I can’t always recall the exact starting place for each novel. Usually there are several seemingly unrelated ideas kicking around in my head for a while and some mysterious fusion occurs between them that points me toward a starting place, an opening scene perhaps, or a few lines of dialog, or just an image that I can’t seem to erase from my imagination.
But Bad Axe was different. I remember exactly when and where the idea for the novel originated.
I was chatting with my next door neighbor at a condo in Key Largo where my wife and I were renting for a few months during the winter. My neighbor, Doug Teel, is about my age so as we were getting to know each other he mentioned that he was a retired Air Force pilot. I asked where he’d been during Vietnam, a question that holds a special place for men of my generation. And he said he was stationed on an island in the Pacific called Johnston Atoll.
The conversation moved on to other things, but I was curious about Johnston Atoll. It rang a faint bell and the name sounded very exotic. Later, I sat down with Mr. Google and started reading about Johnston, and a couple of paragraphs into the first article my Muse said, “Bingo.”
Let’s back up a little. If this conversation with Doug had happened a year earlier or even a few months earlier, when I was still working on the most recent novel, I don’t think I would have even given Johnston Atoll a second thought. But the last novel was going through final edits, so I was virtually done and without being conscious of it, I was scouting around for the next story. So I was ready to hear about Johnston Atoll, ready to let it seize my imagination.
Little more than a landing strip in the middle of the Pacific, Johnston might not have tickled my imagination except that it was once the storage site for a large portion of America’s arsenal of poisonous weapons, Sarin, Agent Orange and VX nerve agent, among others.
After that initial Googling, I sat down with Doug with pad and pen and interviewed him. It certainly helped that Doug was second in command on that island during the period when those chemical weapons were being stored on the island. It gave him a unique insight and knowledge of most aspects of the island life. I asked him about the pattern of his normal days on Johnston. I picked and probed and nudged and Doug was more than forthcoming. It was also useful that Doug was a prolific reader of crime novels (including my own). He gave me details, images, stories, characters, a feel for that long-ago time and place that I would never have been able to capture by reading or researching. His help was invaluable. And though I wasn’t a hundred percent faithful to every fact and figure he provided, I tried to capture the feel of that time and place.
One thing Doug mentioned in passing was a Chinese junk that was adrift in the nearby waters, and needed help.
This small detail wound up playing a large role in the finished novel.
Once I had the initial ingredients in mind (island, Chinese junk, VX nerve gas), I began playing with the causal possibilities. In other words, what starts everything off? What finally lit the fuse for me was realizing that the issues that my generation had found so politically arousing back in the Vietnam days were still in some ways reverberating today. The anti-war radicals of the 60’s are the grandparents of a new generation of idealists, skeptics and activists of today.
But some of the extremists of today are not flowers-in-their-hair peace and love hippies. There’s a darker strain of radicalism today that targets immigrants. And they are just as convinced of the nobility of their cause as their anti-war grandparents were.
When I made that connection in my mind, I knew I had a story I could spend a year or more working on. The first dramatic question I had to solve was this: How does VX nerve gas survive all those decades only to reappear today with fresh volatility?
So, thank you, Captain Doug Teel, for planting the seed that grew into Bad Axe and once again forced Thorn to leave the tranquility of his Key Largo home.