What drew you to the setting of Los Alamos in 1945?
I grew up in New Mexico, a short distance from Los Alamos, where Robert Oppenheimer and his team built the atomic bomb. Guard towers were still in place, and the city had an aura of secrecy, isolation and guilt. From my college dining room in Santa Fe, I could see the lights of Los Alamos suspended in the sky. My novel unfolds in this remote place that was very near the heart of the 20th century.
My generation grew up with bomb scares, drills in school, and bomb shelters. I remember fearing that the Russians would wipe out New Mexico and Colorado Springs (where bombs were stored in the mountains), before other targets. While many American children feared the bomb, those of us in New Mexico had a double anxiety: we were afraid of a weapon in the hands of enemies far away and also feared the bombs next door.
Was the politics of the time important to you?
Not at first. But as I researched the novel, I began to see what the politics of the time were about. I saw how the Manhattan project scientists were used by what Eisenhower would later call “the military/industrial complex.” In one of the chapters, my hero realizes that Los Alamos was not a lab, it was a factory. I also learned more than I wanted to know about why we dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that decision was, tragically, much more about politics than it was about saving American lives.
The novel brings up certain moral issues about the use of nuclear weapons — how has time and distance from World War II shaped how people feel about the use of the bomb?
My novel is not a polemic, but I realized in the writing of it that we’ve never come to terms with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our history books teach us that the use of the bomb was inevitable, but it turns out that it was not. One hundred and fifty scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project signed petitions to President Truman in the summer of 1945. They called atomic bombs “means for the ruthless annihilation of cities” and continued, “Our use of atomic bombs in this war would carry the world a long way further on this path of ruthlessness.” Robert McNamara said in the documentary The Fog of War that had the United States lost WWII we might have been tried for war crimes. Because we won the war, we have neither admitted our crimes nor understood them.
Gandhi said that the atom bomb, “resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see.” That question is what I have been turning over in my mind since completing this work.
Why do you find yourself particularly interested in what happens to ordinary people in the shadow of larger events?
I have always been interested in the way people’s daily lives were worked out in the midst of some history-making moment. I wrote several pieces early in the nineties about people who were living in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down: one was about a man who was accused of being a member of the secret police, another about how the secret police network and culture of spying had affected family life in Prague. I also wrote about daily life in Nicaragua when the Sandinistas were in power. It may be the same impulse that makes me religious: that is, here we are working out our own lives, making mistakes, trying to discern one path from another, while huge waves of history are moving all around us. I want to see both things: the huge wave and the human particular.
There is a wonderful phrase in theology: the scandal of the particular. The idea is that God (for want of a better word) cares “even if a sparrow falls to the ground.” That this thing that “created” the heavens and the earth, cares what happens to one little, ordinary bird, and also about each one of us. This is a “scandal.” It’s what my next novel is about.
Why the move from non-fiction writing, particularly spirituality-based writing, to fiction?
One day I was walking on a piece of land I owned near the Rio Grande not far from Santa Fe. As I looked across the river, I suddenly realized that across the river, and on the other side of a mesa was the city of Los Alamos. And at once I wondered what would have happened had one of the physicists working on the “gadget,” as they called it, decided to jump ship. So, the idea for the novel came to me all at once.
How does your religious affiliation (Episcopal) affect your fiction writing?
In two ways: First, I actually have to write as if I were an agnostic when writing fiction; I have to write as if I had no religious loyalty or identity because if I didn’t I’d end up writing some dumb religious tract. But second, there is a long history of Episcopal writers: great poets like Gerald Manley Hopkins, who was an Episcopal priest, or C. S. Lewis. The church itself is founded on reason. The Anglican Church was begun during the Reformation, so we are supposed to think our way through a given situation rather than look it up in a book of doctrine. Imagination is part of thinking. And finally, I guess, being religious causes one to think about “ultimate concerns,” and all novels of any weight are about ultimate concerns.
The main character of your novel is a painter — she is also a spiritual person who attends church — what do you think is the relationship between art and religion?
They are like twins separated at birth. Just when you think they are very much alike, or come from the same source, they turn out to be very different. I am very dubious of the argument that the two are similar, because I think you simplify each of them too much to get there. It may be that the impulse to create art, and the desire to connect to something deep and wide beyond the self are similar. Certainly sometimes I have the feeling when I am writing that it is a gift from somewhere, it really is something out of nothing, and that makes me want to fall down on my knees.
An article in the Washington Post recently said that the “religious left is back.” Long overshadow by the Christian right, are religious Liberals gaining a foothold in politics? How so?
There has been a determined effort to regain footing lost to the religious right. Jim Wallis from the Sojourner’s Community is one of the chief proponents. His book, God’s Politics is all about returning to a more “Bible-based” politics, meaning a politics based on the words of the prophet Micah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”
There’s a lot more to religion than the extremely narrow right-wing version we’ve seen in the last few years in the United States. I am not sure it’s so much about the “religious left,” as it is about the recognition that there are many thoughtful, intelligent, educated people in the United States who are also religious and not culturally conservative.
My memoirs are about struggling to find an authentic way to practice faith in a modern, diverse culture.