At The Fort Knox Of Uranium, With Bottles Of Blood

Fairly amazing story by Dan Zak on a nun and two male companions who breached security at a nuclear facility in the name of God:

The devil was just over Pine Ridge.

From the deserted parking lot on the edge of town, the three servants of God looked into darkness.

They clicked on their flashlights, pushed through the initial thicket of brush and began their trek, aiming for the black wooded slope.

First, the house painter: bearded, calm, quiet.

Second, the Catholic nun: gentle, grandmotherly, short of breath.

Third, the drifter: alert, intense, shouldering supplies.

They crept across the marshy field, led by some combination of God and Google Maps. Behind them was the city of Oak Ridge, Tenn., 30 minutes west of Knoxville. On the other side of Pine Ridge was Bear Creek Valley — cradle of the Y-12 National Security Complex, the “Fort Knox of Uranium,” birthplace of the heart of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima 67 years earlier.

It was, the house painter would later recall, as if the Almighty were guiding each step, across 1,000 feet of open field and up an embankment.

6 thoughts on “At The Fort Knox Of Uranium, With Bottles Of Blood

  1. Sweet Lord, this is good.

    There’s a lot of confidence in these sentences. That’s a big part of storytelling, ain’t it? Can we talk about that? What does it take to get brave with words? Is it just a matter of time and experience and putting enough black on white? Any stories about finding the confidence to write a story like a movie? That’s what this reads like. Or is the secret in reporting, reporting, reporting?

    Curious what y’all think.

  2. Yes, it’s the reporting. You can’t be confident if you don’t know. But usually there’s a lot more that goes into developing a strong voice. I’d be surprised if the author had not read — actually studied — a lot of the great novels.

    Dan?

  3. My editor on this story has a note taped to her computer monitor that says “It’s the reporting, stupid.”

    I was a lit major, but can’t pinpoint any novels that were on my mind as I wrote this. I could namecheck some novelists whose writing I’ve found instructive in general, but that would be pretty pretentious, right? Plus, while writing those flashback chapters of the activists’ break-in, the only thing I was thinking about was thinking like them.

    Happy to hear comments, here or by e-mail (zakd@washpost.com). Or criticisms. Lord knows I have my own.

  4. Dan:
    I recommended your story to readers in Milwaukee. I’ve started a “great stories” blog here. Some beautiful writing in your piece. I did have a question. I wondered why in, I think the third or fourth section, you told us so much of what would happen. We go back to the three on their quest, but we know what will happen to them. They will be caught and face trial. True, we don’t know how it all will go down. I wondered how you made this decision? It’s always a tough choice when you’re writing a narrative that’s also news. mark

  5. Thanks for recommending the story, Mark. Regarding your question about presenting key information up front: My editor and I felt that withholding it would be manipulative, particularly because there has been occasional press coverage of this intrusion and its fallout since July. It wasn’t exactly a secret that they are uninjured and facing trial. And we thought the central tension of the story was not “Will they make it?” but “What is wrought by a collision of worldviews?”

    Admittedly unconventional — and perhaps unsatisfying to some — but I didn’t want this to read like a caper all the way through. I wanted to marshal two forces, to build up two worldviews, so that when they meet (or fission) at the end, there is suspense from the encounter’s potential energy, or a sense that an explosion of some kind is imminent (even though everything written before it details the explosion). Plot-wise or physically, the encounter was a very undramatic conclusion to a dramatic hike. No shots were fired, etc. But, for me, there’s a kind of profound drama in these four people sharing oxygen for a couple minutes before the ungainly structures of society — the judicial system and the bureaucracy of the Dept of Energy — come crashing down on them.

    Does this make any sense?

    • That does make sense. I find it one of the main challenges in writing narratives. It’s not just settling on a question that you want to be the engine for the story. But you have to make the audience see this question as a true mystery and something they feel they have to find out. I can think of quite a few of my own stories in which I had thought about the engine and tried to signal it to readers, but I just didn’t do enough and later realized readers weren’t as invested in the question as I’d hoped. Thanks so much for giving us some insight into how you and your editors dealt with this challenge.

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