Author Spotlight: Heather Ezell talks Nothing Left to Burn
Today I'm thrilled to be featuring YA author Heather Ezell and Nothing Left to Burn! Get your pens ready, because Heather drops TONS of really excellent writing tips in this interview---from her experience crafting a 24-hour timeline, to the struggles she faced in tackling the ending of her novel, and more!
Be sure to leave a comment here, or reach out to Heather directly on social media to thank her for sharing such inspiring advice!
About the Book:
The autumn morning after sixteen-year-old Audrey Harper loses her virginity, she wakes to a loud, persistent knocking at her front door. Waiting for her are two firemen, there to let her know that the moment she's been dreading has arrived: the enormous wildfire sweeping through Orange County, California, is now dangerously close to her idyllic gated community of Coto de Caza, and it's time to evacuate.
Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, as Audrey wrestles with the possibility of losing her family home, she also recalls her early, easy summer days with Brooks, the charming, passionate, but troubled volunteer firefighter who enchants Audrey--and who is just as enthralled by her. But as secrets from Brooks's dark past come to light, Audrey can't help but wonder if there's danger in the pull she feels--both toward this boy, and toward the fire burning in the distance.
About the Author:
A Southern California native, Heather Ezell was evacuated for a fire at the age of three and subsequently grew up with an obsessive fear of wildfires. She has been chasing reprieve from California's heat ever since--from the Rocky Mountains to Interior Alaska. Heather graduated from Colorado College with a degree in English literature and creative writing, and she currently lives in the Pacific Northwest where she writes, practices amateur ballet in the forest, and obsesses over the weather.
And now, here's my chat with Heather!
Hi, Heather! Welcome and congrats on your debut, Nothing Left to Burn. Can you tell us a little about the story and what inspired it?
Thank you so much for having me, Megan!
Nothing Left to Burn follows sixteen-year-old Audrey Harper the day she is evacuated for a wildfire. Throughout this day, as she’s journeying across Orange County (I made a map!), she is also forced to reconcile her relationship with her boyfriend, Brooks, a volunteer firefighter. It takes place over sixteen hours with flashbacks that span from her early days with Brooks up until the previous night. It’s all about passion and the blurring lines of a first love turned toxic, sacrifices and family, struggling with identity, secrets and wildfires.
Nothing Left to Burn is 100% inspired by my lifetime of torment from wildfires, as well as my own experience in a passionate, relentless relationship that ultimately grew snarled in dependency and not so great things. I wanted to explore the gray areas of a young fervent relationship, how easy it is for lines to be crossed, to find yourself basing your identity in another, feeling that you need the other to be whole. As a teen, I wish I’d found representation of those crossed lines in YA. I took me so long to understand that even if there’s passion and love and no obvious external wrongdoings…well, those things don’t necessarily equate to balance and a healthy relationship. And, oy, you have to find strength in yourself first and foremost.
And did I mention my fear of wildfires?! So much inspiration.
How would you describe Audrey? Did she ever surprise you as you were writing her?
This is a surprisingly difficult question, perhaps because I’ve been—in some fashion—with Audrey since 2006 (!) and she’s so deeply under my skin.
If she were to describe herself I think she’d say she’s first and foremost a sister, though she’d insist she could do better. She’d say she’s an ex-ballet dancer who doesn’t know who she wants to be, what she wants to do, and she believes she’s a failure because of this. She’s lost and still searching for her thing. She’d admit that she’s quiet and neurotic, and has a tendency for dramatics—particularly in her head. She’s sad and unfairly hates herself for being sad because, to her, she has no reason for to be sad. Audrey feels guilt so strongly in this regard that she flinches away from the term depression and doesn’t even think of the concept of seeking help.
But Audrey is also hopeful and loves fiercely and would give up her world for someone she loves… and yet she is also selfish and can have some serious tunnel vision. She has a savior complex, taking on other’s pain instead of taking care of herself.
By the novel’s end, Audrey’s a nearly shattered girl who ultimately rises to the occasion on the most painful day. And, finally, at that point, Audrey would describe herself as being strong—far stronger than she thought.
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
Those who’ve read Nothing Left to Burn know that Brooks is a rather complex, difficult character. It took me years to crack him, to figure out the critical elements of him and his story. In earlier versions he read as pretty, well, sociopathic, which I leaned into for one draft and it involved a VERY different ending. But that wasn’t the story I was trying to tell—that wasn’t my Brooks. He’s broken and intense, a guy who has made rather terrible mistakes and isn’t the best boyfriend, even if he thinks he is, and he’s desperate for love, charming and deeply passionate, in truth a sweetheart who, like everyone, yearns for acceptance and love—though of course this doesn’t discredit his wrongdoings, which was something I also had to ensure made it on the page.
It was surprisingly rough for me to balance Brooks’ good and bad. Both sides to him are so intense and loud. I also wanted to play with the cliché of the troubled bad boy in YA and explore that stereotype, which was tricky. I know there are readers who hate him from the start to the end, and I get that. Totally. I sometimes do, too. But it’s been so utterly incredible to hear from readers who have known a Brooks, as well as from readers who were able to experience Audrey’s conflict and love for him as they read, even if they’d never been in a similar experience.
