Journalism is generally the medium that many of us turn to to learn about how the energy industry shapes our region. But Pennsylvania-born author Jennifer Haigh has found that fiction can also be a powerful tool for exploring the nuances of Pennsylvanians’ often complex views on the issue. In Baker Towers (2005) and News from Heaven (2014), Haigh took readers to the fictional western Pennsylvania town of Bakerton, where coal mining produced abundance, scarcity and a painful legacy of pollution. Now, in her new novel, Heat and Light, she returns to Bakerton, as the town wrestles with the promise and perils of the fracking boom.
The Allegheny Front: One of the characters in the new book is Rich Devlin, a corrections officer who grew up in Bakerton and is still living there with a young family. But he has a dream.
Jennifer Haigh: Well, Rich is a prison guard by day; at night, he helps out his father who owns a bar in town. His dream one day is to run a dairy farm as his grandfather did. He inherited this piece of property from his grandfather and bought out his three siblings, so he owns the farm all himself. But as a prison guard, he doesn’t earn the kind of money that’s ever going to allow him to make the initial investment in farming. But in 2010, when a gas company comes to town and landmen are going door-to-door, offering to lease mineral rights, it seems to Rich that this is winning the lottery. This is the one-and-only opportunity he’s ever going to have to realize this dream of being a farmer.
AF: But there’s a lot of disappointment in Rich’s story as his dream starts to unravel. He comes to believe that his water has been contaminated by the industry. There’s no bad guy in the book, but there are a lot of negative depictions of how energy has taken a toll on the landscape. Is that how you see this larger story of fracking in Pennsylvania?
JH: Well, the land in western Pennsylvania is something of a battleground. Most people don’t know it, but Pennsylvania had the first oil wells in the world. Then we had 150 years of coal operators running roughshod over the state. We had the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. So Pennsylvania has always been on the frontlines of energy and has often paid a terrible price for this. Last summer, I spent time in southern Ohio, collecting oral histories from people who have been impacted by fracking in one way or another. And this part of southern Ohio is not wealthy—it’s made up of working class communities that have been struggling for a generation. When I talked with people about the environmental consequences of fracking, they were very quick to point out that coal mining or steel making wasn’t clean either. And it’s true that people in this part of the world have a different relationship to environmental damage because it is something we have lived with for generations.
LISTEN: “Jennifer Haigh Talks about Her Book Heat and Light“
AF: In fact at one point in the book, there is this argument between a geologist, who is also an industry consultant, and her former teacher, who is also a geologist but an anti-fracking activist. And the student says something like, ‘Look, what you’re failing to understand is that people want fracking—they want the money and investment.’ And the teacher says, “People are idiots.” With scenes like that, were you trying to get at this idea that people on the outside of the issue often see it differently than people who have to live it?
JH: Well, in Boston, where I live now, when you talk to people about fracking, the viewpoint is pretty uniform. People agree that this is an environmental disaster in the making and they cannot conceive of why any community would consent to this. But when I go back to western Pennsylvania, the conversation is very different. And I’ve come to realize in the five years I spent writing this book that it really comes down to a class question. To be able to look at fracking as just an environmental issue means you’re coming from a position of privilege. To people who live in these communities, who’ve been living in poverty, that’s a luxury they can’t afford. It’s much more complex than that. And that’s what Heat and Light tries to get at—the real human complexity of this question.
AF: Did you have an opinion about fracking before you started the book?
JH: I did. And I still do. But in the process of writing the book, my opinion was constantly shifting. It’s the magic of writing in a point of view. As a fiction writer, I can’t approach a book like this with an agenda. This is not an anti-fracking screed. What I did in this book was try to articulate fairly why all these people believe as they believe and do as they do. It’s partly why the book ended up with such a large cast of characters. The issue is so much more complicated than I realized when I started writing that I found myself constantly inventing these new characters who inhabit different parts of the argument.
I’m not so much interested in fracking as I am in exploring the soul of a place—and how the actions we take as individuals impact what happens to the soul of a place. That’s what I was writing about in Baker Towers, when I was writing about coal mining; that’s what I was writing about in News from Heaven, which is about the aftermath of coal mining. I thought I was done writing about that town because it seemed that nothing more was ever going to happen there. It seemed like the town was ready to just dry up and blow away—until gas exploration started. Once the Marcelllus exploration began in Pennsylvania, I couldn’t not write it. It was this unexpected third act for a region that didn’t seem like it was going to get one.
Jennifer Haigh grew up in Cambria County in western Pennsylvania and is the author of several novels and stories about coal mining and natural gas development in the region. Her new book is called Heat and Light.