TaraShea Nesbit is the author of the debut novel The Wives of Los Alamos (Bloomsbury USA), a spring 2014 Indies Introduce title and a March 2014 Indie Next List pick. Her work has appeared in the Iowa Review, Quarterly West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and other literary journals. Nesbit lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature while teaching at the University of Denver and working as the nonfiction editor of Better: Culture & Lit.
The Wives of Los Alamos tells the story of women from all over the world who cut their ties with friends and relatives to live in isolation at Los Alamos while their husbands developed the atomic bomb. “This unique first-person plural recounting of real events culminates with varied reactions to the use of this powerful weapon on the people of Japan,” said bookseller Jane Morck of Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Washington. “Nesbit portrays these delicate issues brilliantly!”
What drew you to write about Los Alamos during this time period?
TaraShea Nesbit: It all began when a friend told me about a high school in eastern Washington who has a mascot of an [atomic] bomber. I learned that the town, Richland, was once a secret Manhattan Project city for plutonium production, and the legacy of their part in the atomic bomb making is a huge part of Richland’s history, hence the mascot. But I wanted to go further back in the history to the scientists. If Hanford was building bombs, what were the stories of the men and women who developed the science to make that bomb-building possible? I read about the lead scientists, but even more interesting to me was to think of what life was like for their educated, newly married wives who followed their husbands to an unknown location in New Mexico. This led me to oral histories and memoirs and to travel to Los Alamos myself. I was interested in finding the emotional experiences of these women who helped make the bombs through their support of their husbands and their work at the lab. I wanted to know these women and be their friend and make more space in the world for their voices.
What do you enjoy most about historical fiction?
TSN: I love how historical fiction stops time and how, at least for a little while, I can see all of the co-occurrences of the past. As a reader, I love both the work of Sarah Waters, for example, as well as the lyrical and metanarrative aspects of something like Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje. I love that historical fiction enables a reader to both inhabit a world of the past as well as a contemporary consciousness, and may be speaking to both moments in time.
What do you hope readers take away from your debut title?
TSN: I hope The Wives of Los Alamos adds complexity to readers’ understanding of the 1940s and atomic bomb history while encouraging them to seek out more information. I want readers to enjoy spending time in the environment the book creates, and it would be great if readers notice parallels between these women and that time and the present day.
Were books an important facet of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you?
TSN: Matilda by Roald Dahl was one of the first books I remember being all mine. It was the first book I really remember living in and rereading. Part of me believed that I, like Matilda, also had the ability for enormous powers of the mind, such as levitation, as long as I concentrated. Even though, in general, as the “real” grew and my fancies eroded, I did still carry the belief in this kind of possibility for longer than I should want to admit. But I’ve held on to it metaphorically ever since.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career as a writer?
TSN: Once I realized people could write as a career, I wanted to do that, but it took a long time to believe I could be someone who could make a career out of it. My dad called me often during my freshman year of college to attempt to persuade me that writing was a fun pastime but didn’t I want to become a stockbroker instead? Law was our compromise, but it did not take many literature classes for me, in my stubbornness, to decide to pursue my first love. In my earliest reading experiences, I thought of writers as people who loved other people so much they created these great experiences for them. I thought, perhaps in elementary school, that it would be great to be able to do that kind of thing, and of course my concept of what it meant to be a writer got much more complicated with time. I admire most those people who continue to confront failure to pursue love.
Are you working on anything now?
TSN: Yes, I am. It is all a little too early to say much about, but the second novel centers around a varied group of people on a 17th century transatlantic crossing from Europe to America.
When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?
TSN: Bookstores and grocery stores are the places I ask to go first when traveling — I want to see what people are reading and what they are eating, and a good bookstore makes a place for me. I love King’s Books in Tacoma, Washington, and being greeted by Atticus the cat, and it was Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle that helped convince me I should move to the Pacific Northwest. When I was doing research for The Wives of Los Alamos I often visited Collected Works in Santa Fe. And near me, Tattered Cover in Denver and Boulder Book Store in Boulder are two of my favorite places in Colorado.
What book is on the top of your nightstand “stack?”
TSN: I’m reading Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces right now. I had read some excerpts before, but I’m reading the complete collection in preparation for teaching. I love his idea of celebrating the infra-ordinary, a neologism for that which is the non-extraordinary, and yet not the ordinary, either. He says things like: “What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist.” And: “What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines.”
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand?
TSN: I’d want to give each person the book that liberates, rattles, and/or soothes, but I don’t think any one book does that exactly, as much as one finds that combination of the right book at the right time. If I could only choose one universally, I’d likely get really old-fashioned and choose something like Middlemarch by George Eliot or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit (Bloomsbury USA, Hardcover, 9781620405031) Publication Date: February 25, 2014
Learn more about TaraShea Nesbit at tarasheanesbit.com
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