Review of "Beneath the Flames" and Interview with Author Greg Renz
What a treat to talk with Greg Renz about his book Beneath the Flames. Last week I included my review of his debut novel as part of my bi-monthly wrap of great books. If you missed that, please take a moment to see why I LOVE this book below before we jump into the interview with Greg.
Beneath the Flames begins with one of the best first chapters I have ever read, pitching us directly into the kind of action and raw emotion rarely found in a debut novel. Our heart aches for the main character Mitch as guilt drives him to seek distraction, purpose, and redemption by joining the Milwaukee Fire Department. His life on the farm and as a small-town volunteer fire fighter hasn’t exactly prepared him to cope with the inner city. He makes enemies, mistakes, and, surprisingly, some good friends, but all of these collide in a tightly woven plot that is both simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting.
Renz’s skill as author is evident in the depth of each character and their dialogue and mannerisms—so much so that we feel as though we’ve met them all in real life. This is a book with serious themes and subjects; suicide, racism, gang violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault, murder and more. But this is also a story about hope, love, and family. Renz handles them all with a brave pen that isn’t squeamish with the tough parts.
Beneath the Flames is the kind of story we need in the world today—authentic and insightful. I guarantee you’ll be thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading.
For signed copies click HERE.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
BENEATH THE FLAMES is an intimate combination of love, race, and the complexities of life through the eyes of a young urban firefighter.
A fire in a neighboring farmhouse has young farmer and volunteer firefighter, Mitch Garner, blaming himself for the tragic outcome. He loses all hope of forgiving himself. His only hope for redemption is to leave Jennie, the girl he’s loved since high school, and journey from Wisconsin’s lush farmland to the decaying inner city of Milwaukee to prove himself as a professional firefighter.
Mitch is assigned to the busiest firehouse in the heart of one of the most blighted areas of Milwaukee, the Core, where he’s viciously hazed by senior firefighters. He struggles to hold it together at horrific scenes of violence and can’t do anything right at fires. Within weeks, he’s ready to give up and quit. His salvation comes in the form of a brash adolescent girl, Jasmine Richardson. Mitch is assigned to tutor her little sister through a department mentoring program. Despite Jasmine’s contempt toward Mitch, her courage and devotion to her little sister inspire Mitch to stay and dedicate himself to helping her and the neighboring children overcome the hopelessness of growing up in crushing poverty.
Trouble on the farm has Mitch torn between returning home to Jennie and staying in Milwaukee where he’ll be forced to risk his life to protect Jasmine from the leader of the One-Niner street gang.
Greg, thanks so much for stopping by today. I know that you’re super busy given that your book just released on May 31, so I appreciate that you’re willing to answer a bunch of nosy questions! As you can see, I loved your book! And I’m not alone, tell us about some of the awesome reviews you’ve been getting.
A. I think the most stressful part of this journey was when the story went out into the world for advance reviews. I especially feared what Kirkus would say as they can be quite brutal. I was sure their review would be, “Nice try, Renz. Maybe next time.” So when the reviews came in, I was ecstatic. They were over-the-top positive reviews. And thank you, Valerie, for your insightful and beautifully written review.
