I've always been drawn to disasters, both natural and man-made.
Maybe it's from growing up in a metropolis shaped by disaster (the 1871 Great Chicago Fire), or being scared stiff by my melodramatic Italian grandmother about such horrors as the 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire and 1950 Green Hornet streetcar crash. I've dug out from three "snowstorms of the century" and sweated out Chicago's 1995 heat wave that killed 700. I saw smoke billowing from the 1966 West Side unrest, and was caught amid the violent 1969 "Days of Rage" and 1977 "Puerto Rican Day" riots. I was among the first on the scene to the grisly 1993 Paxton SRO blaze, the bizarre 1992 Chicago River tunnel flood and 1977 CTA derailment, seeing terrified faces of trapped riders in dangling L cars. I've felt the spirits of the 1915 Eastland capsizing, 1958 Our Lady of the Angels School fire and 1966 Speck murders. I've ridden out hurricanes in Mexico, Nassau and Miami Beach.
I was three hours late to my wedding due to a flood.
Curling up with a good book means re-reading McCullough's The Johnstown Flood, Maclean'sYoung Men and Fire, Larson's Isaac's Storm, Brinkley's The Great Deluge, or Winchester's superb A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, a lyrical yet scientific treatment of quakes.
These are real dramas, not the phony, empty dramas of so-called "reality" TV. How would you really act when the dam breaks, tornado hits or killer enters? Disasters test people's skills, nerves, imagination, brains, heart and soul. They create genuine tales of loss or heroism, the random suddenness of life and death. And they offer the writer of historical fiction meaty backdrops.
Two centuries ago, a series of earthquakes rocked the area centered at New Madrid, a settlement on a bend in the Mississippi River. No precise count of casualties or damage was made: it was sparsely-populated by French fur traders, a dwindling number of Native Americans and newly-arrived European immigrants. The first event - December 16, 1811 - caused rivers to run backwards. Tremors continued for months.
The New Madrid Quake Chronicles was written prior to Japan's March, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant tragedies, but after the Indian Ocean tsunami and Haiti quake. My original draft included a meltdown at an Illinois nuclear power plant; but after Fukushima Dai-chi, such a storyline seemed disrespectful, so I cut it. Nonetheless, what happened in Japan will likely happen again.
Chronicles is a story of two families, of Native American relocation and European immigration, of assimilation. Each chapter is a snapshot of a generation. Every family tree somewhere along the way has its warriors, linguists, politicians, entrepreneurs, teachers, arsonists, athletes, artists and con-artists. Every family tree has been touched by disaster at some point.
An obvious metaphor for the coming together of two great families is, of course, the confluence of two mighty rivers. (The region where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers merge is the primary setting for our story.) A seismic metaphor may be just as apt: two families and the massive tectonic plates below them. Ever-shifting, never static, imperceptible changes, friction, tension. While this is a story of a natural disaster, it's much more a parable of the imprint a disaster can leave on nine generations of two very different families.
There are slices of Native American Indian history, familiar turf for readers of my Seminole Smoke: An odyssey of power, love and blood in the Seminole Wars. Outgunned Indians using hit-and-run tactics against conventional armies, tribal squabbles, relocation to reservations, brief Mexican exodus. There are slices of Illinois and Chicago history, familiar turf for readers of my opus, Currents of Power: A Modern Political Novel. We see Lincoln as a state legislator, forging ties with the emerging German-American voting bloc. We see generations of local pols in the Little Egypt region of southern Illinois and in Chicago, and how they respond to corruption.
The reader is offered nibbles of near-forgotten military history: the 1813 Battle of Thames (where Tecumseh fell), firebrand Carl Schurz's German-American unit at Bull Run, Pershing's first offensive in World War I France, counter-insurgency in World War II Burma, black ops in 1960s Laos.
How did this tome come to be? In 2008, a co-worker dared me to join her in National Novel Writers Month (Nanowrimo). The annual event encourages everyday folks to exercise their writing muscles. (Let's face it: humanity's writing muscles are starting to atrophy.) Nanowrimo challenges each writer to pen a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, emphasizing "Quantity Over Quality". The notion of a novel set in the Seminole Wars had been rattling around in my head for awhile, so I signed up, along 125,000 others from around the globe. Without Nanowrimo to force me, that book - the only novel to span the entire half-century Seminole conflict - wouldn't have been written.
