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BC grad, Barnesboro native, Jennifer (Wasilko) Haigh, captured the essence of her Western Pa. roots

From Cresson Lake Playhouse to best-selling author

… had to deal with some rejection along the way

How she captured the essence of the coal mining communities of Western Pennsylvania fascinated me as I read first read “Baker Towers” and “Heat and Light.” Truth be told, I had never heard of Jennifer Haigh or even Jennifer Wasilko until a number of years ago when I read a story about a Northern Cambria native becoming a successful writer.

I then bought the two books I listed above along with “Mrs. Kimble” and am now starting to read “Mercy Street,” the latest one that is not set in Pa. but deals with the controversial topic of abortion.

What she captures so well is the essence of coal country in Western Pa., along with the characters who inhabit those areas and must live with the roller-coaster emotional and financial challenges of that background. How she was able to capture so well the bars of the area and those who spent so much time in them is fascinating and is captured so well in “Heat and Light.”


Dr. Kirk Weixel, then a professor of English and now emeritus at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa., explained in 2005 how the Barnesboro native managed to use her homeland to create some intense narratives that have captured the attention of readers and critics nationwide,

Haigh, who set her second novel in fictional Bakerton, a community similar to Barnesboro, Spangler, and other mining towns in the region, spent her formative years in an environment rich in culture and language that served as fodder for much of the material in the book.

She was Jennifer Wasilko then, and in the years that she lived in Cambria County, she took careful note of its people and the patterns of their lives.

She comes from a family of storytellers, and Haigh listened well when her mother and aunts got together. What she heard eventually helped her to create the people in the novel.

Haigh describes the characters in "Baker Towers" as "part invention and part composites of relatives, neighbors, and people I've only heard about."

Barnesboro, with its strong Eastern European heritage, also supplied Haigh with plenty of sensory detail:

The accents of her grandparents, the aroma of kielbasa, sauerkraut and pierogi after funerals and weddings and at church festivals and the beauty of the icons and Cyrillic script at the local Ukrainian Catholic church.

Kirk Weixel, “Hometown is ingrained in Haigh and her novels,”

Post-Gazette, January 15, 2005

How did she become so interested in stories? It was not just the story-tellers that were so much a part of her life in her early years.

Cresson Lake Playhouse

Six years ago, Haigh returned to a locus that both fascinated her as a teenagers and later propelled her to success later in life. After the publication of “Heat and Light” in 2016, an intense story about a community’s devastation by coal and then fracking decades later, she held a reading at the Cresson Lake Playhouse.

Now living in the Boston area, she explained how important the playhouse had been in her maturation into a story-teller,

Haigh, a Northern Cambria native, credits Cresson Lake Playhouse with her success; she was 15 when she helped stage “Death on the Nile.”

“It really was the high point of my high school,” said the 1986 graduate of Bishop Carroll High School. “My experiences at Cresson Lake led me to where I am today.”

Haigh also credits her parents – a high school librarian and an English teacher – with giving her a deep love of reading, which led to a deep love for writing.

“I’ve always written,” she said. “I didn’t think it was something I would make a career of. It is something I would do even if I didn’t get published” …

“The novel is set in a town which is very much based on the town that I grew up in,” the coal-mining borough once known as Barnesboro, she said.

“CLP event features novelist, playwright,” Altoona Mirror, August 13, 2016

Her first rejection — from a professor/writer

After graduating from Bishop Carroll in 1986, Wasilko enrolled at Dickinson College in Carlisle, but her major was not English or writing. Still, she learned from a writer and professor who made her live life a little more before embarking upon her career. In fact, she experience life on many levels before seriously becoming a writer,

At Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., she joined the Mermaid theater troupe, which produced two of her plays.

"As a young writer, I learned a lot about grammatical structure from reading plays, from performing the plays. I think that was a wonderful apprenticeship," she says.

Although Haigh majored in French and minored in history and philosophy at Dickinson, she took fiction workshops at the college from Robert Olmstead, who taught her to write fiction by reading broadly.

When she asked him to recommend her for admission to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he refused on the premise that she hadn't written enough.

