Kate Brandes’ debut novel, The Promise of Pierson Orchard, offers an unflinching look at the choices we make—from the ways we impact the very ground we walk on to seismic tremors that reverberate through our relationships. As the Pierson family struggles with environmental damage due to fracking in their small Pennsylvania town, they must also grapple with the fractures caused by a lifetime of secrets.
How did The Promise of Pierson Orchard come to you?
I’m interested in stories about complicated families and relationships. I’ve worked as an environmental scientist my whole life, so I learned about fracking early on. It captured my imagination right away and I saw many possible conflicts that could be explored in a novel between characters with different agendas. As I was first thinking about this story, I was taken with the idea of how fracking might serve as a metaphor for a fractured family.
My family is descended from Welsh immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania coal country because that landscape and lifestyle was familiar. My grandfather mined coal. I spent much of my youth in a rural area and early in my adult life I lived on a dairy farm. Farmers and the land are intertwined by necessity. So I wanted to write about that bond and it’s why I chose an orchard as the story setting.
Your book paints a fairly balanced picture of why communities make this choice to allow fracking. What did you need to learn about fracking? What did you need to learn about the economy of rural Pennsylvania?
I did some formal research and visited some small towns where fracking was taking place, but mostly I drew from my own experiences.
I have a graduate degree in geology and worked in that profession for a number of years on groundwater contamination and supply problems in the subsurface. So I understand what happens underground with rock, fractures, and water.
From the time I was in middle school, I lived in a small rural Pennsylvania town, much like the one portrayed in the novel. Most places in Pennsylvania where fracking occurs were former coal towns that are rural and struggling. That’s where the shale gas is. There’s a culture of resource extraction in these places from the coal mining days. There’s also a long farming history in many of these places that’s developed how people feel about the land they own.
When fracking became an issue, I’d moved from rural Pennsylvania to a growing urban community removed from where fracking was taking place. Even so, a lot of people talked about it and almost everyone I spoke with had a negative opinion about fracking for various reasons. But one thing is also true: they didn’t have to make a choice about allowing fracking on their land to make a living wage or to give their kids a chance at a better life. So in the novel I wanted to, in part, explore the gray areas of the fracking issue from a rural perspective, which I think is often missed or misrepresented in media.
Jack and LeeAnn are the type of characters a reader can really invest in. They really face some tough choices both together and alone. What did it take for you to put them in such difficult predicaments?
I think any good story is in some ways about how much courage the characters exhibit when all seems lost. So I asked myself as I was writing, what are the most difficult set of circumstances I can create for my characters so they will have to show their mettle. Characters reveal who they really are -- just like we all do – when their backs are pressed to the wall and the only way out is through incredible personal courage. They’re either going to risk everything to get what they really need or they’re not.
This is your first novel; what has your journey as a writer been so far?
I’ve worked most of my life as an environmental scientist, not as a writer, so when I started this book eight years ago, I had no idea how to tell a story. It took me a long time to figure that out, or at least enough to tell this story. I now see writing as a lifelong apprenticeship. That said, I’m at work on my second novel and feel like I’m starting on better footing.