Podcast Transcript 89. An Interview With Author Denise Kiernan

Here is a text transcript of DBSA 88. An Interview with Denise Kiernan. You can listen to the mp3 here, or you can read on! 

This podcast transcript was handcrafted of old world alphabet letters by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.

 Here are the books we discuss:

Book The Girls of Atomic City - Denise Kiernan


[music]

Sarah Wendell: Hello, and welcome to another DBSA podcast. I’m Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and with me today is an author named Denise Kiernan who wrote a nonfiction book called The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. When her publicist contacted me about this book, I thought, well, it’s not a romance, but holy crap, is this interesting! Denise’s book follows a few of the women who, during World War II, came to work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which at the time was a somewhat secret town that had sprung up almost overnight where the U.S. government was developing the, basically, the uranium to make the atom bomb. Most of the women who worked there – and the town at, at its strength during the war, was over 75,000 people – most of them had no idea that that’s what they were doing until it was revealed after the atom bomb was dropped on Japan. What I found really interesting is that, very much, these women were ordinary people who became part of something very extraordinary and didn’t know what they were doing until it was over. I thought this was a really fun interview, and though it’s outside the romance genre a bit, I hope you enjoy it.

Our sponsor, Penguin, would like you to know that this podcast is brought to you by New American Library, publisher of Fall from India Place, the steamy new romance from New York Times bestselling author of On Dublin Street, Samantha Young.

And now, on with the podcast!

[music]

Sarah: So, are you sitting in a cubicle separating uranium with a magnet?

Denise Kiernan: [Laughs]

Sarah: Is that what you do during the day?

Denise: Absolutely, yes, it’s just –

Sarah: I mean, who doesn’t, right?

Denise: You’ve got to break, you’ve got to break your day up, you’ve got to, you know, avoid monotony. Separating – enriching a little uranium always keeps, you know, keeps your mind sharp.

Sarah: Absolutely. It helps you glow in the dark when you can’t find things.

Denise: Yep, it’s – [laughs]

Sarah: I am so excited to talk to you about this book, oh, my God, because when I pick it up to find the sections that I marked that I wanted to ask you about, I start reading it again, and I’m like, oh, crap!

Denise: Oh, thank you! [Laughs]

Sarah: There went 20 minutes! Shit. [Laughs]

Denise: Oh, thank you, that’s lovely. [Laughs]

Sarah: I’ve actually, I think this is a, is a, is a terrific gift book. Like, for example – and this is an enormous compliment, although it, it might not sound that way – my, my dad only likes to read books about dead guys, particularly if they’re from the Civil War, and I’ve gotten him to expand his reading into other pieces of nonfiction, especially about women, and I got him into the Mary Roach books, which are fascinating science history –

Denise: Oh, yeah, sure. Absolutely.

Sarah: – and I’m like, he would totally dig this book, because the entire idea of the government saying, okay, we’re going to buy up this town, and we’re going to make a town, and we’re not going to let anyone tell anybody about the town. This is great! This is a great idea; this could never happen.

Denise: So they say!

Sarah: Yeah.

Denise: It has happened, and we just don’t know!

Sarah: It’s amazing. So, would you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about the book and how you entered this project, aside from, you know, separating uranium at your desk.

Denise: Sure, yes, well. My name is Denise Kiernan; I’m the author of The Girls of Atomic City. I have been writing for quite some time now. I started out in journalism roughly 20 years ago and eventually progressed into doing books, which I enjoy quite a bit. The, this is my most recent book. It came out in March of 2013, and the paperback just came out about a month ago, and I’m very happy to report that I just learned last night that it’s hanging on for a seventh week straight on the New York Times bestseller list, so that’s –

Sarah: Sweet!

Denise: Yeah, it’s very exciting –

Sarah: Congratulations!

Denise: Thank you. Yeah, the hard, the hardcover made the list as well, but it was, the paperback is really hanging in there, so it’s, it’s very, very – You try not to get – First of all, I mean, you can’t focus on stuff like that –

Sarah: No.

