A Conversation Between
ANDRIA WILLIAMS and DAVID GILLHAM Author’s Note:
David Gillham (author of the New York Times
bestselling novel City of Women
) and I are writers with similar interests: We tend toward historical fiction that explores the daily lives of women in tough situations. I loved his debut novel, City of Women,
which focuses on Sigrid, an SS officer’s wife living in Berlin during the Holocaust. With all the men away at war, Berlin has become a “city of women.” Sigrid, though insulated as the novel opens, comes to realize the scope of the horror taking place all around her, which causes her to revolutionize—and risk—her own life in an effort to save others. I love big novels with women at the center: tough, thinking women who undergo such fierce upheaval that they are moved to change the world around them.
So I was thrilled to chat with David, one novelist to another, and answer his perceptive questions about my book: the historical event behind it, the fictional characters, and more.
David currently lives with his family in Massachusetts, where he is at work on another novel.
I loved this book, Andria. The characters, the setting, the friction, and the plot are all pitch perfect. But I’m curious, how did you first hear about the explosive events surrounding the military’s SL-1 atomic reactor (styled as CR-1 in the book)?
Thank you so much, David! I am a huge fan of your work, too. I’d read about the reactor accident in Idaho Falls long ago, while doing research for another project. Then, a few years ago, I came across a book called Atomic America
by a former Navy nuclear officer named Todd Tucker. Tucker’s book, which is nonfiction, focuses in large part upon the SL-1, a tiny reactor in the Idaho desert that mysteriously exploded on a freezing January night in 1961. The rescue crew who arrived at the reactor, not knowing whether the operators were dead or alive, had to decide whether or not to risk their own lives on the very slim chance that they could save one of these men. Remarkably, all of the first responders did take that chance, putting themselves in grave danger.
After the accident, rumors swirled about the operators who’d been working that night. Whether or not it was useful to the investigation or even ethical, their personal histories became central to the story of what happened at the SL-1.
I started thinking about who these characters might be, what sorts of men would work that job in the late 1950s and who their wives might have been. When your imagination starts running wild like that, you just feel in your bones that you have the makings for a good novel.
Can you talk a bit about the rumors still orbiting the SL-1 meltdown and what made you want to dig deeper and ultimately create this terrific story?
The 1950s was a time of boundless nuclear optimism. I can’t think of many times in history when science and government alike have put so much faith in a single technology. So when the SL-1 accident occurred, it was much easier for people to see it as having been a human error rather than a mechanical one. No one wanted to believe that the reactor had just blown up;
the operators had to have done something wrong. Taking it even further, many of the investigators claimed that the operator lifting the central control rod must have knowingly
yanked it above the four-inch limit, which would have flooded the core with energy and caused the reactor to go supercritical in a fraction of a second, blowing the whole thing up. But why would someone do this?
The investigators dedicated a remarkable amount of time and energy to investigating the young operators’ backgrounds, love lives, personal histories. One of the young men was known for having big drag-out fights with his wife in front of their apartment building, where she’d throw all his clothes out the window and the cops would be called and so forth, which apparently happened on multiple occasions. In fact, his wife had, that very afternoon, stolen his paycheck and filed for divorce. So the story started to be told that he was distraught and, working that night, had decided to end it all in a murder-suicide. Even the newspapers reported this story, and it stuck for decades.
Things got even more outlandish, with some rumors claiming that there had been a love triangle between this man and one of the other operators’ wives. Never mind that the wife in question was Mormon and eight months pregnant at the time, and that there is no evidence she and the operator had ever even met. The rumors were much more salacious, exciting, and easy to understand, than the frightening and nebulous idea of mechanical failure, and they stuck—to the point that they are sometimes still
used to explain the SL-1 accident.
But after reading about the accident, watching documentaries, looking up oral histories, I found myself agreeing with Todd Tucker’s conclusion that the operators themselves had been blameless in the accident, and that mechanical catastrophe had been brewing for a long time. And this seemed even more poignant to me, even more the story I wanted to tell.
But because there’s no definitive answer to what happened at the SL-1, I decided to tell the story in fiction form, taking composites of various characters described in the reports I’d read, and using this story to give an overview of this segment of our culture at the sometimes surreal-feeling dawn of the atomic age.
In the book, there are several memorable scenes of break-room antics among the soldiers who work at the reactor. One of my favorites is the “Tic-Tac-Dough” scene in which the men play along with a popular game show. The banter between the soldiers is really wonderful. How did you go about crafting their language and the easy, authentic rapport you portray?
Thank you! I really enjoyed writing scenes between soldiers. I’ve spent a lot of time around military folks by now and have enjoyed the certain shared sense of humor they often have. They spend a lot of hours together, so there’s a lot of teasing, of course, a universal love of the prank, a gallows humor that comes with the job, and a predominantly masculine energy to it all. Putting soldiers in rooms and bars and on the beach together gave me an excuse to work in historical details—music and TV shows of the time—while also just letting them talk to each other, show a little bit of who they were.
