Jennifer Haigh

Novelist and NEA Literature Fellow
Headshot of a woman.

Courtesy of Jennifer Haigh

Music Credits: “NY” from the album Soul Sand written and performed by Kosta T. Used courtesy of the artist and found on the Free Music Archive.

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Jennifer Haigh: My parents as schoolteachers taught multiple generations of the same family and it’s a very novelistic way of looking at a place. I’ve always felt it is not a coincidence that so many of our great novelists are products of small towns because it really does teach you about the interconnectedness of people and the interconnectedness of things

Jo Reed: That is novelist and 2012 NEA Literature fellow Jennifer Haigh and this is Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts I’m Josephine Reed. “More than most places Pennsylvania is what lies beneath.” These words frame Jennifer Haigh’s most recent novel Heat and Light. Heat and Light is set in the town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania which is a fictionalized version of Jennifer’s hometown. When the coal mines shut down, the once-prosperous community found itself worn away, as Jennifer describes it, as a bar of soap. But Geography is destiny and Bakerton is sitting on top of the Marcellus Shale—rich with natural gas, which is extracted by fracking. Once again, the Bakerton economy is fueled by energy production, which turns out to be a godsend for some and a horror for others. Heat and Light is Jennifer Haigh’s fifth book and her third literary visit to the town of Bakerton.

Jennifer Haigh: Bakerton is a town in Northern Appalachia. It's a coal-mining town, very much modeled on the town where I grew up in Cambria County. So when I first visited Bakerton in my work, it was for the novel Baker Towers, which opens in 1944. That's really a novel about the town of Bakerton it its heyday. It's during the war and the immediate post-war years where there was a large coal boom and everybody was working, the town was vibrant and prosperous.

Jo Reed: And the Bakerton we see in Heat and Light?

Jennifer Haigh: It's a very different place. So my first impulse to write about this town I grew up in, really came from growing up hearing family stories about what this part of the world was like when times were good. By the time I came along, this was all in the distant past. I had no memory of boom times in my town but I always had the desire to go back and see what it would've been like. So that was the impulse that led me to write that first Bakerton novel and for a long time, I thought, "Okay.. I did it." You know, I wanted to write the story of my town in its heyday, now I've done it.. I can go write a novel set somewhere else," and I did do that. I wrote a couple of books set in Boston where I live and I thought for a long time that I was done writing about that place. What happened a few years later was I wrote a short story involving one of the characters in Baker Towers. The character is Joyce Novak, she is a school teacher, she's kind of a central character in Baker Towers, and I found myself wondering how her life turned out.. what her later years looked like. So I wrote just the one story about Joyce Novak and that led me to another Joyce story and then a story about Joyce's brother Sandy who's sort of a peripheral character in Baker Towers and then a second story about Sandy and before I knew it, I had ten stories that were interconnected and were all set in or around this town or involved people who had left there. So that was how the second Bakerton book, News from Heaven, came about.. it was really something I backed into. So then after that collection of short stories, I thought, "Okay, now I'm really done." The town is clearly on its last legs, it's seemed that nothing else was ever going to happen in Bakerton, Pennsylvania, and then in the mid-2000s, this gas drilling story started to make it into the newspaper and it became clear to me that my town of Bakerton was going to get a third act.

Jo Reed: And what a third act it is. In a thumbnail sketch, can you give us the story of Heat and Light?

Jennifer Haigh: Sure. Heat and Light opens in 2010, right around the time that gas companies are sending representatives to Bakerton to lease people's mineral rights for gas drilling. So immediately there is a handful of landowners in this town who have a chance to make some serious money by leasing their mineral rights. Now of course, as is always the case in these situations, not everybody in the town has that same opportunity. It depends largely on how much land you own and where your land is located, whether or not there's actually natural gas on the property. So for every landowner who has a chance to sign one of these contracts, there are plenty of other people who don't have mineral rights that anybody's interested in and yet they are still living in the same town that is being transformed overnight by the natural gas industry. So that's really the genesis of the conflict in the book. It's people in this town are very town over whether this is a good idea, whether fracking is safe for the environment, whether it's good for the community and there are very strong opinions on both sides.

Jo Reed: When the book opens in 2010, we're looking at a generation of people who never knew the good times. Not only not the good times but they really have lived with real economic insecurity unlike their parents who worked very, very hard but could pay the mortgage.

Jennifer Haigh: Right.. and so it has everything to do with why this particular economic opportunity seems too good to pass up for an awful lot of people. It's been a long, long time since there's been any good news at all in this town and to some of these Bakerton landowners anyway, this seems like a really good deal.

