Today we are with Raf Leon Dahlquist, author of the new book Lone Dog Barking; a novella based on a true story dealing with the US Government’s testing of hundreds of nuclear weapons on US soil in Nevada, during the ramp up of the Cold War.
PBR: Thank you for joining us today.
RLD: My pleasure, Tamar. Thank you for this opportunity.
PBR: What made you decide to write this story based on the true events that you encountered as a youth?
RLD: Pat’s story was with me for decades, but I was always busy with other things. When I told it to friends they often urged me to write it down as a “book.” When Richard Rhodes came out with his Pulitzer Prize winning “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and the subsequent “Dark Sun,” I devoured them. At about the same time Alice Miller’s “For Your Own Good” was brought into my consciousness. Then I fully realized that people growing up in such circumstances accepted abuse as “normal,” with beatings, murder and hundreds of nuclear weapons detonations nearby punctuating life and the calendar regularly. What finally pulled the trigger was reading Philip L. Fradkin’s “Fallout.” It dawned on me that I knew so many of the people and places he wrote about. He recounts having his work lined up for publication with a large New York publisher, but being dropped after being told his early drafts were “too wet,” i.e. insufficient to be labeled objective, factual, non-fiction journalism. That really got under my skin! Hell yes, my story is “wet.” Parts of the story still bring tears to my eyes 60 years later, but I wrote it down my way. I don’t care to please anyone in particular, but hope my readers are marked by it for life, maybe even relish how justice can take its quirky and ironic turns.
PBR: About genre. Is this a western - or what?
RLD: Well, yes. A modern western if you like. It has cowboys and Indians and the open, unfenced range, but it has PhD nuclear physicists too, with towering stratospheric mushroom clouds as backdrop.
I must confess. It’s an oddball. Savvy writers decide their genre, and then they write to plan. I just wrote my story the way it wanted to be, without marketing concern for genre, and I’ll likely pay the penalty of undecided “shelf space.”
Lone Dog Barking is a non-fiction account laced together with a few bits of fiction to make the story fluid. It’s biographical considering Pat’s story. With Gio as the narrator it’s a memoir, and is an autobiography with a viewpoint spanning 60 years. I believe it can nobly fill the Native American shelf space. This is American history that more of us should know as government reaches ever more intimately into its citizens’ lives and liberties. Sorry. I can’t give you a more concrete answer there on genre. Many would say it’s a problem, and I have to agree.
PBR: Your protagonist, Pat, seems an unlikely choice to begin with. How did that happen?
RLD: All heroes are unlikely. Aren’t they? Pat was my hero from day one when he got between me (a ten year old) and Barney, a full-blown psychopath, giving me a beating at Taxscine’s cathouse for selling newspapers there.
Pat’s own “Heroes’ Journey” (ala Joseph Campbell) begins with the Cherokee Trail of Tears out to Oklahoma, where he is born and abandoned, orphaned, and “farmed-out” as virtual slave labor. He runs away at age nine from abuse and heads west. During World War II Pat honorably served that same government which dispossessed and displaced his own people a short generation earlier. Yet, the local Native American community disavows him as an outsider, and the town locals shun him as an “ignorant half-breed,” a no-account low life.
To question these ongoing nuclear test “events” at this time in history, one risked being labeled a Communist sympathizer, a traitor of the nation, or even losing one’s rights as a citizen. You would stand naked … alone … and unarmed for your cause. Pat did exactly that. There was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Environmental Defense Fund, no World Wildlife Fund, no state or federal government agency willing to hear concerns about the local consequences of these nuclear test “events.” There were no class action attorneys who might be economically motivated, as in Soderbergh’s movie, Erin Brockovich.
PBR: What was it like to live in such dangerous circumstances in Tonopah, Nevada?
RLD: Being nearby to the test site was never really physically dangerous. Beatty, another Central Nevada small town, was even nearer. Locals, in fact, became rather nonchalant about these “events,” as they were called by the Atomic Energy Commission. The real problem was exposure to radioactive fallout which could have immediate and profound effects on young and embryonic animals (including humans, of course) at critical development stages. It was certainlynot “Safe as Snow” as government propaganda repeatedly proclaimed. Fully developed adults got their dose of radioactive poisons too, and those with weaker DNA repair mechanisms and immune systems succumbed.
There’s another serious gap in American knowledge and consciousness: Everyone got some of that fallout! All of us. Not just those locally, or on the Fallout Freeway to Utah and Arizona. We often watched the mushroom cloud being broken up as it moved into the stratosphere. Winds-aloft, as they were called, tore it into separate pieces going different directions and speeds at different altitudes. Such “rose petal patterns,” combined over time, show fallout traveled in all directions to every state in the union, even California and Washington state. Where weather conditions brought sudden intense precipitation, “hot spots” occurred. Jones Beach New York is just one of many. Government propaganda preferred to term these “hot spots” as bland and banal sounding “anomalies.” I probably should include a map documenting this broad scale nuclear contamination in a later edition.
PBR: How long did it take you to piece together the facts, research the book and gather the information to form an accurate account of the events?
RLD: I began working on the story in 2000, about 50 years after the actual story events. I regularly visited my home town and I was fortunate to be able to interview still living witnesses. One of my old school mates, Bill Metscher, founder of the Central Nevada Historical Society, gave me free range in the archives of the Museum there in Tonopah. A very important find was made at the Nevada State library in Carson City. That was Pat’s prison record and interview sheet he had to prepare for the parole board, describing how he came to be incarcerated for murder. No other record of his early life as a child is available. Unfortunately, his military service record was destroyed in the St. Louis fire archives in 1973. When I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel in 2009, I began getting up at 2 or 3 AM to write every day until I had to leave to go to work by 6 AM.
