Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy

Fallout was the most difficult book for me to write and get published. In fact, it was nearly a writer's tragedy and a publishing horror story.

As I neared the end of my work on A River No More, I began reading newspaper stories about the people who lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site who seemed to be suffering excessive amounts of cancers from the years of atmospheric testing. I suggested the book to my editor at Knopf; he said fine, but later changed his mind. I then contacted William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker. Shawn okayed a two-part series on the subject. I went back to the book editor, and he said fine for a second time. I was floating on a cloud. I had a committment from the top magazine and publisher in the country. Hearing that I was working on a series for the magazine, editors from Viking and Simon & Schuster called me. That had never happened before.

Shawn wanted to see the first 1,000 words of the first article. I sent them to him. He called on Labor Day of 1982 and in his scratchy voice said: "This is not the way we write at The New Yorker. We start at the beginning of the story."

"But, Mr. Shawn, I did."

There was no winning that arguement. I was paid a kill fee that exceeded anything I had ever been paid for my work before, including the river book. Knopf was now less enthusiastic about a book. I had to rewrite my manuscript twice. "It wasn't wet enough," I was told. I finally figured out that was a reference to tears. I wasn't about demean the victims with false sentimentality. The book, in my mind, was a documentary. In fact it was so real that I took on the symptoms of the cancer victims I was describing. Knopf did not accept the manuscript. The editors at Viking and Simon & Schuster no longer wanted it.

The manuscript sat for a few years. The owner of a bookstore I was working in gave it to a sales rep and he gave it to an editor at the University of Arizona Press. The Press published it to great critical acclaim. I appeared on the Today Show and other national media outlets. The book was widely and favorably reviewed and remains in print to this day.

I should add that the beginning is the same that I submitted to The New Yorker, and I retained the straightforward narration that the subject deserved.

I don't know the moral of this story. My working mantra, however, is: "Don't let the bastards get you down."



Backstories of Earlier Works

Nonfiction
The definitive life of the West's outstanding writer, teacher of writers, and conservationist.
The use and abuse of the West's lifeblood, water.
Radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site caused innocent people to die.
How landscape has determined the history and destiny of California
Giant waves, five hundred feet higher than the Empire State Building, sweep a remote Alaska Bay.

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