Set against the grim backdrop of Western Pennsylvania’s steel mills and coal mines, Tammy Pasterick’s debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is a riveting story of immigrant grit in early-20th-century America. The twisty narrative explores love, longing, duty, and mental illness gripping two immigrant Slovak families and one Slovak boy’s wealthy patroness and her husband.
Anne: How did you come up with this story? Are any of your characters based on real people?
Tammy: My story is fictional. In 2012 I was chatting with my grandmother, who lived in Western Pennsylvania, about her childhood and her family. What sparked my imagination were photos of my great-grandparents. My grandmother’s parents came from Lithuania and her in-laws came from Slovakia to work in the steel industry. I was enamored with the idea that they picked up and came to America to start a new life. It inspired me to tell a story of what it was like to immigrate to America from Eastern Europe to work in in the steel industry.
Why did you choose to write seven POVs?
There were two reasons. My favorite kinds of books are those where every chapter gives you a different perspective. But the main reason is the fact that Riverton was a very diverse place with a sharp divide in wealth. I want readers to see this town from the eyes of very different people from very different backgrounds.
How did you research your story? What made you select the 1910 – 1917 period?
There was such a huge influx of immigrants into Western Pennsylvania in the early 1900’s. Immigration reached a peak of 1.3 million a year in 1907. A group of sociologists conducted a study, the Pittsburg Survey, that looked at the working and living conditions of the immigrants coming to the region. They wrote an entire book on the steel workers. The study looked at the risks they faced in the mills and had statistics about accidents, injuries, deaths, as well as information about the very poor ethnic neighborhoods where the steelworkers lived. So, I thought, let me work in 1910 because I have the facts to support this world that I’m creating.
Was there anything you learned from this study that you ended up using in your story?
There was a description of a particularly grisly incident where a steel worker was burned, and I used that description for a similar incident in my book.
Steel mills and coal mines are dangerous places to work. Were they regulated in any way back then?
The steel industry was not regulated at that time, but was under its own self-regulation. In 1906, US Steel recognized that they were a lot of accidents and injuries. In 1908, they developed a central safety committee tasked with accident prevention and internal safety standards. In 1910, the government created the Bureau of Mines, which was largely a scientific organization that began by researching accidents that had already occurred. In the prior decade, there were almost 2,000 deaths in the mining industry each year. It took until the 1930’s to have inspectors in the mines, but here we see the beginnings of change.
How long did you spend researching before you started writing?
I spent about 3-4 months doing research before I started writing the book. I knew when I needed to start writing, but the research never stopped. For instance, in my book, Sophie has a boyfriend, but I knew ‘boyfriend’ wasn’t the appropriate term. Using the word usage over time feature in Google, I learned ‘sweetheart’ was the term commonly used for a love interest.
Because our blog is called Dead Darlings, I have to ask: Was there anything you ended up cutting out of the book that you really liked?
There was a chapter at the beginning of the book where all the kids go to the river to swim. It was a fun way to look at Sophie and Pole’s friendship but in end it didn’t move the story forward.
You must have learned a lot from researching and writing this book.
It was a learning process for me on so many levels, not just about the labor movement and the history of this time, but also about mental health. Working through Karina’s issues in the book helped me understand more about mental health.
Do you have ideas for your next book?
There is another book floating in my head. It’s a WWII book I started researching last summer. The story is told from the perspective of a German family stuck in the middle of what’s going on, but powerless to do anything about their situation. It will be another multiple POV story, but I think it will only be four this time!
Tammy Pasterick is a native of Western Pennsylvania who grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. She began her career as an investigator with the National Labor Relations Board and later worked as a paralegal and German teacher. She holds degrees in labor and industrial relations from Penn State University and German language and literature from the University of Delaware. She currently lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with her husband, two children, and chocolate Labrador retriever. Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash is her first novel.