WA author Ron Elliot’s new novel, Burn Patterns, tells the story of Iris Foster, an arsonist profiler and psychologist who is trying to put her life back together after being targeted by an arsonist. We asked Ron about his literary influences, the type of people who like to light fires and what motivates them.
Are you a pyromaniac?
Is this an interview or an interrogation? Do I need my lawyer present? Actually, not only am I not a pyromaniac, but I discovered during my research for the book that very few fire-lighters are pyromaniacs. The DSM-IV (the American Psychiatric Association’s catalogue of mental disorders) lists pyromania as an ‘impulse control disorder’. But all other motives for fire-lighting need to be ruled out first. Young people can be fascinated by fire, as I was when a boy, but most, including me, grow out of it. Not guilty, Your Honour, although I may not be fit to plead.
What were you intending to investigate in Burn Patterns?
On one level the book is a psychological thriller in which a forensic psychologist helps investigate a possible serial fire-lighter. In exploring Iris Foster’s place within the firefighting service, it became clear that she might help firefighters with post-traumatic stress disorder. The story begins a year into Iris’s own recovery from trauma. She treats a number of people suffering from trauma as they hunt for the arsonist, all the while battling her own psychological issues.
Fire is fascinating. It’s very powerful. It has the ability to nurture, to cook and to warm. And it burns.”
What sort of person is driven to recklessly light fires?
Most fires are accidents. Many bushfires are started by lightning or negligence. Most fire-lighting is for profit, which includes insurance fraud and concealing a crime. For instance, some bushfires are started by car thieves torching the car. Some fires are lit as an act of revenge. Young children are curious and don’t foresee consequences. One small sub-category that receives a deal of press is the firefighter who lights fires. The reasons can be excitement, camaraderie and anticipated esteem from the community. Other motivations, such as the thrill, the need for power, the desire to destroy are motivations common across most crimes. And then there is insanity.
Have you experienced an out-of-control fire yourself?
No. But fire is fascinating. It’s very powerful. It has the ability to nurture, to cook and to warm. And it burns. It can become rampant, cruel and frightening. I have looked into it as a chemical reaction and how fires work in terms of fire investigation and burn patterns, but it still remains more magical than understood. I have imagined the out-of-control fires in Burn Patterns.
Tell us about Iris.
Iris Foster is a forensic psychologist who became a profiler specialising in arson for the police and fire service. She hates the word ‘profiler’, by the way. She’s insightful and driven. She is a brilliant interrogator, very attuned to ‘tells’ and cues. She is known by the media as ‘the Fire Lady’. But a year before the start of the story she was targeted by an arsonist and barely escaped.
The sufferers of trauma inform this book. The burn patterns are not merely found on the buildings, but in the lives of the victims and also the would-be saviours.”
She is recovering from the flashbacks and post-traumatic stress from this event at the outset of the novel. She is attempting a new life working in narrative therapy, helping to build lives rather than arrest people. But she struggles. Her personal life seems a little out of her control. The last thing she needs is to be dragged back into police work. She attends an incident at a high school when the gymnasium explodes, forcing her to confront all kinds of questions about herself as well as the perpetrator.
What kind of research did you do to inform her character?
I spent a lot of time coming to grips with psychiatry, psychologists and narrative therapy [a type of psychotherapy that seeks to help people to tell the story their lives as a means of addressing the problems they face]. I adapted some case studies in her consulting rooms. But I also had to let some of the research go, so I could see who Iris really was, under pressure, in her relationships and in her past. I discovered how perceptive she is. She’s also witty and tenacious. She’s impulsive and she is failing. Burn Patterns is told from Iris’s point of view, so I found her imagined history to be almost more important than the traditional research. This is not a casebook of psychology. It’s a thriller.
Did you make any discoveries about PTSD or other psychological conditions that surprised you?
I was surprised to see that paramedics and firefighters have higher rates of post-traumatic stress than police officers. We now know about this disorder in the armed forces, especially following medical research into Vietnam veterans. I discovered that rape victims suffer exactly the same symptoms as other sufferers of PTSD. The sufferers of trauma inform this book. The burn patterns are not merely found on the buildings, but in the lives of the victims and also the would-be saviours.
Which books or movies influenced the writing of Burn Patterns?
As part of my research I read a book by famed police proceduralist Joseph Wambaugh called Fire Lover: A true story, which is about John Leornard Orr, who wrote a book of his own titled Points of Origin, which is about a serial arsonist. But Orr, a fire captain, turned out to be a serial arsonist. Michael Robotham is also an influence. Burn Patterns is Shutter Island meets Patricia Cornwell and Backdraft.