PBR: What made you decide to write and publish a novella that you first wrote as a screenplay?
RLD: I didn’t really decide. I fell into it. I co-owned The Beverly Hecht Agency and ran the commercial division between 1994 and 1998. I didn’t know anything about writing screenplays, but once upon a time I didn’t know anything about analytical atomic spectrochemistry either. I joined a diverse group of helpful people in Hollywood who were members of the Mark and Elaine Zicree Roundtable which met regularly, gave encouragement and offered their unique talents to other members. Learning to Show not Tell was a good exercise. The 90 minute ideal for the screenplay keeps the story tight. I like that same tightness in the novella form, not ever wandering far from the story line. Many times the suggestion came from readers to expand the story to a novel, but my muse always gagged at the idea of “drifting about just to fill pages.” However, it has occurred to me to use a complete record of the nuclear weapon detonation schedule (331 above-ground) as a metronome for a possible future novel about growing up from grammar school through high school in Tonopah.
PBR: How long have you been writing? Was this your first piece?
RLD: Most of my published writing has been in the peer-reviewed scientific literature in the area of analytical spectrochemistry, atomic spectroscopy, optical resolving systems and their very diverse applications such as archaeometry of ancient Native American bone tissue, human and animal elemental nutrition, clinical chemistry, production control of critical alloy composition, even moon rocks.
I co-wrote, photographed and produced a documentary on the earliest days of the West doing business in China in 1980.
I had a lot of fun putting together an inspirational Science Series for kids based on the lives of real scientists (Franklin, Curie, Newton, Bunsen and others). I managed to get the first of the series published (Mr. Halley and His Comet) with highly complementary letters from Carl Sagan, Don Yeoman’s (JPL-NASA) and educators. However, I got distracted in the startup of Lab Support (the first nationwide Scientific Personnel Company) which went public on the NASDAQ a few years later as ASGN.
Education will be changing very quickly, and soon. We desperately need more STEM folks to stay on the world stage. The spark of inspiration is what gets kids headed in that direction. That little Science Series project is near and dear to my heart, and I could have a lot of fun spinning it out on a long list of inspiring scientists as models.
PBR: Who are your favorite authors, and why? In what way do they inspire you to write such an interesting narrative?
RLD: Many have left impressions. As I look back, Ortega y Gasset in particular, which in a way surprises me, but shouldn’t. I was delighted to recently discover a translation (Kindle) of his thoughts on the novel.
Earliest influences in youth: R.L. Stevenson (Treasure Island), Richard Wright (Black Boy); Rudyard Kipling (poems); Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn); E.A. Poe (short stories, poems); Cervantes (Don Quixote).
Impressionable Teens: Chaucer (Canterbury Tales); Shelley, Keats, Byron (poems); E. Hemingway (Indian Camp); A. Camus (The Stranger); Shirley Jackson (short stories); S. Freud (Interpretation of Dreams); C. Jung (various); Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead); J. Kerouac (On the Road); H. Miller (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn); J. Ortega y Gasset (Meditations on Quixote, Revolt of the Masses); P.A. Sorokin (Social and Cultural Dynamics); F.S.C. Northrop (The Meeting of East and West).
Maturity: I regularly return to visit Ortega y Gasset (most recently, Ideas About the Novel); J. Michener (The Source); Julian Jaynes (Origin of Consciousness … Bicameral Mind); M. Gladwell (Blink); Richard Rhodes (Dark Sun, Making of the Atomic Bomb); Carl Sagan (Cosmos, Broca’s Brain); Alice Miller (For Your Own Good); Gary Paulson (Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass); Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men); Paul Harding (Tinkers);Daniel Woodrell (Outlaw Album).
PBR: Will you continue to write novels or novellas?
RLD: Perhaps. Right now I have a flock of true life short stories about working that I need to corral. One of them, titled Dr. Dr. M undergoes a Starch-Ectomy, was a finalist at Third Coast Magazine last year. (Dr. Dr. is not a typo.)
I will certainly continue to write in any case. Long ago as a teen I was inspired by a great grandfather who came from Ireland to America via Canada. He and his wife had 14 children and he pioneered four farms in southern Minnesota before retiring to write his story. Now that I have time to write, I see it as too short, and precious. There’s motivation for you. Everyone’s life is too short to squander. So write! Now. Today.
PBR: What advice do you have for individuals who have a true story they want to share, but don’t know where to begin?
RLD: Just start! Anywhere. It doesn’t matter. Get it down on paper before it escapes into thin air. Write little scraps of stuff. One little piece will remind you of another as you go. To build your story, you’re going to have to tear these pieces apart and shuffle them around anyway. Maybe you are one of those people who have an outline. It doesn’t matter. Just write EVERY day. Soon you’ll feel bold enough to even “throw some of it away” or at least leave it out for now and put it in the drawer for later. Writing is re-writing, I learned.
PBR: Where is Lone Dog Barking available?
RLD: Amazon.com and Smashwords.com are my eBook distributors. You can read it on Kindle, Nook, iTunes and in other formats such as Mac, PC, or on your mobile devices.
PBR: We certainly appreciate your time, and wish you the best of success with Lone Dog Barking and your other works. Thank you.
RLD: Thank you as well, Tamar, this has been a real pleasure for me.