Drink to Every Beast
The whole six degrees of separation thing was fully in play when I met Joel Burcat, a friend of a friend and an environmental lawyer like me who also writes environmental thrillers — like me. Burcat worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (PADEP) as an Assistant Attorney General before moving into private practice (while I still work for a regulatory agency). So many similarities! An interview was in order.
Burcat started writing fiction in 2008, publishing short stories in Euphony Journal (University of Chicago’s lit journal), the Montreal Review, Hobo Pancakes, Kaleidoscope, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Ragnarok, and Harrisburg Magazine. He’s also received recognition for his short stories: ScreenCraft Short Story Contest for Excellence and Cinematic Potential (Semi-Finalist, 2017; Quarter-Finalist, 2017 and 2016); and Valhalla Press Legal Professionals Writing Contest (Honorable Mention, 2013).
We’ve already established that Burcat’s favorite genre is the environmental legal thriller, but there aren’t that many out there so Joel took it upon himself to write one. To that end, Headline Books published his first novel, a DRINK TO EVERY BEAST (release date May 31, 2019) about murder and midnight dumping. Oh, and there’s a love story in there, too.
Burcat grew up in Philadelphia and is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University and Vermont Law School. He has two grown daughters and a granddaughter, and lives with his wife, Gail, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the setting for many of his stories.
Here’s a synopsis of the novel (imagine flashing lights and lots of fanfare):
Synopsis for Drink to Every Beast
Peter and Cindy, youthful lovers, suffer horrific deaths after accidentally swimming in chemicals dumped in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River in Luzerne County. Hours later, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) lawyer Mike Jacobs and inspector Charlie Zelinsky are on the scene to conduct a preliminary investigation. They are followed by disgraced, former DEP lawyer Tom Flynn, who claims to be conducting his own “people’s investigation.” Flynn suggests that the culprit is Big Bill McClatchy, the unscrupulous owner of a local truck stop.
After Mike and senior DEP lawyer Roger Alden begin their investigation, Mike is introduced to the smart and seductive Sherry Stein at a lunch in Harrisburg, and they hit it off immediately. Sherry, an accomplished prosecutor in the Attorney General’s Office is working on an investigation of the charity operated by the wife of the Governor’s election opponent, the DA of Luzerne County, and she suspects the DA may be involved. Sherry and Mike’s relationship takes a steamy turn of events, but it also appears that Sherry is spying on Mike.
Roger sends Mike back to Luzerne County to begin the investigation and while there Mike falls into a relationship with the beautiful girl-next-door Patty Dixon. Patty is Mike’s mother’s nurse in the local nursing home. Patty is also being stalked by her psychotic former boyfriend, Greg Domarski, who is the father of her ten-year-old daughter.
Mike, Roger and Zelinsky meet with a number of confidential informants, not aware that they too are being watched.
Their lives intersect. Danger strikes–who will die? Will Mike discover the treachery before the midnight dumper kills again?
Sounds intriguing Joel. I guess it’s time for a few questions:
While the field of environmental law is growing, there weren’t that many of us when I started practicing law a few decades ago. Did you always do environmental work or did you start out in some other kind of law. How does your work impact your writing?
I decided to become an environmental lawyer in 1974, when I was studying physical geography at Penn State. I needed to select a major and my professor suggested that geography would be a great way to prepare for a career as an environmental lawyer. That sounded interesting. He was right. I sought out environmental law programs and selected Vermont Law School as it had one of the only environmental law programs in the country at the time. Also, it was in Vermont. My first job was as an Assistant Attorney General for the Pa. Dept. of Environmental Resources. After I left DER I worked in private practice as an environmental lawyer. I have always been an environmental lawyer. My favorite genre in which to write is environmental legal thrillers, so my background greatly informs my writing.
How long have you been writing? Were you formally trained? What’s your writing routine?
I have written since college and took several writing courses back then. Once I became a lawyer, I found I was too busy with 60 to 80-hour weeks to write. In 1994, I did write a short story that was published about turning 40. I became serious about writing when I wrote two short stories in July 2008. Eventually, both were published. I have taken a number of courses and attended conferences over the past decade on writing.
When I was practicing law (I retired due to a visual disability in 2018), after my day job I would head up to my writing room and write from about 8 pm until midnight. Since retiring, I write starting in the morning. With DRINK TO EVERY BEAST coming out, for the past several months my time has been consumed with the business of books.