Here are the blurbs from some of the reviews:
Renz draws on his years of experience as a firefighter to bring a hardscrabble authenticity to his novel. He packs the tale with plenty of action and a lot of heart. His firefighting sequences are detailed and thrilling, placing readers right in front of the flames. His prose is clean and, at times, poetic… - Kirkus Reviews
Gregory Renz’s new novel is a triumph of poignancy, compassion, and restraint. In it, a man’s regret is transformed to triumph. - Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of the bestselling novel, The Deep End of the Ocean
In his debut novel, Gregory Lee Renz gives us an action-packed story of a Wisconsin farm boy turned Milwaukee firefighter, but that’s not all. Beneath the Flames lies a tender journey of compassion, redemption, and community that will stick with you for a long time. - Ann Voss Peterson, author of over thirty novels with millions of books in print all over the globe. Winner of the prestigious Daphne du Maurier Award
BENEATH THE FLAMES is an action-packed debut novel with something for every reader: suspense, romance, friendship, forgiveness, family, and more. A novel that like its protagonist, relentlessly presses on into fiery and controversial terrain where many other writers fear to tread. - NICKOLAS BUTLER, author of THE HEARTS OF MEN and LITTLE FAITH
As a white rookie firefighter in Milwaukee’s inner city, Mitch Garner has much to learn, not the least is a bit of advice from his captain - “You’ll need to learn to smile at the dying. Your mug might be the last thing they see”. Set in the urban Midwest, this poignant story of one man’s journey to save lives while helping to save his own life will stay with you well after you read it. Mitch’s rural past catches up with his present as he becomes involved in his new life as a hero – and sometimes the most heroic acts are those that happen beyond the firefighting incidents. This is clearly one of the best and most brilliant debut novels I’ve ever read by first-time novelist Greg Renz. Read this book NOW! - Laurie Scheer, Writing Mentor, Director-UW-Madison Writers’ Institute, UW-Madison
Outstanding! Beneath The Flames is an intimate combination of love, race, life as a Milwaukee Firefighter from outside the city, and life as an African American family, all trying to coexist in crazy and chaotic urban and rural environments. This is a MUST READ for anyone in the fire service or anyone wanting to get into the fire service. - City of Milwaukee Fire Chief Douglas A. Holton Sr.
In Beneath the Flames, Gregory Lee Renz weaves together seemingly disparate story threads -- the unflinching account of a rookie fire fighter, the hardships of maintaining a family farm, the culture clash of a young man trading rural life for the inner city, and a love story. Tying these threads together is the story at the heart of this book: a man haunted by his past and trying to make amends. With great compassion and skillful writing, Renz shows us the human side of a tragedy and reminds us that when life doesn’t turn out as expected, you can build yourself a new life. - Jen Rubin, author of We Are Staying: Eighty Years in the Life of a Family, a Store, and a Neighborhood.
Q. I know how long it takes for a story to end up being a published book, but I always find the path fascinating because it usually has some twists and turns for most writers. Can you tell us about the journey from when you first had this story idea to publication?
A. When I retired from the MFD eleven years ago, I had all these experiences and colorful characters in my head and thought I might like to write a book. How hard could that be? I soon found out. At least I had the sense to sign up for creative writing courses and quickly realized I knew nothing about writing fiction. I sucked. But thanks to some patient instructors I gradually improved.
This story started as scenes for the classes. As time went on, the story began to take shape and I thought I knew what I wanted to write. Wrong! So many things changed over the course of revision after revision. Walk-on-characters became major characters. Major characters faded into the background. Initially, my protagonist’s mentor was going to be his fire captain, but a walk-on-character, the protagonist’s black landlady, screamed for a bigger part in the story and she became his mentor and one of my reader’s favorite characters. Mine too.
I learned not to hold fast to my plot ideas and be open to whatever it is that drives the creative mind, which I have little control over. I learned about the awesome power of creativity and how to let the story and characters take over. They know where they want to go. I only have to get it on the page in a coherent way.
After ten years of creative writing courses, countless workshops, conferences, and revision after revision, I finally typed the end to my novel. Then it was on to querying agents. The business side of writing was an eye opener. I received around 90 rejections from New York agents and received offers from two. Both wanted me to gut the story which would have removed all of the farm scenes and would have focused on inner-city Milwaukee. I turned them both down. My mentor and writing coach at UW Continuing Studies, Christine DeSmet, suggested I look into HenschelHAUS publishing. The owner, Kira Henschel, informed me that she wasn’t looking to sign any more authors at this time but since Christine recommended me, she would look at the manuscript. She loved it and we signed a book deal. And the story is now out in the world as hardcover, paperback, e-book, and soon-to-be audiobook.
Q. If there’s anything that you wish you could go back and tell your “unpublished” self, what would that be?
A. There were plenty of times I wondered why I was working so hard on this story and working so hard at learning the craft of writing. I’ve read over 80 books on the craft, taken numerous creative writing courses, and attended conferences and workshops around the country. It would have been nice to know, early on, that I wasn’t wasting all those years chasing a dream that would never come true.
Q. I really appreciate your main character’s farming/small town background. It’s something I can relate to as a farm kid myself. Did you grow up on a farm?
