An Interview with Jennifer Haigh, Author of Heat and Light

author photo colorAnyone who has followed Jennifer Haigh’s writing career will be unsurprised to learn that her fifth and latest novel, Heat and Light, offers a gripping, cleverly constructed, deeply empathetic account of the shale gas boom’s effect on economically downtrodden Bakerton, PA, a fictionalized version of Haigh’s home town.

Following up on four critically-acclaimed novels, most recently Faith, and a short story collection centered on characters connected to Bakerton, Heat and Light documents the opportunities and costs of gas drilling through a remarkably even-handed array of land-owners, town residents, drillers, and environmentalists.

According to Joshua Ferris, Heat and Light “works on a wide canvas and contains, before the final curtain closes, all the pleasures of the nineteenth-century social novel, but with a conspicuous lack of easy moralizing.” Writing in The New York Times, Janet Maslin describes Haigh’s work as “gripping, real and totally immersive, akin to that of writers as different as Richard Price, Richard Ford and Richard Russo.”

Jennifer took time out recently to speak with Dead Darlings about her newest release.

Dead Darlings: Heat and Light marks your third fictional journey to Bakerton, Pennsylvania. What differences do you notice this time about the place and the people?

Jennifer Haigh: Like all my books, Heat and Light is a story about class. I’m interested in how economic realities shape the life of a community, how they can dramatically alter the course of an individual life. I wrote the novel in response to what’s happening in western Pennsylvania right now. For a town like Bakerton, which hasn’t had much good news in the last thirty years, the gas drilling boom has been a game-changer. As a novelist, I’m interested in the moment after which nothing will ever be the same. Heat and Light looks at how the sudden promise of wealth – for a few people, anyway – causes a schism in the community. Families are divided. Marriages unravel. Neighbors who haven’t spoken in years find themselves at war.

Speaking of class, although you share the narrative load among a broad cast of characters in Heat and Light, the Devlins, and their neighbors Rena and Mack, occupy a central role. Where do these families reside on the Bakerton class hierarchy, what do they want, and how does the gas drilling boom affect their choices?

When Bakerton’s mining economy collapsed, it had a leveling effect on the whole community. Mining families were hit first and hardest. Steelworkers were next, since their entire industry was powered by Pennsylvania coal. By the late 1980s, everyone was affected: there were fewer cars and houses sold, fewer roofs being replaced, fewer teeth to fill, fewer children to teach. By 2010, when Heat and Light opens, an entire generation has grown up in economic instability; most of the young people have moved away, and those who remain have dim prospects. Mack and Rena are unable to make a living as family farmers; they’re able to continue only because Rena also works full time as a nurse. Their neighbor Rich Devlin dreams of following in their footsteps, farming the land he inherited from his grandfather, but he’s unable to get the business up and running on what he earns as a prison guard. For him, signing a gas lease seems like a golden ticket, the only way he’ll ever be able to finance his dream. Mack and Rena, meanwhile, refuse to lease their mineral rights – they are organic farmers worried about the impact on their business. This disagreement over whether to allow drilling is a central conflict in the book.

A tryst between Herc, the driller from Texas, and Bakerton’s own Pastor Jess represents one of the “Odd Couple” relationships in Heat and Light. Another curious pairing is Gia and Shelby. Can you talk about the attraction of bringing characters from opposite-seeming perspectives together?

I love writing arguments, whether spoken or unspoken. When two characters see the world in fundamentally different ways, the scene always has dramatic tension, even if the conflicts aren’t articulated. Shelby and Gia have a complicated relationship. They’re both judgmental and competitive, but those feelings are never acknowledged.  Their scene together was great fun to write, the contrast between what they say and what they actually think of each other.

il_fullxfull.732092645_7e1vYou’ve compared the structure of your novel to one of my favorite 1960s board games, Mouse Trap – intricate, difficult, and liable to spring at any moment! Can you describe how you worked out the structure, and what alternative forms you may have considered during revision? What opportunities and challenges did you encounter in telling the story through a kaleidoscopic array of characters, versus a more traditional point-of- view strategy that relies on a few central personalities?

The book’s weird architecture, the time travel and myriad points of view, evolved in the writing process. After talking to people on all sides of the fracking issue, I found myself inventing characters who reflected those differing points of view. The narration mirrors the complexity of the subject. As I wrote, I often thought of Mousetrap. The object of the game is to build a complicated mouse trap out of unlikely parts: a drainpipe, a bathtub, a seesaw and so on. As a kid I was obsessed with that game, that moment when you turn the crank and kick off the whole intricate chain reaction, which ends with the plastic cage sliding down the pole to trap the mouse.

