Rachel Saylor is launching her memoir, Fire Diaries on April 25th. She shares about processing her grief through writing, and finding hope and connection after devastation.
Please tell us a little about yourself, and then about your book, Fire Diaries.
I’m a writer living in Tempe, Arizona. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a child. However, I didn’t grow up knowing I’d write. In fact, I thought I was pretty bad at it. The latter part because my grandpa and mom were both English teachers and therefore, tough critics. The former because I’d already mapped out my life including my path to becoming a therapist.
The idea of writing sparked in me when my husband interrupted one of my long monologues detailing my current read, Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater.
“Why don’t you write books?” he asked like it was the most obvious question.
“I never thought to,” I answered.
I’m not one to make flippant decisions when it comes to the trajectory of my career, but this new, completely unknown path began to form in my mind. I continued working my nonprofit job in an after school program for at-risk youth, but I wrote at home in the mornings or evenings. My writing habits were at the whims of my inspiration and I didn’t have a clear direction.
Six months after my humble and naive beginnings as a writer, my husband and I woke up in the middle of a crisp Appalachian night to our apartment on fire. Our escape was narrow, and we were thrown into a different reality, left with nothing but our suitcases we were fortuitous enough to have had packed for a trip we were leaving for the next day.
The trauma from the fire left me aching, angry and confused. The notion that life is fleeting had never been more clear to me, and I wanted to follow my passions with new gusto.
My memoir, Fire Diaries, was birthed from the ashes of despair. In the first few months after the fire, I wrote short diary entries detailing the events of the fire, what home meant to me and how the trauma was affecting me. I released a diary entry each week for those online to follow along with and placed a typed up copy (from my typewriter) that included all of the entries into our old mailbox in front of what used to be our home as a sort of art installation piece.
What are the major themes in Fire Diaries? And what are your hopes about the impact of your book?
The major theme of Fire Diaries is turning devastation into motivation. I hope to both tell a story that helps those who faced any form of trauma or devastation feel heard and understood, as well as specifically express the heartache that can come from the trauma of a house fire.
Right now globally, more than ever, we are all faced with the uncertainty of the future. Although the fire was a different circumstance than the world’s current strife, I was met with the same crossroads we are all at right now. It’s the question of whether or not we can find a way to thrive and find opportunities in this new life presented before us. *Spoiler* I believe we can.
During our phone conversation, you told me a great story about your mailbox. Can you share that here?
The only items to withstand the fire were the mailboxes lined up at the end of the road. We moved into a new home on the same side of town as our fire apartment, so every day, I drove by what once was our home. Our mailbox, out of the five that stood there, liked to open its lid. More than once, my husband swung into the parking lot to close it, but the next day it’d be open again. This irked me. Why is it taunting me? I’d think every time I saw it opened. Until I figured maybe it was trying to communicate with me. Gently shoving me to tell my tale. To write a letter or diary of sorts, but for anyone to read, not just one recipient. So as crazy as it sounds, I listened to my mailbox and wrote my story. Placing the original copy in its protective walls for community members to read at the actual site of the event.
The fire, of course, is the main reason Fire Diaries is in existence, but it’s because of the mailbox this story is seeing the light of day.
So what was your process like for turning all these journal entries into a finished memoir?
I wasn’t pleased with the overall flow of Fire Diaries when I mashed the separate entries together as one. A few years passed from its original release before I got serious about shaping it into a book. At this point, I’d written two fiction manuscripts. I’d been following Hugh Howey’s guidance on self-publishing and then I was introduced to Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula 101 course which gave me a roadmap for how to self-publish. Within the SPF community on Facebook, I found my editor, Hannah Sullivan.
My editor suggested I rearrange the story.
Initially, the task felt daunting and I was unsure if it would work. The original manuscript went in and out of the actual fire experience, moments before the fire and reflections after the fire. I was worried it wouldn’t pack the same punch if told straight in chronological order. But I went for it anyway, because I reasoned my editor knew what she was talking about. I printed the manuscript off and laid it all out on my bed. With my scissors and tape in hand, I went to hacking at it. Chunks were cut and taped to others. Chapter titles were slashed and replaced. After it “felt right” to me, I changed it all in my manuscript on my computer and sent it back off to my editor. Of course, she came back with some more suggestions so I printed it off again.
This time, after a bit of hacking, I asked one of my critique partners, Danica, to literally pour over the pages laid out on my bed with me. Her support made me feel a lot more secure in the final hacking and taping phase. I sent it off, and thankfully, my editor gave it a thumbs up.
Along with her three rounds of editing services and my mom’s help of painstakingly going through my manuscript line-by-line multiple times with me, Fire Diaries finally flowed together as a complete memoir rather than separate diary entries.
At what points along the way did you get feedback from Beta or ARC readers?
Before I released Fire Diaries weekly online, I had a few avid readers I knew, as well as a writer friend, read it and give me feedback. This was back in 2015 when I didn’t know anything about Beta or ARC readers, but in practice, it’s what I was doing; I was finding Beta readers from the pool of people I knew who seemed like the best candidates to give me critical feedback. Although back then, I sent them a Google Doc and they either printed it off and wrote on it or edited it within that Google Doc. Much less seamless than BetaBooks as I’ve found with my other manuscripts :)
How have you approached reader outreach and marketing?
I began with an email list through blogging. I’ve now created a Street Team (aka Advanced Readers) sign-up on my website. Readers who sign up receive a free ebook of Fire Diaries and leave me an honest review online after they read it during the release. I’ve also been posting about Fire Diaries on my Instagram.
How are you publishing?
Kindle Direct Publishing is the easiest path to publishing for me since Amazon is so accessible. It’ll be available in both print and ebook. I’m giving myself time to become fully acquainted with Amazon before branching off onto other platforms/vendors.
So when and where can people find your book?
The book is launching April 25th (the 5 year anniversary of the fire).
You can pre-order the ebook or paperback now on Amazon.
Or you can go to www.FireDiariesBook.com for more information on my story.
There will be a live (online, thank you social distancing) book launch on April 25th. Register at www.FireDiariesBook.com for the book launch.