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Writing the Soul of a Place: An Interview With Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent book, the novel Heat and Light, won a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was named a Best Book of 2016 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR. Her previous books include FAITH; THE CONDITION; BAKER TOWERS; MRS. KIMBLE, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction; and the short story collection NEWS FROM HEAVEN, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award and the PEN New England Award in Fiction. She is a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow.

Haigh’s most recent novel, Heat and Light, focuses on Bakerton, a western Pennsylvania town first established for its coal and rediscovered by industry because of its location atop the Marcellus shale formation, an expansive reservoir of natural gas. When the book begins, Dark Elephant is collecting leases to frack on residential properties. Heat and Light is populated by those who do and don’t sign: organic dairy farmers Rena and Mack don’t; prison guard Rich and his wife Shelby Devlin, landowners with young children, do. Amongst the landowners are also barkeeps, drug addicts, town heartthrobs, pastors, scientists, rig workers, and CEOs, all of whom populate the layered story on the cause and effect of fracking.

I first came upon Jennifer Haigh’s Heat and Light in my own research about an entirely different industry, but one nonetheless that led to similar questions on the effects of lasting pollution on small communities. And I began to see these pollution narratives as parables almost—a story one could recite without knowing the particulars. Big company comes to a town in need of money, jobs, or probably both. The town, the people, and the land all become part of this new endeavor. Money comes in. The land cannot meet the demands of the industry and begins to fail, people get sick, or something to that effect. I wanted to see how Haigh complicated this kind of narrative as a fictional one and what type of research prepared her for this complex composition.

Even though I know Bakerton, PA, is not a real place, I found myself tracing the Susquehanna River on a map through Pennsylvania searching for the name. It is one among many impactful literary places real and imagined like Sherwood Anderson’s fabricated Winseburg, Ohio, and Marguerite Young’s historic, yet ecstatic, New Harmony, Indiana. Tell me about how Bakerton came to be.

I grew up in northern Appalachia, in a mining town that, like Bakerton, was named after a coal company. I was in junior high when the mines began to fail, and by the time I graduated high school, it was all over for coal mining in that region. There was no work to be had, and people were moving away in droves. It was a difficult time, and as a teenager I felt I must have done something truly wicked in a past life to be born in such a godforsaken place. After I grew up and moved away, I saw it in a different light, and I knew that I would have to write about it.

What was your research process like? In the book notes you thanked people who worked on oil rigs, geologists, and dairy farmers, in short, real world counterparts to many of your characters. What was the fieldwork like for this book?

I talked to a lot of people who’d lived or worked in frack zones. They were very open-ended conversations because I had no clear idea what I was looking for. I just wanted to hear them talk about their lives, their families, and their work. What is it like to have an active drill site in your back yard, what does it look like, sound like? What is it like to work two thousand miles away from home, and see your wife and kids a few times a year, and try to have some kind of life in a backwards small town that doesn’t want you there because everyone thinks you took a job away from a local? I wasn’t looking for information. I wanted people to tell me what they felt was most important about their lives, and I was often surprised by what they chose to talk about. For instance: guys who work on drill rigs have strong opinions about the equipment they use and will talk about it endlessly.

How did you strip down complex processes and legal scenarios involving farming, geology, property rights, and water pollution to write about them?

Those scenarios don’t become interesting until you put them in in human terms. If a well is contaminated, it’s not simply a legal question. It affects every hour of every day. How do you cook dinner, wash dishes, brush your teeth, bathe your kids? For me, writing a novel is an exercise in empathy. If I can’t imagine being these people, I shouldn’t be writing about them.

How did you deal with time? Bakerton appears in three different books of yours, but within Heat and Light, mostly set in the early aughts, the book dips back into the 1970s and skirts around 2002-2012. 

