AN INTERVIEW WITH Jay Varner

Jay Varner, author of the brilliant memoir Nothing Left to Burn, offers some insights on the origins of his memoir, the tricky business of writing about a small town, good books, and good music, as well as a nod to Saved By The Bell. Enjoy!


I’m always intrigued by epigraphs and the one in your book, Nothing Left to Burn, is quite beautiful. You quote from Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore:
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We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call;

No way out, just the upstairs window to look out of out while the
Fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.

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Can you tell us a little bit about the epigraph? When did you discover it? Before or after you wrote the memoir? Can you explain what it means for a reader out there who has yet to read your book?

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I think I read that play in college. I always keep a journal on me and it just seemed interesting, considering my background with fire.  But I’d held on to it. As I wrote this book, I thought about it more and more. To me, that house symbolized my own home growing up—a trailer. My grandfather, who was an arsonist, always lit these tremendous fires about thirty yards from our house. Hot, terrifying, crackling things that felt like they could overtake us in mere minutes. So, it felt like fire was always surrounding our home. My father was the fire chief, so he was always running out the door to fight a fire. And, as a powerless child, there was very much the feeling of entrapment in this cycle. And even my father, despite his position, felt powerless against his father—he could only stand and watch my grandfather.
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On a personal level, the first thing I ever read by Williams was The Glass Menagerie. I always identified with Tom Wingfield in that play. He was a struggling writer, he had a tough family situation, he was restlessness. In my young mind, that character was Tennessee Williams to me, and Tom was also me. So, it’s a little tribute to the influence his work had on me as a very young reader and writer.
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Your memoir addresses several delicate issues surrounding the small town you came from (pop. 500!) and your family. Did you ever struggle with keeping certain scenes in your story? Do you worry about people’s reactions?

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You know, I hesitated on some things, but I never for a second doubted that I would excise something. To do the story justice—and the characters, who were and are real people—I had to be honest. Some of things were painful to experience—and, even now, painful to remember. But they are vital to understanding who these people are, and more importantly, the crucible that all of us went through.
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I’m really not sure how people will react. I imagine some will wish that I had not written this—certainly, some family members feel that way already. But for others, I hope that they respect the story. My father was beloved in my hometown, and rightfully so. There was some darkness buried in him, some secrets, and what’s revealed about him might surprise those who knew him. But more than anything, it makes him even more of a hero in my eyes and, if they open their hearts, I think they’ll see it that way as well.
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In the event that your book gets turned into a movie—which it totally should—who would play Jay Varner? And who would play your father and your grandfather
?
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In terms of the twenty-something me, I think Paul Dano from There Will Be Blood could do an amazing job. He has that kind of dour and sad look that I probably had in those days. Or maybe Zac Effron, just because he would bring a whole load of fans that would be interested in the book. It’s too bad Jon Hamm isn’t younger. He’s one handsome devil and I’d love to think of myself that way.
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For my father, Sam Rockwell is the most underrated actor of his generation. He was in a great movie called Snow Angels, based on a Stewart O’Nan novel, and he just knocked it out of the park.
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My grandfather? He was a spitting image of Dominic Chianese who played Uncle Junior on The Sopranos. I think Harry Dean Stanton could do a nice job with it as well. Or Philip Baker Hall, one of the best character actors of all time. Just so long as they can be menacing and have that thousand-yard stare.
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My personal favorite song about fire is The Pixies’ “Digging for Fire.” Have any faves of your own?

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It’s hard to top Frank Black. The Doors—“Light My Fire” is certainly nice to crank up on the radio, but perhaps also a bit obvious. Still, every time the oldies station played it when I was younger, my mother turned up the volume and said, “This remind you of anyone?” “Incinerate” by Sonic Youth is pretty great. The Clientele (on Chapel Hill’s very own Merge!) have a song called “House On Fire.” I’m a huge Springsteen fan—was front row center at a show here in Charlottesville last year—so “I’m On Fire” is always a favorite. “Burn” by Ray LaMontagne is just an acoustic gut-punch. And if you want to get super obscure, a garage band from the 60s called The Werps have a great song called “Love’s A Fire.”
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You’re one of the founders of The Susquehanna Review, one of the nation’s few literary magazines for college undergraduates. In a time where printed magazines are folding right and left (Paste magazine folding as recently as a few weeks ago, for example), it’s encouraging to see a literary magazine you created still thriving. Can you talk a little bit about how The Susquehanna Review came to be?

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The writing program at Susquehanna University received a pretty huge grant—something like a half-million dollars. The faculty at the Writer’s Institute sat down and talked about ways to use this money, to serve the creative writing community and to help students. There was a real need for a national journal for undergraduate writing. And this was something I thought would be a great idea—not only to showcase SU’s writing program, but to give a venue for young writers at that stage of their careers. I’d been sending stuff out to journals for a long time and had taped the rejection slips to my wall. But I thought that writers at that age needed some kind of larger recognition beyond just those on-campus magazines. Everything, from editing to layout, was all done by students. And, for a national journal, that’s rare. A big journal might have an intern who’s an undergrad, but hardly ever a full staff.
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And the bonus question of the month—who was your first celebrity crush?

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Tiffani-Amber Thiessen’s Kelly Kapowski on Saved by the Bell!
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Megan Fishmann,
Publicist,
Prima ballerina,
Long-distance runner

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