Denise: – but it’s hard not to get excited. So the book itself is, it’s narrative nonfiction, so it’s a true story. It’s about these young women living and working in a secret government city in Tennessee during World War II, and that secret government city would come to be better known as Oak Ridge, and the top secret government project they were working on is most commonly known as the Manhattan Project, which was the project during World War II that harnessed the power of fission, the energy that’s released when the nucleus of an atom is split, and that project resulted in the world’s first nuclear weapons, and the catch was most of the people, not just women, but most of the people working on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge did not know that that’s what they were working on. And so I came across the story while I was actually working on another project. I was researching a separate project and came across this old photograph that is actually in the book, so if you have a copy of the book, go to the picture well, and one of the images there shows this huge cavernous room, and it’s lined on both sides by these, you know, floor-to-ceiling panels that are covered in all these knobs and dials and gauges, and these young women are sitting on stools in front of these panels, and I saw that photo and just thought it was kind of beautiful at first – I really like old vintage photographs – and I was sort of struck by the contrast between the, the youthful appearance of these women and this bizarre gauntlet of, like, you know, 1940s technology, and I glanced over at the, at the caption, and it said something along the lines of these women were recent high school graduates from rural areas in Tennessee, and they were enriching uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb, you know, only they were not aware of it at the time, and I thought, well, that’s kind of interesting.

Sarah: You don’t say.

Denise: Really! Okay. And then, of course, you know, being a journalist, you know, for so long, the next thing you always ask yourself is, okay, wait, is this really a story or am I just an idiot? Like, -

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: Does everybody, does everybody know about thi – ? We all have crazy knowledge gaps –

Sarah: Yes, of course.

Denise: – of, of things that, like, everybody around us seems to know, and we have been misinformed for, you know, years, and I thought, maybe this is just one of those things that everybody else knows about and I just, you know, was asleep that day, and so I started asking people. I asked – you know, ‘cause I, I, I like history a lot, and I, I, you know, I like science, and I like science history, and I felt pretty well versed in this particular area, and I asked my husband, who’s also a history buff. I asked a couple folks who are, you know, professors, history professors that I know. You know, and quickly, it became clear to me that most people’s perspective on this event, this moment in history, was quite similar to what mine had been up to the point, up to the point at which I saw that photograph, which was just sort of a really top-down kind of perspective. A perspective – everything from the point of view of, you know, the Nobel prize winners and the generals and the decision makers and, you know, the “important people.” I thought, well, but they were just so – I mean, the more I looked into it, you know, tens of thousands of people involved in this, a lot of whom didn’t, you know, know what was going on, and so many of them young women, you know, because so many men were away fighting during the war –

Sarah: Of course.

Denise: – and I thought, you know, we’re talking about a pretty significant development, you know. The development of nuclear weap-, weapons and nuclear energy is, you know, arguably the most significant development of the 20th century, and that’s the, you know, that all, it continues to impact our life daily. Nuclear, you know, in facts, it impacts our, you know, political relationships and our environment and, you know, medicine and all sorts of stuff, and I thought, well, wouldn’t, don’t we kind of owe it to ourselves to look at this from as many different perspectives as possible, and, and I also, I also just, you know, as a reader, I like history. I like looking at the role that, you know, for lack of a better phrase, average folks play in large historical events, you know, people that just sort of find themselves at an interesting moment in time and, you know, all of a sudden find themselves caught up in something that’s much, much larger than they are, and so this sort of played on all those things. So that’s how I, that’s how I came across it, was a photo.

Sarah: It’s a pretty amazing photo, too.

Denise: Oh, it’s beautiful, and you know, all those photos in the book are, or the va- – I mean, I think that one or two might not be – are by Ed Wescott, who was the official photographer for what was then referred to as the War Department in Oak Ridge during World War II, and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Ed now. He’s, he’s still with us. He’s 92, I think, now.

Sarah: Wow!

Denise: And – yeah – and he, his photography is incredible, and there are thousands of his photos, and they’re in the National Archives, and, you know, you can go see them in person, or you, there are a couple places you can find them online. There’s a lovely Tumblr called photos of Ed Wescott. His photos of people are really interesting, but some of the photos of the machinery and the landscapes are really interesting, too, and – ‘cause they knew that, you know, if the project turned out to be what they considered a success, they wanted some, they wanted a record of everything that was there –

Sarah: Of course.

Denise: – and so Ed was the guy who ran around taking all the photos.

Sarah: One of the things that, that struck me as so interesting is that all of this happened during other major events. Like, there’s a whole section about the desegregation of the government school, and so all of these things that were happening that the whole country at the time was paying attention to also happened in Oak Ridge, except nobody knew about Oak Ridge, and you, you would, people would send letters there, and they would come back, like, there’s no such place. Even though you know your daughter’s there, it’s not actually real, so no letters for you.

Denise: Oh, yeah, well, what was so fu- – the letter thing cracks me up, because you get so many, there were – and I think I put most of them – you get so many different stories from people about their experience with the mail. Mail getting to them, but it’s highly censored. Mail being returned, saying this place doesn’t exist –

Sarah: Yes.