Jo Reed: Let’s take two of the landowning families who have very different reactions to leasing their mineral rights. We have Rich Devlin and his wife Shelby and then Mackey and her partner, Rena, tell us about them.

Jennifer Haigh: Well Rich Devlin and his wife own 60 acres of land. It's land that has been in the Devlin family for generations. Rich acquired the land in the hopes of someday going into dairy farming as his grandfather did, although at the moment, that dream is pretty far out of his reach. He's working as a correctional officer in a state prison, he has two small children and not a lot of extra money. So this dream of going into farming seems completely out of his reach until he has this sudden opportunity to lease his mineral rights. So right away Rich Devlin is on the pro-fracking side. He thinks this is the opportunity of a lifetime for him. His neighbors across the way are Mack and Rena. They are a dairy farming couple, they have an organic dairy farm in fact which is a rarity in Bakerton. They've managed to build a pretty successful business producing organic dairy products and then selling them outside of town. Most of their customers are in Pittsburgh, they're not in the small town of Bakerton. So they have managed to construct this livelihood that is entirely dependent on the purity of the water supply and the environmental integrity of the land they farm. So for them, the idea of someone gas drilling in the backyard is completely out of the question. It will ruin their business. So these are two neighbors who see this issue in very different terms.

Jo Reed: Both of these couples really are dealing with a legacy of the geography in which they find themselves?

Jennifer Haigh: Yes, in fact, everybody in this town is. You know, Bakerton is a town whose economy has always been a function of its geology. It was a coal mining town since forever. You know, Western Pennsylvania has always been an energy economy. Most people don't know this but the first oil well in the world was drilled in Western Pennsylvania. Then there was 150 years of coal mining, there were deep mines, there was strip mining. Then in the 1970s, Pennsylvania had the three-mile island nuclear disaster. So, throughout history, Pennsylvania has always been on the frontlines of this energy exploration and at times, the economy has really benefited from this. At other times, they've paid a terrible price for the role they've played in energy exploration. So in many ways to people in Bakerton, this fracking question is kind of a familiar story.

Jo Reed: You used a phrase to describe Bakerton, “worn away like a bar of soap,” and I think for anybody who has seen towns like that, it's such an apt description. If we were to walk down the main street of Bakerton, what would we have seen in the past and what would we see now?

Jennifer Haigh: Now there are an awful lot of empty storefronts. It wasn't that way a couple generations ago. At one time, these towns were all on the railroad line and they had their downtowns where everybody shopped. People didn't own cars in the '30s and '40s so much and so most people did their shopping locally. People worked in town. It was sort of a contained economic unit. You know, it was a self-sustaining community. Now the town that I grew up in and the town that I write about, which is sort of a fictionalized version of my town, has seen its population decline dramatically in the last 30 years. My whole generation, people my age and younger, have had to go elsewhere to make a living. It's a very hard place to earn a livelihood. So most of the people who've stayed are people of retirement age, who are living on pensions or social security. If you are a working person, it's not at all obvious how you make a go of it there.

Jo Reed: Is the town that you grew up in, it was a mining town, was it ever a farming town?

Jennifer Haigh: There was farming on the outskirts of town and still is to some degree but the people who lived in town were typically people working in the mines.

Jo Reed: You chose to tell this story, Heat and Light, with so many different voices and an array of viewpoints. There were landowners, there were drillers, salesmen, environmentalists, drug addicts, owners of large companies. It must've been like playing chess with yourself.

Jennifer Haigh: It is a very complicated story and I found that there was no way to do justice to it without looking at it through several different sets of eyes. I don’t know of any one person who could have told the whole story. This is a problem I sometimes have writing fiction in the first person. I enjoy doing it but I rarely find that there’s any one character who knows all the good parts so I find that I need more than one point-of-view character in most cases. You know, the whole controversy around fracking looks quite different if you are somebody working on a drill rig versus the CEO of a gas company. So I include both of those perspectives in this book and I found that as I learned more about this issue, I found myself creating more characters who inhabited all sides of this argument.

Jo Reed: How do you inhabit all these characters the many characters you created the way you did?

Jennifer Haigh: That's a hard question to answer. You know, if you write fiction that is just simply what you do. You create characters again and again and again and it's kind of like being an actor in a way. I think part of the reason I feel drawn to write fiction to begin with, is this sense of life is this very fleeting thing and understanding that there is so much I will never see and so much I will never get to do in my one very brief life, that I write fiction as a way to steal more lives, to steal more experiences.. you know, to go places I won't get to go and to be people that I'll never get to be.

