Today I’m pleased to welcome Heather Wardell to Society Nineteen for a chat about her novel Fiery Girls. Fiery Girls follows two protagonists through the period before and after New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the deadliest workplace disasters in American history. Heather, who lives in Ontario, is the author of twenty-two novels. She came to writing after careers as a software developer and elementary school computer teacher and can’t imagine ever leaving it. In her spare time, she reads, swims, walks, lifts weights, crochets, changes her hair color, and plays drums and clarinet— generally not all at once. Find out more about Heather and her diverse work on her website, Facebook page, and Instagram feed. Fiery Girls is available for purchase on Amazon, Bookshop, and through your local independent bookstore. With warm thanks to Heather for taking the time to speak with us, here's our chat.

Q. I’m always fascinated to know how an author discovers the idea or topic that becomes the “seed” of their story. When did you first learn about the Triangle Fire? What in particular drew you to it as the material for a novel?

A. I read a lot of historical fiction, so while looking for an idea for my next writing project, it occurred to me that maybe I'd like to try creating some. In wandering the Internet looking for historical women who might be interesting topics, I came across the fire. I had heard of it before, but when I started reading about it, I couldn't stop. The bravery of the young immigrant women attempting to change their lives, the horror of the fire, the people's struggle to ensure such a disaster would never happen again...once I found it, I knew it was my topic.
There have been a few other novels that touch on the fire, but surprisingly few given what a huge impact it had on labor laws in America. Even those novels mostly use the fire as a subplot, and several contain inaccuracies (such as one that actually has the date of the fire wrong!), so I felt that there was more than enough room for a novel centered entirely on the fire.

Q. Could you talk a little about your research—sources, surprises, firsthand visits?

A. The two classic books about the fire are The Triangle Fire, Centennial Edition by Leon Stein and Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David von Drehle, and I used them both to ensure that my timeline of events was accurate. They were wonderfully helpful, but nothing written years later could have the immediacy of the reporting of the time. Thanks to the Internet, I could read the actual newspaper stories about the strike and the fire, and they gave me both interesting details (my absolute favorite being the young woman who was horrified when a judge suggested she painted her face and scrubbed at her cheek to prove that cold weather, not rouge, had made it pink) and also a clearer understanding of how the public saw the events.

I was fortunate to be able to make a research trip to New York City early in my writing process. Spending time at Ellis Island, the Tenement Museum, and the Transit Museum gave me lots of great details to include in the book, and being able to literally stand where the girls stood in front of the Triangle building was incredibly moving. The majority of deaths from the fire were people who fell or jumped from the ninth-floor windows. Looking up (and up and up) to that height and imagining how terrified those poor workers must have been was horrible but also helpful for the book itself.

Q. The book’s protagonists are two young immigrant women who arrive in the States less than two years before the Triangle fire. Rosie Lehrer and Maria Cirrito have both strong commonalities and notable differences. Tell us a little about why you chose, and how you shaped, their particular characters and backstories.

A. I decided very early in the process that I wanted to have two main characters, because there were so many interesting ways that people came to be in the fire that I couldn't restrict myself to only one. The vast majority of the Italian immigrants in the early 1900s came to America to earn money which they then took back to Italy, while most of the Jewish ones came to earn money to allow themselves and their families to stay forever, so I had Italian Maria and Jewish Rosie plan to do the same.

As a reader, I enjoy historical novels that use real people as the narrators. As a writer, though, I found myself uncomfortable attempting to do that, since I can't truly know what those people were thinking and feeling. Rosie and Maria are fictional, and that gave me the space to imagine them without feeling constrained. I did include some real people in the book, but not from their own actual point of view.

Q. Your novel dramatizes how vulnerable the women who worked in the “waist” factories were: many not speaking English as a first language, some having left most of their families and support systems behind before coming to America, and all needing to work no matter how dreadful the conditions in which available work might take place. As you movingly (and tragically) depict, the effort to strengthen union presence and worker protection was vigorously underway before the fire occurred. For those as yet unfamiliar with this history and your novel, could you talk a little about that and perhaps also touch on Clara Lemlich, who appears briefly but as a crucial driving force in your book?

A. When I first began researching the book, I learned of the massive 1909 garment workers' strike known as "The Uprising of the 20,000," and I expected to see that in other novels about the fire. To my surprise, that wasn't the case. I thought it was an oversight that needed correcting, because indeed the union had been working hard to protect its workers well before the fire happened.