Denise: Mail, you know, never arriving. Censorship was pretty common, and most people I talked to got an address they could give people to mail them letters – a lot of them came through heavily censored – and others, yeah, but others would, you know, other people said that, you know, their family members reported they just got, you know, a letter returned back to them saying this place isn’t here. So it was – [laughs] – it was really kind of, really, really kind of a unique experience for those folks. Although, you know, other mail was censored as well, too, going to and from troops –

Sarah: Oh, of course.

Denise: – overseas, of course, but yeah, but, you know, a, a, a secretary writing her mom, you know, and her, and her mom basically, you know, her, Celia’s mom, one of my main characters, her mom just called her and said, just, enough with the letters. I can’t make any sense of them ‘cause everything’s, you know, crossed through with, you know, a bl-, everything’s blacked out, and of course, this just made Celia paranoid, ‘cause she thought, well, I don’t know anything. What am I possibly writing about that’s any, that’s a problem? [Laughs] And so that sort of thing really made people, you know, kind of question what it was that they were – you know, it was like, oh, my God, what did I say that was wrong, or that was too revealing? Because, you know, Celia knew she didn’t know what was going on around her, and so she couldn’t imagine that she could have possibly shared something, you know, “incriminating” from the project, but they were so, you know, they were so picky about, you know, if you talked about how big the cafeteria was. They didn’t want any information that might lead people to believe how, how large the, the, the reservation was. Not mentioning people’s names and , you know, not talking about, you know, somebody wanted to do, you know, a piece in the paper about, you know, isn’t this interesting, there’s so many Ph.D.’s in my dorm. No, nononono.

Sarah: No, nope, nope, nope, nope.

Denise: You can’t write about that. Nobody needs to know what Ph.D.’s are here or what their, you know, what their focus of study might be, because that could be a clue for – it was all about keeping even the smallest bits of information quiet, even though on their own, they might not seem like they meant that much. The concern was, if you put enough of these little bits of information together, you could get a more accurate picture of what might be going on behind those fences.

Sarah: The idea that you would have – [ laughs] – it makes me think of that bumper sticker – [laughs] – Just, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching you.

Denise: Sure! Of course.

Sarah: Yeah. The, the idea that all of these women were targeted and identified, and like you said, they were all from relatively rural areas, and they were not isolated in dangerous ways, but not with a huge network of people who would know them, and then they were all individually targeted with promises of a job that paid, like, a huge amount of money. Like, one of them was, like, 65 cents an hour! That was almost twice what her pay was as a waitress! Okay, first of all, 65 cents an hour, holy crap. Second, how tempting must that be? You’re not going to find a job anywhere that pays that much where these women were, and they were targeted by, you know, dudes in suits!

Denise: Yeah, they were, they were identified, there – you know, they needed so many bodies –

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: I mean, part of it, part of it was they needed so many people, and they just did not have the men around to fill, you know, to, to fill the seats.

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: The other part of it, you know, there were, it is, you know, there, there were women with science backgrounds and higher educations there. It’s just, they were not the majority. There, there were people who were, like, recruited out of college, as opposed to out of the halls of their high school or out of a diner, like Helen was. So – but they just, they weren’t in the, they weren’t in the majority.

Sarah: Right.

Denise: The women who were, you know, high school, high school girls were great! The project loved them, because they, you know, they – for the most part, because of their age and because of these, the relatively simple backgrounds from, from, from which they came and just sort of the culture at, at the time, you know, ‘cause we’re talking seventy-some-odd years ago, you know, they were all raised to do what people told them to do –

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: – certainly to do what their fathers told them to do, to do what their mothers told them to do, to do what their teachers told them to do, and questioning authority was not a part of how most of these young women, girls, who grew up on farms and then went to a rural high school – I mean, questioning authority was not something that was encouraged during their, you know, during their formative years, and, you know – which is, of course, what the project wanted, ‘cause they didn’t want anybody questioning what they were doing or –

Sarah: Oh, of course not.

Denise: – yeah, or wondering what was going on. There were not economic needs, like you mentioned, for, for these women, you know – for a lot of these folks, the Depression was not a distant memory –

Sarah: No, not at all.

Denise: They, they remembered, you know, what that was like, and having a good job was so important, and when you combined that with a very real desire to help out with the war effort – you know, it’s, I think it’s really hard for those of us who didn’t, you know, live through World War II to understand how much that war touched absolutely everybody’s lives.

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: It was, you could not ignore that that war was going on. I mean, you know –

Sarah: Which is quite a contrast, considering we’ve got, like, one or two conflicts now, and days will go by without hearing about them.

