My friend Joel Burcat is back with a new book, Amid Rage, released February 2, 2021, an environmental thriller about a crazy coal mine operator, an application for a mining permit, and the anti-mining neighbors who will fight as long as it takes to make sure the mine doesn’t get it. Caught in the crossfire is environmental prosecutor, Mike Jacobs who just wants to do the right thing for the environment. Who will win is anyone’s guess. Central and Western Pennsylvania struggles mightily with its roots, especially as they relate to coal, and this story could have easily been ripped from the headlines, but Burcat’s character-driven telling is much more. Drawing on his experience as an environmental lawyer for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Amid Rage is a tale running as deep and wide as acid mine drainage itself.
Amid Rage is Burcat’s second novel. The first, Drink to Every Beast was released in 2019. Go here to read my previous interview with Joel who has been practicing or thinking about practicing environmental law since 1974 — before it was even cool!
Joel and I had a zoom chat a few days ago before participating in the lunch and learn discussion this past Friday (2/19/21) for the Pennsylvania Bar Association Environmental and Energy Law Section. The topic? So you’re thinking about writing that novel? Lots of thoughts, ethical considerations, and practical advice.
I don’t usually get many questions about my writing from own work colleagues, so this was a delightful diversion, a back and forth Q&A where Joel and I asked each other questions about our writing, how we both came to be writers and environmental lawyers, where we would like to go with our writing, and whatever advice we could offer for others looking to get started? Since Joel has a new book out, I thought I’d share some of his responses with you.
So, here we are again, Joel. And if you’re like me, the biggest question you always get is – how do you find time to write?
Great question, Pam. When I was still practicing law, I only wrote after 8 or 9 pm. Fortunately, I had the stamina after a long day in the office to write until 11 pm or midnight (sometimes later) then get up the next morning and go to work. Because I had a day job I felt I could not work during the time I was supposed to be devoting to my law practice. As a result, I did all of my writing at night.
Now that I am retired (disabled, actually) I write from about 8 a.m. until lunch time (determined by my hunger). Then I work on the business of books in the afternoon. Sometimes I will write in the afternoon, too. Often I will write on Sundays, as well.
You’re busy and determined! I am still working my writing into the interstices of my day, but aspire to someday have the same kind of writing schedule, Joel. How do you initially settle on your characters and once you do, how do you come up with plot lines?
When I began writing my Mike Jacobs books, I was already familiar with main characters from many thrillers and legal thrillers. I have often read about main characters who had a superpower. Some are unusually big and strong, some have photographic memories, some have martial arts or military skills. I find such characters interesting, but not relatable. I wanted my main character and all the characters in my books to be relatable. I think readers will have an easier time seeing themselves, possibly, as Mike or one of my other characters. I’d like my readers to think, “I could do that.”
My plots are based on a combination of cases or scenarios I read about (mostly news articles and case law), snippets from my own life, stories people have told me, and pure fiction I make up. Even when a story is “ripped from the headlines” (as the cliché goes) I take huge license with the story and make it my own.
They say a good writing is all about good reading. What are you reading these days and how does that affect and improve your writing?
I read on a 4-book cycle: 1) a thriller, so I stay current with my genre; 2) a Young Adult (YA) novel, since I am branching out into the world of YA; 3) a debut novel or a book written by one of my friends, so I see the exciting things newer writers are doing; and 4) non-fiction. The last four books I read were: 1) SKIN IN THE GAME, by D.P. Lyle; 2) AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, by Sabaa Tahir; 3) BLACKTOP WASTELAND, by S.A. Cosby; and 4) HOMO DEUS, by Yuval Noah Harari. Currently, I am reading ONE OF US IS LYING, by Karen M. McManus, a young adult thriller. Life is all about learning and growing. This is an enjoyable way of doing that.
That sounds like a great approach. You found your niche in the legal thriller genre and added the environment which makes it even more specialized. Do you think you’ll ever write outside that genre or is it your superpower — and you thought you didn’t have one –so you’re just going to stick with it?
Since you mentioned it…I have written a third book in the Mike Jacobs series, STRANGE FIRE, an environmental legal thriller about fracking. However, the last book I completed was a gritty, post-pandemic dystopian young adult thriller, called LULLABIES AND OTHER LIES. Currently that books is being evaluated by publishers, so we will see. I am at work on an environmental thriller that is not a legal thriller. It is titled (at this moment), PROJECT ICE. It is set in 1988 and is about a 21-year-old law student who walks into and accidentally attends a secret strategy meeting of the energy industry in Washington DC. (Something like this actually happened to me when I was in law school.) The topic of the strategy meeting is how to put the brakes on all research on climate change and prevent the United States from participating in any international meetings on climate change. She gets caught up in exposing the effort at great personal sacrifice.
That sounds like something we would all be interested in reading. How many more books do you think you have in you?
It took me seven weeks to write the first draft of STRANGE FIRE (after I became legally blind!). It took me less than one month to write the first draft of LULLABIES AND OTHER LIES. Granted, writing the second draft and the editing process takes a much longer time, but once I get started, I write quickly. If pressed, I probably could write three or four books a year (not a typo). Realistically, I think two books a year is do-able. I love writing, so I’m going to do this for as long as I am able to do so. Hopefully, that’s a lot of books.
Ambitious, yes, but also doable from your determinedness. So tell me, how much of your writing depends on audience approval? After all, no fans, no books sold. Do you ever get discouraged that you haven’t yet entered the “millions of copies sold” arena? What tools do you use to keep going when you don’t get the massive success for which every writer longs? Do you keep writing regardless?
Writing has to be an obsession. You can’t do it only between the end of football season and beginning of March Madness or after the Christmas season is over on Hallmark (is it every truly over?). You really need to be drawn in by it and want to do that more than any other activity. My training as a lawyer has helped. That allows me to spend nearly endless time at my desk writing when I wouldn’t mind doing something else. Also, I am really goal driven. If I want to write a certain number of words on a certain day or finish writing a chapter, I will force myself to do it. At the least, I will find something else I must do related to writing that is equally important.
Finally, I live by the Winston Churchill quote, “Never Give in. Never, never, never, never.” That is a good motto for writers!
Thanks for the opportunity to talk!
Feb. 15, 2021
Thanks for reading!
pam lazos 2.21.21