Book Article

'Nothing Left to Burn': Family Secrets Exposed

Jay Varner's coming-of-age memoir tells the story of his family's fiery past

Jay Varner's grandfather was a convicted serial arsonist who served prison time for his crimes. His dad was the town's fire chief. And after college Varner himself, now 29, landed a job at his hometown paper in McVeytown, Pa., where he was promptly put on the police and fire beat, with a scanner whining and pinging next to his computer. It was a sound he knew all too well. ''Dread singed my nerves,'' he writes in his coming-of-age memoir Nothing Left to Burn, just out from Algonquin. Working the fire beat, though, helped him finally come to terms with his family history.

Your dad's ''guttural obsession with fire'' consumed your childhood, didn't it?
When I was a kid, he was always running out the door to fight fires. He was beloved in town, a very visible figure. But he was never home. Even when there wasn't an actual fire, he'd be out the door: ''Sorry, kiddo, I have things to do at the firehouse.''

But then you discovered that his dad — your grandfather Lucky — was a pyromaniac.
I realized that my dad's relationship with fire went beyond anything I had imagined — that he wanted to atone, to give the family some honor.

After your dad died, you learned that he had set some fires with Lucky, too.
Yeah. I imagine that's going to come as a surprise to a lot of people.

What's the town's reaction to the book going to be?
I've exposed wounds that people would probably rather leave buried. Many of them have nothing but great memories of my dad.

How does your mom feel about it? She's the book's real hero; she raised you alone.
She didn't want me to write it, but she's come to peace with it.

You write that covering fires for the paper made you fear not only memories but also ''the rush.''
My dad had a red pager on his belt, and when it went off, he'd be consumed with excitement. He had to get out the door, be the first one there. As a reporter, if you're going to do it right, you have to have that same rush. So hearing that scanner go off — well, at first I dreaded it. Then it became almost an addiction. To this day, when I hear sirens I wonder what's going on.

I'm guessing you don't have a future as a volunteer firefighter.
Well, actually, I went through a six-week firefighting academy to see what the job was like. Afterwards I joked with my wife and my mom, ''Hey, they're hiring.'' And they were like, ''Don't even think about it.''

Originally posted Oct 04, 2010 Published in issue #1122 Oct 01, 2010 Order article reprints