Emerging Indie Authors
OT: Michael Fitzgerald, thank you for speaking with OT Fiction. Mill City Press has recently published your first novel, The Fracking War, a suspenseful ripped-from-the-headlines page-turner that harnesses the escalating conflict between corporate resource-extraction interests and a radicalized environmental movement. Can you give us a basic sketch of the plot?
MF: In The Fracking War, a small-town newspaper publisher decides to use solid journalism and reporting to expose the dangers of hydrofracking and its associated health problems. He hires a former staff member (from many years before) who had moved to California and between them - and a scrappy young staff - they uncover the ills of the technology while simultaneously chronicling the rise of a clandestine, guerilla-like movement that seeks to derail the efforts of natural gas extraction industry. The former staff member is an investigative reporter but becomes the newspaper’s first ‘investigative columnist.’ This allows him the latitude to not only report, but comment on what he finds. The book is part science, part potboiler, and even part love story.
OT: Is it your aim with this book to make a statement about citizen empowerment in an age of profit-driven environmental despoilment, or are you simply trying to illustrate the growing hydrofracking conflict and fairly render both sides?
MF: The book is an attempt to show a future that might occur - with citizen resistance growing to the point of conflict in a world in which corporate greed is so commonplace, it’s no longer surprising to anyone. The journalistic notion of ‘fairness’ didn’t come in to play exactly. In fact, the book shows that journalistic fairness (which has shielded the gas industry from accountability) isn’t as socially useful as a crusading journalistic organization is. Much of that issue is covered in the preface to the book. But 40+ years in the industry has proven to me that we need more truth in reporting and less willingness to bow to corporations. We also need to say when a lie is a lie. The characters and newspaper in The Fracking War are not shy about exposing the truth - even if it has political and fiscal consequences.
OT: A group of characters in this book, concerned citizens, take matters into their own hands, following the lead of Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang. Are you an advocate of monkey-wrenching? When is it justified? When does it go too far? Do you think that as the planet spins further into peril, the line that divides acceptable from unacceptable action in defense of the environment is shifting?
MF: Hydrofracking itself is arguably the most environmentally disastrous technology in use today. It also been given encouragement by the federal government through exemptions from virtually all environmental laws. What other industry is given such a huge get-out-of-jail free card? It’s as if the food industry was allowed to be unregulated with only industry promises to ensure our daily meals are safe. And hydrofracking is insidious because it is so spread out. Unless you live fairly close to one of these wells, you have no idea what a disaster they create with water and air pollution, traffic, noise. So, is monkey-wrenching ok? I couldn’t do it myself. But I can understand - and the characters in the book demonstrate - that sometimes it becomes a moral imperative and a tool to protect families and lives.
OT: The protagonist in this novel, Jack Stafford, is a veteran investigative reporter from California who moves to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York to work for a newspaper. As it happens, you too are a veteran investigative reporter from California who spends a great deal of time in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York where you write a weekly column for the Finger Lakes Times. How much did you borrow from your own life to create Jack Stafford?
MF: A lot of the newspaper jargon, intrigue, newsroom background certainly came from my experiences. But I am not Jack Stafford, though more than a few people would like me to write columns with the same brassy tone as he does. Jack’s character is what I wish more journalists were like. I only know a couple of journalists still working in mainstream media who have his courage and willingness to take on tough issues. Ironically, in 2014 if a reporter asks three questions, he or she is lauded as an ‘investigative reporter.’ When I started in the business in the mid 1970s, that was the floor, not the ceiling of being a journalist.
OT: You’ve spent almost forty years working as a successful journalist. Is fiction writing something you have always wanted to try or is it a relatively recent interest? What was the impetus for you to make this creative effort?
MF: Like most novelists, I have other novels - three in fact - that are nearly complete, written during the last 10 years. I have wanted to publish a novel for years. But it was hydrofracking and the arrogance of the energy companies that gave me the push to complete The Fracking War. The idea from the book was sparked by an incident at a winery not unlike the one in the book.
OT: If the goal is to educate an ill-informed, or misinformed, public about dangers of fracking (or any other social or environmental threat for that matter), how do the vehicles of fiction and journalism compare in effectiveness? Is there a freedom of opinion or candor that you have as a fiction writer that you do not have as a journalist? To flip the coin over, is there a concern that a fictive treatment of the issue will exact some cost in credibility that you might otherwise be able claim in a respected magazine or newspaper?
