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INTERVIEW WITH JOEL BURCAT, AUTHOR OF 2021 ENVIRONMENTAL THRILLER AMID RAGE

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The Montréal Review, June 2021

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AMID RAGE
By Joel Burcat (Headline Books, 2021)

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ABOUT AMID RAGE:

A psychotic coal mine operator and cynical neighbors with an anti-mining agenda fight out a strip mine permit battle. Mike Jacobs, a 29-year old environmental prosecutor with Pennsylvania's environmental agency, DEP, is caught between the warring factions, but is ordered to "babysit" the case. All Mike wants to do is to protect the environment and neighbors from certain harm as a result of the proposed mining. Sid Feldman, the Philadelphia lawyer for the mine operator, who oozes power and privilege, offers Mike a job midway through the proceedings. Miranda Clymer, the lawyer for the neighbors, pulls out all the stops to win Mike's affection and assistance. Mike's nearest and dearest friend, Nicky Kane is by his side as his paralegal. Mike must use all of his talents as a lawyer and rely on his discretion and courage to do what is right and not anger the political bosses for whom he works. In the cataclysmic ending, someone will die, but who?

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Is Amid Rage based on a real case or realistic scenario?

Amid Rage is based on scenarios both real and imagined. There have been incidents where DEP lawyers and their families and inspectors have been terrorized by people associated with the industries that they inspected or were regulating. To my knowledge, thankfully no one has died, but for fictional and dramatic purposes, I took a different tack.

I am aware of cases in which people have been killed and injured by “flyrock” leaving a blasting area. While blasters are very cautious people, there are times that accidents happen. Also, catastrophic accidents have occurred at strip and deep mines. These are very dangerous activities and from time to time serious accidents occur.

Mike’s cross-examination of Rinati was my dream cross-exam of a witness. I’ve examined witnesses who looked like they wanted to put their hands around my neck, witnesses who lost it and began yelling, and, once, a witness who bolted and ran out of the room (in a deposition). Also, all trial lawyers have been in trials where the judge starts asking questions to the witness. Sometimes it’s just one or two questions, but sometimes the judge seems to be actively helping a lawyer who wasn’t doing his or her job. Most trial lawyers have “war stories” either where the stars lined up and everything went right or where everything went wrong. Mike’s cross of Rinati was a combination of all of those great experiences and a few would-have/should-have moments.

Are coal and strip mining still important as sources of energy and revenue in the U.S.?

Yes. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2018, coal accounted for 21% of Pennsylvania’s net electricity generation (the fastest growing share is from natural gas electricity generation, which was 36% and growing). Nationwide, in the U.S. coal still accounts for 15% of electricity generation (says EIA).

Coal is declining in importance both nationwide and in Pa., but it still accounts for a substantial proportion of electricity generation.

In 2018, according to Pa. DEP, Pennsylvania produced 51.8 million tons of bituminous coal. Of that, 86.2% came from underground mines, 6.6% from strip mines, and 7.2% from coal refuse reprocessing operations.

How do you create your characters? You are a former environmental lawyer yourself, is Mike Jacobs based on you?

My characters are fictional characters. I develop a bio for my main characters and have a mental picture of them, but they are creations of my imagination. That said, incidents from my life, from the lives of others, and from the media may find their way into my characters’ personas. My characters have DNA from a lot of sources, again, mostly fictional, but real-life events, too.

As an example, I know a lawyer who, like Mike Jacobs, went to rabbinical school for a year, then continued at a secular college. That interesting tidbit found its way into Mike’s bio, but that lawyer is not Mike and Mike is not like that lawyer. Events from my career found their way into Mike’s bio, but I am not Mike Jacobs. I’d say Mike is a close friend of mine. Interestingly, I’ve had three lawyers ask me if they were the inspiration for Mike (one woman suggested she was the inspiration for Sherry)! Sorry folks, they are fictional.

If any lawyer has interesting war stories, tidbits, or facts they wouldn’t mind me using, I’d love to hear them. I promise to keep their identities secret.

Even though climate change and environmental conservation have been widespread topics for decades, the "environmental thriller" genre that this novel falls into is still fairly sparse. Why do you think that is? Do you think we will see more books of this genre in the future?

Part of the problem with writing a real environmental thriller or environmental legal thriller is that writing one requires a detailed knowledge of environmental issues, environmental law, and environmental agencies. John Grisham has written 3 environmental legal thrillers (The Appeal, The Pelican Brief, and Gray’s Mountain). Readers are expecting a certain degree of authenticity in these stories. That requires a lot of research and background knowledge. Many writers have very successfully written about the military and law enforcement agencies for which they never worked (think of all the stories about the FBI, CIA, NYPD, DCPD, Navy SEALs, etc.). Most were not written by former spies, cops, or SEALs. The best of those books were written by writers who did a lot of homework.

I think we will see more and more environmental thrillers, because readers want to read about these issues. These books provide a great way of introducing complicated environmental issues in a way that readers will enjoy.

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Joel Burcat in The Montreal Review

INVAIATURA

short story by Joel Burcat

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Joel Burcat is an author and environmental lawyer. He has written the following books, all of which are environmental legal thrillers: Drink to Every Beast (Headline Books, 2019), Amid Rage (Headline Books, February 2, 2021), and Strange Fire (Headline Books, due out in 2021). He has written dozens of short stories (from the best beer he ever had, to horror, to murder for hire) and six have been published. Recently, he has completed work on a young adult thriller novel called Hush Little Baby.

He has also co-edited the two leading books on environmental and energy law in Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Environmental Law And Practice (Pa. Bar Institute Press) and The Law Of Oil And Gas In Pennsylvania (Pa. Bar Institute Press).

He was selected as the 2019 Lawyer of the Year in Environmental Litigation (for Central PA) by Best Lawyers in America. He has been designated by both “Super Lawyers” and “Best Lawyers” for environmental and oil and gas law. Burcat lives in Harrisburg, PA with his wife, Gail. They have two grown daughters, a son-in-law and granddaughter.

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