“At first I’m calm as the trees fall. But suddenly a rat’s nest of wood, bent horizontal and cribbed into the trees above us, comes down in a rush of a hundred machine gun snaps. Trees caught in the nest flail around before hitting the ground. Our eyes dart everywhere, trying to keep track of every moment. Trees break free and swing themselves like catapults. Splintered chunks of wood slash through the air like propellers… Falling trees is the most dangerous job in North America.”
By 2015, when he began thinking about returning to school to study creative writing formally, Aaron Williams had already completed a first rough draft of Chasing Smoke: A Wildfire Memoir. It’s the story of a “gritty, exhilarating and danger-filled” season he spent as part of a firefighting crew in British Columbia.
Williams, who had graduated from the University of King’s College Bachelor of Journalism program in 2013, decided to send a draft of “something I was working on” to Don Sedgwick, the executive director of King’s new MFA in Creative Nonfiction program. “He wrote back and said something to the effect of, ‘This is all right, but you can make it better.’ That was motivating,” Williams says today, “and I wanted more of it.”
On May 25th, Williams will graduate with his MFA from King’s, and he already has his first book deal. In October, Harbour Publishing — an award-winning, independent, B.C.-based publisher — will launch Chasing Smoke.
Williams says that contract negotiation was not the most appealing aspect of the MFA program. “The assignments we had to do regarding contract stuff were tough, [but] I was glad I’d been made to learn something about them.” He was prepared when a book contract from Harbour Publishing came along.
Although Williams had a first draft of Chasing Smoke when he enrolled in the MFA program, he focused his course work on a second manuscript, this one about coastal logging. Then, at the end of his first year, he returned to Chasing Smoke and “did a serious rewrite” before submitting that manuscript to publishers. He credits the program’s faculty – along with mentors Lori A. May, David Hayes, and Ken McGoogan – with helping him to build the skills required to strengthen the draft. They were “fantastic, a huge help.”
Other support came from his fellow students. Not having kids or “a job that requires the use of my brain” means that juggling work and writing were “not very difficult” for Williams. “I’m impressed by others in this program who had a lot of stuff on the go and still managed to get the course work done.”
Williams’ next book — about coastal logging in British Columbia — will be based on the manuscript he’s been writing during the MFA program.