MF: Traditional journalism is ill-equipped to describe this phenomenon, particularly as most print publications have suffered such budget cuts and loss of staff that they are easy to spook as an alpaca. In The Fracking War, the characters didn’t have to go ask a gas company spokesman if his company was complicit in the death of a child. As the narrator, I simply showed that the company was the culprit - and how they would deny, deny, deny. That, by the way, is the modus operandi of all these industrial outfits. Just say ‘wasn’t us,’ and move on. As to credibility, well, I wrote fiction based on everyday headlines. Fracking fluid spills, deliberate dumping, pollution, graft - and many other matters - I pulled from current events as I was writing. There is a school shooting in the book with a gas industry connection, for example. And the final scene is the book is an extrapolation of a scenario I heard described at a legislative hearing in New York.
OT: Can you explain your path to publishing The Fracking War? As someone already well connected with people in the newspaper and magazine publishing business, did you find the book-publishing establishment readily accessible and interested in what you had to offer or did you have to go through the same protracted hard-sell wooing of the industry gatekeepers that typifies the experience of new novelists?
MF: The publishing of The Fracking War was a nightmare - at first. I had an agent lined up and was headed on a traditional publishing path. Then a friend (who was using the same agent) had an experience with the editing of her book I will only describe as ‘horrendous,’ which made me balk at any getting into any contractual relationship. So, I was on my own and looking for representation. Finding an agent is almost impossible. But a month later I was in Halifax, Canada at a WOTS conference (Words on the Street), which links Canadian publishers and writers. A session on self-publishing convinced me in less than 15 minutes that I could job out everything and say adios to the traditional model. My connections in the newspaper business were only mildly helpful at getting book reviews published. I was surprised. But upon reflection, it’s obvious few newspapers are doing book reviews at all anymore. Plus, my book has been described as “too political” by a few editors who have read the book. I think those editors are mostly interested in pleasing their advertising departments and gas company advertisers.
OT: How was your experience with Kickstarter and would you recommend it to other writers looking for a way to bring their writing into the world?
MF: Kickstarter was fabulous. And the idea came from the WOTS conference. For my campaign, it was mostly about having people pre-order copies of the book. But it also was a great promotional tool for the novel. My only caution to writers would be to set a reasonable amount as your goal. Aside from that, be clever in your rewards. I still have people asking for a ‘Fracking War’ t-shirt.
OT: Now that you have published a novel, are you inclined to keep writing fiction?
MF: My second novel, Fracking Justice, is nearly complete. I expect to have it in the hands of beta readers Dec. 1 with a mid-2015 publication date. I am shopping for an agent - but not very hard. I will probably launch another Kickstarter campaign instead. I have people already trying to pre-order a copy.
OT: For all of those journalists out there who have always toyed with the idea of writing a book, what was the most challenging obstacle you faced in transitioning from journalist to novelist? What surprised you the most about the process? Are there habits or processes that you have developed as a journalist that you found maladaptive to writing long form fiction?
MF: The transition wasn’t as hard for me as it might be for someone who has never attempted fiction. When I did graduate work in the mid 1980s, I took two courses in fiction writing. They were the most difficult courses I took because I was so acculturated to needing attribution for anything that came close to opinion. But it helped me find my voice - or more specifically, how to give characters a voice. A word about characters: They don’t always do what you want them to do in fiction. You set up a perfectly reasonable scenario but they won’t follow the plan to the outcome. I had a character die in The Fracking War and his sudden death was as big a surprise to me as it was to my readers months later when the book was published. What surprised me most about the process of the drafting of The Fracking War was how quickly the words flowed when I would sit down to write. I devoted several hours each morning, trying to have 1,000 or more words added to the book. Some days I did as many as 4,000 words.
OT: Has the process of promoting your new book given you an opportunity to discuss the issues surrounding hydrofracking with people who might not otherwise be inclined to know or learn about those issues? Do you feel like you have been successful in raising the awareness?
MF: I have a good friend who has never seen a tree he didn’t want to save from the logging companies. He lives in the California Redwoods. When I first started talking about the problem of hydrofracking, he said he just didn’t have time to pay attention. He was saving trees. Then, a few weeks after my book came out and he told me he had read it, he suddenly was a rabid anti-hydrofracking activist. I seem to have awakened him to the issue.
And yes, the promotional process has been fascinating - book clubs, lectures, visits to universities. I get a lot of questions at the sessions about the accuracy of the science in the book and whether some of the things I project are real or fanciful. When I say 90 percent of it is absolutely based on reality, I usually get a gasp from the audience.
OT: Remind us where we can find and purchase The Fracking War.
MF: The Fracking War is available through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Ithaca, NY, Oberlin, Ohio and in wineries and restaurants in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. A signed copy (with an inscription) can be ordered directly by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting the author website, authormichaelfitzgerald.com
OT: Michael Fitzgerald, thanks so much for the book and for this interview with OT Fiction. We are looking forward to your next release on this important issue. In the meantime, all continued success with The Fracking War.