Today’s special guest has a fascinating past with both Ukraine and the nuclear disaster which hit Chernobyl in 1986. Read on to find out more about what actually happened there and what Mary created from her knowledge of the disaster.
Mary’s Genre: Thriller, fantasy, non-fiction (an excerpt of “Doing Bizness” can be found at the bottom of the interview)
Mary’s Bio …
A pioneering American journalist who first visited Kiev in 1989 to do a clandestine interview about Chernobyl for OMNI magazine, Mary Mycio reported on the nuclear disarmament of Ukraine for the Los Angeles Times and was the first American journalist to visit a strategic nuclear bomber base during the chaos following the Soviet Union’s collapse. The author of Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl, she is also a lawyer, and for ten years she directed a highly successful USAID-funded legal aid program for Ukrainian journalists. She currently works as an international media development consultant in emerging and transitional countries such as East Timor, Moldova, Thailand and Ukraine.
TThe Titles of Mary’s Books and Brief Synopsis.
Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl (2005): When a titanic explosion ripped through the Number Four reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in 1986, spewing flames and chunks of burning, radioactive material into the atmosphere, one of our worst nightmares came true. Hundreds of thousands were evacuated from the most contaminated areas. The prognosis for Chernobyl and its environs–succinctly dubbed the Zone of Alienation–was grim. Today, 20 years after the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, intrepid journalist Mary Mycio dons dosimeter and camouflage protective gear to explore the world’s most infamous radioactive wilderness. As she tours the Zone to report on the disaster’s long-term effects, she is shocked to discover that the area surrounding Chernobyl has become Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary, a flourishing–at times unearthly–wilderness teeming with large animals and a variety of birds, many of them members of rare and endangered species. Like the forests, fields, and swamps of their unexpectedly inviting habitat, the animals are all radioactive. Cesium-137 is packed in their muscles and strontium-90 in their bones. But quite astonishingly, they are also thriving. If fears of the Apocalypse and a lifeless, barren radioactive future have been constant companions of the nuclear age, Chernobyl now shows us a different view of the future. A vivid blend of reportage, popular science, and illuminating encounters that explode the myths of Chernobyl with facts that are at once beautiful and horrible, Wormwood Forest brings a remarkable land–and its people and animals–to life to tell a unique story of science, surprise and suspense.
Doing Bizness: A Nuclear Thriller (2013): Warhead engineer Anton Zvezda goes AWOL in disgust when his strategic nuclear bomber base mutinies against Moscow and declares loyalty to independent Ukraine. His only comfort after the nightmare of the Soviet Union’s collapse is his Russian Orthodox religion. But when a breakaway Ukrainian church brings signs of the Apocalypse and threatens his faith, he puts his warhead skills to work on a terrifying plot. A modern system for Kiev to keep track of what is suddenly the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal could help American military contractors Neil Neilson and Dan Kruger keep their jobs. It could also keep the world safe from would-be smugglers — like the Ukrainian official who offers them enough bomb-
grade uranium to wipe out a country. But while Washington bureaucrats block their efforts, Iraqi spy Tariq abu Bakr is in Kiev to buy a Bomb for Baghdad – on pain of death – until the brilliant and beautiful Sveta learns the secret that can thwart his plans and achieve her own ambitions. The USSR’s demise unleashed a flood of radioactive materiel that is still at risk for smuggling and diversion. “Doing Bizness: A Nuclear Thriller” is a story about how all that began. International intrigue, high-octane sex and a pair of monks on a mission, mix into a radioactive time bomb, propelling Doing Bizness to its startling, and deadly, conclusion. Based on true events – some surreal, others terrifying — it really could have happened.
Hi Mary, it’s great to have you here. I have to say this is a very powerful and disturbing subject. What made you want to write this story?
I’ve been fascinated and frightened by nuclear energy since my 5th grade teacher told our misbehaving class that we would all die in a nuclear war because we didn’t follow instructions. As an adult, I read everything I could about quantum mechanics. Maybe it was a way to tame my fear of the atom but it also opened my mind to the closest thing we have to magic in the natural world. As for the specifics of Doing Bizness, I covered nuclear issues in Ukraine for the Los Angeles Times and used to drink beer with two American military contractors who actually got offered 100 kilos of highly enriched uranium. I also knew a guy who peddled red mercury.
The Night Bar was a real place. The Cristina Smythe character is a composite of many women reporters I knew in Kiev. (My husband thinks it was me, but it wasn’t – except for the cowboy boots.) All those stories needed a place to live.
I can see by your book biography you have actually been out to Ukraine and seen the devastation there? What was it like? How did it move you?
I lived in Ukraine for 16 years, from 1991 to 2007. Actually, it’s not devastated at all, except for the thoroughly rotten legacy of the Soviet Union. Kiev is a very beautiful city with a deep history and I loved living there, even in the early years when you could survive on $20 a month because there was nothing to buy. It was, in part, Communism’s devastating economic effects that made nuclear smuggling possible after the USSR’s collapse.
How did you build your story around those events?
