Hello! Today it’s my turn on the YA Shot Blog Tour, and I’m very excited to welcome After the Fire author Will Hill to the blog to talk about writing about real life. I’ll leave it up to him to take centre stage from here!
My latest novel, After The Fire, was inspired by something that took place in Texas in 1993. Between February and April of that year, the American authorities (principally the FBI and ATF) laid siege to a rural compound owned by an extremist religious sect, the Branch Davidians, after a gunfight had erupted when they attempted to search the property. It ended in a fire that destroyed most of the compound and with more than eighty people dead, including the cult’s leader, David Koresh.
Footage of the fire and the final assault by the federal agencies was televised all over the world, and the incident – which became known as the Waco Siege – sparked huge debate in America over the authority of the US government, the freedom to practice religion, and the right to bear arms (swhich could – sadly – easily lead you to conclude that not a lot of progress has been made in the subsequent twenty-five years).
I was – and still am – fascinated by cults, and I had known for a long time that I wanted to write a story set inside one. When I was reminded of the Waco footage I had seen when I was a kid (after a visit to a museum in Washington, DC) the bones of what would eventually become After The Fire fell into place really quickly. But there was a problem. What happened in the Texas desert in 1993 was a terrible, defining moment in the lives of a great number of people, and many of the survivors who lived through it are still alive today. I could not reconcile myself with directly retelling the most traumatic event of their lives as entertainment.
There have (obviously) been tens of thousands of historical novels, and many of them have been based on hard subjects. The winner of last year’s Carnegie Medal (the brilliant Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys) was based on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, in which more than nine thousand people perished. But Waco was only twenty-five years ago, and many of the people who survived it were children. Some have chosen to tell their stories in the years since, but many of them haven’t. And it was very clearly not my place to speak for them.
Instead, I drew from other cults that have believed in an imminent apocalypse and from those men (they’re almost always men) who have used fear and manipulation to control other people. I created a belief system distinct from any of those practiced by religious sects in real life, and nothing like the one practiced by hundreds of millions of Christians around the world.
I read everything I could find on Waco (including the US government report into the siege and the remarkable work of Dr. Bruce Perry, who treated the young Branch Davidian survivors) because if I was going to write something inspired by this dark, tragic moment in modern history, I needed to know as much as I possibly could about it. I couldn’t leave getting things right to chance.
So the end result is this: the Lord’s Legion are not the Branch Davidians, John Parsons is not David Koresh, and Moonbeam didn’t exist until I invented her. As I say in the author’s note at the end of the novel, After The Fire is a work of fiction. But like a great many stories, it came from something real, and it was vital – after deciding that this was a story I was going to tell – to treat that source material with the respect it deserves.
I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide whether or not I succeeded.
After the Fire is available now.