2016 AWP Roundtable 5: Writing the Tragedy of Others

sundress

Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.

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Roundtable #5: Writing the Tragedy of Others with Ellen Sussman, Patrick Hicks, Liz Prato, Ellen Sussman, and Andria Williams.

 

What drew you to the topic of your fiction? Did you begin with the idea of the tragedy first, or the character(s)?

Ellen Sussman (author of The Paradise Guest House; Event: The Bali nightclub bombings of 2002): My husband and I traveled to Bali for a vacation three weeks after the terrorist attacks there. The country was in deep mourning. I was very moved by the spirit of the Balinese people and by the strength of their community. I was also struck by the remarkable beauty of the island. How can you make sense of terrorism in paradise? How could these very peace-loving, compassionate people move forward? By the time I left Bali, I had the first glimmers of the novel I would write.

Patrick Hicks (author of The Commandant of Lubizec; Event: The Holocaust): I was exposed to the Holocaust at a very young age and the knowledge of it completely overwhelmed me. It was, I think, the first time I realized what we are capable of doing to each other, and I had such a hard time wrapping my imagination around the idea of industrialized genocide. As I studied the Holocaust more and more, and as I gave talks about it, the more it occurred to me that many people don’t understand the fundamental difference between a concentration camp, like Dachau or Bergen-Belsen, and the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. I have strong feelings that a writer’s primary job is to shed light and offer illumination, so I began to wonder how I might write about the death camps. In the three camps I just mentioned, trains would pull into them and within one hour nearly everyone would have been killed. There was no selection process like there was in Auschwitz, and I wanted to write about this, so I began to think of creating a fictitious camp—which I call Lubizec—and it’s an amalgamation of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. To answer your question, I began by looking at the tragedy first and then I started to see the souls who perished. This meant I had to imagine the men who ran the camp. And from there, images of The Commandant of Lubizec came to me.

Andria Williams (author The Longest Night; Event: Fatal nuclear reactor accident in Idaho Falls, 1961): I’ve always had a slightly strange interest in nuclear power and stories about the early atomic age. It’s probably rather incongruous with my chipper, Navy-wife persona. I was relieved recently to discover what I think is the genesis of that interest: every summer of my young life, from birth to age twenty, I visited my nanna and uncle in the small beach town of Seabrook, New Hampshire. Seabrook is not only known for being “the tattoo capital of the USA” (at least, according to an episode of ‘Oprah’ on extreme tattooing my mom once saw) but also for its nuclear power plant. The town is small enough that anywhere you drive, you see the round gray dome of the plant off in the mist, reflected in the otherwise-pretty marsh that borders the town. Many times a day—to go for fried clams or lobster rolls, to get groceries, to go play Skee-Ball at the boardwalk—we’d drive past that plant. I’d be sitting in the back of my nanna’s boatlike Monte Carlo at night, slurping down a Dairy Queen, my feet swinging against the leather seats, and there would be the blinking lights of the dome off on the horizon, shimmering on the tide, silent, ever-present. I was never scared of the place (even though my nanna lived within what’s considered the ten-mile “danger zone”), but, other than the big wooden whale in front of Lena’s Seafood, it was certainly the most notable and irregular part of the local landscape.

So power plants must have ingrained themselves in my budding consciousness. When, a few years ago, I heard the story of a nuclear meltdown that had occurred in rural Idaho in 1961, my curiosity was piqued. I realized I’d had some misconceptions about our nuclear history: I’d thought that Three Mile Island was the “major” nuclear accident of our country’s history, and I’d sort of assumed that it had caused some casualties, just because it had been such a big deal at the time. But, thankfully, there were no lives lost at Three Mile Island. Instead, the nation’s first and only fatal nuclear reactor accident had occurred in Idaho Falls, Idaho in January of 1961. I dug into the story, discovering it had been painted for decades as a murder-suicide (with the claim that one of the operators intentionally yanked the main rod out of the core, “knowing” that this would cause it to blow up). This has been almost entirely disproven, though the legend remains. I grew almost righteously indignant on behalf of the three men who died there, three men who were very young, enlisted soldiers with no higher-level supervision as they attempted, in the middle of one of the coldest nights of the year, to re-start a temporarily deactivated reactor which had been giving off warning signs as to its instability for a long time. They were following orders; they were stuck in a situation that, most likely, no one could have come out of alive.

