ALASTAIR Gee’s new book Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy, is currently Amazon’s Book of the Month.
This is like a dream come true, for the 36-year-old son of Marsha and Colin Gee, of Hale Barns, Cheshire, who always wanted to be a writer.
“My parents are the first people I’ve thanked in the book, because of all of the support they’ve given me,” he told me, from his New York home.
“I’ve always adored books, always lived in their world and always dreamed of writing from the moment I sat reading a book on Shabbat on the stairs at home.
“The thought of having my book in a library is astonishing to me.
“It’s something I dreamed of, but never quite thought would ever come true.”
Fire in Paradise (WW Norton & Company) focuses on the real story of American town Paradise, California, ravaged by fire in November 2018, and the stories of those who were affected by it.
The community of 27,000 people was swallowed by the horrific camp fire, which razed virtually every home and killed at least 85 people.
The catastrophe, which made worldwide news, displaced tens of thousands of people, yielding a refugee crisis that continues to unfold.
Alastair and co-author Dani Anguiano, who have reported on the Paradise fires since day one, reveal the heroics of the first responders, the miraculous escapes of those who got out of Paradise, and the horrors experienced by those who were trapped.
Stories featured include the local woman who left her home on foot as fire approached while her 82-year-old father stayed to battle it; the firefighter who drove into the heart of the inferno in his bulldozer; the police officer who switched on his body camera to record what he thought would be his final moments as the flames closed in, and the mother who, less than 12 hours after giving birth in the local hospital, thought she would die in the chaotic evacuation with her baby in her lap.
Alastair, who is editor of special series for Guardian US, said: “Dani is from the area, and on the day of the fire she was getting phone worried calls from friends and relatives who were worried.
“So, we immediately dispatched her up there to cover the fire, as she knew the area like no other.
“It became clear that this fire was particularly deadly, and it was the deadliest fire in the US for 100 years, and the deadliest ever wildfire in California.
“I was Dani’s editor on some of her initial stories and then, after a while, we started writing together because I wanted to cover it as well.
“We wrote a couple of big stories for Guardian US, which became the book, then we started speaking to an editor who was interested in the book.
“We did hundreds of interviews, and spent a lot of time driving up and down there, spending all day, every day over the weekend to perform interviews.
“We made public record requests to find out what had gone on, went to public meetings and memorials — we spent a lot of time walking around this totally devastated town.
“More than 90 per cent of the buildings were destroyed — it’s almost unprecedented.
“We went on police ride-alongs, visited fire-stations to speak to those involved in fighting the fire, and interviewed anyone related to the 85 victims of the fire.”
Alastair, who attended North Cheshire Jewish Primary and Manchester Grammar schools, has had rave reviews for the book, from all sections of the media — including the Wall Street Journal.
The husband of Ash, who has also worked for the Moscow Times, and read English at Cambridge, admits that the book could never have been a solo project.
In a similar vain to any journalist who works on a real life, harrowing, human interest story, he had to compartmentalise his feelings and emotions when performing the interviews.
“I heard a lot of the 911 calls that people made from the fire, including calls with people’s last moments. It was really tragic.
“I spoke to search and rescue teams, who recovered the bodies, as well as DNA teams who had to identify them.
“As a journalist, you have to both empathise and also maintain some kind of professional distance so you can do your job and not get too affected by it.
“Often, all I wanted to do was talk about it and share it with Dani because that helped me to process it a little bit more.
“You also have to keep a little bit of yourself back otherwise you would just get overwhelmed by the grief and the tragedy.”
Alastair does, however, have form when it comes to getting too involved in a story.
So much so, that he once ended up being interrogated by Russian police.
While living in Russia, he was working on a story about a murderer in the Russian city of Vladikavkaz.
“It’s a very stressful place where they’ve had a couple of bombings in the last decade,” he explained.
“During my last day there, I was sitting in an internet cafe and someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“He was holding up a police ID card.
“I had to get into an unmarked police car, one of four, and was interrogated at the police station for five hours.”
They took his notebooks, attempted to delete his interviews, and tried to find a reason to arrest him — which they could not.
But it was the day after when Alastair used, what you could probably call, a bit of chutzpa.
For he realised that the police had taken his notebooks, which he needed, so he went back to the police station with a bottle of vodka to give as a present to them in an attempt to get it back.
After being asked if he was trying to bribe them — which he, of course, denied — they let him keep the vodka, and gave him his notebooks back.
Growing up in Cheshire, Alastair has fond memories of his local synagogue and its famed rabbi Joel Portnoy, who taught him his barmitzvah piece.
“I remember meeting my friends at the shul,” he recalls, “and waiting for Yom Kippur to end. I do recall how stressful learning my piece with Rabbi Portnoy was.
“Hale is lovely — I moved away because all the holidays my parents took us on really instilled a love of travel and foreign places in me.
“I always wanted to live abroad and be a writer.
“My parents have been my greatest supporters and always told me that I could do what I wanted to do.
“There were discussions of the usual Jewish variety, about becoming a lawyer, but they never tried to stop me from doing what I wanted — even when I was being arrested in Russia.”
Alastair’s family history is one of classic Jewish descent — the name Gee was changed during the Second World War from Grossberg.
His grandfather Boris Mendlesohn’s former business provided career inspiration for the likes of music icon Morrissey. For he owned Paul Marsh Records in Moss Side, Manchester.
Of the shop, the former The Smiths singer took to BBC Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs to proclaim: “Any education that I now presently have was gained at this record shop in Moss Side in Manchester in the sixties, where I was raised.
“I was fascinated by this little record shop with wooden floorboards exposed, with sawdust on the floor.
“And I would go there as often as I could as a five-year-old, six-year-old.
“And I would simply stand and examine everything, and read everything.”
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