Interestingly, my research showed that physical safety of workers was less of a priority than we might have expected. The union's focus was on hours worked a week (attempting to get that down to fifty-two) and pay, as well as on making sure that union workers were not forced out of their jobs in favor of non-union ones. While the union did also want workers to have better conditions, that wasn't as much of a driving force. People commented on that after the fire, so I had one of my characters do the same.

Clara Lemlich was an amazing woman. Barely five feet tall, slight of build, and not a native English speaker, she was utterly determined to see the union succeed. The book includes one of her actual speeches, in which she was boosted up onto a stage by a crowd and spoke without notes and apparently without preparation in such a passionate way that the crowd voted to go on strike immediately. She was also deeply involved, after the fire, with fighting to prevent a repeat disaster, and I absolutely loved that her days in a retirement home at the end of her life were spent organizing the workers there into a union. She could well be the subject of a novel all on her own.

Q. The phrase “fiery girls” has meaning beyond the fact that its characters are affected by the Triangle fire. Want to talk about that a bit?

A. Titling a book is usually such a challenge, but Fiery Girls got its name the moment I read that phrase, which was used to describe the union "girls" who were such a huge part of the union's impact. Giving speeches, encouraging other girls to join the union too, standing up for their rights and the rights of others... they were rightly recognized for their passion by being called "farbrente maydlakh" (Yiddish for "fiery girls"). I thought it was a wonderful term and suited them.

It almost didn't stay as the title, though, because I didn't want it to seem like I'd used it purely because they were in the fire. I made sure that the book's back-cover blurb referenced Rosie hoping to become a fiery girl herself, to hopefully ensure both meanings were clear.

Q. I loved the way Fiery Girls explored questions of character, contribution, and impact—about how we come to understand and, hopefully, trust our particular gifts. Rosie Lehrer, for example, wants to make a difference but fears that she doesn’t have the combination of skills necessary to do so; she compares unfavorably herself to others and often doubts that she has any power to change the status quo. I think that’s something many of us struggle with. Does that sound true to your book? 

A. It definitely sounds true, and I suspect it's a theme that stretches across all my writing, as it's one I struggle with myself. The world can seem so large and so very hard to change, and can one person actually do anything about any of that? I believe that they can, I believe that I can, and yet I know how hard it can be to hold onto that belief.

I don't set out to stuff a moral into my books, as my primary aim with my writing is to entertain readers. But I do think that a book is better reading and feels more true when there's a heart to it, something deeper than just entertainment. I also think that books are better when the main characters change themselves and/or their surroundings, and that sort of thing leads to a moral core in itself.

It's usually in my second draft of a book (I generally do three, although Fiery Girls had four because I needed an extra pass to ensure I had all the historical elements correct) that I figure out what the book as a whole is trying to say. Then I make tweaks to wording and situations as needed to make that a solid line of connection throughout the book.

Q. You’ve published many and diverse books. How does Fiery Girls fit in and stand out amid your body of work?

A. All of my twenty-two novels are focused on women and their efforts to improve their lives, so Fiery Girls fits in perfectly from that angle. However, it's my first entirely historical novel. The rest are contemporary fiction, with the exception that my Game of Pies has a number of chapters set in the 1960s).

That has an obvious challenge (research!) and a less-obvious one: a sense of responsibility. I care deeply with all my work that it be as accurate and realistic as it can be, but with Fiery Girls, I also really wanted to do justice to the girls themselves and to their hard work and sacrifices. I think the bravery and strength of those young immigrants are inspiring and I wanted to write them a book that lived up to them.

Q. Tell us a bit about what you’re working on now. Another novel, we hope?

Always! I'm about to begin the second draft of a contemporary novel about six women who arrive for an apartment showing only to learn that they've been set up and no apartment exists, and in their anger decide to work together to figure out who has done this to them and why. I hope it'll be out in 2022.

And I'm also researching for a second historical novel, about the women of Broadway in the 1950s and 1960s. That'll be late 2022 or even 2023 (yikes!) most likely. Given how much I enjoyed writing Fiery Girls and how kindly it's been received, I plan to alternate historical and contemporary novels going forward.

"Firemen Searching for Bodies," March 26, 1911,
public domain image courtesy of the Library of Congress