Wednesday, October 28, 2009


by Michelle Gagnon

This week marked the release of the third book in my series, THE GATEKEEPER. I thought that today I'd share the genesis of the idea for the book along with some fun facts I found out during my research. Brace yourselves- what you're about to read is even more frightening than a special edition of "Wife Swap" featuring the balloon people.

So a little over a year ago, I was having dinner with a friend who is a veteran FBI agent. We were discussing how his job has changed in the aftermath of 9/11. Somehow the conversation turned to domestic terror groups, like the one that spawned Timothy McVeigh.

Through mouthfuls of pasta, he said, “You know what’s scary? Those groups have doubled in size in the past decade, but after 9-11 all the resources allocated to monitoring them were diverted to foreign terrorism. So there are twice as many of these guys out there, and no one is watching them. And now all these groups share the same agenda: they’re all anti-immigration. My biggest fear is that someone will manage to galvanize them.”

Boom- that was the seed of the idea for THE GATEKEEPER. (I've posted a "hate group map" detailing how many of these groups are currently active in America).

So my plot revolves around someone galvanizing them, kind of an American version of Osama bin Laden, who intends to commit the worst terrorist attack on American soil to serve his own ends.

And what would constitute the worst sort of attack? A nuclear one, obviously. But when I started researching, I discovered that in the United States, we're actually quite adept at managing high level nuclear waste. Spent fuel rods and their ilk are carefully monitored within the country, consolidated at sites like Yucca mountain. And according to ICE, every single shipping container that enters this country undergoes a radiation check, which eliminated the possibility of having uranium smuggled in (although that has become a terrorist mainstay in films and TV series).

However, I also stumbled across this fun fact. While the high level radioactive waste is carefully monitored, the low level stuff that might be used in a dirty bomb is actually loosely tracked. In fact, much of it isn't monitored at all. Here's a picture of one such storage site; note how drastically it differs from Yucca Mountain.

In fact, several sources of radiation, mainly from defunct medical and oil drilling equipment, are lost or stolen every year. As of 2008, U.S. companies reported losing track of almost 1,700 radioactive sources, an average of 430 a year. In Texas alone, between 1995 and 2001 more than one hundred and twenty-three items fell off the grid. Most were never recovered.

That's an average of eight sources a week that no one can account for. And if just one of those fell into the wrong hands, it could be used to create a pretty nasty dirty bomb. Here's a chart of how many cancer deaths would be caused by one such bomb, if it were set off in Manhattan.

The one fallacy in the book (as far as I know- hey, no book is perfect) is the job that one of my characters holds. He works as a DOD contractor, working on a project to consolidate those types of low level waste. And according to my research, no such safeguards actually exist. Scary, and worth sending a letter to your Congressperson.

I live in California, where border issues are in the paper almost daily, even here in liberal San Francisco. It's a complex issue, which I tried to show as many sides of as possible in the book. There are no easy answers, so I didn't try to pitch one side or the other. What I tried to show was how effective hate can be at uniting people, and that's never a good thing.

As part of my book release, I'm holding a drawing for a MacBook laptop computer. Entry is free, all you have to do is sign up for my newsletter (which comes out rarely, maybe a half-dozen times a year). For ten more entries, answer this question: "Which two characters (aside from Kelly Jones and Jake Riley) appear in both THE TUNNELS and THE GATEKEEPER?"


  1. Congrats, Michelle. Sounds like a great (and scary) premise. And key is your determination not to "agenda-ize" a complex issue, but show different sides. Authors do need to step into the character shoes of those they would oppose in real life.

    Re: the "fallacy." I say, Meh. I love to make stuff up and justify it. It's called Fiction.

  2. I noticed on the map that my home state of Alaska has no officially recognized "Hate Groups". Trying to figure out how that can be. We do have Hell's Angels and the Russian & Albanian Mafias up here. But then, they're just focused on crime and don't really hate anyone in a specific sense...just a general loathing.

    Besides what's to hate about our borders. Our only neighbors are Canada (too nice to hate for the most part) and Siberia (they're just happy to have neighbors that don't imagine them as a Gulag).

    Most of our immigration comes from Korea (owns most of our restaurants and hotels), and the Philipines and Samoa (again, mostly too nice to hate).

    So I guess we're cool, then. Unlike hateful California and Texas. ;-)

  3. Thanks for scarying me over breakfast Michelle! I just came from jury duty in downtown Oakland so I thought I'd had my scare quota for the day. Congratulations on the release of The Gatekeeper - can't wait to read it - and thanks for sharing your idea germination tale.

  4. Of course I really do know how to spell - but can't seem to manage it after all the scares of the morning...

  5. I can attest to your data being correct. However, it DOES take more than one source device for a radiographic device to create a dirty bomb.

    But there is a lot of missing stuff, to be sure. Very scary.

    Sounds like a story premise that might get you some great sales figures.

  6. Congrats on the release of THE GATEKEEPER, Michelle. It sounds like my kind of plot--can't wait to read it.

  7. Funny, Basil, the state I grew up in (RI) is officially hate group-free as well. Although there really aren't enough people there to form groups.

  8. Basil, according to A Prairie Home Companion, illegal Canadian immigrants are called "frost backs." Supposedly they ride across the border on the backs of Elk and bison, carrying prescription drugs in their backpacks, and sell Lipitor to our senior citizens. Sounds like a scary bunch worthy of their own hate group--maybe someone in Alaska should start a chapter.

  9. I will get right to it. We shall rid the north of those people we always get confused as being but whose mounties wear red jackets instead of the blue that everyone knows cops should wear.

    The first cell of :
    AK-Canuck Haters Militia

    defending our borders against Canuckistan. 'cause we're even colder & we don't say 'eh', you betcha. Oh yeah...and we make better beer too, dontcha know.

  10. WHOA . . . A new book just hit my 'gotta read it' list. I am a terror-thriller-apoc junkie!

    I used to be an environmental engineer for an oil company. I got to spend millions every year dealing with all sorts of entertaining hazardous material - you didn't surpise me one bit and that is what scared me!


  11. Terri- glad it makes your list! Would love to hear more about that job, it sounds fascinating...

  12. I kinda want that frog cake, Terri- is that wrong?