Liz Prato (author of A Proportional Response; Event: The Bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, 1988): My friend, Annie Laureau, lost many close friends in the bombing. She was a Syracuse University student in the London abroad program. She had planned to fly home with her friends on Flight 103, but ended up postponing her flight for the next day. 35 Syracuse students—eight of whom were her close friends—died in the bombing. I ran into Annie at a Chili’s the week after the bombing. She was so numb, barely a shell of a person. We lost contact not long after that, but I was haunted by what it would be like to suffer such a tremendous loss at all, much less as a 20 year old. What does that do to your ability to love? To trust? To feel joy? Finally, in 2008 it occurred to me to google her, to find out where she was and just ask her these questions. So, it was a combination of the particularly magnitude of this tragedy, and my connection to a specific person which informed my story.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks

Why did you choose to write fiction, instead of nonfiction about the event?

Ellen Sussman: I am primarily a fiction writer. I use fiction to get under the surface of who we are and how we feel. At first I was overwhelmed by the tragedy of the bombings in Bali – how could I possibly write deeply about that horrific event? But then I found my story – a young woman who was caught in the terrorist attack returns to Bali a year later to find the man who saved her. I realized that if I told her story well then I might also tell the bigger story.

Patrick Hicks: It quickly occurred to me that if I wrote nonfiction I’d have to set everything in either Treblinka or one of the other death camps. If I did this, I’d be writing history. I’m not an historian though; I’m a fiction writer who happens to care deeply about history. There’s a difference, at least for me. By writing fiction, I was able to explore the emotional landscape of the Holocaust in ways that historical accounts generally don’t allow for. In this way, I was able to get in the minds of the victims and it allowed me the freedom to use the tools of fiction to tell the story in new ways. The narrator’s voice in The Commandant of Lubizec tends to stick with readers long after they’ve closed the book, and the story works, I think, because it reads like history even though it’s fiction. It’s important to add that everything that happens in my fictitious camp either actually did happen in the real camps or could have actually happened in the camps. Through fiction, I was able to make the reader see and care about the victims in ways that historical accounts frequently cannot.

Andria Williams: That part was easy: I only write fiction!

Liz Prato: During the period of time when Annie and I lost touch, fiction was all I had. Often times people respond to someone else’s bad news by saying, “I can only imagine.” That was what I had—my imagination about how one survives that tragedy. I researched the bombing extensively, and attempted several fictional stories about it, but they all fell short on some basic level of storytelling. After I finally reconnected with and interviewed Annie, I wrote an essay about her story that was published by Salon after the convicted bomber was released from prison. But that didn’t exorcise the haunting. To help not just me, but my reader, understand the trauma and the healing, I knew I needed to remove it from the events of the news cycle, and focus on the heart. I originally thought it was going to be an entire novel, but the story “A Proportional Response” came of it, instead.

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Why did you choose your particular characters and their perspective for telling the story?

Ellen Sussman: I wanted to begin with an American so that I could bring my own innocence about Bali to the story. But I wanted her to be touched deeply by what happened – not as a bystander, but as a survivor. And then I chose an American ex-pat, a Balinese man who lost his wife in the bombing, and a young Indonesian boy who didn’t fit in. Each character opened a different door for me, one that would get me closer to telling the whole story.

