Where There's Smoke There's Usually a Best-Seller for Author and Firefighter Dennis Smith
05/12/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
Dennis Smith occasionally lunches at "21," using the right fork, wearing a $400 suit and designer loafers. A few hours later he is on duty at Ladder Company 61 in the Bronx, stained slicker, boots and fire hat by his side, ready for use when the alarm comes. "Then I may find myself up to my thighs in garbage, putting out a dump fire," he says. "It gives one a sense of the ironies in life."
Since his Report from Engine Co. 82 became a surprise best-seller in 1972, Smith has written four books, including a just-published novel, Glitter & Ash (E.P. Dutton, $9.95). In 1976 he co-founded Firehouse magazine, a slick monthly (circulation 100,000) aimed at paid and volunteer firefighters and their families. Despite his white-collar career as author and editor, Smith remains a fireman, working two 15-hour and two nine-hour shifts every nine days at $20,000 a year. "I like being in the streets, feeling the adrenaline flow," he says. "I always think that it's a proper thing to be doing with my life. It gives me a place to go. A life defined only by a typewriter is not very productive." Smith, 39, minimizes the danger, even though he spent three months bedridden in 1970 after injuring his back dragging a hose over a fence. "I'm not suicidal," he says. He also suffers from chronic eye irritation, caused by smoke.
After 17 years in the department, Smith is cautious both on duty and off. He is particularly wary of crowded public places such as the disco featured in Glitter & Ash. The novel begins with a terrible fire in a celebrity-packed Manhattan nightspot (like Studio 54). It doesn't matter that Smith has never been to a disco. "What would I have to say to Margaret Trudeau and Bianca Jagger?" he asks. "To be aware is my message. People walk into that sort of place and never look for the exits. I want to develop characters and excite readers, but a book should have some consequence too." Smith adds, "I know what I do best—tell a story. It's an Irish gift."
Indeed, his passion for Ireland, where his grandparents were born, is pervasive. He quotes James Joyce frequently and collects first editions of the works of poet-playwright John Millington Synge. Three trips to the coast of Galway inspired Smith's next book, The Aran Islands: A Personal Journey, out next fall. "I suppose you could think of me as an Irish cliché, wrapped in romance," he says, "but I live in a world of harsh realities."
Dennis and his older brother, Bill, were raised in a Manhattan tenement by their mother, who collected welfare and earned meager wages as a domestic. (Later she became a telephone operator.) The boys' father, a truckman for Railway Express, suffered a nervous breakdown when Dennis was 3. "He has been hospitalized ever since." (Smith has never visited him. "What can I do to help?" he asks. "It would create an agony for me. I have enough things to live with.")
As a boy Dennis hung out for a time with street thugs and flirted with heroin. He quit school at 16 and took a job delivering flowers. "If anyone asked, I told them I was studying botany," he recalls. At 17 he enlisted in the Air Force and spent three and a half years at a radar station in Fallon, Nev., where he got a high school equivalency diploma. At 22 Smith started his first novel—still unpublished—and passed his fire department exam. Working the night shift, he spent his days studying for a B.A. in English and later a master's in communications at New York University. In 1963 he married Patricia Ann Kearney, now 40, who was then a clerk in an insurance company.
A millionaire from his writings, Smith owns a $160,000 house in Garrison, N.Y. and rents a sprawling Manhattan apartment near Park Avenue. What else does he want? "You mean besides being ambassador to Ireland?" Smith asks. He's serious.
Smith expects his three sons and twin daughters to go on to college, but if the boys ever wanted to be firefighters, Dennis would not be disturbed. He smiles and says, "They could do worse."