Heat and Light is an elaborate construction. I’ve never written this kind of novel before, and probably never will again. Each book is, to me, a unique engineering problem. Unlike a poem, which can succeed or fail entirely on aesthetic terms, a novel is a machine – a one-of-a-kind contraption I am designing, building, testing and re-testing, so that by the time it lands in a reader’s hands, all he has to do is turn the key and the machine will come to life and start moving on its own. When I’m writing a novel, I spend a year or two building my mousetrap. Then I start looking for the pinch points, the spots where the ball loses momentum or rolls askew and fails to hit its mark. That’s what revision is to me, this infinitesimally precise reverse-engineering. If I weren’t a novelist, I might have been happy designing cars. Cars can be beautiful, but it’s a car, not a poem. When you turn the key in the ignition, you want the thing to work.

Purely from a craft perspective, can you talk about the choice of third-person present narration for a book with such deep historical resonance? Maybe that’s the point – immediacy and historical context are mirror images of each other?

In the five years I spent writing Heat and Light, I came to see the fracking story in relation to what preceded it – first oil, then coal, strip mining and nuclear. Gas drilling is simply the latest chapter in Pennsylvania’s long and complicated history as an energy state. Of course, that’s a novelist’s perspective. My characters don’t connect those dots. It makes intuitive sense to me that they’re living in the present tense, just getting through the day.

front cover finalOne of my favorite pieces of backstory in the book is Rich Devlin playing in “the strippins” – what’s left of the land after strip-mining – as a child. It’s a haunting vignette that provides another effective link to Pennsylvania’s extractive past. Where did that image originate?

I played in the strippins as a kid. In my neighborhood, we all did. (What were our parents thinking?)

In prior interviews you’ve spoken about the connection between drug addiction and energy consumption. In Heat and Light, Rich Devlin’s brother Darren is a recovering addict, and Rich himself works in a prison full of meth heads. Yet the link between drugs and energy seems to drill – so to speak – much deeper, into something fundamental about the American psyche. Can you explore this?

I’m fascinated by the perversity of addictive behavior: you know you’re poisoning yourself, and  yet you keep doing it, because somehow the rewards justify it. The same is true of our rampant consumption of energy. We know, most of us, that energy production puts a hurt on the planet, and yet we’re hooked on the rewards. It’s reductive to call this an American sense of entitlement, because the same attitudes exist in other developed countries: the unquestioned belief that we deserve the best and the most, the smartest gadgets, the massive SUV, the biggest slice of pie.

The death of former CEO of Chesapeake Energy Aubrey McClendon in a self-inflicted auto accident coincided with the launch of Heat and Light this spring. You’ve described the shock of reading about the death of someone so close in temperament to one of your characters. With the benefit of a little time and reflection, how does this collision of reality and fiction strike you now?

To anyone who knew him, or was paying the slightest attention to the gas industry, McClendon’s death was a bombshell. As a novelist, I could never have written such a scene. Nobody would have believed it. This was the challenge I faced again and again in writing Kip the Whip, the character inspired by McClendon: he’s such an outsized personality that it’s hard to believe he’s for real.

A pair of historical energy-related fiascos informs the present-day action in Heat and Light: the Iran hostage crisis and Three Mile Island, both of which originated in 1979. Can you talk about what led you to those two events, and the way they shaped your characters’ destinies?

Once I understood that I was writing a novel about energy, I knew that those two events would figure in the story. If you lived in Pennsylvania in 1979 and were old enough to understand what was happening, the Three Mile Island disaster imprinted deeply on your psyche. Several of my characters remember it vividly. For Lorne Trexler – a college student at the time – it was the beginning of his life as an environmental activist. For Wesley, whose childhood home was a stone’s throw from the reactor, it had more ominous consequences, or so he believes. The hostage crisis made us understand that our decisions about energy had profound consequences all over the world—politically, militarily. For Kip the Whip, who was just starting out in the oil business, it was a powerful lesson in how one man’s catastrophe is another’s opportunity: the hostage crisis led to an embargo on imported oil, which, his stepfather explained, was “good for bidness.”

Do you anticipate a fourth trip to Bakerton, fictionally speaking? What’s next?  

Every time I write about Bakerton, I’m convinced it will be the last time. Then a few years pass, and something takes me back. My last two novels were set in Boston, where I live, and my instinct at the moment is to write another Boston novel. Stay tuned!

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