Jo Reed: Jennifer, how much research did you do for this book?

Jennifer Haigh: For this book in particular, I did quite a bit I enjoy doing research and some of my novels require a lot of it but research is also something of a trap. You know, I can get so caught up in doing it that I lose sight of the fact that I'm not actually writing very much and so at a certain point, I need to cut myself off and trust what I have learned so far and just start writing.

Jo Reed: Well let's talk about Heat and Light.. did you begin by doing some research, did you begin by sketching the outline?

Jennifer Haigh: It was very difficult. I had a very slow start on this book and for the first two years, I wasn't at all sure that it was going to work. I actually threw it away once. I had put it down because it.. I had lost my bearings in the story. It seemed so unwieldy and I'd lost confidence that this was a book I could actually write. So I started out doing some research and wrote a little, did research, wrote a little, and I kept sort of toggling back and forth between the two. I would do research until I felt that I knew enough to start writing but invariably, I would reach a juncture where I needed to learn some more or I couldn't go any further in the story, so it was kind of a back and forth process.

Jo Reed: Heat and Light is a book that deals with a very, very political issue and yet at the same time, there's nothing at all didactic about it. You somehow navigate those treacherous shoals of telling an effective story while foregrounding issues that are steeped in politics but you're not didactic.

Jennifer Haigh: I'm glad, I think that's essential. It's always challenging to write about a polarizing issue like this. And I can look at the book now that I have written it and say, "This is an inherently political story," but I wasn't thinking about it in those terms when I was writing it, I was thinking about what daily life looks like for the people who are living inside this story, no matter what side of it they inhabit.

Jo Reed: You have one of the Devlin's and I can't remember if it was Rich or his father, Dick, talk about the kind of work you do when you take a shower before you go to work and the kind of work you do where you take a shower when you get home and you write often about the people who take a shower when they get home. What draws you to those people? What draws you to writing about class?

Jennifer Haigh: Well you know, I think it is my subject. Every story I've ever written, every novel I've ever written, has these questions of class baked into it. It's not something I do consciously, I think it is just my own worldview and it's very much a function of where I was raised and how I was raised. You know, I grew up in a coal-mining town. The people I knew by and large, worked with their hands and you know, I understand that working-class people, people who work with their bodies, can have very compelling and rich intellectual and emotional lives and I think that understanding is lost in our popular culture, that when we do see working-class characters written about, it's done in such a very reductive way and I personally understand that people who work with their bodies are not less bright or less interesting or less complex, than people who sit at desks all day.

Jo Reed: There are so few books that deal with class.

Jennifer Haigh: Yes.

Jo Reed: Literary fiction is just rife with people who have never worried about a mortgage a day in their life and at certain points, I just can't stand it anymore.

Jennifer Haigh: It’s kind of an erasure in our popular culture and I think the reason for that has to do with which people become literary tastemakers in contemporary America. To have a career in publishing, it's a very difficult thing for someone from a working-class background to ponder. So by and large, the people who are becoming editors in literary publishing, are not people who grew up in coal towns in Northern Appalachia and because you know, writing and editing, this is a labor of love for everybody who does it. We are conditioned by our own experiences. We respond to stories that seem real to us, that invoke the real world as we know it. So if you are from a privileged background, it is not surprising that you are going to be drawn to stories about people you recognize and the world you recognize and it probably does lead to a certain kind of vice. It leads to an overrepresentation of those kinds of stories because a lot of the editors who are acquiring literary fiction, come from that sort of background themselves. It is entirely subjective and editors and writers, we don't choose what we love and editors choose books that they fall in love with. They publish books that they fall in love with and often the books they fall in love with are books that reflect their own reality back to them.

Jo Reed: Becoming a writer, becoming a novelist, is as you said, it's very difficult, it is a labor of love.. there are many, many lean years.. your whole life can be one big lean year and that happens with a lot of writers and that can also be a difficult thing to do for somebody from the working class.

Jennifer Haigh: It is a difficult thing to do. Part of it is that people who are not themselves readers, don't understand necessarily that the work you're doing really is work.. that it isn't sort of a hobby and it goes back to the point I was making earlier about the kind of work where you shower before and the kind of work where you shower after. You know, to somebody who works in a coal mine, what I do all day doesn’t really look like work. It doesn't jive with the definition of work you have if everybody in your family, you know, has an industrial job. So I mean, part of it is just.. there is that kind of leap you have to make, that if you were from a working-class background.. to take your writing seriously as work is.. it's quite a large step.

