Beyond the one-line description of Supercell being “a fast-moving thriller set against tornado chasing on the Great Plains,” what the heck is the novel about?
Here’s the “elevator pitch” for it (an “elevator pitch” means the author’s got only the duration of an elevator ride to pitch his/her book to an agent or publisher):
Chuck Rittenburg, a former professional storm chaser, has lost it all: his business, his home, his family. But he’s offered a chance at redemption—-and a million bucks—-by a Hollywood film company if he can lead its cinematographers to a violent EF-4 or -5 tornado.
The catch: he has only two weeks in which to do it. And given the extreme rarity of his quarry, he knows the odds are overwhelmingly against him.
He quickly discovers, however, the short time frame and elusiveness of his prey are perhaps the least of his adversaries. He’s hurled headlong into a maelstrom of self-doubt, familial conflict, a deadly manhunt, love and betrayal.
He finds himself plagued by a bitter, estranged son; an old friend who remains haunted by the Vietnam War; a female FBI agent working undercover; a rebellious film-crew manager; a pair of murderous brothers; and a mysterious and dangerous guardian of what may or may not be a mythical fortune hidden away on the Oklahoma prairie.
The hunt culminates with a storm encounter so unique it’s virtually the stuff of legend.
All-in-all, Chuck’s two-week quest is filled with dark twists and turns that lead to surprises no one, not even a veteran storm chaser, could ever have imagined.
Supercell sweeps onto bookshelves in November.
PHOTO: courtesy Roger Hill.AFTER THE CHASE, INDELIBLE MEMORIES
Was it fun? people ask, knowing I’ve just returned from a tornado chase on the Great Plains.
Sure it was fun. If your idea of fun is sitting in a van for 10 hours a day, reeling in the miles (3500 of them in seven days); or waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen (thank God for Walmarts, great places to hang out); or falling in a ditch in the dark (next time I’ll bring a flashlight); or clogging your arteries with fast food (I had to double my statin drug dosage).
Oh, don’t take me seriously. It wasn’t fun in the sense of an Alaskan cruise or Caribbean vacation, but it was a memorable adventure. One I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
I went on the chase knowing there was no guarantee of seeing a tornado. And I didn’t. But I learned how chasers operate, which was the real purpose of going, and I learned more than I thought I would about the monster thunderstorms that prowl middle America. My work-in-progress, Supercell, will be a better novel for it.
PHOTO: A Nebraska supercell, May 2, 2012.
To ease the pain of long hours sitting on my butt, the chasers I traveled with were a good group: two doctors, a retired dentist (our driver), a lawyer, an arborist from Australia and a grocery store manager from London. Two of them, it turned out, were at least casual writers, so beyond big honkin’ storms, we a had another mutual interest.
Roger Hill, our tour leader, was an absolute joy to be around. Personable and articulate, he harbors the knowledge of a college professor and the enthusiasm of a college cheerleader.
Thanks, Roger, for a trunkful of indelible memories: witnessing the birth of a monster West Texas supercell; listening to coyotes chant in tandem with rumbling thunder; dogging a supercell through a lightning-filled Nebraska night; and chasing a hail beast along the Red River.
Ya know, I think I’ll be back. Still gotta notch a tornado on my belt.
-May 8, 2012-HUNTING UNICORNS
Yesterday, Silver Lining Tours and I might as well have been hunting unicorns as tornadoes. Tornadoes? We didn’t even see a towering cumulus! For awhile, we thought we might have chance at a big storm far to our west just north of the Kansas border in Nebraska, but, like legislation in the U.S. Congress, it went nowhere. So, we ran up the white flag and boogied for Salina, Kansas, where we caught up on our sleep.
We might have had a shot at some action in Missouri yesterday, but the SLT guys don’t like chasing there: too many trees and too many hills, and it would have put us way out of position for today’s target area near the Red River in northern Texas. (There was a tornado watch issued for northern Missouri/southern Iowa yesterday, but the only twister reported was near the Mississippi River, a couple of hundred miles from where we were.)
We won’t catch a tornado today, the conditions just aren’t right, but we might be able to lasso a high-based supercell or two spinning off the dry line. More importantly, it will put us close to Oklahoma City where we’ll bed down tonight and then say our goodbyes tomorrow morning.
So, I got skunked, but I knew going in that was a possibility. As I said earlier, this was all in the name of making the backdrop of Supercell as real as possible.
Yeah, there were long days, a couple of crummy motels and waaay too much fast food, but the bottom line is IT WAS WORTH IT. To witness the birth of a monster supercell on the high plains of West Texas. To pursue a cell through a lightning-flecked Nebraska night and watch it spit out a funnel. To listen to a chorus of coyotes singing counterpoint to a rumbling storm near the Red River.
-May 4, 2012-THE MOTHERSHIP
Yesterday was a weird day for storm chasers. We spent a lot of time camped out on dirt roads next to fallow fields and curious cattle in southeast Nebraska waiting for something to happen (photo below). Nothing did. Several storms rumbled and grumbled for a couple of hours, but just couldn’t get their acts together.
Finally, we throw in the towel on the nearby storms and decide to make a dash for the southern one. On our way, however, one the northern boomers decides to tease us with newfound energy. So we zig north. The storm goes flop bod. We zag south, the southern monster again our target.
We knew it would be dark by the time we ran our intercept, so I become Mr. Grumpy, kvetching—-silently—-about milling around in the blackness, after my bedtime, just to shoot lightning (of which there was plenty).
As we punch through the leading edge of the supercell to get on its southern side, the “viewing” side, Roger, our tour guide, says,”It’s got a hook!”—-the classic radar signature of a tornado.
We get south of the storm, turn east and run ahead of it, then pull off the road to watch. Continuous lightning illuminates the supercell, revealing a massive, rotating wall cloud. A “mothership,” Roger calls it.
The inflow winds whip at our backs, thunder ripples over the flat landscape and tornado sirens moan in the distance.
Suddenly, the wind changes, the outflow from the huge storm smacks us in the face. “Time to go,” Roger calls. We scramble back into the van and fly (never breaking the speed limit, mind you) eastward. Then the real excitement. “It’s got a funnel!” someone in the back of the van yells.
We stop again and pile out of the vehicle like Keystone Cops. Sure enough, less than a half mile away is the lightning-lit embryo of a tornado, a funnel cloud hanging from the mothership (photo below, courtesy of Gawain Charlton-Perrin). It’s not the little funnel that could, however, and doesn’t quite reach the ground.
Again the storm’s outflow rips at us and we scurry away, stairstepping our way east and north through the lightning-filled night, keeping a close eye on the roiling supercell. It cycles in and out of its tornado threat mode, but never quite makes it.
Still, it was exciting.
No more kvetching.
-May 3, 2012-