I suspect a large part of why Brooks was so difficult to crack is because he involved unpacking the aforementioned relationship I was in as a teen—unpacking it to a painful degree. Brooks is an entirely different person from my ex but there are similarities that I’m both aware of and also unable to see. Said ex plans on reading it, so hearing from re: Brooks should be interesting!
ALSO. SPEAKING OF EPIC CHALLENGES WITHIN THE WRITING PROCESS. I rewrote the ending of Nothing Left to Burn ten plus times and didn’t land on the current ending until my LAST revision with my editor. So perhaps the ending beats out the most challenging writing process. How did I tackle it? I wrote a list of what endings would NEVER happen… and I then I chose the most absurd of ending of that list and, well, it clicked. Sorry not sorry to my flustered, sometimes angry readers! I drafted many epilogues/chapters to follow the current final chapter and, well, nope. But maybe, maybe, one day I’ll do a surprise epilogue or one-year-later chapter reveal… hmmm. ;)
Nothing Left to Burn is also super interesting from a craft standpoint as it takes place in twenty-four hours. Did you ever run into hurdles timeline-wise, and what’s your advice for writers attempting to fit a plot into one day?
It’s strange to look back on my drafting process for Nothing Left to Burn because I didn’t outline at all. There were no index cards. There was no Scrivener or spreadsheet. Just a single messy document. And, well, as I drafted, the twenty-four hour (or, rather, sixteen hour!) structure came about intuitively. I didn’t even realize the present timeline was only going to span a single day until I was nearly halfway through the draft! I wrote the first draft in two months or so my last semester of college and it was something of a dazed whirlwind. If only my current WIPs would be so kind!
However, there were certainly timeline-wise hurdles in revisions. Moving or deleting any scene required reevaluating every scene in the vicinity. It’d mean adjusting the clock. Oh, the amount of times I adjusted the clock! I think the first draft of Nothing Left to Burn started around 7AM and it now opens at 5:22 AM because I knew I wanted to end at 10 PM for a Very Important Reason and needed the extra time. Google maps, naturally, came into play because of how frequently and far Audrey drives. I tracked her entire day, ensuring that the timing of each stamped chapter was realistic. But, even still, the kickass copy editing team over at Penguin was fixing small time discrepancies even after the final proofread!
And, of course, in revision, I worked to ensure that every past, present, introspective chapter had the greatest impact where it stood—what made sense for tension, for reveal, for development. This challenge was far more difficult than playing around with the logistics of time! There were a lot of very detailed index cards involved in my revisions.
My advice for writers attempting to fit a plot into one day is to first ensure that the single day has an iron strong ARC that can carry the weight of an entire novel. It’s key to remember that just like with a standard timeline (is there a standard, though?), every scene must carry weight and momentum. And from there… have fun! Whether you pants your first draft or you outline, enjoy the sprint. I really find that writing a novel with a daylong timeline is its own specific experience and can be exhilarating when it’s not entirely frustrating. Be patient! And save up some money because you’re going to blow through index cards!
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writer something new, so what did writing Nothing Left to Burn teach you?
Nothing Left to Burn was an endless sea of lessons both in craft and life. But to choose one… one of the biggest target points in my early revisions was learning how to control my prose. My prose can get kind of stream of conscious-y, very fluid and long winded, and this is especially the case with Audrey’s narrative, as she’s dramatic and super introspective and anxious. And while pretty stream of conscious prose can be great, without control it becomes an unwieldy mess. I at least think I’ve improved on self-editing my own brambles and even maybe now have stronger constraint from the get-go!
What has been your most rewarding experience as an author so far?
Hearing from early readers who have connected with Nothing Left to Burn, who saw their own experiences in Audrey’s, who were in similar relationships and understand or feel understood from reading the novel, who were given a new perspective on the blurry lines of passion and identity. It’s also been rewarding, and a relief, to hear from those who have lived through California wildfires and found the depiction accurate and true and respectful, which is something I was really mindful of and concerned about.
What are you reading, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
I just started Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke last night and I’m fifty pages in and obsessed. The snark! The format! But also… I’m so compelled by how Lianne manifested this guttural yet subtle sense of depression in Jane’s hysterical; voice. Mental illness isn’t mentioned in the cover copy but I can feel it at play, slowly building. I’m eager to dive back in tonight!
And finally, what’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Good old advice is good for a reason: Protect your writing time. Treat it like it’s a job that you’ll be fired from if you play hooky. But, on the other hand, respect your craft, respect that it’s art. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. When it gets rough, remember why you started writing, why love it. And play hooky when you need to—take yourself out on a date. Water the flowers and what not.
Also, Tess Sharpe’s sprint grid system has been a game changer for my productivity!
Many thanks go out to Heather for taking the time to give such a kick-ass interview! I love her tips on crafting a 24 hour timeline, as well as the reminder to treat your writing as seriously as you treat your job. Be sure to add Heather's searing debut to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy RIGHT NOW from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or request it at your library, or local independent bookstore.
And, as always,