Jo Reed: And I think another large step really can be if you grow up in a background where you don't know any writers. It doesn't quite register as a possibility.

Jennifer Haigh: Right, that is certainly true.

Jo Reed: Were you a reader as a kid?

Jennifer Haigh: Yes, I always was, and I think that has everything to do with the culture of my immediate family. I grew up probably 50 miles from a bookstore and this was.. you know, long pre-Amazon, so the books that I had access to were the ones that my parents had acquired and the ones in our small-town public library which were mainly donated books. So I did not grow up in a town where I saw bookstores and people were going to hear readings and there was discussion about books. It wasn't like that in my town but it was like that in my family. My mother was a librarian and my father was an English teacher and these were two people who had been very much formed by what they had read. They were both passionate readers, we had a house-full of books.. really good books, and I have no doubt that if I had grown up in a different house on my street, I would probably be doing hair right now. It has everything to do with the environment of my family that made it seem possible for me to be a writer.

Jo Reed: Were your parents originally from that town and they stayed?

Jennifer Haigh: Yes.. yes, they both went into the military, went to school on the GI Bill, went to college, became teachers. They really did it the hard way and after they'd gotten their educations, they came back to this town they grew up in which many people would not have done, so that was the culture of my family.

Jo Reed: Your books really ask us to look at what happens to family and to community when their economic underpinnings don't just wobble but absolutely collapse. How do people respond to your work when you're asking that of them?

Jennifer Haigh: Well you know, I hear from a lot of people who grew up in a place like I grew up in and no longer live there. Those are the readers I hear from all the time. I don't hear as much from readers who have grown up in these communities and have stayed there and I'm not sure why that is. Maybe in part, it's what I was talking about earlier.. that there isn't really a reading culture in a lot of these towns and so my books don't necessarily find readers in those places but I do hear from lots and lots of people, not just people who grew up in mining towns but you know, people who grew up in steel towns where the steel mills have closed.. people who grew up in factory towns. There are multiple generations now of Americans who grew up in an industrial past that seems to be gone forever now and have memories of that time and those are readers I hear from all the time.

Jo Reed: Well in Heat and Light, the past is prologue to the present and you place the conflict over fracking into this historical arc.

Jennifer Haigh: You know, it was a complete surprise to me in the writing of this book that I found myself doing as much time travel as I did. I conceived of this as a contemporary story about gas drilling.. about fracking, and I did not understand when I set out to write this book that there was simply no way to do it justice without looking at the past and it relates to the point I made earlier about Pennsylvania really being an energy state. You know, when I was first contemplating writing this novel and doing a lot of research about fracking, I was following very closely the developments in New York State, just over the border from Pennsylvania. New York State is also situated on the Marcellus Shale, the same formation that is rich in natural gas and in New York State, the same thing was happening. You know, people were seeing this opportunity to lease their mineral rights to make some money but the fracking story unfolded entirely differently in New York State than it did in Pennsylvania. And I found myself wondering why that should be, and the conclusion I came to is that Pennsylvania has this industrial past, Pennsylvania does identify as an energy state, and so the whole question of whether or not to allow gas drilling looks quite different to people there. You know, when I talked to people in Pennsylvania about whether they thought fracking was dangerous to the environment I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “Well, coal wasn’t clean either.” That’s where the bar is in these coal-mining communities in Appalachia that if you look at times when the town was prosperous it was during the coal boom and guess what; there was a lot of environmental consequence to coal mining too. And yet for most people those are remembered as very good times; most people have a lot of nostalgia for the coal-mining years and would love to go back to that time. And we’re completely willing to tolerate a certain degree of environmental destruction if that’s what it took to bring back prosperity to this town that seemed to have lost everything so that I think had everything to do with why the state of Pennsylvania has embraced fracking in a way that New York State has not done.

Jo Reed: Coal mining is certainly a vein that runs through Heat and Light and it’s very interesting to hear people, by people I mean pundits, talk about particularly coal miners and not quite understanding the culture, the community that develops when somebody says, “Nobody wants their kid to go down into the coal mine.” That really isn’t true.

Jennifer Haigh: That’s not true at all.

Jo Reed: It’s said with such certainty.

Jennifer Haigh: It’s said with such certainty by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Most of the people in my town remember those mining jobs as great jobs. I mean this was a time when you could graduate high school, get a job, work for that same employer your entire working life, raise a family, send kids to college. People did this; you know, people had union wages. They really felt that they had these unions that looked out for them, they had this financial stability that they have not seen since, so in these communities mine jobs are not looked at as terrible jobs the way they’re seen in a lot of other places; they’re looked at as very good jobs.

