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By Jeff Ayers

America needs a hero in Afghanistan. At the beginning of the war, our mission was clear-cut. And that’s how it remains in The River Panj, an emergency relief thriller featuring ex-Notre Dame football star Derek Braun.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Derek is doing relief work in war-torn Afghanistan when his fiancé and elderly colleague are kidnapped along the border with Tajikistan, which is struggling out of its own civil war. With no one to help, he goes in search. On this dangerous journey, he faces Islamic terrorists, heroin smugglers, corrupt Russian soldiers, Iranian spies and helpless CIA agents, witnessing an assortment of terrible acts that culminate in his own kidnapping.

Meanwhile terrorists begin using bodies of released hostages to export radioactive material to America. Osama bin Laden wants to acquire cesium-137 powder from the Soviet nuclear plant still operating in Tajikistan. But is al-Qaeda involved in the plot to detonate the world’s first suicide dirty bomb at the Sears Tower in Chicago? Or another terrorist group?

Derek finds out. But can he escape with his loved ones and alert authorities before it’s too late?

National Geographic and Knopf author David Raterman, who worked for two years for CARE in ex-Soviet Tajikistan along the Afghanistan border and at an Armenian prosthetics clinic that fabricated artificial limbs for soldiers and war victims, discusses his debut novel THE RIVER PANJ.

Could you talk a bit about your background?

I grew up in Chicago and Cincinnati and studied journalism at Ohio University. After graduating, I backpacked around much of the world for 7.5 years while working odd jobs to support myself, including almost a year at a prosthetics workshop in ex-Soviet Armenia. Our staff fabricated artificial limbs for soldiers and war victims. After that, I taught English in Moscow for three months and then worked 21 months for CARE in ex-Soviet Tajikistan, which was struggling out of a civil war that was similar to Afghanistan’s (i.e., Islamic militants fighting to take over).

During these years, I was on the front lines of three wars, missing one in Croatia. With so few Americans in Armenia and Tajikistan, I became friends with CIA agents, ambassadors, aid workers, missionaries, journalists, and of course the locals. Russian, Armenian and Tajik soldiers were my neighbors, I had meetings with Islamic militants to coordinate food distribution, and I dated a Tajik girl who one day showed up with Afghan heroin wrapped in tinfoil. I became fluent in Russian, which I still sometimes speak with my wife and our twins.

What compelled you to write THE RIVER PANJ?

Because we didn’t have an embassy in Afghanistan during the Taliban period, there were very few Americans working there on 9/11. I felt that featuring an American emergency relief worker dealing with the side effects of the attacks on America would make for a fascinating literary subject.

A thriller that opens in Afghanistan on 9/11 had never been published before, and emergency relief had not received much attention either, although Brad Thor’s THE APOSTLE, Christopher Reich’s protagonist Jonathan Ransom, and Ken Follett’s 1986 best seller LIE DOWN WITH LIONS had touched on it. Emergency relief presents danger and compassion, which are such important elements in fiction.

I worked in Tajikistan from 1997 to 1999 and my boss Peter Goossens became deputy country director of the UN’s World Food Programme in Afghanistan, working in Kabul from 1999 to Sept. 13, 2001. Can you imagine being there on 9/11? Or dealing with the Taliban to distribute food to starving people?

So as a novelist trying to break into the publishing world, I wanted unique hooks like 9/11 in Afghanistan, emergency relief, and even Notre Dame football. Since my protagonist becomes an amateur sleuth, which is almost unheard of in international thrillers, I needed him to seem tough enough. My uncle John Raterman played linebacker for the Irish, and Notre Dame has the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, so all that jelled to create my protagonist. He’s 27 and has worked in emergency relief for five years.

And about one-third of my thriller is set in Tajikistan, where tens of thousands of Russian troops were posted, including along the Afghanistan border (the River Panj). There’s a rich history of thrillers dealing with the Russian army so I felt that would pull in readers to my book. Another third of the story takes place in South Florida and Chicago as part of a secondary storyline tied to the primary.

