A fire — one he started while cooking french fries when he was 17 — seared an impression in firefighter-come-novelist John Kenny’s mind.
He lived with his parents, Lorne and Olive Kenny, on Chaplin Crescent at the time. The last of six children in the nest, he was left to his own devices while his folks were on vacation in Prince Edward Island.
“I remember the guys coming down from (old Station 29) — and obviously it’s a fairly traumatic thing — the house was a mess, and I figured my dad was going to kill me,” the self-published author of The Spark recalls. “I’ll never forget the old captain who came: he was just really comforting and reassuring and they just seemed really decent human beings.”
Though the Forest Hill CI almnus followed a different path for the next 16 years, attending the University of Toronto for biochemistry and astronomy, a career change led him back to the fire department in 1989.
Now, with close to 25 years of fighting fires under his belt, and the opportunity to make full captain coming fast, Kenny has published his first novel — a dream that had been burning inside him since his youth.
At 57 he’s fulfilled a third of that dream. His first novel of a trilogy, The Spark has smouldered on his imagination’s hearth since he joined the force.
“This is a novel but I think every writer takes all their experiences, filters them, weaves them together in a new pattern, so there’s no specific event in the novel that is biographical, factual, documentary,” he shares, in a crowded cafe at Yonge and Eglinton. “But certainly I used the experiences, the relationships I’ve had with other firefighters, the emotions that you have.
“It’s a job that engenders strong emotions. You see people in dire straits or dying. It can’t help but touch you. We’re not stones. We’re human beings too.”
His tale follows Donny Robertson, a firefighter gripped by the need to know what happened to his captain.
Through his journey, he comes across a hitman who covers up his contracts with fire.
“Donny is really torn between several loves: he’s torn between the love for his job, there’s a romance, the love for this new relationship and woman in his life, and his loyalty to his old captain,” he says. “You can’t answer to all of those masters simultaneously.”
Already there’s talk of the second novel, which will take a walk into vigilantism and the fine line of how far to take justice. Kenny is halfway through his first draft.
“There are a lot of short-failings in the court system, as we know, and all too often, or at least sometimes, justice and what is law are two separate things,” he says.
Stepping outside of his protagonist, Robertson, Kenny shares some personal insight into how the writing fire ignited inside of him when he was a kid.
“Some of the kids would be out playing ball hockey Saturday morning, and I had to sit with my mother and learn how to parse a paragraph and learn the difference between a subjunctive clause and a phrase, not to leave dangling participles and all that other stuff kids hate but it teaches you the structure of language,” he shares.
His mother was an English teacher, and his father, a University of Toronto professor, translated the works of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz from Arabic into English.
As rough as that practice in parts of sentence may be to some, Kenny says he loved it.
“There’s something about the art of putting words on paper,” he says. “When you can put together a word or a phrase that succinctly captures an image, emotion or event, you feel like you created something.”