FQ: I always like to start out with the author’s bio, and, in this case, I want to congratulate you on your success with Living on the Fringe of the Mob and it being developed into a nine-part miniseries. Was this your end goal when you wrote this book, and if not, what course did you follow to make this a reality?
O'DONNELL: When I wrote Living on the Fringe of the Mob, I had no expectations except that the book would be published and enjoyed by readers. Soon, however, I began to get feedback from readers that the book read like a miniseries—each chapter leading into a new episode. Through a friend, I was introduced to a young attorney/screenwriter who worked in the entertainment business. He read the book and had a similar “take.” During the following year, we collaborated to develop a detailed outline for a nine-episode miniseries based on the book. Our proposal is now in the hands of several producers and networks. The good news is that we have not received any letters of rejection. But we seem to be trapped the “Hollywood waiting game.” We’ll see where it goes. Stay tuned.
FQ: In line with my previous question, any future plans for Run for My Life, other than a book?
O'DONNELL: I would love to see this story made into a film. I believe it carries an important message of the value of freedom and how some people will risk everything—including their life—in order to obtain it. Too many young people in the United States take their freedoms for granted. By reading Daniel’s story, I hope they will appreciate the freedoms that were preserved for them by their grandparents and great-grandparents who fought in wars to protect our way of life.
FQ: Run for My Life was such an inspiration. Daniel’s character is portrayed as one of strength and commitment and his triumphant escape from Communism is phenomenal. When you were writing his story, did Daniel share whether there was ever a moment when he thought the risks of escape outweighed the allure of freedom, and if so, how did he overcome and what was his guiding light to continue forward?
O'DONNELL: Prior to his escape, he had many days in which he was tortured by doubt and apprehension. The brutal killing of his tennis teammate, Ian, had a strange impact on Daniel. On one hand, he was filled with anger against the repressive Communist government and became determined to escape. On the other, he was apprehensive about being imprisoned if captured or likely killed in order to send a message to the other young athletes. In the end, his mother’s words echoed strongly in his mind and served as his major motivator: “You have to find the right time and the right place to escape. If you don’t, you’ll have no future in our country.”
FQ: How did you meet Daniel, and when did you realize this was a story that needed to be told?
O'DONNELL: I only knew Daniel casually at our Club in West Palm Beach, Florida. I did know that he was a former Club Champion in tennis, but had no other knowledge about his background. After I published “Fringe,” he approached me one day and asked if I was interested in writing another memoir. At first, I balked, feeling that my good fortune in meeting Steve Sachs and writing his amazing life story was a once in a lifetime experience. Reluctantly, I agreed to meet with Daniel to learn some of the details. Within an hour of our first meeting, I knew I was listening to a story that had to be told.
FQ: In line with my previous question, it’s clear to me that you are quite connected to the story. How challenging was it for you to write the proverbial ‘the end’ at story’s end?
O'DONNELL: Once I knew the details of his life, I realized that it was much more than the biography of a teenage boy that escaped. The overriding theme was perseverance and the power of the human spirit to overcome tyranny and find freedom. Plus, the background story of his mother was, for me, so incredibly compelling that I knew it was necessary to weave her impact on his life into virtually every chapter. (I told Daniel on several occasions that my only regret was not ever having the opportunity to meet his mother.) I also decided that my target audience had to be young people—teenagers and college age students. In light of the “super-fast” pace by which they live, I knew that a 300+ page book would probably never be read to its conclusion. If so, readers might totally miss the message within the book. Therefore, I purposely eliminated peripheral chapters and worked to keep the book to less than 200 pages.
FQ: It’s difficult for me not to address the ‘elephant’ who has been residing with me since I read your book. I certainly don’t want to politicize this amazing story, but I would be interested to know if you and Daniel had conversations around the current affairs throughout our world, particularly in America. Daniel experienced Communism. How does he view the direction our country has taken in the past few years?
O'DONNELL: Daniel and I have often discussed current affairs in our country and the direction it has taken in the last few years. We share similar opinions that our Constitution has to be respected and that our judicial system has to be free of political interference. Furthermore, parents have a right to know what their children are being taught in school. Daniel grew up knowing that he had to be careful about what he said and where he said it. Therefore, he places great value on free speech that is enjoyed by all citizens in the United States. He strongly opposes the efforts of any group or political organization to subvert our right to free speech.
FQ: In line with my previous question, Daniel emotes in the epilogue a beautiful sentiment: "...My story—like so many other stories of people who escaped from political oppression and tyranny—is an example of the power of the human spirit to risk everything to find freedom. May it inspire others to do the same..." Do you think hope is the foundation of freedom that breathes the necessary fire to persevere no matter what?
O'DONNELL: Exactly. So well-stated in your question. Hope, as well as resolve are required to work hand-in-hand to overcome threats to our freedoms. We have to maintain hope for the future as well as being totally committed to never let socialism undermine our democracy. It was interesting for me to talk to Daniel about such matters because he experienced Communism and knew, from first-hand experience, how awful life could be under such tyranny.
FQ: What a triumphant outcome in Daniel’s life. Was there ever a nuance of ‘victim’s survival’ he expressed with those in his home country who weren’t as fortunate to escape?
O'DONNELL: No, he has never portrayed himself as a “victim,” nor did he feel guilty to have escaped while others remained under control of a tyrannical regime. In Chapter Twenty-Four, in one of the most poignant scenes in the book, Daniel apologized to his mother for the stress and danger to which his parents had been subjected following his escape. His mother’s words then are still a powerful message to him: “No! Don’t be sorry...never...not even for one minute! We were proud of what you did...”
Now that Slovakia is once again a free country, rather than dwell on the negatives in his past, Daniel is happy with his life in the United States and is very happy for his cousin who lives as a free man in Bratislava with his family.
FQ: I was happy to see many years later that Daniel returned to his birthplace. Many aspects of life require closure in order to move forward. Have you ever revisited a time or place from your distant past? Are you able to share how it affected you, and was the experience a positive one?
O'DONNELL: As a young boy, I visited my grandmother who lived in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, the town where my father grew up. I loved those summer vacations away from my home town, Scranton, PA. She took me to parks, lakes, and historical sites in the area. I have vivid memories of those summers. Over the past fifty years, the coal mining industry that supported that area literally evaporated and the town population dwindled to a fraction of its heyday. A few years ago, an older cousin, the last of my relatives from that town, passed away and was buried in the family plot at Mount Carmel Cemetery, the same cemetery where my grandparents are buried. As I walked away after the services, I remembered the good times, but knew there was nothing to ever bring me back there again.
FQ: Thank you again for the opportunity to read your latest book. You have a wonderful gift and ability to engage your audience with captivating stories. I would imagine you are already working on your next project, and if so, are you able to give us a peek?
O'DONNELL: At this point I am busy working with my agent (something new for me as a self-published author) to market Run for My Life. We are hoping to place it in Hebrew schools as recommended reading, particularly for teenage boys and girls who are studying for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Book clubs and libraries are also part of our target audience.
As far as writing, I have nothing on the horizon. But, then again, I said the same thing three years ago before I met Steve Sachs and Daniel Kolmann. LOL