September 1, 2010
Breaking in a New Role
With her first novel about to hit the bookstands, Sam Brannan blends mining with writing — and a little industry public relations.
By Therese Dunphy, Editor-in-Chief
When trying to shape community opinion about a controversial issue, conventional wisdom suggests putting a face to the issue. And that’s just what new author Sam Brannan, vice president of corporate development for Pete Lien & Sons, has done in her debut novel, “In the Belly of Jonah.”
The book, the first in a series, features Liv Bergen, a mining division president running a Fort Collins, Colo., limestone operation. That mine serves as the setting for a number of scenes throughout the book, and Brannan educates readers about various aspects of mining by weaving details into the narrative. “The primary interest I had was to make it a very fast and easy read that got the reader interested in the protagonist while subtly — very, very subtly — teaching them about our industry,” she says.
In one of the opening scenes, the character describes the precision of the blast holes, including the safety aspects of the preparations. As the foreman counts down the blast on the site’s radio system, the character notes: I counted down the rest of the way, and at precisely one second past zero, the ground rumbled, dust puffed, and rock crumbled as if Mother Earth had simply made a polite cough.
Brannan writes what she knows and highlights blasting because it is not only what she considers one of the most fun aspects of mining, but also one of the most misunderstood. “When people hear the word ‘blast,’ it just sounds so destructive. I was just trying to find a way to say that it isn’t at all,” she says. “With the technology that exists in our industry, it’s so precise. I was trying to capture it in a really soft way that isn’t the big bang that most people think.”
An ancillary character in the book, Jill Brannigan, is a college athlete who interns at the mine during summer break. Through the character, Brannan describes the physical nature of the work, but also showcases the employment opportunities in the field. “I was lucky to have a father who was very insistent that all of us who wanted to participate in the family business had to work from the ground up,” she says. “We had to start on the front line and work our way through the company, then we had to go out and find a job somewhere else for five years so we could bring back outside knowledge. That’s when we were qualified to apply for a job here.”
Having worked her way through the various positions in the company, Brannan says that she wanted to show that it could be done, and done well. In fact, when the Equal Opportunity Commission conducted a demographic study at Pete Lien & Sons, it found that the company outperformed the communities in which it operates in every category except with women in front line positions. Typically, they were quickly promoted and didn’t remain in those positions for very long. “It’s hard to get women to apply for those (front line) jobs,” Brannan adds. “This is kind of a shout out to those women that this is a fun industry. Try it, you may like it. Those who try it usually do like it and do very well.”
Reclamation requirements are also woven into the story. The protagonist talks about how soon the land being mined will be reclaimed and talks about the bonding requirements she deals with as a company executive. Environmental issues were a big part of Brannan’s daily routine when she worked in Colorado, where many people relocate to enjoy the state’s natural beauty. “There seems to be a misconception about mining conflicting with that,” Brannan explains. “I’ve always believed that mining enhances it. I consider the miners of the world — those who are reclaiming — to be true environmentalists. The definition of environmentalism isn’t passive use. It is active use enhancing what natural resources are out there and leaving it in as good or better condition than we found it.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the mining aspects of the book held great appeal for Brannan’s publisher, and that aspect is being fostered throughout the series. “Originally, the protagonist started in the mining industry and moved into the FBI very quickly,” Brannan says. “I was trying to be very subtle, and they wanted to put it right up front.
“I just didn’t think anybody would be interested in mining. In fact, I thought people might be a little put off by it,” she adds. “What I found was that people who aren’t familiar with the mining industry are intrigued by it. That’s good news. It means that all of my peers and the people in the industry have done a great job changing the image of the industry that was prevalent 20 years ago.”
Since receiving a positive reaction to the mining angle from her publisher, Brannan has rewritten many of the subsequent stories in the Liv Bergen series to include other types of mining. The second novel is set in an iron mine in the Black Hills, and Brannan says that mining equipment takes the center stage in terms of the industry’s role in the story. To date, she’s written nine books and is not yet finished with her character’s storyline, but will wait to see how the first novel is received before publishing the remaining novels. The book can be found in major airport and independent book stores this month. It is also available in electronic format for download.
In the meantime, Brannan plans to continue her work in the mining industry. “If I could write the perfect scenario for how this would end, it would be that I can continue to quietly do my job here in Rapid City, S.D., and help out in the mining industry in the capacity I am in now,” Brannan says. “And, as… a hobby, I’d get these books out there in wide enough circulation that it makes a difference.” AM