An interview with Natalie S. Harnett about her first novel, The Hollow Ground, set amongst the deadly coal mine fires of 1960s Pennsylvania
Q. How did you come up with the idea for The Hollow Ground?
When I started The Hollow Ground, all I knew was that I wanted it set in Carbondale, PA and I wanted it told from the perspective of a young girl. I was also very interested in telling the story of what happened to Carbondale once the coal mines shut down. It took me many months to nail the young girl's voice, but once I did the writing took off. So at first the plot was more a process of discovery than planning. It wasn't until I learned about the Carbondale mine fire and knew I also wanted to tell the story of that fire that I wrote an outline and began the first draft of what would eventually become The Hollow Ground.
Q. This is a story about an environmental disaster that happened over fifty years ago. How does that have any relevance for today?
I think all the current controversy over fracking and oil drilling makes it especially relevant. It's a story about family and survival, but it's also a cautionary tale about what happens when we delve underground.
Q. The book is set in the early 1960s before you were born, in an area where you've never lived, yet there's a striking authenticity to the novel's time and place. Can you talk about the type of research you did?
Much of my research was done by interviewing people, mostly women, who were adults in the early sixties. I'd ask specific questions about things like the clothes and furniture, but I'd also ask about social customs and world views. I spoke mostly to women because I was interested in knowing what their grandmothers and mothers were like and what types of relationships they had with them. Their answers helped to form the characters of Gram and Ma as well as give me lots of historical details to use in the book.
In terms of researching the mine fire in the city of Carbondale, I did most of that through the Carbondale and Lackawanna Historical Societies. I was also able to view photos of the mine fire online because several people whose families had lived through it had posted them. There were quite a few books I read about Pennsylvania coal miners and mine fires. I've also visited mines and countless towns devastated by the closing of coal mines, and I often drew on those real life experiences for description and inspiration.
Q. Was there anything that you learned during your research that surprised you?
I was blown away when I found out about the priest who was rumored to have cursed the town of Centralia, PA in the mid-1800s. The story goes that this priest had been speaking out against the Molly Maguires (a secret, violent group of coal miners) and, in revenge, three of the Mollies attacked him. Apparently, this priest then cursed the entire town, saying that in one hundred years not a single building would stand. Amazingly, this curse has pretty much come true due to the mine fires burning beneath Centralia.
When I read that, it made me wonder about the descendants of those Mollies. Most likely some of them still lived in the area. What would it be like if the priest had also cursed them? What would it be like to write about some of those cursed descendants? From there, Brigid Howley's cursed family was born.
Q. So once that cursed family was born, how long did it take to complete the book?
That's hard to say since my work on it was interrupted by several short stories I was trying to finish as well as by the birth of my first child! My best guess would be about 3.5 years.
Q. Wow! How did motherhood effect your writing?
One of the biggest ways was the most surprising. I never expected that it would make me far more productive. As driven as I've always been to write, having a child made me even more determined to use what little time I had. In the past, I would let myself ponder over a word or sentence for minutes or longer.
Now I either write it or leave it blank and get to it later. I write whenever and wherever I can. If I'm wasting time staring at a blank page because I'm too tired to write, then I force myself to do research or organize notesanything that would at least be somewhat productive.
But motherhood also changed my writing in that it made me a better writer. Nothing prepares you for the learning curve involved in being a new parent. I've never learned so much in such a short time under so much pressure. I have a far greater understanding of human nature and our place in the world. My toddler has not only forced me to live in the moment, but has shown me joy and love in ways I never imagined. I'm forever grateful.
Q. Sounds promising for your future work. Speaking of which, what's next? I've just started a novel inspired by my great grandmother and her indentured servant, both of whom emigrated from the Netherlands under shady circumstances. The tone and voice of the book are very different from The Hollow Ground. I miss Brigid's voice, but it's also exciting to do something so different.
Interview conducted by Dr. Ezra Cappell, Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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