When Writing is Difficult
Today I’m researching for my Chernobyl novel (Chernovel?)
A few days ago I decided to take a break from research and make a start on the novel. The reason being is that there is still so much research to do, and still a novel to be written, and only a limited amount of time in the universe. Also – this is the thing about exploring tragic events – researching Chernobyl has proven to be a desperately sad experience.
The novel so far is not at all sad. It has a little foreshadowing, but it’s early days yet. I plan to write it in six parts, starting with the night of the accident and moving into the rescue attempts, the clean-up, then onto the court trials and what happened to those displaced by the disaster. I then want to look at Pripyat today and investigate the future of the site. All in all I hope to provide an accurate and engaging account of the disaster that explores the human, technological and political elements at play.
I’d also like to give something back to those who lost their lives, their homes, their reputations and sources of income, their freedom, their sanity, their health. The radiation expelled by the meltdown represents only a small percentage of the damage done to people’s lives. It is the long term displacement, fear and stigma that makes the health consequences so much harder to bear.
But how does one give back? To say I’m sorry is an understatement. Sorry you lost everything! Sorry this problem doesn’t look like it will ever go away. Being sorry will not help anyone.
I thought then that the novel could give something else. Maybe it could give some clarity. Maybe it could give a human face to the ongoing consequences. And maybe it can give some hope. Maybe I can say, yes, this terrible thing has happened, but it’s okay to move on.
Of course it’s not that simple. But if I can give someone a shred of hope that the exclusion zone will eventually be chipped away, and people will eventually move back to Chernobyl and Pripyat, which are, after all, people’s homes, then that will be something.
But I was talking about research. Or lack thereof. The problem with lack thereof research, is that the moment you start to write is the moment you start to realise how incomplete your research is. I drafted the opening scenes: where is the amusement park? (spent an hour comparing maps and photos of Pripyat) Did plant employees live together? (cross-referencing some references suggests no for operators, yes for contractors.) How many buses would it take to move a night shift? Was everyone picked up, or did some people drive? How long did it take? How does one progress from the entrance of the plant to the control room? Does one have a shower on the way in or only the way out? What happened to Igor Kirshenbaum? Who in the world is Busygin? And so on and so on forever.
Hence my break from research turned out to not be a break from research at all, but rather the same amount of research interspaced with small amounts of writing things I was uncertain about.
Sometimes the research leads to interesting places. I discovered that one of the operators, Yuri Tregub, who I had previously thought was dead (and was quoted as dead, but you can never trust obituaries), was still alive in 2006. Tregub, a shift leader who stayed on from the previous shift to watch reactor 4 shut down and the results of the turbogenerator test, gave a vivid account of the night and clarified many details, such as who was in the control room and why they were there, and what had gone initially wrong with the test, as well as a great quote from Tregub, “the test had obviously been drawn up by an electrician [and not a nuclear engineer.]”
Then there is the sad stuff. Today I hit the sad stuff. It began so innocently. I have a short scene with a dosimetrist (who reads radiation levels around the plant) which aims to describe the reactor. Easier said than done. What does the reactor look like, exactly? I could draw you a cross-section, but to tell you what it actually looked like to someone standing next to it, I couldn’t tell you. My suspicion was that the reactor didn’t look like anything to someone standing next to it, because it was not possible to stand next to it. But I’ve heard from multiple sources that it was possible to stand in the hallway on level +10, look out the window, and see the reactor stretching up to the ceiling at +30, and the steam drums suspended somewhere around +24.
I just don’t know how this is possible, so I have asked someone who knows better, and hopefully will have clarification on that point soon. It’s now a moot point, because while scratching my head at that question, I realised the dosimetrist would have taken his readings on level +30, in the room on the top of the reactor, and not down beside it.
While looking at schematics, I found this:
It belongs to the Kiev 2010 – Trip to Chernobyl website, which has many interesting pictures and a great story to accompany.
The note is a telegram sent from Leonid Toptunov on the 29th April 1986, three days after the accident. At this stage Leonid and 230 others had been transported from Pripyat to Moscow Hospital 6 for treatment for acute radiation syndrome.
Leonid is someone who is difficult to write about. He was one of the major players that night. He was 25 at the time of the accident, two months away from 26. He was the senior reactor chief engineer on the unit 4 night shift, a position he held for some three months. As senior reactor chief engineer his job was to oversee operation of the control rods which controlled the reactor’s heating and cooling. Leonid made mistakes that night, although not drastic ones, until he joined shift supervisor Aleksandr Akimov in manually reopening the emergency coolant valves. This led to both men being soaked in radioactive water for upwards of three hours, dosing them each with 1500 rads on what was ultimately a futile suicide mission.
The telegram says:
Mama, I’m lying in hospital in Moscow. I feel good. -Lenya
It does not help to feel sorry for people. At times it’s impossible to avoid. Lenya Toptunov died on the 14th of May 1986 after an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant from his father.
These are the people I am writing for. The ones who lost everything. The ones who need hope.