Jo Reed: As we said, there are many characters in Heat and Light. Were there any that you felt more drawn to?

Jennifer Haigh: Well, it’s hard to answer that because I always felt my greatest allegiance was to the character I was working on at that time and this is what I meant earlier when I said it’s-- “Writing fiction is like being an actor,” that in order to write a character like Kip “The Whip” who is the CEO of the gas company I had to essentially take his side in all things. What you do when you write a character is that for the time you’re developing that character you identify with that person. You see the world through his eyes, you take on his values, you take on his belief system even knowing that a month later you’re going to be writing a different character who has an entirely different set of beliefs that may be in conflict. It is a question of loyalty; you’re taking sides really. You need to be an advocate of that character you’re writing at that point.

Jo Reed: I think the character I felt the closest to was Rich. He broke my heart in so many ways. Leasing the mineral rights to start a farm: there was just something so poignant about that.

Jennifer Haigh: Rich is kind of an everyman character and, you know, his concerns are universal concerns in a way. I mean this is a guy who’s trying to raise a family; he’s got sort of a complicated marriage to a complicated, difficult woman. He’s got a job that is wearing him down. You know, he’s got a lot of family responsibilities. He looks after his aging father; he’s got a brother who’s an addict that he’s concerned about. So he’s really a guy who’s carrying a lot on his shoulders. He’s a stubborn guy; he’s a hardheaded guy. He reminds me a lot of the men I knew growing up, and in fact when my mother first read Heat and Light she said, “I’ve known that guy my whole life” and I feel that way too about Rich.

Jo Reed: Jennifer, did you always want to write?

Jennifer Haigh: I always want to write except when I’m actually doing it and then I wish I could be doing anything else. Yes, yes. As a child, I always imagined I would be a writer. I fell in love with books at an early age and I remember writing in a journal when I was very young that I either wanted to be a writer or a genie and I think they’re very similar in a way, you know? Being a writer is like being a genie; you get to make the world as you wish it to be.

Jo Reed: And tell me—what are you working on now?

Jennifer Haigh: I’m working on a novel. I can’t say too much about it; I’m always secretive about my work in progress simply because I’ve more than once had the experience of talking about a book too much and then having it fall apart in my hands so I’m unwilling to do that now. It’s a novel that I’ve been banging my head against for a couple of years and I’m making a little progress but it isn’t quick and it isn’t easy.

Jo Reed: Do you find that when you write you write, I don’t know, 20, 30 pages just to throw stuff on the wall and see what sticks?

Jennifer Haigh: Sometimes. Every book comes about differently. I find that certain books-- writing is really an additive process. I started out as a short-story writer so my tendency is to be terse and when I first set out to write a novel I thought there’s no way I can write 300 pages of anything; that is just simply beyond me. At that point in my life, I don’t think I’d written anything longer than a 20-page story so my first novel, Mrs. Kimble, I started out with a first draft that was only 55 pages and I thought I was done. I thought, well, that’s the whole story; that’s it; that’s as much as I got. And so the process of revision with Mrs. Kimble was with every successive draft developing the story further and putting a little more meat on the bone so the first draft was maybe 55 pages, the second draft was maybe 80 pages, the third draft was maybe 130 pages, and so it was a process of accretion. So there was very little cutting that happened; that was an additive revision process. There have been other novels I have written where I have ended up writing myself into a corner and throwing away a lot of what I’d written and starting again and, you know, you never know; every story sort of teaches you how to write it.

Jo Reed: Well I think there we’ll leave it. Jennifer, thank you. I was really glad I had the opportunity to revisit Heat and Light again.

Jennifer Haigh: Oh, well, thank you so much, Jo. This has been a pleasure.

Jo Reed: Thanks for coming in.

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That is writer and NEA Literature Fellow Jennifer Haigh. We were talking about her novel Heat and Light and this has been Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts—so please do and leave us a rating on Apple—it will help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In Jennifer Haigh’s fifth novel Heat and Light, she returns to the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania: its prosperity withered with the closing of the coalmines. So when it’s learned that the area is rich in natural gas, many people are eager to sign over their mineral rights to energy companies. And the debate about fracking and all that it entails upends the community. Jennifer Haigh knows her subject well; she was raised in a former coal town that also sits on deposits of natural gas. In our conversation she talks about her hometown and how it’s become the basis for much of her writing, the pull of the past on the present and the legacy of North Appalachia’s geology.