Last Word: Creating a Protagonist with Joel Burcat

Joel Burcat is a white man with thick-rectangular glasses and quarter-zip sweater. He is standing in a book store and posing with his book.
Joel Burcat is an author of environmental legal thrillers inspirted by his four-decade career of environmental law and his Jewish identity. | Courtesy of Joel Burcat

Joel Burcat claims he didn’t base his protagonist Mike Jacobs on himself, but the similarities are undoubtedly there.

Both are environmental lawyers, Jewish and attended the Pennsylvania State University and studied geography. But the comparison ends there, Burcat insisted.

“I often say that he has the DNA from a lot of different people,” Burcat said.

The Wynnefield native, who now lives in Harrisburg, is the author of three environmental legal thriller novels and dozens more short stories. He has spent the last 15 years pursuing writing as a passion project, drawing inspiration from his 38-year law career and from the everyday. 

His most recent novel “Strange Fire,” published by Headline Books, came out on Feb 2. The novel, a standalone piece in the series of three Mike Jacobs novels, follows Mike as he investigates a Bradford County water source contaminated by fracking. Along the way, the 29-year-old protagonist falls in love and grapples with his Jewish identity. 

Growing up, Burcat did not necessarily think of himself an author, but he definitely didn’t intend to become a lawyer. In fact, he didn’t even think about law until the Penn State registrar’s office sent him a “nasty letter” asking him to pick a major. 

While a geography degree lends itself to a career in cartography or city planning, Burcat was most drawn to law. A job as assistant attorney general with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources in 1980 set his career in motion.

Since he began in environmental law 42 years ago, global warming has taken a stronger hold on the politics and culture of the world, Burcat said. Environmental cases used to be local, but now focus on the greater global implications of climate change.

Burcat found a love for his unexpected career path and found that it melded effortlessly with his Jewish values. Burcat, who grew up attending Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, has always had a deep sense of his Jewish values, which he believes bolstered his work as an environmental lawyer.

“The Torah says, ‘The earth is mine. You are but strangers and sojourners to me,’” Burcat said. 

His decision to make Mike Jacobs Jewish was a no-brainer. 

“I didn’t know of too many other Jewish legal thriller heroes, and I felt that this would be something … that hadn’t really been done that much before,” Burcat said.

But the protagonist isn’t just symbolically Jewish; he’s a practicing Jew with an odd year of rabbinical school under his belt. Mike is a “mensch” trying to figure out how to live out his Jewish values as a 20-something in the real world, deciding whether or not to date Jewish women and, at some points in the novels, stop practicing Judaism altogether.

Burcat is far from a stranger to existential crossroads himself. In 2018, he was diagnosed with nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy, which gave him blood clots in the back of his eyes, rendering him legally blind and precipitating a leave of absence-turned-early retirement from his law practice.

Though he had written fiction for more than 10 years at that point, it was in the early days of the disease in 2019 that he wrote “Strange Fire,” which took only seven weeks to write.

Beyond environmental legal thrillers, Burcat has written a short story about beer, a speculative fiction piece about a small-town police department going to war with the FBI and a young adult post-apocalyptic thriller about what would happen if adults died off in a pandemic, leaving only teens to survive.

Fiction writing gave Burcat the “awesome” feeling of being creative and the gratification of creating something educational and accessible to non-lawyers, he said.  Burcat’s extensive law career helped him craft a realistic narrative, but his understanding of how to get inside his characters’ heads is what makes him a good storyteller.

“When people read fiction they’re looking to be transported; they’re looking to understand something that they couldn’t otherwise understand,” Burcat said. “When you’re writing a legal thriller, you are transporting people — not just into a courtroom, because anybody can go to any courtroom in the United States and sit there and watch. You’re transporting the reader into the head of the lawyer. You’re learning what it is that a lawyer is thinking about, what his strategy is, what his tactics are.”

Burcat is working on a fourth book in the Mike Jacobs series inspired by the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, in which thousands of children were exposed to water contaminated with lead. He intends to continue the habit of fiction writing beyond that.

“The words just — it comes from deep inside you,” Burcat said. “And I love that feeling.”

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