For first-time authors, the road to publication is often filled with potholes.
But as his debut novel, “Drink to Every Beast,” is published, retired Harrisburg environmental attorney Joel Burcat can look back with satisfaction on the unique challenges he’s had to overcome to bring his literary work into the world.
Dressed in a gray pullover and blue-striped shirt, the bearded Burcat is relaxed and cordial as he sits down to tell that story at the dining room table of his comfortable home in Uptown Harrisburg.
Following graduation from Vermont Law School in 1980 and three years as an attorney at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, Burcat entered private practice. For the last 17 years, he’s been a partner in the Harrisburg office of Saul Ewing Arnstein Lehr LLP.
Burcat always harbored ambitions of becoming a writer (he’s co-edited two texts in the field of Pennsylvania environmental law), but it wasn’t until 2008 that he committed himself seriously to fiction.
“All I had to do was give up watching TV,” he said, of the decision to dive into writing while continuing his busy law practice.
Most evenings when he got home, he would retire to a cozy, third-floor writing room, where he’d work for two or three hours, at first producing short stories and then turning to the longer form.
“Writing would give me a total second wind,” he said.
In a good session he could churn out 3,000 words or more.
“It’s almost as though the characters are whispering in your ear, and it’s a very cool thing when that happens,” he said.
Burcat has always enjoyed thriller writers like Lee Child and Harlan Coben. With his environmental law experience, he thought a novel like John Grisham’s “The Pelican Brief” was a comfortable fit.
The result was “Drink to Every Beast,” the first in a series of four novels he’s written featuring Mike Jacobs, a young environmental lawyer working for the commonwealth. It’s a fast-paced tale centered on illegal toxic waste dumping into the Susquehanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania.
After finishing the novel in 2010, Burcat tried for several years to land a publisher through the traditional route—by securing a literary agent to represent his book. Although, in the early days he kept fairly good track of his efforts, he said that he lost count of the number of rejections he received.
But Burcat’s most serious obstacle, it turned out, wasn’t disinterested agents.
In July 2016, he was diagnosed with non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION), a loss of blood flow to the optic nerve, which caused a progressive and significant impairment of vision in his left eye. About 10,000 Americans contract the condition each year. So, it isn’t sufficiently widespread to attract much research interest and, for now, there is no proven cure.
Doctors told him that he had only a 30-percent chance of developing NAION in his right eye, as well. However, while reading on a business trip to Oklahoma in January 2018, he discovered he belonged to the unfortunate minority.
A few weeks after he returned to Harrisburg, he and his firm’s management decided he should go on short-term disability. At the end of September, when he realized he “was going to have to learn how to practice law all over again, as a blind person,” that leave became permanent.
Burcat went through a couple of difficult months as he contemplated the “very unexpected” end of a long and successful legal career. But he decided he “wasn’t going to let the disease take over control of my life,” as he produced the draft of another novel in a seven-week burst of writing and recommitted himself to publishing “Drink to Every Beast.”
At the suggestion of fellow thriller writer Don Helin, he had connected with Headline Books, an award-winning independent publisher that accepts submissions from unrepresented authors. In August 2018, he received an email from Headline’s founder, Cathy Teets, informing him that she would publish his novel. Burcat credits a professional edit by local publishing consultant Jason Liller with substantially improving the quality of the manuscript he submitted to Headline.
Critical & Honest
Legally blind as a result of his eye disease, Burcat no longer drives. He’s also forced to restrict his reading to e-readers. But employing dictation software and a large, ultra hi-definition computer monitor, he’s able to continue his active writing schedule.
Asked for the best advice he’d offer aspiring fiction writers, Burcat replied without hesitation.
“Absolutely, positively, you have to write every day,” he said.
Many people claim they want to write, he said, but they don’t back up that avowed commitment by making it a priority.
Another of the important lessons Burcat has learned is that, no matter how much support your publisher offers, unless you are Stephen King, most of the responsibility for promoting your work will fall to you. He’s spent the last few months educating himself on effective marketing tactics, and he’s plotted that campaign as carefully as he has the thoughts and actions of his characters.
And now, like any new author, Burcat awaits readers’ reception for “Drink to Every Beast” with mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety.
“I’ve been working on it so long and so hard that I’m eager to share it with the world,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s anxiety because, until now, the book has only been read by family and friends, who might not be so critical. Now, it’s going to read by others with whom I don’t have any relationship—people who may be much more critical and honest.”
“Drink to Every Beast” is available online. For more information about Joel Burcat, visit www.joelburcat.com.