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Former Random House Author Self-Publishes Thriller that Views 9/11 from New Perspective

As self-publishing becomes an increasingly popular option for writers of all kinds (the good and the not so good, those who have tried the agent route and those who haven’t), there are those who continue to cling – and probably will for some time – to the idea that self-publishing is an avenue for the author whose work just isn’t good enough for traditional publishers. No matter how many times or by how many reputable reviewers a quality self-published work has been vetted, there are reviewers who simply won’t look at it if it’s self-published, and there are readers (who usually also happen to be writers) who will snub it because it’s self-published.

But that obviously doesn’t stop quality self-published work from entering the marketplace, and from quality authors. In fact, more and more established authors (for example, NYT bestselling author James C. Moore, who self-published his Sci-Fi/Mystery novel In the Time of Man using Kindle’s DTP service) seem to be joining the masses of lesser-known authors who couldn’t find a home with a publisher because their work either didn’t fit into a genre mold or would be difficult to market.

David Raterman, who has written books for National Geographic and Knopf/Random House (and who also worked two years for CARE in ex-Soviet Tajikistan), is yet another writer who decided to self-publish after trying to do it the old fashioned way. He recently released his debut thriller novel, The River Panj, in an e-version for Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, and the Sony e-reader, and as a trade paperback through CreateSpace.

Here are excerpts from a couple of rejections he received from editors before finally deciding to release it himself (he shares these rejections on his website):

The vividness of Raterman’s descriptions are stunning and I can certainly see what it is that has you so enthusiastic about his work. However, I am concerned that the book’s subject—while timely—has fiction readers a bit weary and unless it is covered by an established name in the marketplace, will have a hard time breaking out commercially.

It’s an exciting, adrenaline-fueled read, and interest in and awareness of the area of the world at the heart of this story have never been higher. But, ultimately, as intriguing as Central Asia is, I think it makes for a tough setting.

I’m always up for a page-turner, and not only can David deliver the fun, but his writing possesses a certain level of political sophistication that’s rare in these types of novels. As promising as it is, though, I am going to pass. For me it’s really a question of positioning—while it has its strengths, I’m just not convinced it will break out beyond its core audience. Alas, something we need for our select number of fiction titles here.

I learned about David Raterman when I received an email newsletter announcing the release of The River Panj. I thought, “Who is this man and how did he get my email address?” So I visited his website.

The first author who surprised me by self-publishing was James C. Moore. One would think an Emmy Award-winning former news correspondent and co-author of a book like Bush’s Brain would have no problem selling his exceptional fiction. I figured it was a fluke. Bad luck. Bad timing.

But then I visited David Raterman’s website and saw that it was clearly happening again, to yet another writer one would assume would have no problem selling his work to a publisher. There were three things I wanted to know about: David Raterman, The River Panj, and why on earth he would have to self-publish it. So, I emailed a reply to his newsletter and asked if he would be willing to be interviewed.

He said yes. By the time I sent him my first set of questions via email, I’d received a second newsletter, which read, in part,

As we reach the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and football season kicks in, I’d like to share news about my book. “The River Panj” is the first thriller to open in Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2001, and it shows a completely new image of Americans. On sale since Aug. 3, it’s already listed as #11 at Amazon for “Afghanistan.”

Our interview follows.

KT: Marketing something around 9/11 is difficult. There’s a thin line to tread: the date is relevant to the work, but using that day, one that means so many things to so many people, could make them think you’re using a tragedy to sell a book. How do you reconcile the two sides of the line?

DAVID RATERMAN: I’m extremely sensitive about using 9/11 as the backdrop of my story but to not exploit it. In fact, my story has no scenes at the World Trade Center or Pentagon or on Flight 93. But fiction writers are told to “write what you know.” And I knew that part of the world. I worked for almost a year at a prosthetics workshop in ex-Soviet Armenia. Our staff fabricated artificial limbs for soldiers and war victims. After that, I worked two years for CARE in ex-Soviet Tajikistan, which was struggling out of a civil war that was similar to Afghanistan’s (i.e., Muslim fundamentalists fighting to take over). In fact, thousands of our food recipients were Afghan refugees. And I was on the border twice during Taliban-Northern Alliance battles that were clearly audible (but we didn’t see them).

Warfare is part of humanity, as is storytelling. There were a handful of Americans in Afghanistan on 9/11 and I felt it would make for a fascinating literary subject.