It was such a strange and bizarre time, I didn’t have to make much up. Nearly everything in the book was drawn from life. The strategic bomber base mutiny really happened. A group of friends and I drove there the next day. Rival Orthodox Churches really did poach each other’s parishes. I knew weird, ill-educated monks because a bunch of them squatted on a property next to a stable outside Kiev where I used to ride. Even the pierogi fundraiser on Long Island to buy the Ukrainian security service its first computers really happened.
Are all your characters fictitious or are they based on real people?
In Doing Bizness, a few of the characters are based on real people, though their characters and what happens to them are fictitious. I made up the rest.
How do you research your books?
For a non-fiction book like Wormwood Forest, I researched extensively – much too much – before I started writing. But in the middle of it, I realized that much of what I had in my notebooks wasn’t making it anywhere near the page, so I stopped and focused on the story of my adventures in the Zone of Alienation, leaving blanks for research that needed filling in. Now, I research just enough to know what questions to ask and what to look for when I’m in the field. As a reporter, I learned that there is nothing like going to the place you’re writing about to get the story and it isn’t always what you think it will be.
Who do you act out the scenes in your novels with?
Honestly, I have never tried it.
What is your favourite theme or element in writing?
The reality that we can’t see.
What do you think makes a good writer?
Spelling and grammar, discipline, ability to take criticism and rejection, willingness to kill your darlings, recognizing that the reader is usually right and your book will never be for everyone.
For all those new writers out there who are about to pick up the pen, what advice would you give on how to start a story?
Start each scene in the middle. Provide no more than a few sentences of backstory per character for the first 50 pages and no one cares about the characters’ looks unless their looks are the point of the story.
What is the best advice you have been given as a writer?
It wasn’t advice, but one of the best books on writing that I’ve read was Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden, with fantastic advice for writing in any genre.
What are your future plans?
The Forest Song (The Roxolana Series): My current project is the first book in a historical fantasy series based on Slavic folklore and an exploration of the intersection of science and magic.
Thanks very much for joining me here today. Now let’s find out how to get hold of your latest book, Doing Bizness.
Excerpt From “Doing Bizness”
February 12, 1992 (Kiev, Ukraine). The Soviet Union’s breakup left its armed forces practically intact where they were deployed. As a part of the second strategic echelon of the Warsaw Pact, Ukraine inherited a first class force package including 700,000 ground, air, and air defense forces; the 97,000 personnel of the Black Sea Fleet; 500,000 paramilitary troops as well as more than 4,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. For each Ukrainian soldier, there are 54 weapons. The norm should be 2. Ukraine also inherited about 30 percent of the Soviet military industry, which comprised 60 percent of all Ukrainian enterprises and employed 40 percent of the working population.
January 30, 1992 (Almaty, Kazakhstan). At the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) meeting, the Ukrainian President rejected Russia’s proposal to create joint CIS armed forces. He declared that Ukraine will nationalize all of the ex-USSR’s conventional forces on its territory and personnel will take an oath of loyalty to Ukraine. But he agreed to put the strategic nuclear forces in Ukraine under joint CIS command and to abide by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
February 2, 1992 (Sevastopol, (Crimea) Ukraine). The General of the Black Sea Fleet insisted on Monday that the fleet is a strategic force and therefore under joint CIS command. He refused to administer the Ukrainian oath. The majority of Crimea’s population is Russian and pro-Russian separatism is widespread. The region is highly explosive.
Faxnews- Ukraine – Your source of English-language news about Ukraine
Sweat trickled down the colonel’s back as he paced the frigid tarmac in front of four loaded AK-47s. The moonless heavens blazed with stars.
“He got clearance from Kiev. He’s coming in.” A mechanical voice crackled over the walkie-talkie he gripped in his gloved hand together with the crumpled midnight cable.
GEN. MIKHAIL SMIRNOV AWOL STOP ARREST UPON ARRIVAL AT 0500 ETA UZIN STRATEGIC BOMBER BASE STOP ILYUSHIN-78 TAIL NO. 86659 ORDERED TO LRAF MOSCOW STOP.
It came from the Commander of the Long-Range Air Forces in Moscow, suddenly the capital of a separate country.
Colonel Pavlo Demiuk stuffed the walkie-talkie into the pocket of his rough wool coat and felt the handcuffs that grew heavier when the Ilyushin’s headlights appeared on the southern horizon.
“Ready!” he commanded and the officers snapped to attention as the Il-78 approached the runway with a distant roar of engines.
“We’re arresting our commanding officer?” piped in an alarmed voice.
Demiuk glanced at the small group of junior officers shivering on the tarmac in the frozen February night.
“I’m your commanding officer now,” he grunted with little enthusiasm as the fat, heavy Ilyushin taxied on the tarmac, the numbers 86659 painted in its tail.
The tankers were flying gas stations, built for the in-air refueling of strategic nuclear bombers during their long, grim and — since the end of the Cold War — now hypothetical missions to American cities.
Demiuk squinted into the clouds of steam and exhaust glowing in the headlights. He can see us, he thought, when the plane screamed to a halt in from of them. Gas fumes permeated the cold air.
The cockpit door opened.