Patrick Hicks: There’s a chapter in Lubizec called “Numbers” and it allows the reader to see these fully formed lives that are about to get shoved into the gas chambers. I spent a long time creating histories for these minor characters and the reader gets to know them as they are pushed towards the abyss. In this way, even those characters that appear for only a few pages have rich and varied backgrounds. That was my plan because I wanted the reader to feel wounded that they’d been taken from us. The protagonist, Commandant Hans-Peter Guth, is an amalgam of Rudolf Höss, who ran Auschwitz, and Franz Stangl, who ran Treblinka. Two of the prisoners in the novel are also given strong voices and they have the final word in the narrative. I wanted the reader to finish my novel and hear what they had to say from their perspective as survivors. That was very important to me. I also made a conscious decision that the reader would never have direct access to what Commandant Guth was thinking. I wanted to keep him at arm’s length from the reader.

Andria Williams: While I was careful to change details so that no characters in my book have any one-to-one correspondence with anybody involved in the accident, I did take the inspiration for one of my main characters, Paul, from the third man at the reactor, a 27-year-old who had who had only been working on the reactor a few weeks, and who seems to have just been a good guy stuck in a bad situation. The two more “senior” (very relatively speaking) men working the shift with him that night were troublemakers, they didn’t get along; they had a history of fighting and partying and all sorts of things that very young people sometimes get into and generally, given the chance, mature out of. Their rivalry may have been causing them to focus more, that night, on their dislike of one another, and not as much on the reactor as they should have. But this poor third guy was a family man with two very young children, and he was scrambling to do his job, and he was probably looking forward to getting home after his grueling night shift and getting into bed and being woken up by his kids bouncing all over him the following afternoon.

I changed many details, conflating this character with a completely imagined one to come to the character of Paul, whose role in the accident ends up being somewhat different. But I was moved by the idea of someone unintentionally caught up in a mess like this, trying to do the right thing in an impossible situation.

Later, partly because I am a military spouse and because their perspective interested me, I drew the women into the story: two military wives who are at odds, both trying to look out for their husbands’ interests in a way that would pit them against one another. But I wanted them to have a certain understanding, too. I love a good rivalry in fiction, a good ol’ honor code/Western type loyalty war with a smattering of respect between the two parties. This was a small-scale version of that.

Liz Prato: Annie’s story was the one that haunted me. I had no choice but to tell the story of someone with circumstances similar to hers. But I added the character of Randy, the career Navy man, after a friend’s husband who had been in the Strait of Hormuz told me his perspective on what led to the Pan Am plane being bombed. I wished I could put him and Annie in the same room together. That didn’t seem possible in real life, so I based two characters on their experiences, and then put them in a room together.

Andria Williams

Andria Williams

How did you decide when and where to draw lines about when to render facts, and when to fictionalize – both in the telling of events, and in the depiction of character’s lives?

Ellen Sussman: I didn’t do much research before I wrote the first draft. I wanted to create my own characters – not to base them on real people. After I finished that draft, I spent five weeks in Bali. I read many reports on the bombing and I studied the Balinese culture and Balinese Hinduism. My subsequent drafts relied on that research – but my characters were born in my imagination.

Patrick Hicks: It was very important for me to get the history of the Holocaust correct, especially as it related to the Operation Reinhard camps. Some of the micro-stories that appear in my novel were based on real life events, like the murder of a rabbi in Treblinka when he held up a fist of sand and let the grains trickle to the ground. According to one eyewitness, he said something along the lines of, “Do you see what I am doing here, German? You are like dust, but my people will outlive you.” He was then shot in the back of the head. That story of defiance has a lot of power for me. Also, the story of Janusz Korczak—he was an orphanage director who stepped into the gas chambers with some 200 boys in order to care for them until the very last possible moment—that too demanded a retelling. We have no idea what Korczak said or did at Treblinka, and I wanted to give him a voice, so I used fiction to create a character based on him. I’ve also got a number of footnotes in The Commandant of Lubizec. Almost all of them refer to real sources but a few are fictitious. In this way, I nudge the reader to wonder what is real and unreal. A simple internet search will tell them the truth and—who knows?—maybe a few readers will turn to these real life accounts in order to learn more about the death camps. The memoirs and historical accounts of these places are vastly more important than my little book.

