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From life to the page

Retired firefighter draws on experience for first novel

The Isthmus

BY KATY MACEK

beneath the flamesAfter 28 years of working for the Milwaukee Fire Department, Madison native Gregory Renz has seen a thing or two.

Renz was a fire captain in inner-city Milwaukee, often encountering much more than dangerous fires — though he certainly saw his share of those. Renz observed how poverty, racism and social injustice divided one of the most segregated cities in the country.

When Renz retired in 2008 and moved back to Madison, he thought about all he had experienced, particularly a dramatic rescue in which he saved two boys from the basement of a burning building on Dec. 6, 2004. He’s shared the story several times, including when he was honored for the rescue and inducted into the Fire and Police Hall of Fame in 2006.

“When I shared that story, I saw tears coming down people’s faces,” Renz says. “It hit me: the power of a story and how it can move people.”

In retirement, Renz took up writing. It took him nearly 10 years, but on June 1 he is launching his first novel, Beneath the Flames (Three Towers Press.)

The novel follows farmer and volunteer firefighter Mitch Garner’s journey to salvation after he blames himself for a devastating loss of life at a fire in his small, rural Wisconsin hometown. Garner falls into a depression and decides the only way to redeem himself is to be somebody else’s hero.

He applies for and is accepted into the Milwaukee Fire Department, where he confronts a culture and community he knows nothing about. Then he meets 12-year-old Jasmine and her little sister, Alexus, through the department’s mentoring program.

“They are as far apart culturally as you could possibly get, and they don’t understand each other,” Renz says of his main characters. “Jasmine starts helping him [Mitch], and this huge racial divide starts narrowing.”

Renz’s debut novel tackles such themes as forgiveness, redemption and family. It also provides a behind-the-scenes look at a fire department, as Doug Holton, a retired Milwaukee Fire Department chief who worked alongside Renz, points out. He says Renz’s book was a “realistic portrayal” of how racism plays out both in the city and on the staff. “His book is very dynamic,” Holton says. “People have a perception of firefighters that they’re heroes. But when the door is closed, and you’re living with somebody for 24 hours, what’s going on?”

Those dynamics are what make the story work, according to writing instructor Christine DeSmet, who coached Renz in writing classes through UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies program. “Greg relished the revisions that helped him hone his storyline and characters,” DeSmet says. “He seemed to be a treasure hunter with his own material. He loved scraping away at words to find even more emotional depth for his characters.”

She says the novel is packed with emotional twists and turns, weighty themes and humor. “They say a novel is only as good as its ending,” Desmet says. “Greg Renz’s debut novel has one of those thought-provoking endings that doesn’t leave a reader. I suspect a lot of readers will be asking, ‘When’s the next novel coming out?’”

Renz is working on it. He’s drafting ideas for a second firefighter-themed novel. He’s got more stories to share.