Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Q&A with Andria Williams

Andria Williams is the author of the new novel The Longest Night. She runs The Military Spouse Book Review, a blog that focuses on the writing of women veterans and military spouses. Her husband is an active-duty naval officer, and they have been stationed most recently in Virginia, Illinois, California, and Colorado.

Q: Your novel is based in part on a real incident. How did you learn about it, and why did you decide to write a novel based on it?

A: I've always had a weird fascination with nuclear power--possibly a strange quirk for a chipper, upbeat little Navy wife--and I finally traced this back to its genesis: The fact that, every summer as a child, I visited my nanna in Seabrook, New Hampshire, where she lived within the 10-mile "danger zone" of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant.

The only way to get into the small town from the beach was to drive past the plant, which sat a distance away at the end of a glossy marsh that rose and fell with the tide.

I'd look out the window, headed to DiMoula's to get groceries with my mom: there it was, a rounded gray shape, its reflection shimmering. Ride home at night sucking on a Dairy Queen Blizzard: look out over the marsh and there it would be, its lights blinking silently. I was never scared of it, but I always noticed it.

I remembered my mom's story that some senator who championed the plant had told residents: "If the reactor has a problem, just go stand in the water." It was sort of a Marie Antoinette "Let them eat cake!" cultural memory for the locals.

Anyway, while researching for my MFA thesis, I learned about a fatal reactor accident at a small Army-run plant in Idaho Falls, Idaho in January 1961.

The accident was notable not just because it was the U.S.'s first (and only) fatal nuclear meltdown, but also for the circumstances surrounding it. The small SL-1 reactor had exploded on one of the coldest nights of January 1961, killing all three operators.

Since there were no survivors, the accident has always been shrouded in mystery, but the prevailing explanation for many years was that the explosion had actually been deliberate: that one of the operators, a young man distraught over his wife's filing for divorce (and with a history of problems at work), had yanked the central control rod too high on purpose, in a murder-suicide.

This was a salacious and popular story, but the more I learned about the accident, the less plausible it seemed.

A wonderful book by Todd Tucker called Atomic America tipped the scales for me and convinced me that the accident had been essentially unavoidable--that the reactor had been malfunctioning for a long time, and that the young, enlisted men working it, though they were concerned about these mechanical problems, had been told by higher-ups that they would simply need to tough it out, wait for a new core to arrive and solve the problems as they arose.

Sadly, that new core did not get there in time. It was scheduled to arrive a couple of months after the accident occurred.

There were larger implications as well: emergency responders who were on-call that night found themselves in the midst of a catastrophe, and some of these brave workers died young, within a couple of decades, from the sorts of rare blood cancers that are almost exclusively caused by radiation overexposure.

Then there were reverberations for the Army nuclear program, which for the most part collapsed after 1961.

And, as I was writing the novel, the Fukushima reactor accident occurred, and when I learned that that reactor had been based on the same, mid-century model of the SL-1, I realized that the significance was even bigger.

That said, I should make it clear that The Longest Night isn't just a nuclear-accident novel--I don't want to disappoint Tom Clancy fans. While the accident is the climax of the book, I'm a literary-type writer, so I really wanted to explore the people involved.

I didn't base any one character on a real person present at the reactor, but I was moved by the story of one young man, a 27-year-old father of two who'd been working at the reactor only a matter of weeks when the accident occurred.

He had very little knowledge of the reactor's history and no clout to be able to do anything about it: he was just digging in his heels and hanging on. It seemed a sad and unfair piece of the story, and I wondered what he would have been like.

I thought, What if I could write this story in a way that gave him a voice, because his part in it was almost entirely voiceless? And that was when I first started to imagine the character of Paul.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and the historical as you wrote the book?

A: Because there are people alive who remember the SL-1 accident, and because the victims' families are still alive, I wanted to be very careful with how I explored the story.

Also, there still has been no one "explanation" for what exactly happened and who was at fault, so I knew that I would have to imagine it in a way that did justice to the time period, the workers, the people involved, without any one-to-one correspondence to actual individuals.

I decided that I would follow what I believed was the best explanation of events, while fictionalizing the characters completely.

It was also important to me to give a sense of the early atomic age, and the incredible amount of enthusiasm and, in some cases, naivete surrounding nuclear power.

For the scientists developing new projects, the budget was almost limitless. Nearly anything they asked for, they got. When the SL-1 accident occurred, it really pulled people up short.

I wanted to give a sense of a time so different than ours, when it seemed we could make the atom jump when we said jump, and that it would bring us nothing other than the dominance and success that we'd felt at the end of World War II.

To that end, I conflated a couple of historical events in the novel. Camp Century in Greenland, for instance, was actually not completed until four months after I sent Paul there in the novel.

But I thought the whole idea of an American Army base built beneath the Arctic ice, where soldiers would sit and languish for half a year at a time to the point where they sometimes hallucinated about seeing cows and Dairy Queens and "small Midwestern cities" on the horizon, was so fascinating and relatively unknown that I had to add it to this portrait of the era.

Q: How did you research the time period and historical details you include in the novel?

A: I read a lot of oral histories of Camp Century and the early atomic era. Camp Century was such a particular and strange post that the men who've been there have sought each other out over the intervening decades, and they have posted a wealth of information and photographs online, as well as some really hilarious, endearing, and sometimes sad anecdotes.

I relied heavily upon Todd Tucker's book and another account of the SL-1 accident, William McKeown's Idaho Falls.

I watched documentaries about the SL-1, including a famous one made just a year after the accident, and I looked at Google Earth maps of Idaho Falls and even watched amateur videos people had taken with their camera drones over the Falls and the town, because my kids were small and I had a third baby during the writing of the book and I couldn't travel there in person.

I re-watched some of my favorite 1950s movies to remind myself of the clothing and especially the household appliances and furnishings. I read a lot of books about 1950s culture.

I listened to '50s music day and night, which was not hard for me because I grew up on it -- it was what my mom listened to when I was a kid. I've always loved that music.

It helped me tap into the psyche of Nat, who I see as a very sweet, fun-loving woman who would have identified with the sense of longing prominent in so many of those songs.

Conversely, it helped me imagine Paul, who grew up in a house without music. That music served as a huge differentiating point for me between the characters of Nat and Paul.

Q: How did your own background as a military spouse contribute to the portrayal of your character Nat?

A: Well, I know what it's like to have to move all the time, and to feel like you are trapped in a house with small children, even if you would adore them and chew your way out of a trap for them and all of that. That walls-closing-in kind of feeling. I think most modern moms can still relate to that.

Nat's still fairly new to military life in the novel, so at least I had the distance of being on the other side of that initial shock. I felt like a grizzled old salt writing about her wide-eyed optimism.

Sometimes I felt bad for what I was putting her through. I'd write her saying something kind of sweet and hopeful and then I'd be shaking my head and chuckling grimly to myself, "You WISH, Nat." I'm a real jerk.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a novel set in the 1930s, about two young Irish immigrant girls running from a thug because they have something he wants.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Nothing other than that I'm very grateful for your time and attention to my book, and your generous promotion of fellow authors. Thank you, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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