Pay attention and you’ll notice something. It’s a phrase, often used in book descriptions or back cover copy: “But When.” It sounds simple enough but it changes everything. “But when an old friend comes to visit…” Or, “But when her son goes missing…” That single phrase is the beginning of everything going wrong for a character (and, let’s face it, for us as well). When we really began to pay attention to this phrase we thought it was time to begin a new series. So we have invited a number of authors to share the “but when” moment in their new novels. And up first we have Natalie Harnett, author of THE HOLLOW GROUND.
It took me a while to figure out the “But When. . .” moment in THE HOLLOW GROUND. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to tell a story about a coal mining family after the coal mines shut down. But it was only during my research that I learned about the devastating coal mine fires that took place in Centralia and Carbondale, PA. Once I learned about those fires, I knew I wanted to write about them. The only problem was that I’d already written an entire draft of the novel! So. . .I scrapped that draft and started again.
This was, of course, painful. Yet it wound up actually helpful because it helped me create a stronger, clearer plot. I knew that to tell the story of the family and of the fires I had to create events that involved each. I knew that crucial “But When. . .” moment had to come early and had to be dramatic. After all, it would be the event that would take my main character, a young girl, out of her ordinary world and into the world that would ultimately change her.
These fires have all sorts of terrible, jaw-dropping consequences. They cause subsistence, gas poisoning, steaming ground. They also cause sinkholes. I thought, what if there was a sinkhole that sunk part of the house and nearly killed the young girl’s beloved auntie? I worked on a draft of this scene but found multiple problems with it. I mean, how does only part of a house sink into the ground? I thought it was too unbelievable to have the entire house sink. Also I wanted the auntie and the girl and her family to survive. So then did I have some of them able to crawl out and some of them not home at the time?
It was getting too complicated. Then I worked on a draft where just the shed sunk and the auntie nearly died. But this didn’t seem dramatic enough. Finally I did what I’d never had the nerve to do before. I decided to have a beloved character die, and die early. I decided that the shed and the auntie would sink into the ground. The house would be condemned and the girl would lose not only an auntie, who was her best friend, but her home. It was simple and massively dramatic and set the girl off on her journey.
At that time, I thought I was fictionalizing having someone die in a coal-fire sinkhole. In my research I’d come across only one account of a person falling into a sinkhole in Centralia, and he was miraculously able to save himself by pulling at tree roots and calling for help. I’ve since learned of a couple in the Wilkes-Barre area who disappeared into one while walking to church. That is one of many disturbing stories someone has told me at an event. Last week, at an event in Northeastern PA , a woman told me of a neighbor’s house that sunk into a hole. I’m talking about the entire house. At another event, a woman told me a story about her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother was walking down the cellar stairs. The light was at the bottom. As she was walking down, she had a bad feeling. When she reached the bottom step, she flicked on the light and the entire basement floor was gone. It had sunk into the ground, but the house was still standing. If I’d heard that story before completing the novel, that is how I would have had the auntie die. It seems too impossible to be true, but that’s the nature of these fires. They stretch the limits of our imagination and lend themselves quite well to fiction.
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We walk on fire or air, so Daddy liked to say. Basement floors too hot to touch. Steaming green lawns in the dead of winter. Sinkholes, quick and sudden, plunging open at your feet.
The underground mine fires ravaging Pennsylvania coal country have forced eleven-year-old Brigid Howley and her family to seek refuge with her estranged grandparents, the formidable Gram and the black lung stricken Gramp. Tragedy is no stranger to the Howleys, a proud Irish-American clan who takes strange pleasure in the “curse” laid upon them generations earlier by a priest who ran afoul of the Molly Maguires. The weight of this legacy rests heavily on a new generation, when Brigid, already struggling to keep her family together, makes a grisly discovery in a long-abandoned bootleg mine shaft. In the aftermath, decades-old secrets threaten to prove just as dangerous to the Howleys as the burning, hollow ground beneath their feet.
Inspired by real-life events in Centralia and Carbondale, where devastating coal mine fires irrevocably changed the lives of residents, The Hollow Ground is an extraordinary debut with an atmospheric, voice-driven narrative and an indelible sense of place. Lovers of literary fiction will find in Harnett’s young, determined protagonist a character as heartbreakingly captivating as any in contemporary literature.