A Conversation with: Kurt Kamm
November 3, 2010
Author of Red Flag Warning and One Foot in the Black
Thank you, Kurt, for being the first author in my “conversations.” I found your books well written, intriguing, and particularly good in that you not only take the reader into the Southern California firefighting world—a good sense of place—but also because you look into the minds of both arsonists and firefighters.
I would like to start with your website. It’s amazing on many levels—colors, graphics, information available, looks into your books and activities—just tons of information easily accessible. Could you tell me about your website development? What you wanted to do and how you accomplished your vision?
Madeline, my website evolved. Through social networking, I have been in touch with thousands of firefighters and other first responders. I asked them to send me stories of their experiences and some pictures. Some of the things they sent me were very revealing. One female firefighter wrote about falling through a floor in a mobile home fire and thinking she would die. She survived, began to have trouble in her marriage and divorced a year later. She was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD.
People started to send me comments about their firefighter families, and I started a page to capture some of these comments, which really explain how first responders think about their jobs and their lives. Typical comments mention five generations of firefighters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and cousins. Sadly, other comments mention multiple line of duty deaths (LODDs) in the same family or generation. I also started getting comments about aerial firefighting and wildland situations, so I just kept adding pages. It all really just happened, without a specific plan.
The pictures on your website and the covers of both your books are quite dramatic. I’ve also seen your photos posted on Facebook. Do photographs play a part in your writing creativity experience, or is this a different interest of yours?
I’m not much of a photographer myself, but I use the pictures to create visual images for my novels. Fire pictures—structure, wildland, aerial—are mesmerizing. I find I can’t see enough of them. When you see walls of 100 foot high flames eating thing up, it leaves an impression. I have some friends here who are volunteer fire photographers, and they have files of thousands of pictures. Each one tells a story. Both cover pictures came from those files.
I do have a story about the cover picture for One Foot in the Black. After finishing the novel, LACoFD offered me a picture from their files. I had my choice, literally, of several hundred thousand photos. One morning I started looking, and finally, by the end of the day, cut the selection to 100, then 50, then 10, then 2. By that time, I couldn’t see or think straight. One of the photos I chose didn’t work, so I used the second one, which is now on the cover. When the book came out, I took the first copy to the Captain of LACoFD Camp 8, where I spent several weeks and where most of my story takes place. He looked at the cover and, incredibly, said, “That’s one of our guys.” Sure enough, when I looked closely, the back of his helmet had an “8” on it and part of his last name, MacLemore. What are the odds of that?
I’m always interested in knowing the “why,” then the “how” — especially with authors. What compelled you to write your first novel?
I have always wanted to write. In 2004, I divorced, retired from my business of 35 years, and moved to Malibu. I had nothing to do and a friend took me to a writing class. There were 40+ women, me and one other man. The women were aged 20 to 70. Our teacher told us to write “stream of conscious” pieces in a journal. Every week we read a couple of paragraphs aloud. No one cared about my funny, edgy pieces. All the women were writing about how their fathers, husbands, or boyfriends neglected, ignored or hurt them. A lot of tears were shed. After three weeks, I decided I had to contrive something to get some attention. I was on my way home one evening and watched a Blackhawk fire helicopter land on the Pepperdine University lawn. A bunch of firefighters got out and walked around in their turnout gear. I thought, “How cool is that!”
I went home and dreamed up a paragraph about an 18-year-old living in Saginaw with an abusive father who is a firefighter. All the kid wants to do is please his dad. One day he tells his father he’s going to CA to become a wildland firefighter. His father smacks him in the face and says, “When you leave, don’t ever come back.” (I grew up in Denver with a wonderful dad.)
When I read my paragraph in class, 40 women were crying (and the other guy was giving me a suspicious look). Afterward, I kept wondering what this kid’s life would be like, and started adding chapters. The more I wrote, the more interested I became. With the generous help of CalFire and LACoFD, I was eventually able to create a complete life for him in One Foot in the Black.
Back to your website—you mention there that information you learned from firefighters helped you save your home. Wow! Could you elaborate further?
Malibu has ferocious and destructive wildland fires. After I moved to Malibu and met some of the local firefighters, one came by for breakfast. Afterward, we walked around my house, and he suggested I remove six big trees hanging over the roof, which I did. Several months later, a downed power line and 70 mph winds sent a wall of flames through our canyon. We were out of our house in 15 minutes. My neighbor’s house was already burning to the ground, and the church on the corner was on its way to destruction. My front yard, fence gate and bushes were destroyed. The fire burned around back, where my chain link fence melted and several trees burned. The house survived. If I hadn’t cut those trees down, there is no doubt that I would have lost my home.
I have since been out in the field on wildland training drills and some actual fires. I have full brush gear, and feel confident that I can stay and help defend my home the next time a fire burns through. What are the probabilities of another fire? 99%
What an amazing experience! On writing in general—with two novels published, what does it feels like being an author? Are you glad you headed down this path?
I love being an author and I am glad I can afford to write and not have to depend on the income. The most exciting thing is when firefighters from all over the world write to me and tell me how much they enjoyed one or another of the books. What follows is always their own recollections. Many of them think that I am a firefighter, and I guess the highest complement is that many have said that only a firefighter could write these books. Who could ask for more? I like the idea of leaving a few books on the face of the earth when my time is over.
I also love dreaming up my characters and spend hours thinking about what they are doing. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I wake up and run to my computer because I have had a dream or an insight about what one of them is thinking. About halfway through the book, the characters take over their own lives, and then it’s easy. They dictate, and I write.
What are you working on currently? I heard something about a paramedic searching LA for a severed foot? And a visit to the LA morgue for research…
Yup, Colt Lewis (named after the fastest gun in the west) from Wyoming is a newbie fire paramedic in Los Angeles. He responds to an accident at which a woman’s foot is severed by a falling metal light pole. (This actually happened) In my story, called Code Blood, the foot is missing, and Colt is determined to find out what happened to it. In the course of a week, the story veers from world class stem cell blood research at UCLA to a kid who thinks he’s a vampire.
Colt was still in the parking lot of the restaurant searching for the foot when the helicopter lifted off. He looked up at the belly of the yellow and black bird as it headed for the UCLA Trauma Center. “I hope you make it,” he said to the woman inside.
In the process of writing this story, I have spent time at the LA County morgue, and attended a full cadaver dissection – all in the interest of research. Colt discovers some weird stuff going on in LA, and I have had a ball.
Oh, the life of an author!
Thank you, Madeline.
You’re quite welcome, Kurt. I certainly have enjoyed learning more about you and your writing adventure. And I can for sure see how firefighters and their stories would capture your interest and imagination. Looking forward to Code Blood, and wishing you continued success!
Comments, thoughts, and questions are welcome!