We’ve already had many books, TV shows and films connected to Pearl Harbor and other tragic events in America. And there have been many books, TV shows and films featuring 9/11 in one way or another, so mine is not groundbreaking from that standpoint. I started writing this novel a few years ago and it’s purely coincidental that I’m doing any marketing at all right now—I published the ebook last month and the print book this week. Only recently did the designer create my book cover and a line editor checked the manuscript for grammar.

KT: How much of a challenge was it to try to encompass the complex reality of the reactions and behaviors of Afghans on 9/11 after they’d heard about what happened?

DR: Most of the Afghans in my story are very isolated, almost illiterate, terrorists so they gloat about the attacks on America. But people shouldn’t think I’ve stereotyped Muslims because I do have very intelligent and compassionate Tajiks, including my American protagonist’s fiancée who is a doctor right out of medical school. But, since I’m writing in the thriller genre, I need good bad guys and I wasn’t going to sugarcoat the terrorists’ reactions to the attacks. I also have innocent Afghans caught up in the madness of their country’s eternal warfare. Their plight is truly sad. Part of me wants to let all of the idiots fight themselves into extinction, but they need to leave the innocent people alone.

KT: Why did you choose Sept. 11 as the story’s start point?

DR: From 1997 to 1999 I worked in Tajikistan for CARE, which is based in Atlanta. And my boss became deputy country director of the UN’s World Food Programme in Afghanistan, working in Kabul from 1999 to Sept. 13, 2001 (when he got on the first flight he could). Because we didn’t have a US Embassy in Afghanistan, there were very Americans working there—maybe 100 working for aid agencies.

Writing my first novel, which I had long wanted to do, I was looking for an opening that tied together my personal knowledge—Tajiks are the main ethnic group in both Tajikistan and Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance—with a subject that would be completely unique and relevant to American readers. So it opens with emergency relief on 9/11 in Afghanistan.

KT: On your website, you write, “I wanted to go farther,” when comparing your approach to that of other authors who had written about relief workers. What do you mean, “go farther”?

DR: “Emergency relief” conjures up danger and compassion, which are powerful ingredients for a thriller. But it had been only superficially covered. The catalyst for the plot in Brad Thor’s bestseller “The Apostle” (2009) is an American physician being kidnapped in Afghanistan while working for CARE. Then Thor’s hero goes in search-and-rescue-mode. That’s great—awesome actually, because I loved the book. But the physician’s work activities are only superficially shown, and for only a few pages. I felt many readers would like to know more about characters like this, and I was the one to provide those details. In my experience, about 1/3 of the Americans working in relief are ex-military, 1/3 have a religious calling, and 1/3 want to see the world while having adventures. Of course there’s overlap. It’s a fascinating mix of people.

KT: Is it the work itself or the deeper reasons people choose the work and how it contributes to their (fictional) characters that was more compelling for you to communicate?

DR: I’m really pleased to shed light on the emergency relief/humanitarian aid industry. But also compelling to me are the characters. My protagonist Derek is an ex-Notre Dame football player who thought he’d play in the NFL, “but then he lost it all.” Readers find out what happened. I enjoyed putting his character together.

Another American character is a born-again Christian (from Colorado) who is doing volunteer work in his golden years “to make up for all the bad he did.” And another is an old draft-dodging hippie (from Connecticut) who embarked on a life of foreign relief work. Derek’s best friend works for Doctors Without Borders. After university, he served in the British Army as second lieutenant.

KT: I found this line from review on your website particularly … chilling: “David Raterman knows his stuff, because he’s walked the dusty roads of Central Asia and he’s looked al-Qaida mujahedeen in the eyes and lived to tell about it.” Can you tell me a little bit about that?

RT: It was serious in Tajikistan from 1997, when the peace accords were signed, until 1999 when I left. Several of my friends were kidnapped and/or killed, including a UN bodyguard (an ex-New York cop) being shot in the head, a young French woman with an aid agency being blown up by a hand grenade, and four unarmed UN military observers being executed on the side of a road. Also a few of my Tajik and Russian colleagues were kidnapped and beaten by criminals or authorities, including our handyman Ayub. His son had gone AWOL from the Tajik army for the third time because his officers beat him so much. So the son’s officers tracked down Ayub and beat him, after kidnapping Ayub’s wife. They said they would kill Ayub if his son didn’t show up in three days. On the third day, I was driven to talk with those officers. Scary stuff.