There’s another scene in the book that I found very riveting. It centers around the men out for a night on the town outside of Idaho Falls. This is the Idaho Falls 1960 version of a red-light district. The boys head out to celebrate a birthday and one of them hires a prostitute, a local Native American woman. An incredibly uncomfortable scene follows—drunken men climbing behind the wheels of cars and, most heinously, the cruelty inflected upon the woman. Will you speak a bit about writing this scene and its importance?
This is the flip side to those nice guys joking around in the break room: no group of people can be one hundred percent clever and charming. I needed to show what might happen when the group dynamic changed, when the boss-man was present and encouraging his guys to do some unsavory things.
Military installations often generate a market for alcohol and sex, and Idaho Falls in the late fifties was no exception. Most any report written about the personal lives of operators working the SL-1 mentions their occasional wild parties, including one where they hired a local prostitute to entertain the men for two bucks apiece. I found this an interesting counterpoint to the code of chivalry the men kept in place toward their own wives, who were supposed to be these domestic angels tending the home and hearth and waiting patiently for their soldier boys to return home. Women who were not their wives, who didn’t fit this formula of extreme propriety, were seen as having signed away some of the right to manly protection that the housewives received. If you were nonwhite, or unmarried, or sexually loose—well, you didn’t have to be treated with kid gloves like these upstanding housewives were.
So Paul finds himself in a situation where a woman is being abused and most of the guys are going along with it, and there could be repercussions for him if he decides to be the one soft-heart who helps her out. These strict gender expectations cut both ways, and Paul is trapped by his own need to be stoic and macho and to have a good time out on the town. But the woman in question is “just” a prostitute, right?—I mean, she’s not one of their wives, because they would never treat a lady
like that, for goodness’ sake. The operators’ fear of what will happen if one of their darling wives finds out allows the risky situation to carry on much longer than it should. Of course this is reprehensible, but it’s something that happens all the time.
I wanted to show how one act of bigotry taints everything around it, so when Paul gets home, Nat, who’s completely innocent in the situation, becomes the unwitting recipient of whatever disgust and self-loathing he is carrying.
Jeannie Richards, the wife of Mitch Richards, who is the big boss at the reactor, is a wildly enjoyable character to read about, but probably not so enjoyable for the other characters to endure within the confines of their little coffee klatch. Jeannie’s smart as a whip, and charming in her way, but also controlling and manipulative behind the perfect mask of her smile. She felt like a caged animal to me—a woman whose potential for good had been diverted and corrupted by snide neighborhood power struggles. Were you drawing on any particular example of the archetypical 1950s housewife in Jeannie’s creation?
I think you’re right on target in seeing Jeannie as a “caged animal.” She has that exact same snarling, frantic presence at times, especially when she is alone and can let down her façade of total control. And you’re right, she is very smart—much more streetwise than Nat—but she’s forced to channel her intelligence into social machinations and the losing campaign to promote her husband’s sluggish career.
I loved writing Jeannie’s sections because she serves as the perfect counterbalance to Nat, who is all sweetness and good intention. Sarcasm and sexuality are Jeannie’s weapons of choice. Her sections came to me so quickly; they had the most momentum of any of the parts of the novel that I wrote. I could just see
her setting the table for that party or sneering at Mitch across the room or tunneling madly through his desk drawers in an effort to gather intel on what fool thing he’d been up to this time.
Jeannie knows that undercutting other women is one of the quickest ways to get the things she wants, most of which have to come from men. The sad thing is, I think she and Nat are both trapped by their circumstances, and could probably have been friends of a sort if they had both just been honest with each other.
Could you talk a bit about your research process for the Greenland section?
I read a ton of oral histories, many of them found on a terrific website called thuleforum.com, moderated by the generous Steffen Winther. The experience of being at Camp Century and its support camps, TUTO and Thule, was such a unique and specific one that men seem to have sought one another out in subsequent years to share their memories. I sat and read scores of these personal stories and at times just laughed out loud, and at other times felt great sympathy for men serving at a base that was so isolated and remote that no one was allowed to serve more than six months there at a time because it was considered a psychological hazard. Sometimes, men would hallucinate; I remember reading reports that certain soldiers were convinced they had seen grazing cows and “medium-sized Midwestern cities” out on the polar ice cap. This was all before e-mail and Skype and whatnot, and these men must have felt very, very far away from not only their families but the rest of the human world.