How did you research the novel?

Living in the region was critical. In fact, it might not be an exaggeration to say that the few Americans there had more knowledge than the CIA agents. Four of us in Tajikistan volunteered as security wardens for the US Embassy, which had evacuated to Kazakhstan due to threats. About once a month we briefed the diplomats and CIA guys when they flew in. We told them about kidnappings, troop movements if we saw any, how the economy was faring, etc.

In hindsight, it’s scary how clueless the CIA guys were, considering they had evacuated and none of them spoke Farsi. One spoke broken Russian. I’ll never forget once translating between the US Embassy’s defense attaché and the Chinese ambassador. She spoke only English and he spoke only Chinese and Russian.

For CARE, my role was to visit our projects throughout the country and write reports and to write proposals for new projects. Right before I left we were approved for a new education project, which I’m really proud of. I was also responsible for monitoring the inventory of our massive food distribution and agriculture projects.

I learned so much from interacting with war refugees from inside Tajikistan and from Afghanistan—Tajiks are the main ethnic group in Tajikistan and Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. And I had countless meetings with government and military leaders.

And as mentioned, I was on front lines of wars. In Tajikistan, that included being an arm’s length away from soldiers in battle and hiding several times while RPGs were fired outside my house. Plus American, French and Tajik friends were kidnapped and killed. Twice I was on the Afghan border during Taliban-Northern Alliance artillery battles. We could hear the booms but couldn’t see the Afghan soldiers.

All of this was invaluable for a developing novelist. I should mention that Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Somerset Maugham, John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings and lots of other future authors served as ambulance drivers in World War I. By World War II, American civilians couldn’t drive ambulances in combat anymore.

What prompted you to self publish your novel?

I went the literary agent route but after getting about a dozen rejections he dropped me. He’s a huge agent. Maybe too big for a new novelist like me.

A few rejections mentioned that American readers have fatigue when it comes to “9/11 books,” but the vast majority of those are nonfiction. I also thought I had some key differentiators among the novels, but that didn’t help. I suppose it’s always been tough to break in with fiction.

With most of the rejections being heartbreakingly encouraging (I posted samples on my website), and “an emergency relief thriller” representing such a powerful new subject, not to mention I had invested so much time into it, I had to give it some sunlight.

I’m glad I did. Three weeks ago Media Bistro put it among “5 eBooks About 9/11” (mine is also in paperback). The others include The 9/11 Commission Report, an anthology from THE NEW YORKER, and CBS News archives published by Simon & Schuster. Mine was the only self-published book, and the only novel. You can read more about that here.

Although I self-published, the novel should be on par with what traditional publishers release. Just instead of their designers creating my cover and their editors editing my manuscript, I had to hire freelancers with strong New York experience. Ian Harper line edited the manuscript and gave some overall comments as well. Jeroen Ten Berge did the cover.

Of course I also didn’t get all the sales and marketing support that a traditional publisher would have provided. Or an advance.

What’s next?

I’m currently updating National Geographic’s travel book on Miami and the Keys, which I also did in 2008 and 2005. My deadline is Nov. 9 so I’m working hard on that. I also write fitness profiles for the SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL and line edit books for a publisher.

The RIVER PANJ is the first in a series of emergency relief thrillers featuring my protagonist Derek Braun. I’ve already started the next one.


National Geographic and Knopf author David Raterman worked two years for CARE in ex-Soviet Tajikistan along the Afghanistan border. He also worked at an Armenian prosthetics clinic that fabricated artificial limbs for soldiers and war victims. The River Panj is his debut novel.

Raterman is a features correspondent for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. A native of Chicago and Cincinnati, he lives in Fort Lauderdale. He studied journalism at Ohio University.

To learn more about David, please visit his website.

Jeff Ayers
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