Denise: Absolutely! Or, you know, even if you do, it doesn’t impact, no one’s telling you, you know – they had, every song on the radi-, the songs were all about the war, the, the movies were about the war, the comic strips were about the war. They had scrap metal drives. You were told you couldn’t get tires for your car because the rubber was needed overseas. You couldn’t buy, you know, you were told how much meat you could buy, how much sugar you could buy. I mean, it affected whether or not you, yourself, were away or a loved one was away. It impacted your life constantly, and on top of that, a lot of people did know people who were away fighting, so when you sort of combined that economic need with an overall feeling that it’s important to do something to help the war effort, and for many of these people, you know, personal investment in – you know, the, the war coming to a resolution because, you know, most of the people I interviewed had, you know, brothers or boyfriends or cousins or somebody away fighting – they all wanted it to be over and felt good about taking a job that they were told was going to help the war effort, and when you take those motivating factors combined with really good pay –

Sarah: Holy crap, good pay, yeah!

Denise: – it was a pretty – yeah! Yeah, it was a pretty, it was a pretty tempting package for folks, so – ‘cause I think one of the, you know, it’s, you know, looking at this moment from, you know, the 21st century or late 20th century thinking, what do you mean, no one told you what this project was about and you just worked on it? You know, but –

Sarah: But you didn’t question.

Denise: Yeah.

Sarah: Well, how did you not question? Well, I didn’t.

Denise: Yeah! You, I, I got the information that I needed. You know, you have to put, that’s why context in history is so important –

Sarah: Yes.

Denise: – and, you know, what would it be like if two of your brothers were a, you know, oceans away getting, and people were getting killed, you know, left and right –

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: – and your brothers are over there, and you come from a, you know, a poor rural family, and you’re getting a job making more money than you ever imagined possible, and you’re going to help bring you brothers home – okay! You know, I guess I don’t, I don’t necessarily need to know. All I need to know is that it’s helping the war effort. That’s how, that’s how most of these people felt.

Sarah: And not only are you going to be helping the war effort, but what you’re doing is important.

Denise: Yep.

Sarah: It’s so important, you have to think about what you say, you have to think about what you write. What you’re doing is so crucial you can’t even talk about it.

Denise: You’re absolutely right. The, the level of, the level of secrecy, I think, added an extra layer of wow, this must be important. Like –

Sarah: Yes, and it was – like, secrecy was a status.

Denise: Yeah, oh, my, yeah, yeah, that’s a good, that’s an interesting way to think about it. Yeah, it, it sort of is the wow, okay, if we’re not allowed to talk about this, this must be pretty, this must be pretty important –

Sarah: Yes.

Denise: – so I feel even, I feel even, you know, more, you know, I, I feel even better about the whole, the whole situation. Yeah, that’s –

Sarah: There’s a, there’s a photo in the middle of the book of Santa getting checked at a gate point.

Denise: [Laughs] Yeah.

Sarah: Like, and there’s this guy, he’s got this completely smarmy, I-am-so-important expression on his face, he’s, I don’t know, he’s looking at Santa’s ID or whatever, and I was thinking, you know, here are all these young women who are 18, 20, 22. They have this incredibly important high-level government job. They’re not allowed to tell anybody about it. They’re being told that what they’re doing is extremely essential. They go through all those checkpoints all the time, ‘cause they got the badges. Santa gets stopped, so these women are like, I am better clearance than Santa Claus.

Denise: [Laughs] Yeah, their car, everybody’s car still got searched, though. If you went through the gates with – I mean, people definitely, like, came up close and took close looks at your badge –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Denise: – at times. I mean, there, ‘cause I heard stor-, you know, I had a couple stories from people who had forgotten their badges at times, and that was always a big, it was a big problem. They’d, like, escort you back to your dorm –

Sarah: Yes.

Denise: – and make sure, you know, all this sort of stuff, but the cars, you know, in the trunk, in the glove compartment, you know, all the – it was, it was a pretty, they took it pretty seriously. I mean, when you’re dealing with those numbers of people –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Denise: – it’s hard for anything to be, I mean, clearly, things weren’t flawless –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Denise: – but, I mean, the, the badges and the checkpoints, you know, there were seven gates, four, four main ones for people who lived there, seven gates altogether, there, you know, it was, they were very serious about keeping people out who were not supposed to be there and making sure, and the ba-, I mean, even the, you know, you had, there was one set of identification to be a resident –

Sarah: Right.

