Philip Soletsky has a PhD in physics. He is also a member of the Brookline Volunteer Fire Department and has been so for over fourteen years. Brookline is a small town in the southern part of New Hampshire of 4500 residents. While many firefighters have been part of multigenerational families of firefighters, this is not the case for Philip. He joined after 9/11 upon receiving a mailer for “part-time heroes.”
The challenges of being a firefighter are both physical and psychological. Some firefighters either find they have or develop fears of heights, enclosed spaces or fires. In some cases, firefighters can find ways to work around these phobias, and still serve, but it can be challenging. One reason why Philip believes he is an effective firefighter is, to date, he has not suffered from these fears. Effective firefighters are also able to stay in the moment during an emergency and only consider the long-term concerns once they have dealt with the situation. For instance, in the basement fire discussed below, Philip had no way of knowing the status of the ceiling beams above him, whether there was a refrigerator or other large object above that would cause the ceiling to collapse. Once an officer has made a decision to enter, it is important to follow-through and stay in the moment, rather than worrying about what could potentially go wrong.
The position of firefighter is often not glamorous or well compensated. Philip has been cursed at for closing a road down after a multi-car collision and decried for not saving a new television after a house fire. He is paid $8.15 per hour when actively fighting fires, but any training or fundraising for new equipment is completely uncompensated.
The group learned a fair amount about the nature of firefighting. One aspect Philip spoke about was the equipment used. Most of the gear is able to withstand temperatures up to 900 degrees Celsius, but the mask begins to bubble and become opaque at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately most house fires do not exceed this temperature. The Oxygen tank is on the exterior of the protective equipment and though it does not go up to 900 degrees, the air firefighters are breathing is often of a far higher temperature than is optimal.
Philip Soletsky received a medal of valor and accommodation from Senator Kelly Ayotte in 2014 for saving the life of a man trapped in a basement during a fire. When the crew arrived at the site of the fire, there was so much smoke they could not even locate the house until the wind shifted and revealed the home. It was a “fully involved structure,” which means that fire was coming out of all of the windows and doors. The deck had collapsed, and the back wall was a sheet of flame. An outside grill was on fire, and if its propane tank had caught on fire it would have exploded.
The grill was doused, and when moved revealed a point of entry. The door collapsed with next to no pressure. They found the man 20 feet in unconscious and suspected he might be dead. Despite natural inclination, lifting him could be fatal, because the temperature at ground level could be hundreds of degrees lower than at head level. There is a need to push him across the floor. In this instance they were helped by a linoleum floor. Ultimately, they got him out and he is alive today thanks to their efforts, though he does not remember the incident itself. Philip has done some research into memory, particularly with regard to traumatic incidents, and if the pathways between long and short term memory are damaged, short term memories will simply fade after a time period.
Particularly in a small town, the types of calls the fire department can receive are highly varied. As Philip puts it, the dispatcher has three options, police for criminal problems, paramedics for medical emergencies, and fire which often covers all other forms of emergencies. Philip mentioned one call where a beaver had bitten a dog and the fire department was called. The fire department is also often called for accidents. The oddest involving three cars and a boat. Many of the incidents they respond to involve injuries, but it is rare that the firefighters will hear about what happened after the person has been taken away in the ambulance. Unless they die on the scene, Philip says he may never know whether they ultimately survived.
The one situation where Philip did actively wonder if he was going to die did not involve a fire in any way. A woman called the dispatcher to say that her horse had gotten stuck in the mud. From where she was calling, the team was hoping they would be able to use the fire truck in some way to provide some of the force. When they arrived on the scene, however, they learned the horse was actually two miles up a hiking trail. They called in reinforcements and investigated the situation. The horse was up to its shoulders in mud. By this time they had approximately twelve men assembled, but were unsure, how exactly they would be able to pull the animal out. Ultimately they decided to try and coax an empty hose line underneath the horse and slowly pull it out with six men on each side. Philip went into the mud to place the hose underneath. As he put it though, “If the horse rolls over, I am dead.” Fortunately this did not happen and they were able to slowly coax it out to safety.
With the interesting life Philip Soletsky leads it is easy to forget the reason he was on the library’s radar is that he is a successful author. Philip first began writing chapters along with letters to friends, continuing if he got a response. His first novel was not completed until many years later and under very different circumstances. He was taking part in a creative writing forum and had put out a chapter as a prompt for writers to work off of. It was not particularly well received, and most readers wanted to see more of a story. Philip finally decided to sit down with his wife and try to create a novel from this prompt. Ultimately, the book was written and is an epic level novel due to its word count. He notes that upon reading the first chapter if you are not hooked, then it is likely not a book for you. It is a crime fiction set in Los Angeles. When it was completed Philip reached out to an agent and publisher, but it was not picked up. It has only recently gone to print and was self-published along with the rest of Soletsky’s works. Its title is Avarice.
Philip has also written a series of novels with a firefighter protagonist, starting with the novel Embers, and including A Hard Rain, Dirty Little Secrets, and Little Girl Lost. He is currently working on a fifth book in this series that he hopes may be ready for publication at the end of the summer. In this series, he is able to use real-life experiences and actual fires calls to add realism to the story. For example, his first fire call is related as Jack Fallon’s (his protagonist’s) first call. The horse episode also comes up in A Hard Rain. Each book contains its own unique mystery, but the characters remain the same individuals even as their personalities develop over time.
Philip’s primary writing guides have been writing his own works and reading other people’s. Reading both good and bad novels can positively impact your own writing style, learning what to do and what not to do. He attended a single creative writing workshop on the three act structure of a novel, and found that he was already using this technique.
Philip has found a great deal of value in writing groups and in having others critique his work. Particularly with early novels this can be invaluable and can give you the tools to critically edit your own work later on.
One departure from what has been said by other authors who visited the library was that Philip enjoys re-reading his works. After the process of writing and putting a work through numerous edits, some authors find it agonizing to reexamine their work, particularly if they see errors that they cannot correct post-publication.
Philip does not necessarily work through a book in a linear fashion. Sometimes he will work on the end shortly after the first chapter. The fifth book of the Jack Fallon series was the first that he did not have an end in mind before arriving at it. His first novel he had to put down for four to five months after getting stuck on a particular chapter, but when he came back he knew the ending and built around this and ultimately was able to fill in the blank. In this way the writing process can resemble a jigsaw puzzle.
The author visit not only gave the audience a glimpse into a writer’s process, but also a view into a very interesting life. We are grateful that Mr. Soletsky was willing to share his time with us and wish him continued success in his endeavors. We also look forward to the next installment of the Jack Fallon series.