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Anywhere But Schuylkill

Author Michael Dunn brings gripping 19th-century American history alive

Anywhere But Schuylkill

In 1877 Pennsylvania, twenty Irish coal miners hanged for a terrorist conspiracy that never occurred. Anywhere But Schuylkill is the story of one who escaped, Mike Doyle, a teenager trying to keep his family alive during the worst depression the nation has ever faced. Banks and railroads are going under. Children are dying of hunger. The Reading Railroad has slashed wages and hired Pinkerton spies to infiltrate the miners’ union. And there is a sectarian war between rival gangs. But none of this compares with the threat at home.

I’m happy to welcome author Michael Dunn to the blog today as he takes us behind the scenes of this fascinating tale.

AM: What’s the tagline or ‘elevator pitch’ for your book?

MD: In 1877, twenty Irish coal miners hanged for a terrorist conspiracy that never occurred. Anywhere But Schuylkill is the story of one who escaped, Mike Doyle, a teenaged coal miner struggling to find a new home for his family before his alcoholic uncle kills one of his siblings. The time is the 1870s. The Long Depression is raging. Children are dying of hunger. The Reading Railroad has hired Pinkerton spies to infiltrate the miners’ union. And there is a sectarian war between the Modocs, a Welsh gang, and the Kohinoor Boys, an Irish gang. But Mike has a plan. It’s a risky plan. It involves collaboration with the Kohinoor Boys. And a secret romance with the gang leader’s daughter. And choices that become increasingly desperate and morally questionable. He knows he could wind up in jail. Or worse.

AM: How did you come up with the idea for your book?

MD: Originally, I intended to write about a little-known piece of American history called the Great Upheaval, a massive strike wave that erupted in the summer of 1877, during the Long Depression. It started with the railroad men of Martinsburg, West Virginia, and spread quickly to Baltimore, and Pittsburgh, where much of downtown was burned to the ground. They completely halted rail traffic. Miners, mill workers, and others joined them. Militias mutinied and fraternized with the strikers. It spread from New York to Louisiana, and west, to California. There were uprisings in several towns. Armories were looted. Nationwide, at least 100 people were killed by police and national guards. Plenty of excitement for a great work of historical fiction, but far too much to cover in a single novel. So, I decided to write a series, the Great Upheaval Trilogy. And as I did the research, I discovered that just weeks before the Great Upheaval began, twenty innocent Irish miners were hanged in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania—ten in a single day. It was the second largest mass execution in U.S. history. They were convicted of murder, accused of being terrorists from a secret organization called the Molly Maguires. Dozens were imprisoned. All were union activists. Some even held public office, as sheriffs and school board members. 

AM: How did you create a realistic setting for your story?

MD: Lots of research. But I also relied on a basic algorithm: always try to include vivid and believable sensory details for every scene (e.g., looks, smells, sounds, feel?). I also relied a lot on historical maps to help me feel how my settings looked back in the day. Fortunately, there are a lot of gearheads out there recreating period machinery, like donkey engines and fire engines, and you can see and hear these things on Youtube.

AM: Do your research findings guide the plot, or do you plan out the plot first and flesh it out with research? (Or perhaps both?) 

MD: It was a little of both. As I described earlier, my research forced me to change the focus of my book and, consequently, the plot. And it led to interesting discoveries that contributed to the new plot. But once I settled on the plot, most further research was focused on making that story as accurate and believable as possible.

AM: Name three historical facts or events that helped bring your main character to life.

MD: Breaker boys (kids age 8-12) who worked in the coal breakers, where the coal was crushed and cleaned. Their job was to pick out the impurities, like slate and rocks. They worked 10–12-hour days, six days a week, for pennies. It was dangerous, gloomy work. 

And mule boys and mule drivers, who cared for the mules, or who drove mule carts full of coal from the mine shaft to the breaker. My main character, Mike Doyle, and his friends had these two jobs.

The legend of the Molly Maguires, Irish terrorists who supposedly threatened and murdered mine owners. However, my research found that there really isn’t any solid evidence that this organization existed in the U.S. and such claims were based on the testimony of Allan Pinkerton, and his spies, who were hired by the mine owners to disrupt and sabotage the miners’ union.

AM: Do you completely plan out your cast of characters before writing, or do you sometimes add new characters as you go along? What are some of the reasons you’ve added new characters to a story? 

MD: Anywhere But Schuylkill was my first serious complete novel. And I really had no idea what I was doing when I started. To be honest, my earliest work on the novel consisted of short character studies of people I created who seemed like plausible characters from the era and setting. In the end, I had to kill a lot of really great characters, either because they didn’t help move the plot along or support the emotional arcs of the other characters, or because there were just too many characters. As I started work on the sequel, however, I was much more methodical. I considered what the story required and created characters to serve those needs before I started writing the actual story.

AM: What do you have planned for your next writing project?

MD: I’m currently working on the sequel, Red Hot Summer in the Big Smoke, which features Mike Doyle’s kid sister, Tara, as the protagonist.

AM: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

MD: I like to read, cook, hike, surf, hang out with my teenage son, and play with my cats.

Where to buy the book

Universal Buy Link: https://books2read.com/u/496Ag0

Historium Press: https://www.thehistoricalfictioncompany.com/it/michael-dunn

About the Author

Michael Dunn writes Working-Class Fiction from the Not So Gilded Age. Anywhere But Schuylkill is the first in his Great Upheaval trilogy. A lifelong union activist, he has always been drawn to stories of the past, particularly those of regular working people, struggling to make a better life for themselves and their families. 

Stories most people do not know, or have forgotten, because history is written by the victors, the robber barons and plutocrats, not the workers and immigrants. Yet their stories are among the most compelling in America. They resonate today because they are the stories of our own ancestors, because their passions and desires, struggles and tragedies, were so similar to our own. 

When Michael Dunn is not writing historical fiction, he teaches high school, and writes about labor history and culture.

Author Links:

Website: https://michaeldunnauthor.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MikeDunnAuthor

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Michael.Dunn.Fiction

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/michaeldunnauthor/

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/stores/Michael-Dunn/author/B0CJXGQYZ8 

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/45063197.Michael_Dunn

2 Comments

  1. Cathie Dunn says:

    Thank you for hosting Michael Dunn today, with such a fascinating interview about the background to Anywhere But Schuylkill.

    Take care,
    Cathie xo
    The Coffee Pot Book Club

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      Always a pleasure, Cathie!

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