The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit
The Wives of Los Alamos
by TaraShea Nesbit
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Explosive Secrets in TaraShea Nesbit Debut

An exclusive Authorlink interview with TaraShea Nesbit,
Author of The Wives of Los Alamos
By Diane Slocum

April 2014

During World War II, scientists and their families found themselves recruited to go to the desert and work on a mysterious project. TaraShea Nesbit’s debut novel is written from the perspective of the wives who attempted to live normal lives making friends, giving birth, raising children in the isolated New Mexican desert, never really knowing what the government was asking of their husbands until it was done.

“I told myself I’d just give writing a novel about these women a try, but once I started writing I could not stop.”

AUTHORLINK: How did you get interested in writing about the wives of Los Alamos?

NESBIT: I gave a reading from a lyric essay about a different part of the Manhattan Project, the Hanford Site in eastern Washington, when a friend’s aunt, Jane Viste, came up to me afterwards and inquired about the scientists’ wives. I did not think I would be the one to tell that story, but my interest in atomic history and the conversation with Jane festered over a winter break. I told myself I’d just give writing a novel about these women a try, but once I started writing I could not stop. In part, I realized that their story was a way to also explore culpability, something I continue to worry about today. That is, what do I support without my knowledge? And how does one object when they always only know part of the story?

AUTHORLINK: How did you do your research?

NESBIT: I listened to oral histories collected by the Los Alamos Historical Society, watched interviews conducted by the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s “Manhattan Project Voices,” read several memoirs, traveled to Los Alamos, and worked with the archivist at Los Alamos to sift through materials.

“But the more I researched these women, the more I knew I would have to move into fiction, because so much was missing from the archives.”

AUTHORLINK: This was an extremely unusual experience for young wives – to go from the mystery of their husbands’ new jobs, through their isolated living situation, to the final knowledge of their husbands’ work – did you think of different methods to portray this?

NESBIT: Yes. I began in nonfiction, which you can read an excerpt of at Quarterly West. But the more I researched these women, the more I knew I would have to move into fiction, because so much was missing from the archives. The consciousness of the novel came easily. As part of the revision process I considered a few first-person perspectives, but such portrayals felt, curiously, more fictional and less representational than I wanted.

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide to write it in first person plural? Were people receptive to that idea?

NESBIT: In the real wives’ oral histories, I noticed that the women would often be asked a question about life in Los Alamos, and reply from the perspective of “we”. They said, “It was like this for us,” where “us” were all the wives. And so it seemed quite natural to make the consciousness of this novel in the voice of the group, as the women were doing in their own recollections, suggesting their primary identity as the members of a group, rather than as individuals. My initial readers were supportive. But it is best to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

AUTHORLINK: Are many of your incidents based on things that actually happened or did you fill in a lot of things that could have happened?

NESBIT: Almost everything described in the novel actually happened. I went on imaginative forays when there was evidence for something—talk of Musical Bed, for instance—but not enough specific details previously cited. Fiction, nonfiction—what is truth? So much nonfiction is fictional to me because it leaves out other truths. I wrote this book and labeled it the most truthful way I knew: I called this deeply researched project a work of fiction.

“I had published a few poems and nonfiction in literary journals, but this was my first real project . . “

AUTHORLINK: What did you go through to get published? Did your published short stories help?

NESBIT: Prior to this novel being sold, I had not published short stories. I had published a few poems and nonfiction in literary journals, but this was my first real project in which I told myself I was writing fiction. It was liberating because so much “truth” is lost in the historical record. Susan Howe has smart things to say about this. “If you are a woman,” Howe says in The Birthmark, “archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself” (158). But it isn’t just women whose stories are lost. If you have been in the margins of a triumphant story—if your ancestors are Black, Indian, Latino, or Asian, for example—it is likely your stories are lost. Fiction may provide certain truths of the lacunae.

AUTHORLINK: Have you tried to publish other novels before this? If so, what did you learn from that experience?

NESBIT: My M.F.A. is in poetry, but my thesis was half poetry and half a novella-length bildungsroman. I did query agents upon graduation about the novella, and received a few really kind rejections, but eight years ago the lines between poetry and prose were drawn even more strongly than they are now, and perhaps that project was not so great. Almost everyone I know has a “failed” first project. It’s good to be rejected. Failure became less scary; failure liberates. I am far less worried about failure the more I fail.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now?

NESBIT: A novel set in the 17th century from the perspective of people previously unrecognized as part of a major narrative of America’s history.

About TaraShea Nesbit:

Nesbit has an M.F.A. from Washington University and Ph.D. from University of Denver. She teaches at the Universities of Denver and Washington. Her short stories have been featured in the Iowa Review other literary journals.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.