Wednesday, June 10, 2015

June is Audiobook Month! Highlight on Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett

Set amongst the deadly coal mine fires of 1960s Pennsylvania,The Hollow Ground is an extraordinary debut that will "grab you by the brisket and not let go." (Gary Shteyngart)
"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 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 now-infamous Centralia and the equally devastated town of Carbondale, The Hollow Ground is an extraordinary debut with an atmospheric, voice-driven narrative and an indelible sense of place.

Q&A with author Natalie Harnett

Q:This book was inspired by real-life events.  What were some of the specific events, or aspects of these events that lead you to writing this book? 

A: The novel is inspired by the coal mine fires that took place in Centralia and Carbondale, PA. Those fires completely destroyed the towns above them.  Poison gases leaked into houses.  Sinkholes opened.  Ground shifted, steamed and made the floors of houses hot to the touch.  Centralia is now a ghost town.  The houses were wrecked.  Hardly anyone lives there. It's all grown over. Only the cracked sidewalks and streets suggest the thriving town it once was.  

That fire still burns and is expected to burn for another 250 years  In Carbondale the government dug the fire out.  The novel depicts that dig out.  One of the more impressive facts about that dig out is that by the time they finished digging, they'd dug more dirt than had been dug for the Panama Canal. When I researched these fires, I was amazed. I couldn’t get over what people had survived. The conditions they lived through were truly astounding. I found it so inspiring and so dramatic that I needed to write about it.   

Q:Were any of the characters inspired by real people? 

A: Many of the characters are.  Gram is a mix of my grandmother who was a tough lady.  And a smart one.  As a single mother, she took speed writing classes, got herself a good job, bought a house and learned how to do all the repairs.  Gram is also inspired by my grandfather’s neighbor in Pennsylvania.  That lady spoke a bit like Gram and worked in an underwear mill very much like the mill Gram works in.

Ma is a based on one of my mother’s friends.  She was a very bitter person whose own mother did many of the cruel things Ma does in the book.  But Ma is also inspired by an interview that I read of an old Pennsylvania coal miner.  That old miner mentioned that when he was a young child his mother died and his father remarried.  Shortly after the marriage, his new stepmother sent his sister to an orphanage and he never heard from his sister again.  That miner, in his eighties at the time of the interview, cried when he talked about his sister. I’d say it was exactly at that moment that the character of Ma was conceived. I couldn’t help but wonder if that young girl knew where she was being sent.  What was her last moment at home like?  Years later, what was she able to remember of her family?  Who did she become as an adult?

Q: I find a lot of pleasure in both reading a book, and listening to an audiobook, but sometimes the experience of a book can be very different when it is read vs listened to.  Do you feel that there is a different experience to be had by listening to The Hollow Ground rather than reading it? 

A: The book is a very visual one.  People have even described it as cinematic. There is so much description of the fire and the dig out.  And as I described in the first question, the consequences of these fires are so dramatic, they’re practically unbelievable. I think the advantage of listening to the book is that it allows for a more visual experience.  Rather than being occupied with reading the words, you’re completely focused on listening and then picturing what you hear. I think listening to The Hollow Ground may in some ways be a more dramatic experience than reading it.

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