Andria Williams: Because the family members of the three men who died at the SL-1 are still alive, and because there is so much murky accusation surrounding what took place that night, I wanted to be careful to present an overview of the event without actually pinning blame on any one character. I also wanted to sketch out the whole fantastical, surreal world of early atomic history for the reader: a time when optimism about nuclear power was off the charts, when scientists were indulged with a limitless budget and an open frontier for their imaginations. You had scientists dreaming up these lofty (sometimes terrific, sometimes totally batty) things and then, on the flip side, the young military technicians who actually had to work those things. I loved that tension. I wanted to give an impression of that.

In an effort to do so, I was liberal with my time frame: I sent Paul to work at Camp Century, the nuclear base built below the polar ice cap in Greenland, four months before it actually would have been completed. But I thought the reader would forgive me, because this allowed me to give an overview of some of the more fantastical elements of the nuclear age: our obsession, for the one thing, with some kind of polar ice cap war-to-end-all-wars. Of course, as history went on to show, every single battle of the Cold War was fought in a nearly tropical climate.

Liz Prato: Even though the root tragedies were based on well-researched events, the lives and characteristics of Libby and Randy are totally imagined. It’s important to make that distinction: Libby and Annie are not the same person, and Annie hasn’t engaged in the same behaviors as Libby. I tried to base her emotional truth on Annie’s and, frankly, some on my own, since by 2011 my entire immediate family (and all my aunts and uncles and grandparents) had died. I could relate to how profound loss changes you on a deep, primal level. But there are some small details Annie told me that I kept—like Annie’s best friend really was wearing an earring of Annie’s when the plane exploded.

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What did you feel your responsibilities were as a writer, and not as an actual survivor, of the trauma? Who did you feel most responsible to?

Ellen Sussman: I felt a strong responsibility to the survivors of the terrorist attacks and to the family of the victims. Mine is a personal story – I was less interested in the political story.

Patrick Hicks: I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to the victims, as well as the survivors. I had to get the history right. I just had to. And as I wrote, I kept asking myself how I might shed light on the death camps. Did you know that nearly two million people died in Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec alone? Fewer than 200 people survived these camps to bear witness and, because of this, we don’t have enough stories to make these camps feel real. There are very few pictures of these places—hardly any photos, to be honest. I wanted to use history and fiction to bring these places into sharper focus and help the reader see these death camps with better clarity. I also wanted to explore the long after-burn of emotional pain that these places caused. What does it mean to carry these images in your head? How do you start a new life after experiencing such overwhelming trauma?

Andria Williams: I felt responsible to the three men who worked the SL-1 the night of the accident, because within hours of their deaths news outlets everywhere reported, like I said, that the accident was a murder-suicide. People even speculated that there was a love triangle going on between two of the men and one of their wives, although that wife was a young Mormon woman eight months pregnant at the time and there is no evidence that she and the other man in question ever even met. Yet this interpretation of the story just will not die. It is too compelling, too sordid. And perhaps in a way it’s comforting, this notion that the magical machine didn’t fail us but one crazy person did.

I also felt a responsibility to tell an uncommon military story. I don’t think the average civilian really realizes how much variety there is to the American military experience. The Longest Night is a novel about soldiers wherein no one fires a single shot. American soldiers are carrying out so many duties, all the time, all over the globe. Some are dangerous. Some are boring as all hell. I think a lot of people would be surprised at how many things people in the military actually do.

And, lastly, though this may be muted in the novel, I felt a responsibility to the idea of the West. There’s no landscape, no place on earth more interesting to me. My main characters, Paul and his wife Nat, arrive in Idaho thinking they’re beginning new lives in a new place, a place blank enough to allow for any sort of imagination. Paul’s starting a career as a nuclear operator, and this, too, seems bold and limitless; headlines of the time, referring to atomic energy and riffing on Ecclesiastes, crowed, “There is something new under the sun!” But Paul and Nat are as much a part of the messy march of humanity as anybody. When they arrive at the Idaho testing station, it’s already been Blackfoot Indian land; a Mormon settlement; the Minidoka internment camp for Japanese-Americans during WWII; a military proving ground; and as of their arrival is the development site for all the major nuclear projects in the United States. If that doesn’t encapsulate the layered strata of history in the West—the land grabs, the power struggles, the manifest destiny and xenophobia and loss and ambition—I don’t know what does.

