Pa. man influenced by coal town writes novel of greed, death and revenge

July 14, 2011|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Mike Breslin of Chambersburg, Pa., writes stories about the coalfields of Pennsylvania, where he grew up.
Submitted photo

Mike Breslin is a gregarious guy who pays attention to family ties. By day, he's the nut-and-bolts general manager of Christian Companion Senior Care of Franklin County. He offers nonmedical, in-home services to seniors and others who need assistance to remain in their homes.

But by night, Breslin's inner storyteller crafts tales of murder, revenge and surviving tough times.

For more than a decade, he's written stories and recollections of the coalfields of Pennsylvania, where he grew up.

This year, Breslin published his second book, "Robbing the Pillars," a novel about life and death in the small mining fictional town of Creedonton in the late 1960s.

The story is well-told, with strong dialogue and believable characters. There's Jimmy Creedon, a cunning mine owner; Jack Dugan, a young man whose father died in the mines; Harry Myers, a police chief trying to puzzle out a crime; and others. The texture of town life is taut and gritty.

Surprisingly, Breslin, 59, said he never worked in the mines. His career has been in sales and business management. He lives in Chambersburg, Pa., with his wife, Susan, and son, Michael. His grown daughter, Erin, lives in York, Pa.

But Breslin's family has deep ties to coal mining.

"My father's father worked in the mines. By the time I was born, the mines were pretty much defunct," he said. "My father did not mine either — he was a postal carrier. But he told me about how unscrupulous the coal barons were."

Mine owners often squeezed their businesses for every ounce of profit, Breslin said. For example, mules were more valuable than men. Mules were expensive to breed, whereas immigrant Irish miners produced lots of offspring. So if there were an accident in a mine, mules were taken out first.

Heartless business decisions like this led to a central event in the book. Jack's father died a decade before the book begins in a coal-mine collapse. The collapse occurred during a procedure called "robbing the pillars," in which miners were ordered to gather more coal by slimming the pillars of coal holding up the roof of the mine. Jack blames Creedon, the mine owner, for his father's death.

Breslin said the basic themes and rough outlines of the book were easy to work out, but it took him years to finish the writing. He wrote and rewrote the story three times.

"Finding the right voice for the book took a while," he said. "It wasn't until the last version I found Jack's point of view. That was the hardest part."

Another challenge was making his dialogue ring true.

"Nothing turns me off on a book like stilted dialogue. So I spent a lot of time refining the dialogue," Breslin said.

With several intertwining stories, Breslin wanted to make sure the points of view were logical and understandable. So he turned to trusted experts.

"My wife is an English teacher. When I finally finished the book, I gave it to her and my daughter to read. Both of them came up with questions," he said. "At one point, a character comes onto money. My daughter said, 'He would never come onto that much money.' I asked her to read it for that kind of stuff."

Once the story was revised and completed, Breslin published the book himself. He markets it on his own. Now another publisher, Sunbury Press Inc., has republished it.

Breslin is happy "Robbing the Pillars" is finished, but he's not finished writing stories. He's mulling over a book based on a story a friend told him about a grandfather who was forced to grow grain for a moonshine operation. The farmer got in trouble with the law; the moonshiners didn't.

The coal mines in Central Pennsylvania might be tapped out, but Breslin is still working his way through a rich vein of stories about justice, family ties and the human struggle to survive hardship.

"I thoroughly enjoy writing," he said.

About the book

Author: Mike Breslin of Chambersburg, Pa.

Title: "Robbing the Pillars"

Genre: Novel

Pages: 251

Price: $17.95


Available online from Sunbury Press Inc. at

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