Education Opinion

Tillmon County Fire

By Donalyn Miller — June 15, 2009 4 min read
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After reading, last summer, Pamela Ehrenberg’s first novel, Ethan Suspended, which explores themes of prejudice, loyalty and tolerance through the eyes of Ethan, a young man who moves in with his grandparents in their declining neighborhood, I eagerly dove into Ehrenberg’s latest book, Tillmon County Fire.

Set in a remote part of Appalachia, the book unfolds through the alternating perspectives of several teenagers who live in this rural community: Rob, the openly-gay newcomer; Lacey, the invisible girl who works in her family’s hardware store; Jeremy and his mentally-challenged twin, Albert; and Aiden, who believes he is an instrument of God. As readers follow the overlapping narratives, the story builds to a shocking incident, the arson of part-time resident’s vacation home. How each person is involved in the days leading up to the fire and affected by its aftermath, creates a powerful story, which has the potential to spark discussion about the nature of our own prejudices and how our interconnectedness impacts us.

Well-crafted and provocative, Tillmon County Fire solidifies Pamela Ehrenberg’s reputation as a talented new author of young adult novels. Touring the blogosphere, promoting her book and discussing her life as a writer and mother of young children, Ehrenberg stops by The Book Whisperer and reveals how her life experiences influence her work.

How did you become a writer?

For a long time, I thought I became a writer because of something that happened in kindergarten, where someone misinterpreted a story I shared with the class and I realized how much of the really interesting work of writing doesn’t happen until a reader comes along. But your question makes me realize it goes back earlier than that, to the stories my dad told me with unadorned sock puppets (most people would just call them socks!) on his hands. The narrator was always the most interesting character, getting all frustrated when Goldilocks failed to show up or mixing up the wolf from “Red Riding Hood” with the one from the “Three Little Pigs”. I think that was my earliest clue that stories were created by real people.

How has your AmeriCorps (a national service organization) experience influenced you?

Well, in a direct way the setting for Tillmon County Fire was inspired by the Appalachian community where I was an AmeriCorps member. But in a broader sense, being in AmeriCorps opened my eyes to the different forms of diversity around me, even in places where at first glance everyone looks the same. And I learned what it feels like when people look at the badge you’re wearing or the work you’re doing, and assume certain things about you, like how much money or how many opportunities you have. And then talk to you differently once they’ve concluded that you’re “poor"--that was an eye-opener. Also, of course, I met my late husband because of an AmeriCorps connection: he had worked for the Corporation for National Service here in D.C., and he spotted the AmeriCorps patch on my bag as I was coming up the Metro escalator.

Why do social issues appeal to you as writing topics?

Actually, I think it’s stories that appeal to me--anything with “topics” makes me think I should be writing a five-paragraph essay. So far, I guess it’s turned out that telling a story sometimes bumps up against some of the “social issues” that characters are struggling with. But I think for the person in the midst of the struggle, it’s not a social issue to them, it’s their life.

Why have you chosen to write young adult books?

One of the most liberating experiences I’ve had as a writer was when a professor returned one of my short stories with the comment, “This sounds like the first chapter of a young people’s novel.” That was the first time I realized that publication in the New Yorker wasn’t the only conceivable goal for a fiction writer, that writing in a young person’s voice that feels natural and comfortable to me can actually count as a legitimate art form.

What childhood literacy experiences influenced your interest in writing? Are there books you remember? Did you write when you were young?

I remember coming home from the library with towering piles of books, and sometimes checking out the same books over and over, wanting to lose myself in the familiar world of the characters. I was probably about eight when I used birthday money to buy the complete boxed set of the Little House on the Prairie books, all of which I had already read multiple times. (My logic: why buy a book unless you’re already certain you’ll like it?) The purchase was monumental enough that my mom mentioned to the salesperson that I was buying the set with birthday money, and when the salesperson asked when my birthday was, she was visibly surprised to learn that it was several months earlier. I had needed that much debate, contemplation, and analysis before even coming to the store. I still have the books, and the box.

Are you working on any ideas for another book?

My new manuscript is set in 1950s Baltimore, and it’s about a girl whose mother has mental illness. I’m actually thinking ahead to what’s next, because I’ll need something to distract me from the plight of that manuscript as it begins its submission journey.

What questions do you wish people asked you?

I’d love to be in a position where people might logically ask, “So, what was it like winning the Newbery?” In the meantime, any question that doesn’t involve potty accidents, squished Cheerios, etc., is a welcome change of pace from daily life!

Thanks, Pamela for appearing here as part of your blog book tour. Congratulations on the success of your latest book.

I read Tillmon County Fire as part of my annual book-a-day summer reading challenge. With books like this one, I am off to a promising start. Look for progress updates and book lists in future posts. Like my students, I am already looking for creatively compliant ways to finish so many books!

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.