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."