For me, a novel begins with the moment after which nothing will be the same. In the case of Heat and Light, it’s the moment when Bobby Frame, the landman, comes door to door offering farmers big money for their mineral rights. The time travel in the book mostly revolves around the Three Mile Island nuclear accident—another era when Pennsylvania was at the forefront of energy production.

In Baker Towers you write after the mines shut down, “the town wore away like a bar of soap.” How did you then start again in the early 2000s back in Bakerton?

As I was writing the end of Baker Towers, I was certain that I would never write about Bakerton again, for the simple fact that nothing else was likely to happen there. The rise of gas drilling in western Pennsylvania was a game-changer, a surprise third act for the town that I had created and later given up for dead. It was simply too good a story not to write. Heat and Light is set in what remains of the old Bakerton. Thirty years have passed, and the town is a fraction of the size it was in its heyday, so it really did wear away like a bar of soap.

In an NPR interview you said you were most interested in writing the soul of a place. Though you write vividly about western Pennsylvania, this story feels as if it could be told about many places in America (both industrial and increasingly post-industrial). What have you learned about the soul of a company town from writing Heat and Light and Baker Towers?

Well, Bakerton isn’t just a company town; it’s a company town whose entire economy is rooted in energy, first coal and now natural gas. By their very nature, these are cyclical industries—boom and bust, boom and bust. It’s striking to me that Bakerton’s fortunes have always risen and fallen according to market forces nobody much thinks about or understands, but which have a determining effect on the trajectory of their lives.

The boom and bust cycle is inexorable and determinative. Baker Towers is set in a boom phase, the heyday of coal mining, when every family in town had a someone in the mines, a father or son or brother or husband.  And this had a cohesive effect:  what was good for one was good for all. When the mines were booming, everyone prospered; when there was a slowdown, everyone suffered. You were all in the same leaky boat.

Because Heat and Light opens in a bust phase, the Bakerton of 2012 is an entirely different place. Families are living in generational poverty. There is a feeling of scarcity that makes people less generous, more competitive. This has changed the cultural in an elemental way.  Basically, it’s every man for himself. There is no union to look after you, no guaranteed hourly wage. You drive a truck or work in a prison or commute thirty miles each way to a crappy service or retail job in a slightly larger depressed industrial town. You don’t work with your neighbors or run into them downtown because there is no downtown. People shop online and watch movies on their screens, and it’s entirely possibly to drive past a neighbor’s house every day and know nothing at all about the people who live there.

Tell me about the end of Heat and Light. It was not a David and Goliath story exactly, and in the final page you implicate many complacent players in the economic system that created a market for fracking. How do you complicate the narrative of little vs. big guy in a story like this? 

Heat and Light is a story about corporate power, how our lives are shaped by large forces—economic and political—we understand incompletely or not at all. It’s a sentiment Rich Devlin expresses in the final paragraph, as he ruminates on his experience as a young sailor on aircraft carrier in the First Gulf War “gliding across a vast sea of other people’s money.”  And yet, the people I’m writing about aren’t helpless. Their choices may be limited by their circumstances, but they do have agency and make choices within a certain range of options.

Baker Towers ends on a kind of hopeful note with the coming of Amish farmers who green the land after the mines close. How do you feel about the future of Bakerton by the end of Heat and Light, and how might you speculate on the future of similar towns across America? 

It isn’t looking good. Bakerton is an aging town whose brightest, most ambitious young people have fled. In many cases, the ones who’ve stay behind are those who had no other options.

Are you working on a new book? If yes, will it take place in Pennsylvania?

I am. This one is set mostly in Boston, where I have lived for many years, but there are tentacles of the story that reach back to western Pennsylvania.

Finally, what other novels or novelists did you feel a kinship with while writing about Bakerton?

Faulkner, of course. Nobody has ever written the soul of a place as vividly as he did.  And I read a lot of Don DeLillo, whose characters often live at the intersection of forces much larger than themselves.

About the author

Ellyn Gaydos writes nonfiction and is an MFA candidate at Columbia.

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