A novel by Joel Burcat
Well, my friend Joel Burcat is back at it, busy penning the next Great American Novel on a topic that I have to say is dear to my heart — Fracking!
First, a little synopsis:
Strange Fire, published February 1, 2022, is a gripping and romantically-charged environmental legal thriller about fracking and drilling for natural gas. Fracking for natural gas has turned deadly in Bradford County, Pa., and not only is the water contaminated, but people are dying. Round-the-clock operations conducted by Yukon Oil and Gas at their snake-ridden Campbell pad may have poisoned a residential well and now threatens a town’s water supply. Pennsylvania’s environmental agency, DEP, says the fracking of the Marcellus shale by Yukon did not cause the contamination. The neighbors have sued the agency and Mike Jacobs, a 29-year old environmental prosecutor with DEP, is back. He is ordered to represent the Commonwealth’s position. Because of the unique nature of the case, Mike finds himself on what he considers the “wrong” side. Mike suspects the neighbors are right and must get to the truth of the matter before he becomes a victim, too.
Mike must work alongside his law school nemesis, Darius Moore, now a rising star at DC’s prestigious Finkel & Updike, universally referred to as “FU.” Mike’s friendship with his geologist, Missy Shelton, grows into something much more than a professional relationship. The citizen activist, Teresa Bruno-Campbell becomes entirely too interested in Mike after he saves her son from a protest that becomes a riot. Roger Alden, Mike’s friend, mentor and boss, may not be able to save Mike from a serious lapse in judgment while Mike’s efforts to discern the truth put him in the intersecting crosshairs of this suspenseful and exhilarating legal mystery.
And then, a few questions:
Is Strange Fire based on a real story?
No. It is based on realistic scenarios. I took some information from EHB and court cases and incorporated that into the story.
Why did you write this book?
After writing books about hazardous waste dumping (Drink to Every Beast, 2019) and coal strip mining (Amid Rage, 2021), I wanted to write one on fracking. That, and climate change, are the two biggest issues impacting us today. Also, I wanted to wait until I was retired to write this book to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.
How realistic is the book?
Everything in it is realistic. The drilling process described in the book is realistic. Real people fly into rages. Chemicals leak from drill sites. Government agencies make mistakes and have blinders on. I went to great pains to write a book that was factually accurate.
Are the characters based on real people?
No one in Strange Fire is based on a real person. Many of the characters have some DNA of people I have known or know of. Sometimes I will get a picture of an actor or actress off the internet and base the appearance of a character on the actor. When I wrote Amid Rage, I had a picture of Scarlett Johansen and another of Natalie Portman on my wall. They represented Miranda and Nicky. My wife wondered whether I was stalking them, but it was easier for me to look at the picture to describe a feature, than it was to make it up.
Are you Mike Jacobs?
Mike is Jewish and so am I. Check
Mike is about my size and weight when I was in my 20s. Check
Mike went to Penn State and majored in Geography. Check
Mike went to Vermont Law School and became an environmental lawyer. Check
Mike went to work for DEP in Harrisburg. Check
Other than that, no.
Nice. Are any companies based on real companies?
Absolutely not. The companies are like the people in my stories. There may be a little corporate DNA in some of the companies and agencies in my stories. I made a point of NOT basing any companies in my stores after real companies. They are fictional.
Is the DEP in the book the real DEP which, if I recall, you worked for at one point in your legal career?
There is an agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania government called the Department of Environmental Protection, DEP. I have taken great liberties and made up a fictional version of DEP. When James Patterson writes about the District of Columbia Police Department, Thomas Harris writes about the FBI, or Robert Crais writes about the LAPD, no one should assume that they are writing about the real DCPD, FBI, or LAPD. The same with my version of DEP. While I have loosely modeled my version after DEP, it is a fictional version.
Is the science and engineering in your story real?
I worked very hard to give as much accuracy as possible to the drilling, geology, and hydrogeology aspects of the book. Keep in mind, I worked with many industries in my 40+ year career, including the oil and gas industry and edited a book called The Law of Oil and Gas in Pa. In addition to my knowledge, I did a lot of research. Also, I consulted with experts when I thought I had everything right to make sure I really did have it correct. The experts suggested a number of changes to make things more accurate. Strange Fire is not a geology or drilling textbook, but you will learn something from this book. Of course, any errors are mine alone.
