Q and A with TaraShea Nesbit, author of the novel The Wives of Los Alamos
The Wives of Los Alamos is a lyrical, extraordinarily accomplished first novel that I zipped through in just a couple of days. From the book jacket:
They arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure, or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship as they were forced to adapt to a rugged military town where everything was a secret—including what their husbands were doing at the lab. Though they were strangers, they joined together—adapting to a landscape as fierce as it was absorbing, full of the banalities of everyday life and the drama of scientific discovery.
While the bomb was being invented, babies were born, friendships were forged, children grew up, and Los Alamos gradually transformed into a real community: one that was strained by the words they couldn’t say out loud or in letters, and by the freedom they didn’t have. But the end of the war would bring even bigger challenges, as the scientists and their families struggled with the burden of their contribution to the most destructive force in the history of mankind.
The Wives of Los Alamos is a testament to a remarkable group of real-life women and an exploration of a crucial, largely unconsidered aspect of one of the most monumental research projects in modern history.
I really like your novel's structure, i.e. each chapter has a heading such as CHILDREN, UNTIL WE FOUND OUR OWN, PARENTING, BLAME, HUSBANDS. When you started writing, did you already have this structure in mind or did it evolve as you progressed through your first draft?
I didn't have the structure in mind, exactly, but I was thinking of Evan S. Connell's Mr.Bridge and Mrs. Bridgebooks. The narrative consciousness and the structure of time evolved as I did research and wrote the novel. I was thinking of how Connell uses very short chapters and vignettes to build the stories of an American family in the 1950s. I had been writing poetry and nonfiction almost exclusively when I began this novel and the short chapters were also a way for me to work within my familiarity of the lyric while exploring how prose navigates time. I've come to see that the chapters in The Wives of Los Alamos mark time while holding simultaneous time, but I only really learned I was doing this once I was done writing the novel.
Now for a question you must get quite often: how much research did you do? Did you interview any of the wives? Were most of the names of the wives fictitious, e.g. Starla, Katherine, Ingrid? Or, like Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer, were these the real names of some of the wives?
I read memoirs and various collected stories written by the wives, some published by the Los AlamosHistorical Society and some published by larger presses. I listened to oral histories on a podcast from the LosAlamos Historical Society and the Atomic Heritage Foundation. I wasn't able to locate any wives while I wrote the book--in part because those still alive are in their mid to late nineties by now, but I one wife did appear at a reading I did in Ft. Collins! She was gorgeous and told us all how very normal her life was at Los Alamos, despite the dramatic backdrop.
Did you find your opinions about the development of the atomic bomb changing as you wrote the book? (I kept thinking about how violent the world is and wondering about our future, which I'm guessing you knew many readers would do.)
I was not immediately interested in WWII America, I was interested in nuclear waste, and in particular, what America does presently with their nuclear waste. When I lived in Washington state, I learned that a very large nuclear waste repository resides along the Columbia River, and has a long history of contamination and spills. This concerns me greatly, and I'm angered by how little information is available about stories like this. The history of the Marshall Islands being a test site for atomic bombs following WWII that lasted for decades also troubles me, particularly the scientific evidence that babies born during the times of these atomic tests suffered, at times severe, malformations, and even death. But. I wasn't able to get past my own anger and find a real emotional center in the way I wanted, even after three years of research and writing.
As I started to go farther back in time and look at how we Americans got into this situation, which led me to the scientists who developed the atomic bomb, as well as their families. In writing this story from the wives' perspective, I came to see both how complicated this time was in history--it is always easier to have hindsight--but also how relevant this situation still is today. Plenty of men and women today have spouses that go off to work and these spouses cannot tell their partners what it is they are doing. Civilians have partial knowledge of so much of what the military industrial complex does, that it becomes difficult to critique or support.
The secrecy, we are told, is for our own safety. Fear pervades, as is it did during these women's lifetime, too. I'm bewildered, and yet this novel, I hope, does not take a position, as much as complicate positions. Readers seem to be responding favorably whether or not they viewed the bomb as a positive creation that saved lives, or a new scale of human cruelty. Ultimately I came to see that the creation of the atomic bomb posed many ethical and existential dilemmas, and outrage became tethered to empathy.
Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to write from the first person plural? Or did you try other points of view first?
The decision to write this story in the first-person plural came about by listening to these women talk about their lives at Los Alamos--they were asked what life was like in Los Alamos and they would begin their replies with: "We all..." where the "We" were the groups of wives. As the women narrated their own lives, I noticed that this "we" usage suggested they saw their primary identity as a group identity, and it became a useful way for me to explore the tensions we experience between being individuals and being group members. It has also been pointed out to me that the use of "we" can be used to diffuse blame, and I loved the formal challenge of the point of view. If anyone is interested in this point of view in more detail, I recently wrote an article for The Guardian about the history of this point of view. It isn't as exhaustive as I'd like, but a beginning.
If you don't mind talking about it, what are you working on now?
I'm going way back in time to the 17th century and telling a quintessential story of America. But I'm telling it from the perspective of a few people that are not well-known or thought of as part of this very big story.The