South Florida writer David Raterman has come up with one of the most engaging fictional characters in recent memory. The adventurous ex-Notre Dame football player, Derek Braun, will be heading a series of emergency relief thrillers penned by Raterman, who is somewhat of a real-life Bruan himself. Read on for our interview with Raterman to find out his real life adventures influenced his fiction.
RS: What inspired you to write The River Panj?
DR: The US didn’t have an embassy in Afghanistan during the Taliban period so there were very few Americans working there in 2001. I thought an American emergency relief worker dealing with the 9/11 attacks while in Afghanistan would present a fascinating literary subject. I was in ex-Soviet Tajikistan from 1997 to 1999 and my boss Peter Goossens served as deputy country
director of the UN’s World Food Programme in neighboring Afghanistan from 1999 to Sept. 13, 2001. He was there on 9/11. He had to deal with the Taliban to distribute food to starving people.
So I thought these were good thriller elements. And as a debut novelist, I wanted fresh hooks like
9/11 in Afghanistan, emergency relief, and even Notre Dame football. My protagonist becomes an amateur sleuth, which is extremely rare in international thrillers, so I needed him to seem tough enough to handle a search and rescue. My uncle John played linebacker for Notre Dame, which has the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. So all that came together to create my protagonist. He’s 27 and has worked in emergency relief since college.
RS: The River Panj has such an intricate plot and subplots running through it. Is part of it based on a true story? How did it come about?
DR: The kidnapping and search are from my imagination, although I knew an American man, a French woman, and Tajiks who were kidnapped and killed. Of course I did work in humanitarian aid/emergency relief so all of those elements are based on real-life characters and activities. I’m very proud to bring attention to that industry.
RS: You were with CARE in the Afghanistan border. Were you in danger at any time?
DR: Yes, many times. Tajikistan was very dangerous from 1997, when the peace accords were signed, until I left in 1999. As mentioned, several of my friends and colleagues were kidnapped and/or killed. And many times, every day, our vehicles were stopped by policemen and soldiers who stood in the road and waved their automatic rifles or RPGs for us to stop. We never knew how drunk or whacked out on drugs they might be. We had a lot of problems with those.
For my first several months Russian and Tajik tanks and APCs were very common on the roads. They were usually manned by teenage soldiers.
One of the scariest situations was when my Russian girlfriend (now wife) flew to Tajikistan’s capital to visit me. A three-day battle was taking place with government troops firing tank and artillery rounds from the airport to a hill where Islamic militants fired back. I didn’t think Aeroflot would land the plane, but they did. As we drove off the tarmac, she asked if she could take photos of wounded soldiers walking five feet from our car. I said for her to not even look at them.
Before I forget, during a hostage crisis, when two French relief workers were kidnapped, I was one of three American relief workers who slept at the CIA compound for two weeks.
RS: Was it hard to come up with the characters in The River Panj? Each one has a distinctive voice. Did you base any of them on a real person?
DR: For the most part it was not hard to come up with the characters, once I knew what the plot called for. Except for the protagonist Derek. That did take a long time to fine-tune. As mentioned, I thought of my Uncle John who played at Notre Dame when I was creating him, but other than the connection with Notre Dame Derek doesn’t resemble John much.
The only character I based on a real person is Tom, the CIA agent. “Tom” is even the same name of a CIA agent I knew in Tajikistan. It can’t be a security breach because on Tom’s last day before evacuating (I stayed another year); he gave me his address in Virginia. I looked at the name he wrote next to it and said, “That’s not your name.” He said, “Oh, uh, that’s my real name.” So I use the real guy’s fake name.
RS: The River Panj is a work of fiction, full of thick slices of realism. Did you have to do massive research to accomplish it?
DR: Living there was critical, and I kept journals. For further research I spoke on the phone and emailed friends who worked in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
RS: What would you say is the point (if there is one) The River Panj is trying to make? If there isn't, don't worry about this question.
DR: Literary novels tend to make points and have themes more than genre novels like mine (a thriller). My goal is simply to entertain readers. If they learn about Central Asia and the critical role of emergency relief, that’s a great bonus.