Author Talk: August 2013
Elizabeth Camden is the author of four books, including the Christy Award winner AGAINST THE TIDE. Her latest novel, INTO THE WHIRLWIND, is about a woman named Mollie Knox, who is desperate to save her business after the Chicago fire of 1871 destroys her city. While she struggles to rebuild, two men battle for her heart. Can Mollie rise from the ashes with both her business and her heart intact? In this interview, Camden talks about the surprising lack of adult fiction set during the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire and, of course, her immediate instinct to fill that niche. She has always been moved by the story of the Fire, and felt that it was the perfect dramatic backdrop for a character-driven story because "tragedies burnish the true character of a person."
Question: Tell us about your new novel, INTO THE WHIRLWIND.
Elizabeth Camden: Mollie Knox is a woman whose comfortable world is shattered the night she loses everything in the legendary Chicago fire of 1871. As Mollie struggles in the aftermath of the fire, two powerful men vie for her affection. One has always loved her, but the other has the power to save her. INTO THE WHIRLWIND is a turbulent love story set amidst the rubble of Chicago as Mollie endures the challenge of survival and the triumph of rebuilding the city.
Q: Why did you choose to write about the Chicago Fire?
EC: The race to rebuild Chicago in the months following the fire is one of the most dramatic stories in American history, but surprisingly, there are almost no adult novels about the Chicago fire. This is the first novel to explore how the city tackled the devastation after the fire, including everything from how they provided shelter to the victims, the physical challenge of clearing of the land and the politics of how to re-make the city.
There are few stories as dramatic as what happened to Chicago in 1871. In the space of a single day, one-third of the city was rendered homeless and 17,000 buildings were destroyed. In many ways, Chicago has always been the quintessential American city, a combination of ethnic enclaves, rugged ambition and raw, brash talent. I wanted to show all those qualities rise to the surface in the months following the fire.
Q: What themes do you explore in this book?
EC: As in any crisis, the Chicago fire brought out the best and worst in people. Mollie thinks of the months following the fire as a “wonderful, terrible time.” I am not the first person to suggest it is the hardest things in life that make us great, but I wanted this to be a major theme of the novel. I explore the exhilaration that comes from surviving a crisis, and then Mollie’s triumph in remaking her life into something even better than it was before. This is an uplifting novel about the power of community and the bonds that can be formed during a shared crisis.
Q: Did you do any special research for this book?
EC: The fire was well-documented by its survivors, who sent a flurry of letters and telegrams to people all over the country. Many of the survivors spoke of the strange euphoria that gripped the city in the days immediately after the fire. Perhaps it was relief at being alive, but perhaps it was also a sense of common purpose as they banded together to clear the rubble and restore the city. The euphoria did not last long, and in the subsequent months the city saw the best and the worst of what human nature had to offer. It has often been said that tragedies burnish the true character of a person, and this certainly happened in Chicago. The diaries, letters and telegrams written in the aftermath of the fire provide fascinating glimpses into this chapter of history, and I was able to weave these details throughout the novel.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from INTO THE WHIRLWIND?
EC: I want them to have a wonderful, exhilarating time reading about a determined woman overcoming the battles thrown in her path by the fire. While I don’t think any of us would want to personally endure a catastrophe like the Chicago fire, this book will explore a love story that blends rich historical detail and characters who face the crisis with intelligence and an optimistic attitude. My favorite novels make the reader feel like they’ve just made friends with a bunch of captivating people and are sorry to finish the last page. I hope this novel captures that quality.