Amazon Q&A with TaraShea Nesbit, author of The Wives of Los Alamos.
1. What drew you to this time and place?
TaraShea Nesbit: My fascination with the history of the atomic bomb started with learning about a high school in eastern Washington that has an atomic bomber as their mascot; after that, I researched nuclear waste, and I just kept going back and back to the source of the bomb. Though I read about the lead scientists, 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. I wanted to know these women and be their friend and make more space in the world for their voices.
2. What do you enjoy reading and writing about historical fiction?
TSN: In historical fiction, time has stopped, at least for a little while, and I get to see, in slow motion, how co-existing experiences and points of view interact with and affect one another. Another thrill is how much historical fiction actually reveals about the time period in which it is written—the preoccupations and focuses of revisionist history, for example, shift as our contemporary moment shifts. I love that historical fiction enables a reader to inhabit both the consciousness of a contemporary author and the world of the past.
3. What are some books that have influenced you as a writer?
TSN: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, Studs Turkel’s What Work Is, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, Julianna Spahr’s The Transformation, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, Jennifer Denrow's California, and the Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge books by Evan S. Connell.
4. What do you hope readers take away from The Wives of Los Alamos?
TSN: I hope the book 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 created, and it would be great if readers notice parallels between these women and that time and the present day.
Discussion Questions for The Wives of Los Alamos.
1. The Wives of Los Alamos is narrated in first person plural. While individual women are mentioned, the wives speak as a group. How does this affect your understanding of them and their story? Do you come to know any of them as individuals? What was your emotional response to this stylistic choice?
2. From the very beginning, the town of Los Alamos is one defined by secrets. Who is keeping information secret from whom? What type of information does each group within the community have access to and how does that information give them power?
3. The wives of Los Alamos are often pregnant, their families steadily growing. What does it mean to be a mother in this community? What do you think it would be like to grow up in that environment, only to move back into the world after the bombs had been dropped?
4. The wives have very different responses to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What are those responses? Are you able to relate to all of them, or are there some you have trouble understanding?
5. As the community of Los Alamos disperses, the wives observe: “Saying good-bye to our friends was not just saying good-bye to them, we were saying good-bye to part of ourselves” (207). What are they leaving behind as they leave Los Alamos? How has this experience changed them?
An Amazon Best Book of the Month, February 2014: Written in the first person plural--the collective “we”--TaraShea Nesbit’s debut is both understated and poetic as it describes the lives of the women who accompanied their scientist husbands to the American desert to work on a secret project that turned out to be the making of the atomic bomb. “We were Western women born in California and Montana, East Coast women born in Connecticut and New York, Midwestern women born in Nebraska and Ohio. . .” Nesbit writes, and so they were: all different, of course, and yet much the same as they came to bear and raise children, and make lives in a dangerous and secretive time and place. What was it like to be attached to a project you weren’t allowed any knowledge of? How did such a world-changing invention change you, your marriage, your family? These are the questions Nesbit tackles in this stunning novel, both concise and elliptical. In style, it echoes Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (also a first-person-plural account, of the Japanese internment in WWII.) Also like that book, it sheds light on historical events too rarely discussed in literature. This debut is a tour-de-force, in a quiet, careful and winning way. --Sara Nelson