Sandra M. Younger interviewed by Adria Britton
SDWI Board Member Sandra Younger recently published her book, The Fire Outside My Window: A Survivor Tells the True Story of California’s Epic Cedar Fire. The story centers on the San Diego wildfire of 2003, and incorporates both the facts of the disaster and the emotional difficulties ignited by the raging flames. In this interview, Younger shares her involvement in San Diego Writers, Ink, her process for writing her book, and some advice for writing memoirs.
Adria Britton: Could you describe your involvement with San Diego Writers, Ink?
Sandra Younger: I became involved with SDWI 4 years ago when I joined Judy Reeves’s Read and Critique group. From there I began attending a few SDWI events and was eventually invited to join the board. I also began leading a Read and Critique group of my own. Last year I served as vice president of San Diego Writers and I’m currently in my third year as a board member.
AB: How did your experiences with SDWI help you write your book?
SY: Joining Judy’s Read and Critique group marked a pivotal turn in my author’s journey. I was already 6 ½ years into the research and writing process, with about a third of the manuscript yet to write, and I was starting to doubt if I would ever finish. Judy and the others in the group immediately accepted me as a peer and assured me I was on track! What a huge boost! Over the next 18 months their steadfast support, brilliant suggestions and loving encouragement kept me moving toward the finish line. Two others in that group—Marivi Soliven Blanco and Jim Ruland, also finished books during that time, and now we’re all celebrating our launches together within the space of 9 months. Sweet!
AB: Before writing your book, did you often recount the “True Story of California’s Epic Cedar Fire” to friends and family? If so, how did the per-familiarity of reciting your account influence your writing?
SY: Yes, ad infinitum and probably ad nauseam, especially for the first year or so after the fire. We had to, both because people asked and because it helped us recover. We learned, in fact, that one of the key ways people heal from traumatic events is by telling their stories as many times as it takes to create a sense of control over events in which they initially had no control. Because I wrote the sections of the book about our own fire experience early in the writing process, I don’t think the constant telling altered the accuracy of those passages. I also had a recording and transcript of an interview we did with a reporter only two weeks after the fire that I reviewed to make sure time and re-telling hadn’t blunted anything.
AB: While writing your story, what thought processes did you undertake to remember feelings and experiences from the fire?
SY: Bob and I compared notes to fill in a few details, but overall the experience was so intense it stuck with me.
AB: Did you aim at a certain length for your book, or did you let your memories take as many pages they wanted?
SY: My own memories comprise only a small part of the book. It’s mainly an integration of experiences I collected in more than 100 interviews with emergency responders, subject experts, fellow fire survivors and family members of victims. I didn’t limit the writing as I went, but I did plan to end up at around 300 pages, and that’s exactly how it turned out.
AB: The order of your book is very specific- how did you organize your information and stories to keep the storyline clear?
SY: That was a challenge! One of the first great pieces of advice I got from Judy’s group was to start the book at the point where Bob and I first woke up and saw fire outside our window. Originally, that didn’t happen until chapter 11! I took their advice and then flashed back for 10 chapters. I also used a lot of briefer flashbacks and flash-forwards throughout the manuscript to insert background information and close out pieces of the story that would’ve been distracting to revisit later in the book. Another way I worked to keep the storyline clear was using myself and a couple of the fire personnel as continuing characters. That was important since the fire jumped from place to place, each time introducing new characters.
AB: How did you anticipate your audience would respond to your book? Have readers’ responses matched your expectations?
SY: I hoped readers would experience the drama and intensity of a runaway wildfire, better understand the decisions made in the midst of it by firefighters trying to stop it and by civilians caught in its path, and realize that fortune can spring from misfortune if we choose to respond as survivors rather than victims. Responses so far have exceeded those hopes on all counts. A couple of readers have even said they found the book “healed” their lingering trauma from the fire. I find this beyond touching.
Plus, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the most frequent comment in the early reviews has been, “I couldn’t put it down.” Wow! What author wouldn’t want to hear that?
AB: My hometown is in Northern California, near Yosemite National Park, alight with the last embers of the Rim Fire. What advice do you have for people currently undergoing life changing experiences that would help them keep their memories fresh and usable for memoir writing?
SY: Make notes. Start a journal. Record voice memos. Take pictures. Talk to others. Collect media clips. Grab it all now while it’s fresh, even if you think you’ll remember every detail for the rest of your life. Because you can’t.
AB: What writing projects have you been working on since publishing, “The Fire Outside my Window”?
SY: Between promoting the book and launching a new consulting business (strategicstorysolutions.com) I’ve only had time for a few magazine articles. But in 2014 I plan to start working on a new book about planting a truffle orchard in North Carolina (yes, really!)
AB: Do you have anything you would like to add?
SY: Thank you!
Sandra’s writing credits range from academic journals to Seventeen magazine. Drawn to journalism by the opportunity to explore diverse subjects, meet fascinating people, and ask endless questions, she has written about everything from garden mulch to bionics.
During 10 years spent researching and writing “The Fire Outside My Window,” she did more than 100 interviews with subject experts, first responders, fire survivors, and families of victims.
Sandra is a North Carolina native who spent Sunday afternoons exploring her grandparents’ farm, where she now grows European summer truffles. A Phi Beta Kappa journalism graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she also holds a master’s degree in magazine journalism from Syracuse University.
Sandra and her husband, Bob, are the parents of two adult daughters, Lauren and Kendall. The family moved to San Diego, California in 1982. For the past ten years, Bob, Sandra and their Newfoundland dogs have lived in Wildcat Canyon, where 12 of the Cedar Fire’s 15 victims died.
Visit Sandra online at www.sandramillersyounger.com.
Adria Britton currently interns at San Diego Writers, Ink. She is majoring in creative writing and minoring in non-profit organization business management at Point Loma Nazarene University. She has traveled extensively, including an experience living abroad in Chile for a semester to learn Spanish and invest her time into a new community. You can contact Adria at: firstname.lastname@example.org