The 1950s is much-maligned for its supposed conformity, its cheezy optimism that you can erase any personal history you don’t like, that anything can be made sparkling and new. (Certainly, this was a theme in Mad Men.) I loved bumping that up against a place like the West, which people expect to accommodate all of their fantasies—as a place to start over, as a playground for the rich, as the handily absorbent dumping ground for both human disappointment and man-made garbage. But everything comes back around. There is nothing new under the sun.

Liz Prato: I not only feel responsible to every single person who was murdered, but to all their families and friends. And, of course, I feel responsible to Annie. Every time I talk about or write about this story, I feel guilty that I’ve co-opted her tragedy for the purpose of art. I’ve checked in with her about it a few times just to make sure it’s okay. Most of the time, I just have to remind myself that she already told me it was okay.

Liz Prato

Liz Prato

How did you approach that sense of responsibility?

Ellen Sussman: I interviewed many survivors and family members of victims. Their stories informed every decision I made in telling my story.

Patrick Hicks: I did three separate research trips to Poland where I spent considerable time at Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Majdanek. I also spent over thirty hours in Auschwitz. Of course I read many many books and memoirs, but I also interviewed a survivor of Auschwitz for three hours. What he had to say about living with memories of the camp was incredibly powerful for me. In fact, it directly influenced the last thirty pages of The Commandant of Lubizec. Readers and scholars of the Holocaust have since told me that my portrayal of the psychological turmoil is one of the things that makes the novel so memorable. What does it mean to carry the hard weight of these camps in your head? How do you start over after the Holocaust? Some wounds can never heal and, for the survivors, the past is forever dragged into the future. That sense of the past living in the present moment—of the past not being over and done with—was something that I wanted to represent in the narrative. I felt a responsibility to get that right.

Andria Williams: Research, research, and more research.

Liz Prato: I spent about eight hours interviewing Annie, for one thing, and did a ton of research. And I remained clear that I was only telling one person’s story. I know that the parents of Annie’s best friend have a different perspective. They’re still angry and permanently ravaged by grief, and even though they lost the same person as Annie, their story is entirely singular. That was one great thing about finding Patrick – he’d written a fictionalized version of the Lockerbie bombing from the standpoint of the coroner on the ground who had to identify all the bodies and body parts scattered throughout his town. Same tragedy, totally different story. I also realized that once I decided to fictionalize it, the story became something else. It wasn’t Annie’s or mine anymore. It belonged to anyone willing to take it into their hearts. Being true to the human heart is always, first and foremost, my greatest responsibility.

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Writing about other people’s traumas can, in its own way, cause emotional turmoil. How did it affect you to become so intimate with acts of violence?

Ellen Sussman: I was a victim of a violent rape when I was 18 years old. I didn’t realize when I chose to write about the terrorist attacks in Bali that I would be forced to take myself on a very emotional journey back to that experience. But perhaps that’s one of the reasons I chose the material – on a subconscious level I needed to go there. I know what it’s like to suffer acts of violence – I know what it’s like to make a life for oneself after that moment in time.

Patrick Hicks: I always feel weird talking about this because my own little problems are so tiny in comparison. I wouldn’t have believed that trauma could be contagious, but I’ve come to realize that if you study something for long enough, it nests in your imagination and changes you. When I was writing The Commandant of Lubizec, I had these incredibly vivid nightmares of my family in Auschwitz. I could see greasy black smoke rising up from the crematorium and they were pulled away from me. I’d wake up panting in a cold sweat. This happened throughout the writing of the entire first draft and it got to the point where I was actually nervous about going to bed. Also, whenever I see the Yankees playing baseball now, I think to myself, “Oh look, their uniforms are like the ones in Auschwitz.” Once, when I was in Dublin, I was standing at a train station when a long line of school kids walked past me. They each had a yellow flower pinned to their chest for cancer awareness week, but to me it looked like a yellow star. As they boarded their train and pulled away, my heart turned to water. It’s hard to explain. I guess you could say that I see the Holocaust in color now. I’m reminded of it every day. It’s everywhere.