I write for as long as I feel like writing, then I may take a break or call it a day/night.
What is your favorite type of book to read?
Thrillers. My reading tastes are pretty eclectic and I read all kinds of fiction. My all-time favorite writer was Philip Roth. I enjoy the work of Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon, and others. My favorite current short story writers are Annie Proulx and Nathan Englander.
What’s your favorite book and who’s your favorite author?
Tough questions. Favorite author is Philip Roth. PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT by Roth was both groundbreaking and taught writers to let go of your inhibitions, maybe to pretend that everyone you know is dead so you do not hold back in your writing. He wrote a number of terrific books. The scariest and most disturbing book I’ve read was THE ROAD by McCarthy. He’s written great books (ALL THE PRETTY HORSES is one of my favorites). Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION was one of the most inventive books I have ever read. Among thriller writers, I enjoy Steve Berry, Thomas Harris (edge of your seat writing with Hannibal Lecter), Elmore Leonard, James Dickey, James Lee Burke (his NEON RAIN is masterful), Harlen Coben, and, of course, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline and John Grisham (his SYCAMORE ROW is terrific). There are so many other great writers, I hate to limit myself
Ah, The Road terrified me, so much that I couldn’t see the movie with Viggo Mortensen — who I adore — but I knew I could never unsee it so I refrained. I think McCarthy can’t paint a picture bleaker than even George Orwell — an amazing skill for a writer — but one wonders if that’s the kind of stuff that normally goes on in McCarthy’s head. Speaking of, where do you get your ideas?
Some ideas come from cases I have read or worked on. DRINK TO EVERY BEAST was very loosely based on the Butler Mine Tunnel case (I only based it on the idea that dumpers were dumping toxic waste into a borehole behind a garage that emptied, eventually, into the Susquehanna River). Some of my work comes from snippets from my career. I once interviewed a guy who lived in the woods in a mobile home. That interview became the basis for an interview of a confidential informant in DTEB. Most ideas are purely imagination.
Do you think writing is a form of therapy and, if so, has it helped you work through anything in particular? What has been your greatest writing lesson? Life lesson?
Writing enables me to go somewhere that I might not visit. I do not write a chapter and say, “I feel better now.” I’m sure that is the case for some writers, but not me. My greatest writing lesson is: “Just write.” Stop fooling around, procrastinating, and just write.
Life lesson: you can overcome any obstacle in your path.
My perfect writing day is to make a good cup of coffee, start writing early, and break (work in the garden or take a walk). Repeat.
Do you have a day job and, if so, when do you write?
Until 2018, I worked as a full-time partner at a law firm. Since I had a day-job, I limited my writing to after 8 pm and Sundays (I do not write on Saturdays/Shabbat. As Walter Sobchak announces on THE BIG LEBOWSKI, “I don’t roll on Shabbos.”). I did most of my writing at night, after 8 or 9 pm. Now I am able to write during the day. I get started no later than the very civilized hour of 9 am. I am thinking about writing earlier, like 6 am, but haven’t disciplined myself to do that yet on a regular basis.
If you could be a character in any novel, what character would you be and why?
I cannot tell you that. I need to have some secrets.
What’s your favorite childhood memory and did it make it into your writing?
I had a good childhood, loving parents and we lived with my maternal grandparents from the time I was 4 years old until I was 8. Great memories. I went to junior high school on Spring Garden St. in Philly (Masterman Junior High, as it was called at the time) from when I was about 12 to 14. I took a bus and train every day to get there. Lots of adventures with my buddies roaming around Philly [unattended] as a kid after school. What were my parents thinking?
Some of my life stories make it into my writing. I include snippets, imagination, and exaggerations to make up for times that were not nearly as awesome as they should have been. I write what I know much of the time. Sometimes that is impossible, but much of my writing is writing what I know.
How much research do you do before you begin a writing project?
A fair amount. The chemical phenol plays a role in DRINK TO EVERY BEAST, and I did a lot of research regarding its use and health effects. This included reading a number of ATSDR reports on a variety of chemicals, searching the internet, and interviewing two medical doctors on the health effects and treatment for phenol poisoning. My first novel (unpublished) is called WHIZ KID and is set in Philly in 1950. I did a ton of research on 1950 (which was NOT “the 1950s”), 1950 Philadelphia, and on the 1950 Phillies.
