Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Q&A with Janet Beard

Janet Beard is the author of the new novel The Atomic City Girls, which takes place in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II. She also has written the novel Beneath the Pines. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Q: You grew up near Oak Ridge. How did your longtime interest in the area's history lead to your writing this novel?

A: I first learned about Oak Ridge’s history on a field trip to the science museum there when I was around 8 years old and found it both intriguing and frightening. About 10 years ago, I saw a short television documentary that reignited my interest.

As a child, I was mostly disturbed by the idea of atomic weapons, but as an adult, I became more interested in the human stories of the thousands of people who came to work in Oak Ridge during the war, particularly the young women. Those stories became the basis for the novel.

Q: You tell the story from several characters' perspectives. How did you come up with the idea for these characters, and did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or focus on one character at a time?

A: I always wanted to use an array of characters to capture the different aspects of life and work in Oak Ridge but knew I would focus on a young woman working in one of the plants where uranium was being enriched. So I started with the character of June and worked out from there.

I wanted her to find out what was going on at Oak Ridge and thought she could have a relationship with someone who already understood the concept of an atomic bomb. That character became Sam, a physicist.

I also felt that the African American experience was essential to Oak Ridge, and so I developed the character of Joe and looked for ways to connect his story to June’s in this very segregated world.

I wrote in what I thought would be the order of the novel, but wound up restructuring many times during the revision process. In early drafts, I had even more characters, who eventually shrunk or disappeared entirely for simplicity’s sake.

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate Oak Ridge in the World War II era, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: My best resource was the oral histories of Manhattan Project veterans that had been collected and published online. Those descriptions of life in Oak Ridge were invaluable and included lots of surprising details that made it into the book.

I also read academic histories of Oak Ridge during the war, and the Manhattan Project more generally. To get the flavor of the time period, I watched movies from the era and loved to listen to 1940s music while writing.

Q: The novel also includes a variety of photos from the period. How did you decide on what to include?

A: The photographs of Ed Westcott were a tremendous resource to me while writing, and I’m thrilled to be able to share them in the book.

The Army hired Westcott to document all aspects of work and life in Oak Ridge, and because no other photography was allowed, these images are the only ones that exist of Oak Ridge during the war.

All of his photos are wonderfully evocative, so we tried to find the ones that best illustrate the characters’ stories to use in the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel looking back at six generations of women, also set in East Tennessee. Their stories are inspired by folklore, in particular Appalachian murder ballads.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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