"This is the greatest service that anyone has ever rendered me," she says. "I needed to write more. It would have really been a disaster for me to go at 21 years old."

Instead of attending graduate school, she "did everything."

"I traveled. I lived a little bit," says Haigh. "I got married, got divorced, did other kinds of work, filled up my tank with things to write about."

Haigh went to France on a Fulbright Scholarship, cleaned offices at night in Tampa, Fla., and taught yoga to gambling addicts. By the mid-1990s she had secured a job as the only female staff writer for Men's Health magazine, where she turned out articles with titles such as "50 Tiny Things You Do That Turn a Man into Mush."

Kirk Weixel, “Hometown is ingrained in Haigh and her

novels,” Post-Gazette, January 15, 2005

Writing for Men’s Health? Not exactly the road that F. Scott Fitzgerald or Edith Wharton followed. Nevertheless, it led her to evaluate her life and finally take a step that helped her become a serious writer.

Iowa Writer’s Workshop and her MFA

The quest to Iowa, where so many writers have learned from great mentors, eventually came to fruition for Haigh, finally earning a Masters in Fine Arts, the graduate degree that she had eluded in her immediate post-college years,

At 30 she took a good look at her life and enrolled in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where workshop director Frank Conroy "shamed" Haigh, as she puts it, into writing very good prose.

Among other things, he broke her of the habit of writing "really lame dialogue," she said.

Since graduation, the acceptance letters for short stories and novels have been steadily arriving.

"Mrs. Kimble" won the PEN/Hemingway Award last April for a distinguished first book of fiction. "Baker Towers" has been featured by Book of the Month Club, and Joseph-Beth Booksellers.

Kirk Weixel, Post-Gazette, January 15, 2005

Confronting fracking

The novel that I thought best epitomized Western Pa. for me was “Heat and Light.” She explained how she decided to confront that topic, one that is more recent in the old coal country of that area,

While Haigh now lives near Boston, she frequently returns to Western Pennsylvania in her critically acclaimed fiction, such as the 2005 novel Baker Towers and the 2013 short-story collection News From Heaven.

The advent of hydrofracturing for natural gas — fracking — brought Haigh back again. Her stellar new novel, Heat & Light (Ecco), tracks a large and diverse cast of complex, flawed characters through the first years of fracking in fictional Bakerton.

They range from a gas-company leasing agent and a prison guard hoping to cash in on drilling to a lesbian dairy farmer and her partner; an environmental activist; the Texas-based head of a drilling firm; and the prison guard’s wife, who fears fracking’s health impacts. Money gets made; water gets contaminated; and relationships are threatened …

Whatever personal feelings I have about fracking were constantly changing as I wrote this book. It’s the magic of point of view. As a fiction writer, you inhabit one character at a time, and you see the world through that person’s eyes. … So the sections I wrote from the point of view of Kip the Whip, the CEO of the gas company, I’m looking at the world through his eyes, and I’m suspending any other judgments and contradictory views I might have. … And that happened again and again because there are so many points of view in this novel …

People in Boston — to a one, every person I’ve talked to here — thinks fracking is a terrible idea. It’s an environmental disaster waiting to happen; why would any community ever consent to that? When I go back home, people see it in black-and-white terms also, but they look at it from the other side: “Well, if I have this piece of land, and I’m not doing anything with it, and someone’s going to pay me a lot of money, and I get to keep the land, why would I not do it?”

Bill O’Driscoll, “A Conversation with Novelist Jennifer Haigh,”

Pittsburgh City Paper, May 18, 2016

Pursue your dreams

Jennifer Wasilko graduated from Dickinson in 1990 and then earned her MFA in 2002. By 2003, she had written her first novel, “Mrs. Kimble,” and her career took off from there. She has won many awards, and her books have been published into eighteen languages.

She won a Fulbright Scholarship in her younger years and became a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow in 2018.

However, in so many of her early works, she captures the essence of the land in which she was born and matured into a young woman.

Young people should continue to be taught to dream. They should never think that success is impossible because they were born and raised in small towns and attended small high schools. Jennifer (Wasilko) Haigh is an example of how hard work and diligence and love can lead to tremendous accomplishments.

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