Author Reading Article 3: Jennifer Haigh
Jennifer Haigh Presents "Heat and Light"
Jennifer Haigh fans turned out in full force to the library last Thursday night to hear the author present her new novel, "Heat and Light."
The Pennsylvania-born writer has returned to Bakerton, the fictional Pennsylvania town depicted in her second book "Baker Towers," for "Heat and Light." In the years since "Baker Towers," Bakerton has experienced the collapse of its coal mining industry and the ensuing physical and economic deterioration of the town. In "Heat and Light" Bakerton residents gain some hope for a renewed economy from the controversial fracking industry.
Bakerton is not a real town, she stressed, but is modeled on the many coal mining towns that dot the Pennsylvania landscape. Haigh herself is from a coal mining town, with family members who were employed in the industry.
"Fracking is just the latest chapter in the history of energy in Pennsylvania," Haigh said. According the novelist, the first oil well in the world was drilled in Pennsylvania, followed by coal and strip mining, nuclear energy and now fracking. "The title 'Heat and Light' is a nod to that long history of energy."
Haigh spent five years writing the novel, the first two engrossed in research on the fracking process itself, the mineral rights leases signed by property owners, and the economical and environmental impacts of the technology.
Fracking takes place a mile beneath and parallel to the earth’s surface, so it is possible to both drill one’s land and live and farm atop it. But, Haigh said, “it’s like a cruise ship ran aground in your backyard.” For a period of months, the drilling proceeds daily around the clock, and the site is loud and brightly lit during the night.
The impetus for "Heat and Light" occurred when New York state banned fracking, but Pennsylvania embraced it. "Why was it so different for Pennsylvania? A big part in my opinion is class," Haigh said. She believes that poorer communities tend to be more open to the new technology, and are more tolerant of environmental compromises made to benefit the economy.
"If you're able to look at this as only an environmental issue, you're coming from a position of privilege," Haigh said. "I completely understand why people do it, and that's the heartbreak of this story."
Haigh employed multiple points of view in her tale to present all sides of the issue, with a panoramic range of characters from energy company employees to environmental activists, landowners hoping to make money to pursue their dreams and those refusing to lease for much the same reason. "Heat and Light" depicts the way all their stories intertwine and the way the new technology impacts everyone involved.
As she wrote, her own opinion of fracking changed as she assumed her varying characters' points of view. She feels she has written an even-handed depiction with no villains or heroes. "I think people who have strong feelings about this issue will be disappointed by this book because it does not take sides," she said.
Haigh read a passage from the novel's first chapter describing the acquisition of signed mineral rights leases by the fracking company representative. She began the book on that note because it is the pivotal moment of her story. "I'm always drawn to that moment after which nothing will be the same," she said. Everything changes for the fictional residents of Bakerton the moment some of them agree to lease their land, a town transformed by its access to natural gas.
"Heat and Light" is the third time the author has returned to Bakerton in her fiction. The first book, "Baker Towers," won the 2006 PEN New England Award. The second, a collection of short stories entitled "News from Heaven," won the 2014 PEN New England Award. She has written three other novels, not set in Bakerton: "Mrs. Kimball," "The Condition," and "Faith."
"Everytime I write about western Pennsylvania, I swear this will be the last time," Haigh said.