Andria Williams: The violence in The Longest Night is the diffuse, insidious kind. I did not have the crushing responsibility of writing about the Holocaust, as Patrick Hicks does so well and carefully and beautifully in The Commandant of Lubizec.

I see The Longest Night as being about the violence of the power differential. Every act of violence, to my mind, is a jockeying for power, and in the novel there are power struggles between institutions and workers, bosses and employees, men and women, husbands and wives, white newcomers and ‘Indians,’ people and the land. Sometimes these are manifested as violence. I wasn’t haunted by what I had to write, so much as attuned further to these themes as I was writing. I wrote the novel because I saw them everywhere and I saw them even more as I was writing the novel. It never stops.

Liz Prato: During the years when I interviewed Annie, and wrote the article for Salon, and wrote a draft of the novel that brought me to “A Proportional Response,” my dad and brother were spiraling into fatal mental and physical illness. It was such a raw and stressful time for me, I can’t separate out whatever secondary PTSD emerged from my obsession with the bombing. I did have nightmares about it, and couldn’t listen to or transcribe the interview tapes for six months. Even after I transcribed the tapes, the notes just sat in my computer for another six months. Then, in August 2009, I heard the news that Al Megrahi (the only person convicted of the bombing) was being given an early release from prison on “compassionate” grounds. It was said he had end-stage cancer with only three months to live (he lived another 2 years and nine months). My shock and outrage that he’d only spent 8 years in prison for the murder of 270 people—10 days in prison for each person’s life he took—propelled me beyond whatever emotional turmoil immersing myself in the original events might cause. Besides, if Annie could survive what she went through, then I could survive writing about her pain and loss. That’s what so much of my writing is about—surviving pain and loss.

Ellen Sussman

Ellen Sussman

Writing about these tragedies surely made you more compassionate to the survivors and victims. Did it, in any way, change your feelings about or understanding of the perpetrators?

Ellen Sussman: No. At one point I tried to include a character that was involved with the terrorist group that planned and executed the attacks. I just couldn’t get under his skin. I decided that I couldn’t write about him without any compassion. And so his story is not a part of the novel.

Patrick Hicks: That’s a really tough question. I don’t have sympathy for the perpetrators but I do see the larger issues of history at work. That is to say, I better understand how World War I influenced the growth of Nazism. If anything, writing Lubizec has complicated things for me because I now recognize that these agents of death had the capacity to love. They loved their wives and sons and daughters. They loved their pets. They loved their horses. And yet when it came to offering clemency and mercy to the Jews, they made a fist of their hearts. How? How could they do this? And as the years passed, did they have even one iota of regret? The answer to this question, at least for many of them, was “no.” That chills my soul.

Andria Williams: The “perps,” to use a word I enjoy, are the most fictionalized people in the novel, so my feelings about them didn’t really change. But I did start to understand how someone like Mitch Richards, basically a peon within the system but still overseeing several people, could put aside the glaring truth of a reactor going bad out of sheer desire for self-preservation. Everyone’s options are limited.

Still, that said, I enjoyed making Mitch an unlikable villain, and slightly stupid. Unfortunately, a lot of people in positions of power are just mind-blowingly stupid. It’s a truth of life, and may be far more dangerous than any nuclear reactor alone could be.

Liz Prato: Not really, because we still have such a lack of understanding about who really did it—much less why they did it. The only why I’ve ever been able to come up with is politics and war games, and I can’t be compassionate to that. I can only be compassionate to the people who’s souls are mangled by them. I’ve been watching the Frontline documentary “My Brother’s Bomber,” which follows a man’s multi-year journey to track down the men responsible for murdering his brother and the other people killed in Lockerbie by the bombing. When he showed close up pictures of the primary suspects, deep in the pockets of Kaddafi, I didn’t see human beings looking back at me. I saw cold eyes, cold souls.

