My book is 98% true based on my interviews with Cornel Dolana, his family members, and on my research. I chose to write it like a novel in third person to bring the story to life. The dialogue is representative rather than actual and I struggled for a long time whether to call the book biography or fiction. I decided on fiction with the subtitle: A Dramatic and Inspiring Story of Human Struggle Against Overwhelming Odds – Based On A True Story.
A story that had to be told
If a fortuneteller told me I was going to write a book someday about a man from Romania, I would have said that fortuneteller was a fake. I never dreamed of writing a novel or biography.
Writing articles and developing books in the field of fish and wildlife was part of my job for more than twenty-five years. My first book—more of a booklet, actually—was Fishing Fun for Kids, which sold more than two million copies. I coordinated the development of a student handbook on sport fishing and aquatic resources, which sold more than 200,000 copies. I also developed the Hooked on Fishing – Not on Drugs® program and with it teachers’ guides and supportive publications. It became the flagship youth education program of the Future Fisherman Foundation where I was founding executive director. The program received accolades from three U.S. presidents, the prime minister of Norway, U.S. Department of Justice and American School Board Journal. It became an official program of twenty-five state fish and wildlife agencies and was implemented in numerous schools throughout the United States. My interests did not include Romania. So what changed?
I heard a story that had to be told.
No Paved Road to Freedom is based on the life of Cornel Dolana. I first heard about Cornel from his son Corey. We met Corey and his wife the summer of 2004 at a marina in Clinton, Connecticut where we had a boat. One weekend they invited us and three other couples to their boat to get better acquainted. When Corey mentioned he was Romanian, I asked if he or his parents had immigrated. He answered with one of the most penetrating stories I ever heard. All on the boat turned their attention to Corey as he told how his father risked his life to find freedom. Jaws remained dropped as he shared story after story of the setbacks his father went through in his attempts to escape communist Romania.
When he finished, I asked if he had any of this written down. Corey pointed to his head and said, “It’s all up here.” I responded, “You need to record these stories because you’ll begin to forget the details.” At the time, I thought his father had passed away. When he said he was alive and living in Connecticut, I asked if I could meet him.
Out of my comfort zone
A few days later Corey introduced me to his father. I had expected to meet an introverted, almost angry man because of what he went through. Instead, Cornel greeted me with a big smile and a positive attitude. Handsome and silver-haired, he spoke with a thick Romanian accent as he summarized his escape attempts. His determination captured my soul and it was if God touched me on the shoulder and said, “You have to tell this man’s story.”
I had to step out of my comfort zone to follow God’s will. Most of my previous writing experiences didn’t involve dialogue or the need to make someone see, feel, and smell the surroundings. I had written one article, which required such elements. It ran as the cover story in Outdoor Life Magazine and was about two hunters in Alaska who were attacked by a grizzly bear. The article described their day-and-a-half journey into the wilderness, the bear grasping in its mouth one of the hunter’s heads and shaking the man’s entire body like a rag doll, and the other hunter shooting the bear and trying to get his buddy out of the wilderness to receive medical care. The experience of writing this one descriptive story wasn’t much, but it was enough to give me some confidence.
Did I really have the talent and commitment to write an entire book about the incredible bravery and sacrifices of Cornel and his family? I believed if God had confidence in me that He would provide guidance along the way.
When I asked Cornel if he would work with me to tell his story in a book, he threw his hands into the air and his face brightened with a smile. We worked with a lawyer to draw up a contract and I set a date to conduct the first interview.
Our seven-year journey began.
Next week: Nightmares and secrets
Sharon Rushton is an award-winning writer, documentary filmmaker, and conservationist. No Paved Road to Freedom was selected as the Book of the Month for February 2012 by the Military Writers Society of America (MWSA). In its annual awards, MWSA presented the book a Bronze Medal. In November 2012, Stars and Flags Book Awards gave the book a Gold Medal.
Sharon may be reached at www.nopavedroadtofreedom.com.
Images courtesy Sharon Rushton.