I have to bring up the cars. This book is full of fabulous vintage automobiles. Are you a car aficionado or did this come with the territory of writing about the late 1950s? Sometimes I felt as if you had a job similar to the producers of Mad Men,
in your conjuring of a period piece, and to me the cars are at the very center of it all. But they’re more than just set decoration. Will you speak to how you so skillfully wove these powerful autos into the plot?
The designs of the 1950s are so instantly recognizable, so stylized. It’s an aesthetic I find immensely appealing, from home décor to clothing typefaces to, yes, the cars of the day. Is there anything so striking as a big, shiny, shark-finned Cadillac from the 1950s? I don’t think so.
In a more serious vein, cars played an important psychological role during the fifties, a boom time in which more families than ever could afford their own automobiles. The interstate highway system was built in large part during this decade, starting in 1956. Vehicular mobility came hand in hand with upward mobility. A car was a symbol that you were not just going somewhere, but going somewhere
For Paul, just owning a car is a huge achievement; he grew up so poor that he had to steal his brother’s boots to leave home. But then his new boss, Mitch, has this gorgeous Coupe de Ville that he throws in Paul’s face any chance he gets.
For the women in the novel, particularly Nat, cars symbolize a freedom that is otherwise unavailable to them. Nat is a military wife who must stay put while her husband traverses the globe, so just being able to drive away from her house for an hour or two is immensely liberating. She and Paul have a notable argument over who gets to drive their family car, and it’s when this car is wrecked that an opening is created for Esrom to slide into the family dynamic. Later, when Paul learns that Nat has been driving Esrom’s car, it’s tantamount to hearing that she’s slept with him. He is horrified and betrayed.
You very deftly highlight for the reader the significance of Idaho Falls in American culture. Of course there is the reactor meltdown, but there are many aspects of the town that I think are notable: the Native American history, the history of the Mormons, the town’s role as a bridge between the West and Midwest. Once you finished the book, did you feel like you were leaving Idaho Falls too?
I’ve always thought Idaho is beautiful, although the most time I’ve spent there was on a road trip in 1999 when I was twenty. The place stuck with me.
I think the West’s severe natural beauty, coupled with its fascinatingly layered history, lends itself to fiction. For instance, by the time Paul arrives in Idaho, it’s already been home to Blackfoot Indians for thousands of years, then white settlers, particularly Mormons. It’s held a Japanese internment camp and a military proving ground, which has recently been turned into the development site for all major nuclear projects in the United States—and that’s where Paul reports for duty and will be faced with his toughest choice.
If all that doesn’t encapsulate the layered strata of history in the West—the land grabs, power struggles, religious migrations, manifest destiny, xenophobia, loss and ambition—I don’t know what does.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. In an early scene, Paul and his family stop by a lake for a swim on their move to Idaho. Nat wants to go cliff-jumping, but it’s obvious that Paul would rather she stay on the beach. Why doesn’t Paul want her to join the group of young people on the cliff? Why do you think Nat disregards his fear even when she knows it bothers him?
2. After Paul’s first meeting with his boss, Mitch Richards, Mitch drives off and leaves Paul stranded at work. Do you think this was a mere oversight, or was it intentional? Was Paul right to be so angry?
3. Paul is often worried about Nat and his daughters. Do you think his fears are justified?
4. When Nat first meets Jeannie at the dinner party, she’s alternately impressed and frightened by her. In what ways does Nat attempt to be the proper 1950s military wife, like Jeannie, and where does she reject this? Do you think she wishes she could be a “better” wife?
5. Mitch’s cream-colored Cadillac plays a large role in the novel. What do you think the car represents for Mitch, for Jeannie, and for Paul? Did you find its end fitting?
6. Paul, Jeannie, Nat, and Esrom all struggle with loneliness in various ways. Which character do you think does the best job overcoming their loneliness?
7. Were you surprised to learn of any of the historically based details in the novel, such as the National Reactor Testing Station or the Army base below the ice in Greenland? Had you heard of any of these things before, and what conceptions of them did you have coming into the novel? If you did, did knowing that the story was based in part on a real event make it more interesting to you, or less?
8. Should Nat have refused the car from Esrom? Was it all right for her to accept it?
9. Nat’s friend, Patrice, is angry with Nat when she learns of her friendship with Esrom. Do you think Patrice overreacted, or was her frustration with Nat justified? Does her role as a fellow military wife give her particular insight into Nat’s behavior, and if so, why don’t you think she was more sympathetic?
10. Patrice’s anger serves as a wake-up call for Nat. Was Nat naïve in hoping that she could keep her relationship with Esrom a secret from her friend, her neighbors, and, most important, from Paul? Do you think either Nat or Esrom were innocent in the situation? If not, is one of them more to blame than the other?
11. What do you think happens to Paul in the years following the close of the novel? Do you see him living a long and happy life, or does his involvement with the reactor accident catch up with him? If so, what do you see happening to Nat? To Jeannie? To Esrom?