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How did writing about these events change you?

Ellen Sussman: My journey since my rape has been a long one. I thought most of the hard work was done. But writing this novel made me look at the aftermath of violence in a new way. I was so touched by the grace of the Balinese people and the way in which their belief system helped them to cope with tragedy. I don’t have that belief system. But understanding it and learning about their lives has given me a much greater sense of faith and a stronger belief in the power of community.

Patrick Hicks: I often get this question, and it’s a good one. After all, you can’t swim around in the dark waters of the Holocaust without it changing you in some way. I appreciate the beauty and temporality of life in a renewed way, and I’d like to think I’m more gentle with people than I used to be. Rather than worrying about the small things, I try to focus on the big things that make life worth living: family, community, peace. These were things the victims of the Holocaust once enjoyed and they probably took them for granted—it’s easy to do—and then something came along and smashed their lives apart. I’m more vigilant about the forces that would cause us pain and I’m aware that hatred can grow just as fast as love.

Andria Williams: I would say that writing about the SL-1 made me feel both that nuclear power is safer than I thought, and that it has more potential for damage than I imagined. The Fukushima accident happened as I was writing the novel, and what was notable about that (for me) was that the Fukushima reactor was the same kind as the SL-1: a boiling-water type reactor. It’s a design that goes back to the late 1950s. (This shows how much scientific innovation occurred during this time, that we are still using basically the same technology those early scientists developed in Idaho seventy years ago.) It was painful, while writing about the SL-1, to see people scrambling to control the reactor at Fukushima. Nuclear power is so clean and safe, you know, until it isn’t.

Writing the novel did not make me opposed to nuclear power. After all, my husband works on aircraft carriers, and the aircraft carrier is one of the most impressive and successful models of nuclear usage I can think of. But learning more about the SL-1, and trying to convey its importance to the public, made me reach a point where I think we should apply the Hippocratic “Do No Harm” ethos to our scientific innovations, as well. Should we ban nuclear power outright? No, I don’t think so. Coal, I believe, is far worse for our environment, and for its own workers, than nuclear power has ever been. But should we exhaust every possible alternative first, before nuclear or coal, in an ascending level of risk? Yes, I think so. We have other options. We are smart, even though we try to crush this intelligence at every turn in favor of whatever’s easier. We’ve had some good ideas since 1959. Let’s use them.

Liz Prato: Every time I learn about any kind of loss –whether it’s my own, or someone else’s—I’m completely awestruck that we survive. I’m also amazed by how mangled the popular narrative about grief and survival is. In reality, it doesn’t happen easily, quickly, or even completely. The reality is not so much about getting over or moving on from a loss, but about how it changes who we are, fundamentally. The real narrative is how we must make the decision to be that changed person in a changed world. That’s surviving.


Ellen Sussman is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, A Wedding in Provence, The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons, and On a Night Like This. She is the editor of two critically acclaimed anthologies, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave and Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex. She teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes. EllenSussman.com

Patrick Hicks is the author of nearly ten books, including The Collector of NamesAdoptable, This London, and the critically acclaimed, The Commandant of Lubizec. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals including Ploughshares, The Georgia ReviewNew Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, and many others. A winner of the Glimmer Train Fiction Award, he is also the recipient grants from the Bush Artist Foundation, the South Dakota Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A dual-citizen of Ireland and America, he is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana University as well as a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.

Liz Prato is the author of the new short story collection, Baby’s on Fire. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Butter, Subtropics, and others. In 2012 she was a Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference. She teaches and presents at literary festivals across the country. LizPrato.com

Andria Williams attended UC-Berkeley (B.A. English) and the University of Minnesota (M.F.A. – Creative Writing). Her first novel, The Longest Night, is forthcoming in January 2016 (Random House). It’s received a starred review in Booklist and was listed as a “January Title to Watch” by Library Journal. The Longest Night is a fictionalized take on the US’s first and only nuclear reactor accident, which occurred Jan. 3rd, 1961 in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

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