Below is an interview with Sherry Knowlton, author of the successful Alexa Williams series of suspense novels: Dead of Autumn, Dead of Summer and Dead of Spring. When not writing the next Alexa Williams thriller, Knowlton works on her healthcare consulting business or travels around the world. She and her husband live in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania.
What triggered your concerns about fracking?
I’ve considered myself an environmentalist since my college days and belong to several environmental organizations. So, I’ve been following the fracking issue in material from those groups as well as the larger media. From my day job as a healthcare/Medicaid policy consultant, I’ve had a lot of interaction with Pennsylvania state government. So, I’ve also been aware of the debate around taxing the energy companies here in Commonwealth — and the contentious role that debate has played in multiple years’ state budgets.
Fracking/energy policy is not a black and white issue. Like most public policy questions, it’s complex. But, I’ve been concerned that the negative impact of fracking on people and the environment has been overshadowed by the drive for energy independence, economic growth and other drivers.
I write suspense novels, but I explore various social or political issues within each book. When I began planning Dead of Spring, I thought that using fracking questions as the backdrop for the book would be both interesting and timely.
I started Dead of Spring well before this last federal election. But, in many ways, it’s s a perfect story for these times. The new federal Administration is talking about opening up national parks and other lands to further fracking and other fossil fuel drilling. And corruption is certainly a hot topic, as well.
Where did you travel and spend time to research and gain insights for your novel?
Like my other novels, Dead of Spring, is primarily a contemporary suspense story, but there’s a parallel historical plot. The contemporary story deals with fracking and government corruption. The historical story takes place during the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in 1979. I found a lot of written material on the internet, reviewed State regulations, viewed news clips, and more. I talked to experts. One of my most useful bits of research came when I visited a landowner in northern Pennsylvania who had leased his land to an energy company for fracking. He leased in the early days of fracking in Pennsylvania and was unaware of the problems he might encounter. He shared his experience by showing me his photographs of the process that transformed his property. A beautiful woodland that step by step by step turned into an acre of gravel and machinery. Pristine drinking water that now requires constant filtering just for showers and bathing. Battles with the energy company about compensation for various problems. I also visited sites where I could view the various steps of the fracking process.
What were some of your most visceral impressions from these places?
Photos or video clips of fracking sites just hadn’t fully prepared me. I was shocked at the size of the operations, the welter of trucks, machinery, drilling equipment, road traffic, etc. I hadn’t realized the amount of land that’s lost to landowners for the ongoing pumping and associated equipment. And, there are so many acres of pipelines that snake throughout the Marcellus Shale region.
Perhaps, a short passage from Dead of Spring best describes my reaction:
When she reached the drilling site near the road, Alexa slowed. The frenzy of activity reminded her of swarming insects. The drilling rig no longer hugged the edge of the road on the curve before the forest. In its place stood a huge crane. Metal piping dangled from the steel frame, a spinning proboscis piercing the earth below. The crane looked like a giant yellow mosquito, probing for blood beneath the earth’s skin. Tractor-trailer trucks, their beds stacked high with more pipes, circled the crane like hulking cockroaches. Two crimson tank trucks moved across the scarred land, their containers swollen to bursting like sated ticks. At the far end of the gravel- covered flat, stood a pool of water. Instead of sparkling in the morning sunlight, the pond seemed to drag each bright ray into the murky depths beneath its dull and lifeless surface.
How does your novel illuminate the issues and impacts associated with fracking?
Dead of Spring is fiction – and its primary focus is to entertain, to keep readers on the edge of their seats. Within that framework, the book does provide a good bit of information about fracking: the process, the potential impact on human and animal health, some of the pros and cons from a landowner’s perspective.
Humans have communicated through story since well before the written word was invented. I think many people relate to concepts more easily when they are presented in the context of a story. In recent years, television and movies have influenced popular opinion on a number of social issues. So, I’m convinced that contemporary fiction can play just as important a role in influencing the cultural dialogue on energy and the environment. If my suspense story leads even a handful of people to consider fracking and broader environmental issues in a more thoughtful way, that would be wonderful.
What do you hope readers take away from the story?
One of the overarching themes of my work is the existence of evil – not the Biblical fire and brimstone type of evil, but the banal and destructive evil that often hides in familiar people and ideas. So, part of my message is always: be alert and aware.
But, the key thought that I’d like readers to take away from Dead of Spring is that individual (and collective) action can create change. That the force of people caring about an issue and doing something to help can create positive outcomes.
Although Dead of Spring portrays a somewhat cynical view of government, readers might be surprised to learn that I’m actually a big fan of effective government. I’ve seen the many excellent people throughout government – in all branches – who are smart, dedicated, and committed to making citizens’ lives better. I have to admit that, at the federal level and many states, the country seems to be going through a really rough patch in both effectiveness and governing philosophy. I hope we come through it unscathed.
Although activism is growing in the current climate, there aren’t enough citizens engaging with State or Federal government until something goes wrong in their own life. A pipeline is routed through their back yard. All the fish die in their favorite trout stream.
Everyone is busy. But, if more people routinely looked up from their own lives to appreciate the broader picture and engage, their collective voices could help balance the outsize influence of business and special interests. I’m hoping that Dead of Spring inspires someone to learn a little more about the bigger picture relating to fracking – and engage with their local, state or federal legislators on the issue.
Dead of Spring, published by Sunbury Press, is available in print or Kindle editions on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. The novel will be available at Whistlestop Bookshop, Mystery Bookshop, and most other on-line retailers and bookstores including Sunbury Press, Amazon and Barnes and Noble. For more information about Sherry and the Alexa Williams suspense series, visit www.sherryknowlton.com.