Traveling to Accomack County, Virginia, journalist Monica Hesse uncovers the complex triggers behind a pair of lovers’ five-month arson spree in the small, neglected town.
Accomack County Sheriff Todd Godwin told you he couldn't imagine anyone writing an interesting book about his county. But holy moly, the saga of Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick's five-month arson spree is like something straight out of Fargo, without the snow. How did your Washington Post feature, which later evolved into this book, originate? At what point did you realize you had enough material for a book?
I live in Washington, D.C., about four hours from Accomack. It’s close enough that the fires made the news here, at least occasionally. Every few weeks I’d see something about how the fires were piling up on the Eastern Shore. When Charlie and Tonya were finally arrested, I thought, “Huh, that’s interesting. You don’t see a lot of female arsonists. I wonder what happened there?” So I drove down to cover one of the first hearings, and it happened to be the one where Charlie talked about why he and Tonya had started lighting the fires to begin with. And then I thought, “Holy —-.”
You've written three novels for teenagers, one of which is called Burn, and your first nonfiction book is about arson. Have you ever witnessed an out-of-control fire? Did you see any with the Accomack County firefighters?
The Tasley firefighters, who I embedded with—they gave me my own pager and let me sleep in the firehouse—used to joke that I was a fire reseller. Every time I stayed over, the night would be quiet except for a fender bender or non-fire-related emergency call. It got to the point where I was feeling really ghoulish, because you obviously never want to wish for something to catch on fire, but at the same time, I really wanted to see the Accomack firefighters in action.
Accomack County is where the Misty of Chincoteague books originated. Did you read these as a child? How long did you spend in Accomack County researching this book? How does life there compare to life in Normal, Illinois, where you grew up?
I’d heard of the Misty books growing up, but they just never became favorites of mine. I didn’t reread them until after I started working on American Fire, when I was going through a blitz where I’d read anything remotely related to the Eastern Shore. I rented a house down in the county for two months, and then I probably made nine or 10 other shorter trips down there. Accomack is a little more rural than Normal, but a lot of things felt the same. The low, flat land and the fact that you can drive for ten minutes in any direction, and suddenly be in the middle of cornfields. The people, too: the fact that friendliness was a default. In Washington, D.C., you don’t wave to strangers you pass in other cars, but you do in Accomack, and you do where I’m from, too.
What was your most memorable experience while writing this book? Your biggest surprise?
I was really sure that Charlie Smith wasn’t going to want to talk to me for the book. He hadn’t talked to anyone else, and people had tried. But I wrote him a letter that I guess stuck with him, and one morning I’d just stepped out of the shower when I saw an unfamiliar number pop up on my cell phone. I picked up, and he just said, “This is Charlie, are you the girl who’s trying to write about me?” I was flying around my apartment in a bath towel, searching for something to write with; my notes from my first conversation with Charlie ended up being on a roll of paper towels. But that’s how this whole book went. I would have completely given up on someone talking to me, and then they’d come through at the most unexpected time.
Todd Godwin, the Sheriff, wouldn’t talk to me for months. He was the nicest guy about it, but completely gave me the brush off. Finally one day my mother said, “Have you brought him a pie?” I don’t make pies, but I do make banana bread, so I brought a loaf over to the Sheriff’s office. He laughed when he saw me; I’m sure it looked as desperate and pathetic as it was. But that’s how these things work. You have to earn trust, and be patient, and show people that you’re going to put in as much time as it takes to get their story right.
Your book notes that “[a]rson is a weird crime.” Did the arsons change the county in lasting ways? Do many of the burnt buildings still stand?
Oh, a lot of them. The fires burned some buildings to the ground, but others they only singed. I don’t think the arsons particularly changed the county—it’s not like nobody trusts each other anymore, just because there was a serial arsonist—except that there are some places that end up having particular and peculiar dates with destiny. You can’t think of Holcomb, Kansas, without thinking of it being the setting of In Cold Blood, for example. And that’s what the arsons did. They took a place that nobody was paying attention to and made it briefly famous.
Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick truly had, as Elvis would say, a "Burning Love." Each of them tell a very different story about who's responsible for these crimes. Will anyone but them ever know the truth? Do you know of any other arsonist couples?
I don’t think anyone but them will ever know. Which is part of what makes it so fascinating. I heard a writer once say that the best mysteries are ones that leave more questions than they answer, because the real mystery isn’t who does what, but why. To me, American Fire is a book about arsons, but it’s really a mystery about the unfathomableness of the human heart. I had a million theories for what really happened and why, and they would change every time I talked to a new person.
Do you have a favorite song about love and fire? Did you make a playlist as you wrote?
I’m one of those weird people who usually needs silence to write. But the house I was renting in Accomack had no television, no internet and no radio, and it was alone by itself at the end of a dirt road. I ended up needing some noise in the background, just so I wouldn’t jump out of my skin every time the house settled. I went to a flea market where a vendor was selling a boxed set of all the Harry Potter movies for 10 dollars, so I bought them, and then had them playing in the background the whole time I was down there. I don’t think I ever need to watch the Harry Potter movies again.
As for songs about fire and love: “Laid,” by James is oddly appropriate for this book, and it became more appropriate every time I heard it. Go listen!
What most surprised you when you spoke with Charlie and with Tonya?
How, even though they ended up having wildly different versions about what happened in their relationship, they both remembered and told me the same, odd little details about it. Like, how they would pass notes in the jail yard by pressing tiny pieces of paper between pieces of cutlery and burying them by the flagpole. It was obvious there had been a lot of love there at one point, and then it combusted. It made me so curious to try to understand what had happened.
As you wrote the book, Tonya refused any more interviews. What question would you most like to ask her? How does a person whose criminal record consists of stealing a box of Junior Mints from a grocery store in her late teens become a serial arsonist?
The things that I’d most want to learn about Tonya are things I don’t know that she’d ever talk about. It’s clear that she’s a proud, complex woman who doesn’t want to appear weak.
I have theories about her, which I didn’t put in the book because they were purely my own theories and it would have been irresponsible to print them for the larger public. So if she and I were going to have a truly honest conversation, I guess what I’d want is to be able to say, “This is what I’ve learned about you, and this is what I think happened. Did I get it right? Do I understand you?” It’s such a self-serving question, but that’s what I’d want to know. Did I come close to understanding you at all?
Can you imagine a movie about these Eastern Shore arsonists and the men and women who stopped them? Which actors can you envision playing Charlie and Tonya?
I’d always pictured someone like Sam Rockwell for Charlie. My agent told me she’d been picturing Channing Tatum—which was hilarious, that our brains had gone in such different directions. For Tonya, maybe someone like Jessica Chastain. I think she could have the right steeliness. The only character I can cast with certainty: the Tasley fire chief is a man named Jeff Beall, who made me swear up and down that if a movie was ever made I would do everything in my power to get Tom Selleck to play him. Tom Selleck, if you are reading this, call me.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of American Fire.
An excerpt of this article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.