myself in the material I’m working on. Dave Eggers has been a mentor to me, and he’s the one who sort of showed me how to do that. I just watched the way he goes out in the world and talks to people, learns about new things. I think that traditionally writers are seen as very isolated, but in my experience, working on something like this is actually connective, because you end up talking to people you wouldn’t have otherwise talked to.
B: That’s such an interesting tack to take. It seems tough to push ourselves to get out there but I think there’s a texture to the world that you can’t get otherwise. Seeing something and understanding what it feels like on the skin is so different.
D: It connects back to what we were talking about before about following those threads of your own curiosity. If we’re not exposing ourselves to new experiences or new things that we can learn about, it’s harder to stimulate that curiosity.
B: Part of what it makes it so terrifying is that there’s an unknown, but that’s probably what makes it the most generative or the most interesting on the page.
D: That’s always a big part of the creative process in general, submitting yourself to the unknown without knowing what you will receive. Just that humbling experience of trusting: okay, I’ll give it a try. That’s the only thing I can do. Writing is difficult because you’re continually having to confront that—to jump again and again into the fray. One of the reasons I think revisions are so intimidating for writers is because you’ve tidied everything up and it’s all perfect, and someone comes in and is like: actually you have to think about this all over again. So then you have to confront the unknown again.
B: This connects to something I wanted to ask about paying attention to things that hurt. Ben, your main character, notes about his son Yoel that sometimes he’d “felt like his son was too sensitive. A grape with no skin. But he could see now that this was his most beautiful, most enduring gift.” I was curious whether you have a particular stance–it sounds like you do–on what paying attention gets us and how that informs your writing.
D: One of the things I’ve learned and then unlearned—like all the hard things in life—is that when something is difficult, you have to look at it head on. You have to welcome it in. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t ignore it—otherwise it gets bigger and more scary. I think this is connected to the larger experience we’re having as a culture about what’s happening to our environment. We’ll listen to a podcast about the fact that there are going to be one billion climate refugees in 2050 and then we’ll go and get a sandwich. It’s hard to look at what’s happening. I think that was part of what I was hoping to do with the book: to sit with some of these questions, to not shy away from them.
B: It’s not most people’s first instinct to dive further into what is painful but you can see through the book how useful it can be and how healing it can be.
D: Yeah, one thing that’s interesting about Yoel as a character is he is someone who is more willing to do this. He’s a very sensitive person, and he’s felt like that was a hindrance to him, in some ways. And his family has felt that it’s a hindrance too. But it’s also a strength of his and connected to something that makes him uniquely powerful in the world: he is more ready to acknowledge and face these painful things. This is connected to another thing I wanted to portray: the idea that the elements of our character that we think of as flaws are often connected to valuable and deep powers.
B: It’s clear now that climate change isn’t a thing that’s coming down the pipeline. For a lot of the country, it’s already here and we’re already living in it. Insurance companies are fleeing the Gulf Coast because of flood risk and of course California because of fire risk, and it feels like a total canary in the coal mine, because you know when the money runs, things are getting real. I was curious how you thought about integrating that reality into this novel, which is very human and interpersonal but also contending with how people hold on in an increasingly economically challenging world.
D: A lot of people are confronting that right now. I was just up in El Dorado County, which is a foothills county, and I was talking to some people who were telling me about how a lot of their neighbors can’t get insurance again after the Caldor Fire. A lot of people are going to leave and migrate. There is a rationalist perspective that says: well, they should move, it’s not a safe place to live anymore. And there is a logic to that obviously. But it also ignores how important the idea of a home place is to people and what it means to really uproot your life. It ignores how difficult doing something like that is. What about people’s jobs? What about the expenses of moving? The social disconnection that occurs when you have to leave your community? It’s not so simple.
B: The book is working on such an interesting scale. It’s taking this huge global phenomenon of the climate crisis but it’s laser-focusing on this family, this community, and this place. It was interesting to see the contrast between what we perceive is this enormous urgency to do something about this thing that’s looming over us but at the same time the book spent so much time focusing on these slow careful methodical processes like natural wine. What place does that sort of focus and attention on craft have in this new world we’re living in?
D: You could make the argument that a lot of the environmental issues we have today are fundamentally issues of perspective: humans not seeing their place and connection to the rest of the world. Losing that perspective has allowed us to behave in these ways that are destructive to ourselves and our environment. Working on a craft does have a kind of medicinal quality: it harnesses your awareness of things, brings your attention to the world around you. That can be achieved in many ways—you can gain perspective by taking a walk in the woods or looking up at the stars. But I do think that anything that can be done to bring awareness to our interconnectedness is important. One of the ways we’ve gotten ourselves into this problem is by losing sight of that.
B: I have one last question. Your last novel was longlisted for the National Book Award and it got a lot of well-deserved praise and reviews and online chatter. As a result there are a lot of people out there who are marking your work with very particular adjectives. I saw a lot of “quiet;” I saw a lot of “Steinbeckian.” What has it been like to hear about your work in the third person? Has it had any effect on how you view your own writing?
D: It’s always interesting to see your work reflected back to you. It’s often surprising and deepens your own understanding of the work. Writing a second book is hard because it’s difficult to figure out how to deal with the precedence of the first book. I think when I began working on new writing, I was trying to do something radically different so that I didn’t end up stuck in a box or something. What I learned over the course of the process was that you don’t have to become a different writer to write a different book: you can grow and change but still rely on what is true and authentic to you. Realizing that was an important turning point for me.
Daniel Gumbiner’s first book, The Boatbuilder, was nominated for the National Book Award and a finalist for the California Book Awards. His new novel, Fire in the Canyon, is out now from Astra House. He is the Editor of The Believer and a 2022-23 Hermitage Fellow. He lives in Oakland, CA.