Interviews

The Sociology of Fire

An interview with Chloe Hooper about her book, "The Arsonist."

On a recent afternoon in writer Chloe Hooper’s home in a Melbourne suburb, she and her partner Don Watson scoured the online Victoria emergency map for news that would help them better understand fire conditions northeast of the city. There, in rural Myrrhee, Watson’s brother had stayed on his land with his herd of goats. He wanted to remain with the animals despite emergency calls to vacate the area as bushfires burned nearby (At the time of this writing, Hooper and Watson’s family members are safe). 

On the same day temperatures in Sydney’s western suburbs reached a scorching 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Experts warned that wind changes in the evening could create more dangerous conditions in fire zones.

The weather was a pleasant 68 degrees in Melbourne. Still, the declining air quality aggravated a recent cold, making me cough. And even in the city’s safety, there was a sense of grief for the vast scale of life lost as Australia burned. 

Hooper and I sat down on a living room couch between tall stacked bookshelves to talk about her 2018 Australian release The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire. The book tells the story of the 2009 Black Saturday blazes in Victoria, which rank among Australia’s most deadly bushfires with 173 people killed and 450,000 hectares burned. It focuses on Brendan Sokaluk, who was charged in 2012 with intentionally lighting one of the fires. But it is also the story of post-industrial, semi-rural communities and lack of government regulation in the Anthropocene. The Arsonist‘s environmental setting may help readers understand the context for Australia’s current bushfire emergency. 

The Arsonist will be published in the United States by Seven Stories Press in August 2020. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Arielle Milkman

What initially drew you to working on the Black Saturday bushfires?

Chloe Hooper

Well, I found it incomprehensible that somebody could go out on a 46-degree day [114.8 degrees Fahrenheit] and deliberately set a fire. Just the psychology of it baffled me. I was particularly interested in Black Saturday, which was a sort of devastating fire experience here. Hundreds of fires burned around the state [of Victoria], but of the five where there were fatalities, it initially appeared that three of them had been deliberately lit. Finding out why people would do such a thing seemed to me to be kind of vital in terms of understanding how you might mitigate this in a warming future.

Arielle Milkman

What surprised you most in the research and writing process?

Chloe Hooper

Well, there is a kind of old-fashioned and romantic idea of pyromania in the media.

Arielle Milkman

Like, are you talking about Freudian associations with pyromania? 

Chloe Hooper

Yeah, I think that there is an idea that’s related to a sort of sexual fetish. And certainly there are a lot of offenders who also have offended in that realm as well. But the sort of broader data doesn’t actually suggest that they are intimately linked.

I can remember my mother telling me she’d heard that when there was a fire the Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteers would look around for who had an erection, you know. And that was the arsonist. As absurd as that sounds, that was a kind of common urban legend. But pyromania is an extremely rare condition, which forensic psychologists claim they might have encountered a couple of times whereas actual deliberate fire setting turns out to unfortunately be relatively common. It’s not necessarily a psychological condition, it’s more like you have a tilt toward the compulsive or the anti-social. 

Arielle Milkman

One of the hardest parts of the book for me to read was the first section where you have a number of victims’ accounts. What was it like for you to go through that information, and how did you access the archives?

Chloe Hooper

I had access to the police brief of evidence, and it was one of the most striking things because they had literally interviewed thousands of people. So many people had lost their houses, and just the description of the fire coming toward them was so striking. I suppose that I wanted to show what was at stake, because I think traditionally there was an idea in Australia that every community has a kind of firebug, as we would call them.

[Arson] wasn’t really treated as a very serious crime. But now that these temperatures can be so deadly, I guess this fire showed us how serious the crime can be. And I didn’t want to spare the reality of what one flame can do. But I know that people have found that really hard to read. I actually think that compared to what was in the brief of evidence, I really haven’t included a lot of far more horrendous details. But actually, that’s always the difficulty working with other people’s stories. The ethics of including, how much to include. That was the kind of hardest thing about writing the book in a way.

Arielle Milkman

In your work you build really complex characters, often from people who you haven’t had the chance to meet, like Brendan, for example. How do you do that?

Chloe Hooper

I suppose it’s partly examining the paper trail closely. Finding [a] list of [Brendan’s] workmates’ grievances. Some of the absurdities there, I guess, gave a sense of what he was like. I gained [information] through the brief of evidence and a lot of people who knew him gave their accounts. I spoke to his family.

Arielle Milkman

His parents.

Chloe Hooper

Yeah, and I spoke to his lawyers in a lot of detail. And I suppose I spoke to the police who had interviewed him. And then I saw him in the recorded footage of the police interviews.

One thing that was complicated, though, was that I would speak to the lawyers who felt that they were dealing with this very impaired, naive, childlike man. And then I’d speak to the police who felt that this was a cunning serial fire-setter who was ‘more bad than mad.’ That was one of the ways one of the detectives framed it. Working out who was correct was difficult because I actually had a lot of respect for those on both sides of the aisle. The police and the lawyers were all very forensically diligent and intelligent and compassionate people, but then I guess I realized that Brendan was both. He was naive and he was cunning and he was so full of guile and guileless.