Will you stick to writing eco fiction or do you think you’ll branch out into something else.
I have a problem with the use of the term “eco-fiction.” Here is my take on the terminology (from my blog):
My novel, DRINK TO EVERY BEAST, is an environmental legal thriller. That makes it different from eco-thrillers and environmental thrillers. All are thrillers, meaning that there will be a lot of action, quick pacing, suspense, dread, excitement, surprise, anticipation and plot twists.
By definition, all three of these genres feature the environment as a central issue. To some extent, the protagonist will be trying to protect or defend some aspect of the natural environment and health of eco-systems and humans. For the most part, all feature villains, often corporations, that are much more interested in profit at the expense of the environment or human health. Nevertheless, there is district difference between the three genres.
After reading many books from all three genres, here is my guide:
Eco-thrillers. An eco-thriller is a novel in which the action involves an environmental calamity that may be world-wide in scope or that will change some significant aspect of the Earth as we know it. Often greedy corporations are the antagonists. These books are part-science fiction or speculative fiction. Often a massive calamity that shatters the norm or defies scientific principles takes place in these books (e.g. ZOO, in which all of the animals attack humans effectively taking over the Earth; RELIC, in which a monster accidently is brought back from the Amazon rain forest to the New York Academy of Science and runs amok in Manhattan killing dozens of visitors to the museum; JURASSIC PARK, in which dinosaurs are brought back to life). For quite some time, eco-thrillers have been the mainstay in the environmental thriller category. Certainly, with issues like climate change, that can wreck disastrous consequences from one end of the planet to the other, eco-thrillers are here to stay. They are now sharing the spotlight, however, with environmental thrillers and environmental legal thrillers.
Environmental thrillers. These stories deal with real-world environmental issues. Often corporations are portrayed as greedy, thoughtless villains more interested in profit than in the safety of humans, animals, or the environment. There may be no legal proceedings in the book or they may be only tangential to the story. (e.g. THE MONKEY-WRENCH GANG, in which a group of environmental activists become eco-extremists in an effort to oppose environmental degradation and offenses by callous corporations; OIL AND WATER, in which a family is nearly destroyed when a corporation tries to steal a device that makes oil from garbage). Environmental thrillers are taking more of the spotlight as current writers highlight environmental issues that have real world consequences, as opposed to science fiction-y type books.
Environmental legal thrillers: a sub-genre of legal thrillers, environmental legal thrillers try to portray both environmental harms and the legal battles associated with those harms. The legal battle is central to the story and can involve investigations, trials, and appeals of significant environmental issues. (e.g. GRAY MOUNTAIN, in which a young lawyer opposes mountaintop removal mining in western Virginia; THE PELICAN BRIEF, in which opponents are assassinated on behalf of an oil tycoon who intends to drill for oil on Louisiana marshland that is habitat for an endangered species of brown pelicans). DRINK TO EVERY BEAST is an environmental legal thriller.
My first novel (unpublished) is called WHIZ KID and is a literary story about a young man trying to decide whether he should take a risk and become a novelist or, as everyone in his family wants him to do, go into advertising. This was set in Philadelphia in 1950 and the backdrop is the World Series run of the 1950 Phillies. I have written a work of speculative fiction called LITTLE BROTHER, set about 15 years into the future, in which a local police department goes to war with the FBI. I may go back to both and have scribbled a few words of a sequel to LITTLE BROTHER.
Wow, thanks for that. I may need to change the tagline on my novel! So what do you think is the greatest thing about writing?
Easy question. That is when your characters start talking to you and telling you, almost demanding, that you write certain words and actions for them. The writer Nicole Bernier calls her characters her “imaginary friends.” When your novel writing is really humming along, your imaginary friends dictate their lines to you. That’s pretty cool.
And the final question, if you could have one superpower, what would it be?
To a certain extent, all writers who write stories about current issues have to see into the future. It is awful when you write something and then a few years later your story sounds outdated, or at best quaint. I’d like to be able to foretell the future.
Also, I wouldn’t mind being tall enough to change lightbulbs without a chair.
Good one! It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Joel. Best of luck with the book release!
Stop back on May 31st for an excerpt of Drink to Every Beast.
pam lazos. 5.16.19