Industry News

Sandra Brannan: From rocks to words

Quarrying can be satisfying, even fulfilling and rewarding, but exhilarating, thrilling and gripping are not necessarily adjectives in the quarry worker?s vernacular ? that is, unless your name is Sandra Brannan.

Brannan is a quarry operator and owner from Rapid City in South Dakota, US. She is effectively a fourth generation owner of Pete Lien & Sons, a family aggregate producer that was founded by her grandfather. She can also count herself as a first generation author of a trilogy of crime novels that draw inspiration from her quarrying experiences: In the Belly of Jonah, Lot?s Return to Sodom and her latest title Widow?s Might.

{{image2-a:r-w:200}}The first book debuted in 2010 and went into a second printing just a month after its release. It was also chosen as an Indie Next List Notable by independent bookstores and librarians across the US. Within the first year, Brannan was also listed as one of the top 25 most fabulous women by Black Hills women?s lifestyle magazine in her native Rapid City. These sudden accolades were a far cry from her career in the family aggregate business, which she still loves and refuses to leave, despite her recent success as an author.

?I?ve been working in our family business full-time for 25 years,? she explained. ?Before that, I was involved for about 10 years on a part-time basis when I was going to school. My role in the family business was actually in the operations side. I?m an engineer with an MBA, so I love the operation.?

Pete Lien & Sons has 50 mine sites in the US, 30 of which are in operation. Most of the work is with limestone but there is also some work in iron, gypsum, sand, gravel and sandstone. Brannan now spreads her time between writing, promoting her books and being vice president of the company.

Initially, Brannan did not think her books would take off as well as they have and she thought she could combine her job as vice president of Pete Lien & Sons and work as an author with relative ease. Instead, she found herself spending every weekend for up to four months flying somewhere different to do book events, signings or author events and fundraisers.

?In fact, the publisher told me, ?This is going to take off and you know you?re going to have to quit your day job?,? she recalled. ?And I said, ?If that?s the condition, then I have to stop writing?. I love mining so they had to let me do my day job. I was happy to then go push the book on the weekends. I guess I?ve learnt how to juggle responsibilities because I?m a mother and a grandma.?

Brannan credits her enjoyment of reading and her family?s varying hobbies and pastimes for eventually becoming a writer.

?I have a love of reading, whereas my four boys and husband loved their football and hunting. I found that writing was a little more fun while they were off doing their hobbies. Since I love to read, I also learned how to love to write. And that?s how I got in to it. I did notice nobody?s writing really in the fiction world about mining, so I also thought I?d use my experiences to try something different.?

The protagonist in Brannan?s books is Liv Bergen, who, like the author, is a manager in the quarrying business but with a keen interest in solving crime. In the first novel, when a summer temp at her limestone mine is killed, Bergen teams up with FBI agent (and romantic interest) Streeter Pierce to solve the mystery.

When Brannan started her first novel, she wrongly assumed that writing with such an obvious bias towards the mining and quarrying industry would be a deal breaker with the publisher. It wasn?t. In fact, she remains surprised at people?s interest in the mining content that she has promoted in her writing. ?People around the country are going, ?I knew nothing about mining and this is really fun, tell me more?. I was shocked at that!

?Ready mix plant is featured in the second book as well as an iron ore quarry. I wanted to emphasise in the writing that we are the backbone of our communities, that?s what makes the economy start and people forget that.?

As for many good authors, real life forms a basis for Brannan?s writing but she is quick to point out that she has never had anything happen in her mining experiences as brutal as a murder. Nevertheless, her naturally curious nature meant she was always captivated by the thrill and danger of crime and intrigue.

?In my teens I had a softball coach who was a special agent with the FBI and although most of the information was confidential, my inquisitive nature jimmied out enough,? Brannan explained.

There are a few threads that bind her books? protagonist Liv Bergen to Brannan. For example, both women enjoy a beer and love mining but, according to Brannan, that?s where it stops. ?I think they?re the only similarities, that we both love mining and the beer,? she said. ?I couldn?t solve a crime if I wanted to but I love to read and write.?

By using her background in the quarrying industry heavily throughout her books, Brannan hopes she can change people?s perceptions of the mining and quarrying industry. She is also very keen to encourage young people into the business ? and particularly for more young women to consider it as an option.

{{image3-a:r-w:200}}?I mean, there?s not very many women in the industry yet, so I?m trying to attract different people because I love it,? she said. ?I don?t know why more women aren?t interested, because they aren?t applying and they should be. It?s fun!

?I hope teens look at mining and quarrying as a viable career. We are all very humble people and we?ll say we are like Fred Flintstone. We just break up rock. But it takes a lot of grey matter to do what we?re doing and it?s kind of fun to attract them, like Tom Sawyer painting that fence and saying, ?Come and enjoy it with me?,? she adds, referring to a famous passage from another famous author, Mark Twain.

Sandra also has advice for quarry men and women, miners and construction workers who may have frustrated writers dwelling inside them, just waiting to be unleashed.

?If you?re a frustrated writer, don?t be,? she said. ?Keep writing because my story is so crazy. The best advice I ever heard was from Steven King ? he said, ?Stick them on your shelf and just keep writing?. And I believed in myself and kept writing. Keep writing because somebody somewhere is going to love that some day. So keep writing.?

Interview by Damian Christie. Text by Mandy Parry-Jones.

In the Belly of Jonah, Lot?s Return to Sodom and Widow?s Might are published by Greenleaf Book Group Press. For more information, visit

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