Self-Interrogation: Author Tom Bennitt on Coal Mining, Must-Read Thrillers, and Burning Under
By Tom BennittOctober 15, 2018
Debut author Tom Bennitt stops by to introduce himself and his new literary thriller, Burning Under. Make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy!
My first novel, a thriller called Burning Under, is coming out this fall. Set in southwest Pennsylvania – including the coal region, the Rustbelt, and Pittsburgh – it revolves around a deadly coal mine explosion owned by a corrupt mining company.
Between college and my MFA, I spent seven years practicing corporate law in the Pittsburgh area, including a brief stint representing a coal-and-limestone mining company – perhaps my strangest experience as a lawyer, yet it offered an inside view of the mining industry. And during this time (2003-09), the Bush regime’s relaxed environmental regulations caused a coal-mining boom in Appalachia. Dozens of abandoned underground mines in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania reopened and company profits increased. But so did the number of accidents. In West Virginia and Kentucky, alone, over 50 miners died from underground fires or explosions.
HOW I GOT HERE
As a kid, I loved anything tied to mystery or suspense – from the board game, CLUE, to haunted houses. In grade school, I read Hardy Boys Mysteries and Choose Your Own Adventure books. As I got older, I transitioned from gothic and horror fiction – Stephen King novels and the stories of Poe – to legal and political thrillers from such writers as Grisham, Turow, and Clancy. (My favorites included The Firm and Patriot Games.) In college, my time was consumed by course readings, which consisted of serious Literature (with a capital L), History, and Political Theory.
But, in my late twenties and early thirties, I rediscovered the act of reading for pleasure. The manager of my local bookstore was a fan of crime, thrillers, and Southern fiction. He introduced me to writers like Cormac McCarthy, William Gay, Larry Brown, Tom Franklin. I was also influenced during this period by films like Fargo, L.A. Confidential, Seven, and Michael Clayton.
Finally, my MFA experience expanded my reading list, even in genre fiction. William Boyle, a classmate and the author of Gravesend, exposed me to some great contemporary writers of noir and crime, including Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and Megan Abbott, and old-school crime writers like Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson.
These days, I care more about the quality of a story, and the writing, than genre labels. In any case – whether it’s called a thriller, literary fiction, noir, crime, or some combination thereof – here is a short list of books that have influenced me:
The Firm by John Grisham – Maybe the perfect legal thriller.
A Simple Plan by Scott Smith – A great, slow burn.
Misery by Stephen King – Demented fan kidnaps favorite author, then breaks his ankles with a hammer so he can’t escape. Enough said!
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins – In the YA genre, a total game-changer.
Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy – The Judge and Chigurh: two of the greatest villains in literature.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell – Best novel of the new century, so far.
Poachers by Tom Franklin – Funny, creepy, awesome. (Really a novella, but who cares?)
Snow Angels by Stewart O’Nan – Set in my native Butler County. A personal favorite.
Anything and Everything written by Megan Abbott – She’s that good!
Recently, I was interviewed by a friend and former classmate who asked several questions about my novel, including this one: What compelled me to write a legal thriller when, in today’s culture, the legal procedural has been nearly exhausted?
A thorny question, right? My response was brief and narrow. Rather than a standard legal thriller dominated by lengthy trials and dramatic court scenes, I replied, Burning Under is more of a character-driven literary thriller. And while the legal elements and issues are central to the narrative, much of the “legal stuff” happens offstage. (The novel’s structure has more in common with the 2008 film, Michael Clayton, than a Grisham or Turow novel.)
At the same time, concerning the premise of my friend’s question, I’m not sure that legal thrillers have been exhausted. Consider, for instance, the popularity of Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, and many other writers of legal thrillers. Further, I would argue that some aspect of America’s massive – and shape-shifting – legal system informs almost every domestic thriller or crime novel.
Even in a novel like Winter’s Bone, a rural noir, the inciting incident is connected to the law: when the sheriff informs Ree Dolly that her family could lose their home because her father used its value as bail – then missed his court hearing – Ree is given ten days to either find him or prove he is dead. Likewise, in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a domestic thriller, Amy manipulates the public like a world-class trial lawyer, building evidence against her husband. And when she disappears, he becomes the prime suspect.
One last thought, meant for any aspiring novelists out there. Write the book you want to write: a story that hasn’t been written, a story only you can tell.
I grew up in western Pennsylvania, and after leaving for college and law school, I returned home. Consequently, Burning Under was inspired not just by my favorite books and writers, but also my life and work experiences. More than that, I also did extensive research: driving through the Appalachian coal region, touring an underground mine, interviewing miners, and closely following the federal investigation of the 2006 Sago (WV) mine explosion.
Maybe your novel is set in a place you can see in your sleep, or maybe it’s about a subject very personal to you. Either way, do the research, too. Gather all you can about your subject matter, and read books (fiction and nonfiction) about your subject. Remember that most of the great writers are voracious readers. And don’t fear failure or rejection, because all writers face rejection before they find success.
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