Probably the scariest incident was when my Russian girlfriend (now wife) flew into Tajikistan’s capital to visit me from Moscow. A three-day battle was taking place with government troops firing tank and artillery rounds from the airport tarmac to a hill where Islamic militants fired back. I didn’t think Aeroflot would land the plane, but sure enough they did. When she got off the plane she asked what the noise was and I shouted in Russian, “Get in the car! It’s artillery!” Driving off the tarmac, she asked if she could take photos of wounded soldiers walking away from the battle, five feet from our car. “Don’t even make eye contact,” I said. Still can’t believe Aeroflot let that plane arrive. I guess they needed the revenue.

KT: What was it like to talk with the officers about Ayub? That is, where did you meet with them and what were your surroundings like, how did they behave toward you, and what was it like to be in their presence?

RT: It was extremely tense. Driving to the meeting at Ayub’s rundown concrete apartment complex, we had no idea how drunk they might be, even during the day, or whacked out on something like heroin.

They did not want to deal with an American because they look up to us culturally and financially since we had so much aid in their country, and because they knew they were in the wrong with Ayub’s son. But they refused to budge, unless receiving $300 in US bills. We returned to CARE’s office where our administrators advanced Ayub his next two months of salary, which totaled $300. Ayub paid the officers and days later all was good. A father’s love …

KT: In The River Panj, the protagonist’s girlfriend and colleague are kidnapped, and the protagonist is later kidnapped, himself. Will readers get a sense of what the kidnapping experience is like beyond what we’ve seen on TV or heard about in the news? If so, how did you create that realism?

DR: Yes, my details are very raw, very real. I myself was beaten for 45 minutes by drunk military policemen in an ex-Soviet republic (Armenia) so I know what fear is—I thought I would die. I remember looking at the two MPs eyes each time they hit me. That was a powerful image I’ve kept.

And one time in the Moscow airport, I was locked up for 24 hours for not having proper documents, which was a lie by the customs officials. I wasn’t too worried for my life, because I had access to a phone and called the US Consulate, but it still was intense and the whole time I wasn’t sure if they’d come in and hit me or do whatever.

Looking into the faces of people as they do evil to you is good fortune for developing writers..

And, as mentioned, I knew a few people in Tajikistan who were kidnapped so I spoke with them.

KT: It sounds like you’ve had a number of real-life dramatic experiences in your life, so why not write a memoir? Why fiction?

DR: I have a collection of travel stories that one day I may see about publishing. As it is, several were published independently. The reality is that, unless you are already famous, it’s hard to sell your memoirs. Plus I personally wouldn’t write memoirs because I’m not one for pontificating. Why fiction? Because it’s fun to ask, “What if…?”

KT: The reviews of your novel are good, and you’re an established writer, so how is it that The River Panj is self-published? How is it that you weren’t able to place it with a publisher?

I went the agent route, and after getting about a dozen rejections he dropped me. That was frustrating, especially since I’d heard that so many novelists get scores of rejections before getting published. But he’s a huge agent, maybe too big for me at this point in my career.

Editors at publishing houses want to know that your book will sell. That’s why Snooki and Pamela Anderson have published novels but some strong literary and genre novels have not been published. It’s the chicken-or-the-egg. How can a novelist get book-buying fans without getting published, but how does the novelist get published without fans? (Hint: star in a reality TV show first!)

A few rejections did mention that Americans have reader fatigue when it comes to 9/11, and I do get that. But the vast majority of 9/11 books are nonfiction, and fiction is a completely different animal. It enables the author, and reader, to imagine scenarios instead of dwelling on what already happened. Regardless, mine does not have one scene in New York, Washington, DC or Flight 93. Mine’s set in Afghanistan and neighboring Tajikistan, with a secondary storyline in South Florida and Chicago.

Although I self-published, the novel is on par with what would have been released by a traditional publisher. The big differences are that instead of their designers creating my book cover and their editor(s) editing my book, I had to hire people. Fortunately I found a great designer and great editor named Ian Harper. A well-renowned freelance editor, Ian cleans up manuscripts before authors give them to their editors, whether the author is new or on his or her 15th book.

KT: How do you think your self-publishing experience might have been different if you hadn’t been able to hire an exceptional cover designer and well known freelance editor? Would you still have done it, or would you have tried to find another agent?

DR: I’m very well networked among writers, editors and designers so it was easy to find ones. Yes, I would have self-published even if I had to draw stick figures on the cover. “An emergency relief thriller” represents such a powerful theme, plus I had invested so much time into it, that I would have been derelict to not give it some sunlight.

KT: The River Panj is the first in a series. Are you already working on the next, and if so, what is it about?

DR: Yes, and top secret!