Arielle Milkman

The backdrop of the book is coal country and [state energy restructuring]. Can you explain the connection between coal and energy production in Australia and this phenomenon of fire?

Chloe Hooper

The Latrobe Valley [where Black Saturday took place] exists on the largest brown coal fields in the world. And the mining of that coal has driven the state’s economy for years and years and years. In the mid 1990s this state run power system was privatized and deaggregated and all of the profits flowed elsewhere. So the community became, in anthropological terms, this sort of sink where suddenly there’s incredibly high unemployment and also people moving into the community who couldn’t afford to live elsewhere. So there’s now generations of structural disadvantage in that area with some of the worst statistics in the country around child abuse and neglect and also some of the worst health statistics in the country. Which, of course, are connected to the burning of coal. Brendan grew up in the shadow of the Hazelwood Power Station, which was the dirtiest power station in the OECD.

We know that around resource extraction sites there’s kind of a higher level of community dysfunction. And so in a strange way, the power station actually was producing the sort of perfect conditions for arson. 

Arielle Milkman

In a New Year’s Eve address, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said: “We have faced these disasters before, and we have come through, we have prevailed, we have overcome. This is the spirit of Australians.” How should we interpret his message?

Chloe Hooper

[The Prime Minister] has been a climate change skeptic for a long time, and he was sort of elevated to the prime ministership with the support of other denialists in government. Climate change denialism is now so mainstream in Australian political life and particularly in the media, because our dominant media company, News Corp, runs that line every day.

And there’s an idea in Australia that if you don’t have the backing of Rupert Murdoch you cannot stay in power.

Arielle Milkman

It’s incredible.

Chloe Hooper

It’s a phenomena that’s repeated in in the U.K. and you’re seeing the effects with Fox News in the States…. 

I write in this article [published in December in The London Review of Books] that there’s a kind of new Americanization of Australian politics. Scott Morrison [a Pentecostalist] is the most religious prime minister that we’ve had. And we are a deeply secular country. One does wonder when the air quality in Sydney is eleven times past the hazardous level, whether or not the Pentecostalists are as freaked out as everybody else. There is a kind of idea that the Lord will will show his judgment by fire. So if you’re going to be airlifted out of this catastrophe, perhaps you’re slightly less concerned about reducing carbon emissions. But I think probably the reality of Morrison’s strange reaction to these fires has been much more mundane. He really is hemmed in by the coal lobby, which is astonishingly powerful in Australia.

Arielle Milkman

Do you know people who are in emergency fire zones?

Chloe Hooper

Yeah. Well, Don’s brother … We will be glad to get to tomorrow. 

But I am very interested in the sociology of fire. I think when the ash settles, it’s not only an environmental kind of catastrophe. It’s also going to be a social one because disproportionately poorer Australians will be affected by these blazes. And probably if some of them turn out to have been deliberately lit, most likely in the lighting of them, too.

Arielle Milkman

This strikes me as also very highlighting of the urban/rural divide. The people you write about in the book are in the rural/urban periphery.

Chloe Hooper

That’s absolutely right. I wanted to write this book because I’d written about a remote Aboriginal community [in Tall Man, 2009] and I became increasingly uncomfortable being asked about Aboriginal dysfunction. And two hours outside of Melbourne is a town where there are a lot of the very same statistics and entrenched welfare dependency and a lot of the sort of things that go along with it. That’s when you start to realize that structural poverty is the underlying factor in a lot of the traumatic stories. 

Arielle Milkman

What should we read right now if we want to understand fire?

Chloe Hooper

We should read Stephen Pyne. [He writes about] good fire and bad fire. The former relates to traditional European and Indigenous fire practices, which often reinvigorated landscapes and protected against major conflagrations. ‘Bad’ fire is the burning of fossil fuels, “rewiring the circuitry of the Earth” which Pyne suggests has led us into the Pyrocene, the Age of Fire, where megafires will burn around the planet, longer and hotter and in places that never traditionally burnt.

Arielle Milkman

So what what comes next in the Australian political scene?

Chloe Hooper

I think it’s going to be really fascinating to watch. This isn’t even really traditionally the bad fire season. It’s now extended by months, when we’ve got so long to go and these fires are so severe. But will this change public opinion? We’re now like the United States, so tribal in our allegiances. The current government is so entrenched in their opposition to climate action. It will be very interesting to see what moves everyone makes and what the community demands.

Arielle Milkman

Do you think writing about it can make a difference?

Chloe Hooper

I don’t know, but sometimes I think that at least in however long when people look back and think “Why were we such idiots?” there’ll be some sort of dusty book on a shelf where perhaps this sort of moment in time was documented.

NONFICTION
The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire
By Chloe Hooper
Seven Stories Press
Forthcoming August 4th, 2020

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