Wild Authors: Joel Burcat

By Mary Woodbury

It’s been cool to meet Joel Burcat, an author and recently retired environmental lawyer, who has written a series of environmental legal thrillers. The first, Drink to Every Beast, was featured by Kirkus Reviews, Good Day PA, the Green Life Blue Water blog, and in theNew York Times article “Writing With Your Eyes Closed” about blind authors and their works. 

The second book, Amid Rage (Headline Books, February, 2021), can be read as a stand-alone novel and continues following up-and-coming Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection lawyer Mike Jacobs in a legal battle. This time, Mike finds himself caught in the middle of a potentially lethal legal situation when a local community is harassed by Ernie Rinati, the owner of Rhino Mining Co., who will stop at nothing to see that his new mine becomes operational.

Tell us about yourself – your life so far and how you got started in writing. What else have you published besides Amid Rage?

I have practiced environmental law for 40 years. I became a lawyer to practice environmental law and was fortunate to make a career of it. Now, I am a full-time writer. My second love (or maybe it was my secret love) is and has been writing. I began writing when I was young, but set it aside when I became a lawyer as I was too busy with work and a family to focus on it. While I now write mostly novels, I continue to write short stories (I just had two short stories published in anthologies).

My first novel was Drink to Every Beast, published by Headline Books in 2019. It is an environmental legal thriller about midnight dumping. It follows my very young (26-year old) PaDEP prosecutor, Mike Jacobs, on his first big case trying to stop illegal dumping into the Susquehanna River.

I have been fortunate to have eight of my short stories published in journals, magazines, and anthologies. They range from murder, to a wedding, to growing grapes, to the best beer I ever had. I’ve been published in the Montreal Review, Hobo Pancakes, Harrisburg Magazine, and others.

I’ve edited two major books: the first was Pennsylvania Environmental Law and Practice (1994, 1st through 7th eds., Pa. Bar Institute Press) and The Law of Oil and Gas in Pa. (2014, 1st and 2d eds., Pa. Bar Institute Press). These are the two major treatises on these subjects in Pennsylvania.

Tell us something about your newest novel. Who is the intended audience, and what’s going on in the story?

My new novel is Amid Rage, an environmental legal thriller, featuring Mike Jacobs. In it, a psychotic coal mine operator and cynical neighbors with an anti-mining agenda fight out a strip mine permit battle. Mike, 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 in the courtroom 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?

The intended audience is people who enjoy a good legal thriller, suspense, or mystery novel. Also, it will be very interesting to those who follow environmental issues. My books are very descriptive of the issues (and hopefully educational) and I hope that readers will be both enthralled by the book and will learn something.

What sorts of ecological themes does your novel have, and how were you inspired to write about them?

Ecological themes include:

  • Coal strip mining: How it is done, what it is like, what blasting is like, and what kind of impact it has on the environment.
  • Litigating an environmental case: What is this litigation really like? What kinds of strategies do the sides employ? What can go right/wrong in these cases? What do the lawyers feel during the case?
  • The pros and cons of coal mining: While my main character, Mike, is against coal mining and is concerned about climate change, other characters take the opposite position. I hope to educate readers on the nuances of their positions.
  • Climate change is discussed throughout the book.

I have been interested in the environment for as long as I can remember. As a lawyer, I have lived some of these cases, read about many of them, and imagined the rest. My books present a realistic scenario of this world.

After publication, do you plan to do any book fairs or talks? How would you describe the reaction to your book so far? Is it hard to market during the COVID pandemic?

Amid Rage isn’t out yet [at the time of this writing], so I have not yet done any book fairs or programs, although I expect to do them. When my first book, Drink to Every Beast, came out, I had several “book launches” at book stores locally and in New York City, and made a number of appearances at bookstores and book gatherings (the biggest was the American Library Association’s annual gathering in Washington, DC).

I’m still awaiting the public reaction. However, I have had some early reaction from the writers Steve Berry and Doug Lyle, both of whom really liked the book and said very nice things about it.

It is harder – and easier – to market in a pandemic. I cannot do live programs and that is a problem as many readers really want to meet the author and buy a book that is signed by the author with an inscription to them. At the same time, I have already done a number of Zoom events for Beast and had many people from all over the US tune in. I would not have had people from hundreds or thousands of miles away attending an event if we did not have a Zoom event. So that is a plus.

Are you working on anything else right now, and do you want to add other thoughts about your book?

I am finishing up Strange Fire. That is the third book in the Mike Jacobs series and is about fracking. Again, while Mike Jacobs is against fracking, I am trying to present both sides of the issue. I present the “pro” side through characters who are pro-drilling. Also, I have included some interesting elements in the novel that are more than just whispered rumors about the industry and opposition to it. There is both courtroom drama and strong thriller elements in the story. I have some great antagonists and some people wearing various shades of gray. I really want this story to stay with readers and make them think.

I believe readers will love Amid Rage. It presents Mike at his most capable and also most vulnerable. He wants to do the right thing but is restrained both by his political masters, limitations, and reality. There is a love story in the book, and I am very happy with how that turned out, so it has something for all readers.

Thanks so much, Joel! It’s interesting to see the environmental law aspect in fiction.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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