An Interview with TaraShea Nesbit, Author of The Wives of Los Alamos

Two weeks ago, I reviewed TaraShea Nesbit’s fascinating first novel, The Wives of Los Alamos. Ms. Nesbit graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Wives of Los Alamos? What was the writing process like?

Author photo by Brigid McAuliffe

Author photo by Brigid McAuliffe

TN: About five years ago, I was researching the creation of the atomic bomb after a friend told me about a high school that has atomic bomb imagery as part of their bomber mascot. That town, Richland, Washington, was the location of a nuclear production complex, Hanford that began during WWII, and currently a repository for nuclear waste. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the Trinity site, and in Fat Man, the bomb detonated over Nagasaki. While researching the history of the Hanford Site, I read a memoir by one female scientist. She mentioned that she never understood why one of the male scientists wives did not like her. This piqued my interest in the domestic community life of these secret Manhattan Project towns.

Simultaneously, I gave a reading on the work about Hanford, (an excerpt of which you can read at Quarterly West here: http://www.quarterlywest.utah.edu/iss_73/iss_73_nesbit.html) and a friend’s aunt, Jane Viste, came up to me after the reading and inquired more about the scientists’ wives. I think she said, “Their story would make a great novel.” These two things—my atomic history research and the aunt’s questions—came together right before winter break two years ago, and once I decided on the point of view, the writing was an urgent endeavor. A first draft was done in less than a year and I revised for another year.

The Wives of Los Alamos is written from the relatively unusual first person plural perspective. What led you to make that choice?

The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos

TN: When listening to the women’s oral histories and reading their memoirs, I observed that the women often took on the “we” voice themselves. If asked what Los Alamos was like for them, they replied with things like, “We all hated the stove,” where the “we” was the other wives. This suggested to me that their primary identity during that time was of a group member, and their secondary identity was that of an individual.

In thinking about why I was using this point of view, I read Brian Richardson’s book Unnatural Voices, and his intellectual work added to my thinking. I see the point of view as a way of exploring how our community identities often push against our individual identities.

How did you go about conducting research for the novel? Did you visit archives? The site itself? Were you able to interview any of the women who lived and worked at Los Alamos?

TN: I first read memoirs and collected stories edited by the women who lived in also Alamos during WWII, many of which were published by the Los Alamos Historical Society.  I visited Los Alamos a few times and met with the archivist there, too. Los Alamos still retains a lot of its great history, both geographically and through the preservation of Fuller Lodge and Bathtub Row. One can walk around the town and easily imagine what it was like in the 40s.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

TN: I’m often doing two kinds of reading when I’m writing. I read books related to the topic, and when doing that I’m looking for details and facts. But I also read novels and poetry collections and nonfiction books that I’m hoping to be educated by about story construction. While writing The Wives of Los Alamos I looked back at work by Joan Silber, Leo Tolstoy, Evan S. Connell and George Eliot, among others.

You’ve studied at The Ohio State University (Go Buckeyes!) and Washington University in St. Louis. Which professors and writing courses stand out to you as particularly influential in terms of your growth as a writer?

TN: I began this book in my first year of the Ph.D. at the University of Denver, and specifically, in a fiction class led by Laird Hunt. I did not think of myself as a fiction writer then, but Laird’s reading list and approaches defied my previous conceptions of what a novel could be. We read Open City by Teju Cole, Aliss at the Fire by Jon Fosse, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns, and Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník. But I’ve been fortunate to have so many great teachers: Brian Kitely, Selah Saterstrom, Eleni Sikelianos, Kathy Fagan, Andrew Hudgins, and Mary Jo Bang.

What kinds of writing projects are you planning next?

TN: I’m working on a fiction project set in the 17th century from the perspective of lesser-heard voices, which is also exploring a major narrative of America’s history.

My thanks again to Ms. Nesbit for her time and generous answers. You can learn more about The Wives of Los Alamos and TaraShea Nesbit on her website, tarasheanesbit.com.  

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Recommended Reading: TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos

If you’re looking for refreshing, stylistically bold historical fiction, look no further. The Wives of Los Alamos*, TaraShea Nesbit’s debut novel, is the book for you.

[Full disclosure: Ms. Nesbit and I share friends in common, but we have never met.]

Written from the unconventional first-person plural perspective, The Wives of Los Alamos explores the difficult transition from the ordinary world to the extremely secretive world of the Los Alamos site of the Manhattan Project. Leaving behind their families, friends, and often careers of their own, the women married to the scientists who created the atomic bomb gradually form a community in the desert.

At first the choice of the first-person plural threw me; I was expecting a standard interconnected-threads type of novel, following maybe three or four women through their time at Los Alamos. Instead, I found Ms. Nesbit’s approach simultaneously universal and intimate, emphasizing both the common struggle to adapt to new living conditions and the idiosyncrasies of particular women.

At first, the women focus on the physical isolation and practical problems of life in New Mexico: no automatic washing machines or bathtubs, often inadequate supplies at the commissary — and the inability to visit with parents or even children old enough to attend college. And of course their husbands are sequestered in the labs, unable to discuss anything about their work. As time goes on, strain mounts as the wives negotiate the complex web of relationships they’ve developed — with each other, with their husbands, with the men guarding them, with the women hired to help them around the house, with their own children — and, finally, as they come to understand the awesome destructive force their husbands have constructed.

In addition to the well-articulated historical detail, I loved the roundness of the portraiture in The Wives of Los Alamos. While attesting to the scenic grandeur of the surroundings and the occasional pleasures of solitude, Ms. Nesbit doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of the women’s isolated lives, or their own blindness when it comes to the lives of their maids, often women of color. The women’s reactions to the revelation of the atomic bomb are mixed in tone, and treated thoughtfully. There are no easy answers, no neat endings — but that’s part of what makes this such a fascinating novel.

*My thanks to Bloomsbury for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.