“Aim,” barked Demiuk as Smirnov slowly climbed out of the plane to face the subordinates ordered to arrest him. The general flicked his chin at the colonel.
“So, my old friend, this unpleasant task has fallen to you,” he said cautiously. The backlighting from the tanker’s headlights hid his eyes but exhaustion tugged at the patrician features under the silver fur officers’ hat.
Demiuk swallowed what felt like a dry rock. “General Mikhail Smirnov, the Commander of the Long-Range Air Forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States has ordered me to put you under arrest for violations of military and criminal codes.”
Smirnov glanced at the circle of AK-47s.
“At ease, boys,” he said politely and then ordered them to: “Put those fucking guns down.”
The junior officers instinctively lowered their weapons at the command.
“God damn it, I ordered you to aim.” Demiuk boomed as the wavering group raised their guns, their eyes darting back and forth over the gun sights from the general to the colonel. They had bad attitudes. All the Soviet officers did after they found themselves ex-Soviet but still officers in armies belonging to no one.
Demiuk spoke as calmly as he could. “General, you are charged with insubordination and stealing state property and are relieved of your command pending the investigation.”
While flying the high-performance Ilyushin tanker from Russia’s Far East to Moscow, Smirnov reported engine trouble and requested permission to land at his home base in newly independent Ukraine. When Moscow denied it, Smirnov, scion of a military dynasty that led Russia’s 19th century conquest of the Caucasus, disobeyed and flew the Ilyushin to Uzin.
“I can’t steal from a state that no longer exists,” said Smirnov.
Demiuk stabbed a gloved finger at the tanker. “By disobeying orders, you stole that plane and it is your duty as an officer to surrender.”
“Listen to me, Colonel,” said Smirnov and Demiuk heard entreaty rather than command in his voice. “If I surrender, it will be your turn tomorrow and after that, all of you.” Smirnov directed a level gaze at the young officers. “Moscow wants to close us down. As we stand here freezing our asses off, they’re cabling orders to fly six more Ilyushins to Russia.”
Demiuk blanched and a light sweat froze on his face, like sharp daggers in the cold. “A whole regiment?” he asked.
“The second regiment will follow in March. General Konstantinov is arriving at 1300 hours to make the announcement.”
Gen. Sergei Konstantinov, the Commander of the Long-Range Air Forces, had last visited Uzin to inaugurate the Tu-95 strategic bombers that the Americans called “Bears”. Demiuk had just transferred to Uzin.
“How about us,” Demiuk asked with alarm. The Ilyushins are our future. If they leave, what would happen to the officers?
Smirnov’s dropped his shoulders and sighed. “Because of the special circumstances following the Soviet Union’s collapse, each officer will have a choice to transfer together with the planes to…” The general seemed to trail his voice deliberately for impact. “Vladivostok.”
Demiuk’s involuntary groan conveyed his distaste for Russia’s frigid Far East. But what would he do without the Ilyushins? All that he knew how to do was command junior security officers at strategic nuclear bases.
“That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it, Comrade?” Smirnov eyes glinted. “The Far East is already bursting with all the poor bastards withdrawn from East Germany. That means no more shashliki roasts with vegetables from Maria’s garden.”
Demiuk’s wife would be heartbroken over the move. They had long ago tired of base hopping. Komsomolsk, Mishelevka, Riga. Every place he got stationed in the Soviet sixth of the world’s land mass had been cold – until Smirnov got him transferred to his native Ukraine. He and Maria had been so glad to come home. She was never happier than with her hands deep in the black earth of their backyard..
“And the bombers, Misha?” In his alarm, Demiuk had called his friend by his nickname. They always maintained strict formality in public. “Do they go, too?”
“Right now, no,” said Smirnov. “No one needs them.”
The bombers were good for nothing but bombing. The Ilyushin-78 tankers, though, were good for plenty. Their capacity for carrying aviation fuel made them militarily dangerous during the Cold War. Their dual capacity for carrying dry cargo made them commercially valuable during peace.
“What happens if we stay?” asked Demiuk,
“We will receive honorable discharges, or…”
“Vladivostok or an honorable discharge just three years from my pension? Are you kidding me? That’s not a fucking choice.”
The junior officers lowered their gun sights and stared in frank fascination as Demiuk absorbed the blow that would affect them all. The Ilyushin’s headlights glinted off the handcuffs he still clutched along with the cable and Moscow’s impossible orders.
Smirnov’s voice snapped him back. “Pavlo!” he said sharply. “Listen to me!”
His friend rose into his epaulets. “I have a plan to keep the planes – and us – here in Uzin without any discharges. But we don’t have much time. I want all the officers in the mess hall at 0600.”
Demiuk saw the blank spot left on Smirnov’s coat when they both snipped the SA patches off their uniforms that cold December evening when the last General Secretary announced on television that the Soviet Union was no more. It was darker than the surrounding fabric that had faded with time.
SA. Soviet Army. Not anymore
He snapped to attention and saluted.
Moscow be damned.
Thanks for the interview, Lynette! It was fun to do.
My please Mary it was great having an author on my blog who had such a unique story to tell.