A. I did not grow up on a farm but spent a great deal of time on my grandmother’s dairy farm in Chetek. I loved it up there. It was an idyllic setting for a young boy.
Q. Can you tell us about the different jobs you’ve had? We already know that you were a firefighter, but I always like to ask authors this, mainly because authors always seem to have had interesting job histories.
A. My first job was at Kelly’s Drive Inn on Madison’s Far East Side in 1967. This was similar to McDonalds. I then graduated to line cook at the Holiday Inn on Madison’s East Side where I picked up some valuable cooking skills. These were jobs I had while in high school. Those jobs were followed by delivery driver for a liquor company, truck driver for a farm feed company, livestock truck driver, and employee of Oscar Mayer and Company. While working at Oscar Mayer and Company, I realized I was not happy with this career path and decided to enroll at UW Madison with the intention of becoming a doctor. I did well, graduating with honors, but was not accepted into med school, which I’m so very thankful for. Sometimes not getting what we want is the greatest blessing of all. I went on to the best job in the world, firefighting. Had I gone on to become a doctor, this book would never have been born.
Q. How closely does Mitch’s experience as he works through adapting to Milwaukee’s inner city mimic your own experience?
A. I was as shocked as Mitch by what I saw and experienced while working in the inner city. I grew up in a safe middleclass neighborhood where nobody locked the doors on their cars or houses. I never had a house key growing up. It was hard to imagine what it would have been like growing up in such crushing poverty.
Q. I think (unless you’ve been a firefighter or other first responder) that it is hard to imagine how difficult it is to rush toward danger when the natural instinct is to flee. You’ve captured that tension and danger very well. Did you find it hard to write those firefighting scenes?
A. Those were some of the easiest scenes to write because I intimately know what it feels like to crawl into a fire and the thoughts that go through your mind. I remember vividly, the fear I felt as a new (cub) firefighter. As you fight more fires, confidence helps control the adrenaline and fear. Although, there are certainly times when the fear is palpable and that is when you are tested. Having confidence in your crew is crucial to pushing the limits of safety when lives are on the line. I’ve been blessed to work with some of the best over the years. But as Ralph says in the book, “You can do everything right and still die. Just don’t die stupid.” Almost every firefighter I know has a story of a close call that could have ended their life.
Q. I know that your book just released, but I’d love to read more of your writing. Are you working on anything new?
A. I’m in the early stages of another firefighting-themed story. This one will not be a coming-of-age story like BENEATH THE FLAMES. This one will be about a grizzled old racist veteran firefighter who everyone hates and who hates everyone. He’s also one of the most heroic firefighters on the department, having made some miraculous saves where he nearly loses his life. One of the people he saves will be a young black boy or girl (not sure which yet) who will not leave him alone. I hope I have the writing chops to bring this complex character to life and have readers find enough good in him to follow him through a dramatic character arc and hopefully an engaging storyline.
Q. Before we move on to the Super Six list, is there anything else you want to tell readers about yourself or your books?
A. I was involved in the dramatic rescue of two little boys from their burning basement bedroom back in 2004. It was a miraculous rescue and a story I have told often. The media clips of the rescue and my appearance at the Madison Moth are both on Youtube. Here are the links:
Super Six List:
Fav Pizza Topping: Sausage
Book You’re Reading Now: Just finished WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING.
Coffee, Tea, or Both: Coffee
Fav Activity as a Child: Little League Baseball
Most Interesting Place You’ve Lived: UW Married Student Housing in Madison. Such wonderful diversity and energy.
Best Place You’ve Vacationed: European River Cruise
Q. How can readers discover more about you and you work? Do you have more events coming up here in Wisconsin?
A. Here are links to some interviews and articles from the last couple of weeks:
June 15th Lewis Station Winery in Lake Mills 1:00-3:30
June 22nd Tribeca Gallery Cafe and Books in Watertown 10 a.m.-noon
July 12nd Mystery to Me in Madison with Doug Moe moderating a Q+A 7:00
July 22nd Deforest Library 6:30
Learn more about Greg at:
Facebook: Greg Renz
Thanks, Greg. Congrats on your book release! It was fun to get to know you a little better. Good luck on the rest of your book promo events this summer!