Rachel Beanland Interview

Where there’s smoke, there’s scandal: the Richmond Theatre fire of 1811.

The House is on Fire by Rachel Beanland. Simon & Schuster. pp.384. $27.99

Coming out in April 202, her latest book is an Indie Next pick. Her 2020 novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. She is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and earned her MFA in creative writing from VCU. She lives with her husband and three children in Richmond, Virginia.

Event Highlights:

  • April 4 — Monumental Church, Richmond (5:30)
  • April 5 — Downtown Books, Lexington (5:00)
  • April 6 — Lynchburg Public Library (6:30)
  • April 13 — Grandin Theatre, Roanoke (5:30)
  • Full event schedule

Konstantin Rega: With your new book, The House is on Fire, which is based on the Richmond Theatre fire of 1811, where did you start? And why were you interested in a giant fire that happened over 200 years ago?

Rachel Beanland: You know, I learned about the fire the very first day I came to Richmond. Before I moved here, I had flown down for a job interview—my husband had just accepted a job as a math professor at VCU—and so someone in the math department knew I was coming down for that. The trip was also to do some house hunting and, you know, just kind of get the lay of the land.

Really, it was all very fortuitous. So Andy Lewis—the chair of the math department—put me in touch with some realtors and said, “They’ll drive you around for the afternoon.” And they drove me around the Fan district a little and then into Church Hill, and down Broad Street and past Monumental Church. I still remember sitting in the back of the car. And, you know, one points out the window at Monumental Church and says, “there used to be a theater there. But, you know, it burnt to the ground, and a lot of people were trapped inside.” 

He just kind of gave me the bare bones of what had happened that night. And it just stayed with me, and I don’t know whether part of the reason it stayed with me because it was like my very first day in Richmond—and so my all of my senses were kind of heightened. But I thought, God, that’s an interesting story. And at the time, I was writing on the side. I worked in PR and had always been very attached to reading words—I wasn’t a novelist yet. But I would periodically get these. Thoughts like, Oh, that would make a good novel, like some would think, that would make for a fun night

And so, anyway, over the years, I’ve just kind of paid attention to the fire. It came up when the Monumental Church and other entities in town were honoring the 200th anniversary of the fire in 2011. I can remember, you know, seeing more about the fire at that point.

My first novel set in Atlantic City, is based on a family story. It came out in July of 2020, which was right as the pandemic was holding sway over everyone. Around that time, I was kind of feeling around, trying to figure out what to write a second novel about. I had some plans to write something I had already kind of begun to write about that was set further afield—and that was going to require a lot of travel. 

But when the pandemic happened, I realized would not be able to traveling anytime soon, you know. And so I started to think about writing something a little closer to home—that would be easier to travel to, where I had all the sources I needed right at my fingertips. And the theater fire was just kind of it, had always been there in the back of my mind. So it was a combination of having been exposed to the story very early and having kept it in some dark recesses of my brain, and then, you know, just the circumstances of 2020 lead me back there. 

And then, of course, once I started really digging in and doing a lot of research on the fire, which was kind of interesting timing because the world’s falling apart around us then. I’m reading this really depressing research, but the novelist part of my brain was like, Oh but there’s so much story here, keep going.

So with all that research, how did that impact your writing process? 

I mean, I always do a lot of research. So it wasn’t unusual to start by reading everything I could get my hands on. And in this case, I was lucky; there were a lot of archival materials that I could draw from as well. I always try to pay attention to the times that I was surprised, you know. And there were definitely a few things that surprised me. 

In doing my research, I was surprised by the number of women who had died in the fire. And the more I dug, the more I realized that there had been these kinds of “explanations” that the men provided for why that might have happened. Yet none of the explanations really made sense.

So that was a line of questioning that I took up very early and thought a lot about. I was grateful to historians like, Meredith Henne Baker, who wrote the nonfiction accounts of the fire, who had asked some of those same questions like: “Well, wait a second, why? Why did so many more women die at an event that? Should have been about 50/50?” And so that was something where my ears perked up, and I thought, ‘Okay, you know, I definitely want to explore this in the novel.

Another time, I was really kind of surprised was by as the reaction of the theatre company, in the days after the fire. They were squarely at fault. The fire was kind of a combination of the building’s bad design and some shenanigans backstage. And it was very clear to those who were backstage as to what had happened. But there is this funny article or letter to the editor that appears in the Enquirer—Richmond’s paper—in the weeks following the fire, and it’s from the theatre company. If you’re reading between the lines, they’re trying to blame the fire on a slave rebellion. And so that immediately piqued my interest.

Of course, as a novelist, you’re looking for conflict, right? So, when you’re doing this kind of digging, you’re thinking: ‘If there isn’t conflict that already exists in the historical record, you’re gonna have to start it yourself.’ So it’s helpful when it’s actually already sitting there, ready for the taking. So that was something that was really interesting to me. 

And then there was another detail that really stuck out to me as I was learning more about the theater fire, which was that historians suspect that there were at least two African Americans in the theater—enslaved African Americans—in the theater who perhaps used the fire as a chance to escape. And so that became something that I was also very interested in. This idea that, you know, the fire could have been the worst night of many people’s lives, but then could have also provided one or two people with an opportunity that they would never have been granted otherwise, right? If everyone thinks they’re dead, they can run potentially, with a lot of freedom and without people chasing behind them.