And so it was with The New Madrid Quake Chronicles. Inspired long ago by Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude to do a multi-generational story, I thought the unheralded New Madrid Earthquake would be a good platform. Once again, I needed Nanowrimo for motivation. By 2010, Nanowrimo had grown to 200,000 participants, and some 37,000 novelists completed the task of 50,000 words in 30 days. My Nanowrimo effort was the early draft of New Madrid Quake Chronicles.
Writing a novel is an adventure; Nanowrimo adds fuel to the process. While authors are urged to do research and planning in the months leading up to Nanowrimo's kick-off, no words may be written until the starting bell. Having done four novels by 2010, I was finally learning how to manage the process: timelines, character profiles, sub-plots, tempo. But in the delightful writing frenzy prompted by Nanowrimo, I found myself unexpectedly - and profoundly - changing the novel's direction in the final days. So, thanks Nanowrimo, for the panic you instill, the creativity it compels and the improved ending to The New Madrid Quake Chronicles.
This was a genre-bending book to start with: historical fiction, disaster chronicle, military and political history, family epic. The new path spurred by Nanowrimo might put it in the sci fi aisle. The Magic Eye literary device provokes discussion of the high-velocity "P-Wave" and true "quake-sensors". Evident in various species, reports are commonplace of elephants, birds, household pets and cattle becoming agitated before quakes or heading inland before tsunamis. Dogs & human teens discern high-frequency sounds. Many people enjoy an acute sense of smell, vision, hearing, taste or touch. Older folks predict rain with their knees. Natural phenomena such as a full moon, tides and barometric pressure drops affect many.
The use of the Magic Eye prompts questions on the ethics of science. Should new ways to observe and predict quakes be used for diplomatic or military purposes? Is "seismo-intel" moral? Is pure research helped or undermined by government support?
To prepare for the manuscript's rewrite, I embarked (with the long-suffering spouse) on "Holiday Disaster Road-Trip 2010", a 4,000-mile drive to see New Madrid, New Orleans and the BP oil-besmirched Gulf Coast. We saw the magnificent confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers (site of so much flooding over so many centuries), aging river towns such as Cairo, and the New Madrid Earthquake Museum.
After exploring Katrina ghost towns in the Big Easy and oil spill ghost towns in Florida's Panhandle, one might sort disasters into three types:
1. Totally natural, such as the New Madrid Earthquake in a sparsely-populated region;
2. Totally human greed, arrogance and incompetence, such as the BP oil spill, and
3. A blend of the two, such as Hurricane Katrina and government's response to it, or the Japan quake and tsunami, followed by the nuclear meltdown. A Type 1 can easily become a Type 3.
Chronicles is a cautionary tale. In 2010, the Mid-America Earthquake Center ran some scenarios. If an 1811-sized earthquake struck under New Madrid today, it would result in 3,500 fatalities, 80,000 injured, 730,000 displaced victims, 715,000 destroyed buildings, 2.6 million without electricity, a million lacking food or water. About 3,500 bridge collapses; paralysis of barge, truck and rail traffic in and out of the nation's breadbasket. About $300 billion in direct economic loss.
One hopes the various agencies responsible for disaster preparedness and response have learned the lessons from Katrina, Haiti, Japan and elsewhere. One beacon of preparedness is the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut, during which 3,000,000 participants in 11 states "dropped, covered, and held on" throughout the New Madrid and Wabash Valley seismic zones at 10:15 a.m. on April 28, 2011. The drill encouraged schools, businesses, government agencies, senior centers and local media to focus on preparedness. Disaster awareness has also been boosted by an era in which cell phones, ubiquitous video cameras and YouTube enable us all to see the destructiveness of a hurricane, tornado, quake or tsunami with new furious immediacy.
During our "Disaster Road-Trip", we toured the Katrina exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum. We saw the tiny rescue baskets used by Coast Guard choppers to pluck victims off roofs and flimsy "Cajun Navy" outboards used by volunteers who saved thousands. It reminded us of the heroism of those first-responders to disasters, be they man-made or natural.
Postscript: Earlier this year, a 3.9 tremor shook many riverfront towns in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky, precisely where our story takes place.