A long time ago, I might have considered myself a bit of a Dickens scholar. I have read nearly all of his novels -- some like Great Expectations, several times. I've even read Bleak House twice.
Most people familiar with literature know of Dickens' early days in the bootblack factory, and of his frustration at the imprisonment of his father and most of his family in Debtor's prison. Less-clear is the connection between the great, recurring family of Dickensian characters and his own life.
Beautiful, sweet young women tend to die in Dickens books. These young women, like Little Nell, were inspired by Dickens' young sister in law Mary, who died in his arms at only age 17. In terms of visioning, Dickens frequently walked past his large home at Gads Hill Place as the bootblack factory child, son of a debtor with many children, dreaming that one day, he would live in that great house. And so he did.
His dreams were so strong they led again and again to the story of a young boy of modest or humble beginnings -- sent from pillar to post, attending terrible schools, beset by troubles -- who eventually rises to the top through the inspiration and help of others. These others vary, but the story of the orphan boy who rises from humble beginnings does not. This boy is Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Pip Pirrip.
Dickens was born in 1812, which is a very long time, more than 200 years ago. His story was so vivid that I believe he did change the world. While today the word "socialist" carries negative connotations among many, at the time Dickens wrote, there was not even a glimmer of the former Soviet Union -- and little boys were absolutely put to work in bookblack factories, many people were prohibited from receiving a decent education, and there was no such thing as the Affordable Care Act, much less universal suffrage. Many people are unaware that women in the "States" did not receive the right to vote until over 110 years after Dickens' birth.
In Dickens' concern for prisoner rights, and his fiery opposition to the abuses of the British system of patronage and classism, he was absolutely correct and more than fought the right fight.
He grew up reading the picaresque novels of Fielding and Smollett. These were the primary types of books available when he was young. Fielding's famous book Tom Jones purports to tell the story of an amiable, admirable young "bastard," the book's eponymous hero, born on the estate of a wealthy squire. By the end of the book, Tom is revealed to be the legitimate nephew of the squire and thus eligible for all the good things his heretofore unknown good birth entitled him, including marriage to the squire's beautiful, virtuous daughter.
These were the accepted stories of the day. It was inconceivable that an orphan or bastard actually would be that, and would rise above his state. It should go without saying that "rise above her state" was not the province of any book anybody would admit to read. In the latter part of the 19th century, after Dickens and others achieved prominence, if a woman were to act outside of social convention, vengeful disaster was soon at hand. Notable examples of this type of story include Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. The British being who they are, tastes ran more to Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. While not quite as depressing as the death of Little Father Time in Jude the Obscure, Tess' story is still pathetic and horrible.
Eventually, stories improved for women. Now it's not only okay, it's desirable for women to be great detectives, great cops, great PIs, great hackers, and even to be the heroines of historical novels -- i.e. princesses, queens, or the mistresses of powerful men. They started out as governesses, like Jane Eyre (another of my favorite books).
I struggled for years to figure out what story I truly wanted to write. Unlike my hero Dickens, I never walked past a great house as a child and thought, "Some day I'm going to own that house." I spent my whole life doing things for other people. I spent countless hours assembling a notebook of potential ideas and historical background on the "heroine's journey." I laboriously matched this with the "hero's journey" and so-on. I flamed six years writing YA books (which do sort of include a mini-version of "my story" ... however since I wasn't thinking straight and hadn't walked past my own Gads Hill ... Byron June is a boy not a girl).
And the answer was staring me in the face since I was the same age as Dickens in the bootblack factory. As David Copperfield said,
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must shown."
It should be instructive that I've written professionally since 1996, and it took 17 years for me to think of writing a story about a woman who lost her husband and son, who values her precious daughter and people far over her own life, who at last, unexpectedly, fighting for everyone's lives, thinking only of others, falls in love. With a man as brutalized and damaged as she.
And I did not do that on purpose any more than I think Dickens wrote Oliver Twist on purpose, or purposely realized he was making himself the hero of his own life or books until probably after he published David Copperfield.
There's no telling what stories people will tell in the future. But Like Fire is the story of a late 20th century and early 21st century woman. And I've had the privilege of doing things no generation of women has been able to do before. And hence: Like Fire.