As an example, on page 2 there is a description of the production trees or “Christmas trees” as the industry calls them, located on a drilling pad. I went to great pains to get the technical details right. The NYT best-selling author, John Lescroart said of Strange Fire, “As a bonus, it’s also like a college course in fracking and the moral and technical issues surrounding fossil fuel extraction.” I won’t go quite that far, but he’s not incorrect.
How did you incorporate science, engineering, and drilling into the story?
That’s actually quite a challenge. Almost all of the technical details are quite boring if you are not an engineer or scientist. I did my best to sprinkle the technical stuff through the book, so no chapter is overly full of technical detail. Also, I tried to incorporate it through dialogue, in a way that was entertaining. A number of writers have been very successful at this: Michael Crichton wrote books dealing with medical issues that were scary and suspenseful as hell, then he wrote Jurassic Park. Tom Clancy’s first book contained detailed descriptions about nuclear submarines, radar, sonar, fighter jets, etc. and managed to sell 4.7 million copies and a major motion picture. He also launched a whole genre of thrillers called techno-thrillers. Other popular techno thriller authors include: Dan Brown, Preston and Child, Robert Ludlum, Jonathan Mayberry, and James Rollins.
What environmental fiction writers do you recommend?
Eco-Thrillers (more science fiction-y stories):
- Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
- Relic (Doug Preston and Lincoln Child)
- Zoo (James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge)
Environmental Thrillers (more realistic stories)
- The Monkey-Wrench Gang (Edward Abbey, 1975)
- Drift (Jon McGoren, 2013)
- Oil and Water (P.J. Lazos, 2016) [Nice — thanks for the plug, Joel!]
Environmental Legal Thrillers (legal thrillers with a strong environmental element)
- The Pelican Brief (John Grisham, 1992)
- A Civil Action (Jonathan Harr, 1995)
- Drink to Every Beast (Joel Burcat, 2019)
- Amid Rage (Joel Burcat, 2021)
Cli-Fi (stories that focus on climate change)
- State of Fear- (Michael Crichton, 2004)
- Flight Behavior (Barbara Kingsolver, 2012)
- Barkskins (Annie Proulx, 2016)
Is there going to be another Mike Jacobs book?
Probably. I’m working on one now. It is about a Flint, Michigan-type scenario where a public water supply is ruined by a factory wastewater discharge. It may not be my next book.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a Cli-Fi book, tentatively called FIRE AND ICE.
Also, the following are done and in various stages of editing:
- LITTLE BROTHER (a small town police department goes to war with the FBI)
- LULLABIES AND OTHER LIES (young adult novel, about a group of teens who are the only survivors of a pandemic that has killed all of the adults of the world)
- TEMPERATURE RISING (a young lobbyist gets caught up in a scheme to end all governmental support for climate change research)
Is it true you wrote Strange Fire after you became blind?
Yes. I have an eye disease called non-arteritic ischemic optic neuropathy and lost partial vision in my left eye in 2017. At that time, I lost enough vision to make me legally blind in that eye. On January 8, 2019, I lost partial vision in my right eye. I was fully legally blind by the end of February 2019. At about that time, I was inspired by watching a program on skiers with one leg, doing something abled people said they couldn’t do—downhill ski. I wanted to “prove” a blind person could do something people would think a blind person couldn’t do, so in March 2019, I started writing Strange Fire. I finished the first draft 7 weeks later.
Tell us a little more about yourself.
I went to Penn State and obtained a B.S. degree in geography and followed that up with a law degree from Vermont Law School. In 1980, I went to work for the Pa. Department of Environmental Resources and worked there for three years. I was in private practice until I retired. I’ve now published three novels: Drink to Every Beast (about dumping hazardous wastes, 2019), Amid Rage (about coal strip mining, 2021), and Strange Fire (about fracking, 2022). I have also been the co-editor of two major textbooks: Pa. Environmental Law and Practice and The Law of Oil and Gas in Pa.
I love classical music and classic rock (no relation). I follow Philadelphia sports teams but was 8 years old in 1964, so I’ve learned never to get my hopes up. My wife and I live in Harrisburg. We have two daughters, one in New York City and the other In South Philly. We have two grandchildren.
Best of luck with this new addition to the Burcat library of environmental novels, Joel. I look forward to reading it!
pam lazos 2.6.22