So those were some of the kind of nuggets that I uncovered as I was reading more about the fire that jumped out at me right away and informed the characters. 

And how is the story narrated via all this information?

I wanted the stories told from four characters’ perspectives. So we have Sally Henry Campbell, who is a white woman, and she’s the daughter of Patrick Henry. And the story in that family goes that she was in fact at the fire. And so she kind of became, in my eyes, the witness of the women, who saw what the men were doing—trying to save themselves at the expense of the women that they cared so deeply about, but trampling through them all the same. So I had her.

I wrote about an enslaved black female who uses the fire as an opportunity to escape. I follow a young stagehand, who is backstage and sees the length to which the theatre company is willing to go to pass the blame off. And, and then my last character is an enslaved blacksmith who is based on the real Gilbert Hunt.

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that story, but Gilbert Hunt was a blacksmith in town who saved the lives of about a dozen women that night. And what’s interesting about his story, he ultimately buys his freedom in 1829. However, he performed that act of heroism, as well as another act of heroism several years later when the penitentiary burned. So he was really well known in town and his service that night was widely known. And I was really interested in the idea that all of these people in town owed him their lives. And yet, nobody worked very hard to try to buy him his freedom. He ultimately buys his freedom for himself a little less than 20 years later. So that that became kind of the fourth leg of the table, so to speak.

So where do you see your role as a kind of historian and as a historic novelist?

I feel as a novelist that my first priority is always to tell the most compelling story I can tell. So when faced with the choice between giving something that is historically accurate and giving you a story that is completely compelling, I’ll always kind of veer toward compelling. But I think I am enough of a sucker for history, that my preference is always to give the reader something that is both compelling and true. So whenever possible, I try to stick to the historical record. But when I do have to deviate from it, because the story really requires it, and I don’t beat myself up about it too much. Usually.

So what do you want the reader to get out of your novel? All this scandal and history.

I mean, first and foremost, I hope the book is like an immersive experience that is enjoyable to read. And that leaves a lasting impression. I think that in this case, with this book, I was really interested in ideas surrounding, like, male chivalry. And our kind of perceptions and misperceptions of the past and the way the past has influenced the present. In many cases, you can trace the direct line between the policies and practices that were in place in Virginia and 181 and the issues we face today. And so, those were always really intriguing connections for me to make when I was writing, and I hope that readers enjoy kind of discovering them for themselves. 

So taking a little step back. You had said that you’d always kind of dabbled in writing, kind of got ideas. But when do you think you knew you wanted to be a writer?

My parents were both big readers, and we always had a ton of books around. And most nights if I walked into the living room, both my parents were stretched out on a sofa or recliner or whatever with a book in their hands—even if they were asleep, on their chest. So, certainly, books were an early part of my life. 

We always had the policy in my house that as long as I was reading, I didn’t have at that time. So, you know, I could stay up as late as I wanted if I had a book. So reading was something I always really adored. And then I was a military kid, too; my dad was in the Navy. And I think that that had a huge influence on me—when I think back now—because every couple of years, I showed up somewhere new, and I had to learn a new place, new people, new relationships, and make all of these connections. And I think that helped me to see the world a little differently. And maybe it changed the way I see myself in that world. So the writing, I think, has come out of that experience.

And what have you been reading through all this and currently?

Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait is on my bedside table now. And I finished Hamnet a bit ago. That was a great book to be reading as I was writing The House is on Fire, because there are all these craft elements that as a writer you’re kind of looking at what other authors are doing when it comes to setting a book in the past. It’s not just that you need your story set in the past, but your prose needs to match the time period and the people, and so it was great to see what she did with prose in Hamnet. It’s a kind of unique challenge.

I almost don’t even want to tell you the book I’m reading right now because it’s like, so crazy—like thick, thick research. I’m actually going to my bedside table so I can look at some of the books. I am also reading the Complicities by Stacy D’Erasmo. And that’s kind of half-research half-fun. I’m interested in this book from a craft perspective. And it’s also a pretty new book. Also, Jessica Wagner’s The Philadelphia Chromosome. Also, I read a book that’s coming out this coming summer that I really enjoyed, which is by a debut author. It’s called Everything’s Fine by Cecilia Rabess.

So I’m reading widely. I’m reading a little more science right now, a little more of recent history. I think my next novel is going to, you know, come forward in time. I’m not going to be staying in 1811.

And do you think your book succeeded in what you wanted to achieve?

For me, this book is pretty special to me, because it’s the book I wrote during the pandemic. So it was not an easy book to write, in that I was simultaneously homeschooling small children, and going on grocery runs to Costco and, you know, doing all of the things to keep my little family safe. And my husband and I would split the days; he was teaching on Zoom, and I was trying to carve out a couple of hours upstairs in the office, and it was just a really unusual time to be writing a book. 

And I think that, as with probably a lot of authors, the books that we wrote, during the pandemic are going to have that influence, right? Like, they’re very much touched by that experience. And I think in my case, this book was influenced by the pandemic, it was influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, it was influenced by just the life we were all living in that kind of window of time. So it does feel kind of special to see it come out in the world. And I hope that it brings some really nice attention to this forgotten piece of history.

Get a copy at The Bookshop.

Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review, www.jonimitchell.com, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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