Denise: – of Oak Ridge, because, you know, there were people living there who weren’t working there, like, well, you know, spouses, children, you know, folks like that, so you had one badge that identified you as a resident. You had a whole other separate ID for where you worked, and, you know, they would, they would check those to make sure, you know, if you, for example, worked at the Y-12 plant, you would have a badge that said that, and you couldn’t even really get on a bus that was going to the K-25 plant, you know –

Sarah: Right.

Denise: You had no business being there! And it’s, you know, so, you never saw any of these other places. You just, you know, wherever you were allowed to go, that’s where you went, and, you know, people were checking, you know, on the buses and at the plants and various, various places, yeah.

Sarah: You know how every so often there, there’s a, a cycle of, of movie plots that are popular? Either it’s a, an adult and a child switching bodies or, you know –

Denise: Sure.

Sarah: – there’s a dog in a buddy comedy involving the police. There’s like, there’s like a cycle of those. There also is sometimes a cycle of time travel movies, and I would really like to have a time travel movie where the security guards and the security team from Oak Ridge come forward in time and have to work at TSA.

Denise: [Laughs]

Sarah: Because, you know, they did, in Oak Ridge, they did actual security. Like, they were, they knew what to look for, and they did not mess around, whereas TSA is like this giant take-your-shoes-off performance theater, and they don’t know what the hell they’re looking for half the time, and, you know – I, I live near Newark. I think I could go through TSA in Newark with, like, a llama and a, and a, and a clown and, you know, carrying in a basketball –

Denise: But no hairspray.

Sarah: – and, yeah, and they would be like, whatever. That’s fine, just leave your sunscreen here.

Denise: Just, yes, but don’t get stripe, but no hairspray. Yeah, it’s, it’s very, it was very interesting the way they pulled, I mean, they, the way they pulled a lot of it off. I mean, people, and, you know, everybody has their stories about, you know, sneaking alcohol past them, which they, people got very good at, actually.

Sarah: Oh, never ever underestimate people’s des-, people’s ability –

Denise: Exactly.

Sarah: – to bootleg and smuggle when it’s alcohol.

Denise: Hooch, yeah. And, you know, there were, and all those places around, you know, this is eastern Tennessee in the, in the ‘40s –

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: – this is, you know, moonshine central, so, you know, there were all sorts of places where you could just, you could go get illegal booze, and there were places, of course, you know, you could get, you know, legal booze as well, but, you know, the, I saw a couple pictures of the guard shacks, you know, the little guard, the guardhouse –

Sarah: Right.

Denise: – and just full of contraband.

[Laughter]

Sarah: Yes!

Denise: Full of contraband booze, but the, you know, the, everybody had their different theories about the best way to, to, to smuggle stuff in. A really popular one was at the bottom of a, a bag of dirty baby diapers, because –

[Laughter]

Sarah: Ain’t nobody gonna touch that!

Denise: ‘Cause it wasn’t, ‘cause, you know, there were no disposable diapers –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Denise: – so you ran around with, you know, poopy cloth diapers until you had a chance to clean them –

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: – and if you put it in the bottom of that bag, no one was digging down to the bottom of that.

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: Yes, people got, people got very creative, and then they did stuff like, you know, make wine under the porch –

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: [laughs]

Sarah: Hide your hooch in poop: tales from the war effort.

Denise: Yeah, they made it, they made it happen.

Sarah: One of the things that I found really fascinating was the story of Helen who – and I, I say targeted like, you know, like it, like she was, something bad was going to happen to her, and it wasn’t a bad targeting, but she was identified and selected and, and enticed to take the job because she liked to play basketball.

Denise: The first time she – she was approached when she was working at the diner to –

Sarah: That’s right, I’m sorry. First she was a waitress –

Denise: No, no, no, that’s fine, yeah, exactly, she was working in a diner, and then later, these guys approached her at basketball practice to come play on a travel team out of Knoxville, and she thought she was being, in trouble again, and, like, somebody was going to ask her to spy again, so –

Sarah: And once you have that experience of being identified and selected, you’re kind of suspicious of any opportunity that comes to you.

Denise: Well, yeah, she just, her, she had this whole kind – Helen was hilarious ‘cause she had this whole – her [laughs], her experience there was every once in a while, someone’s going to come up to you and speak to you secretly, asking you to go do something, ‘cause, you know, the way she was, the way Helen was recruited, I thought, was hilarious because, you know, there she was, she was working in this, like, little diner/drugstore place, and this, this guy who she’d seen in there a few times, you know, one day is like, you know, I’d like to talk to you about something, you know, could you, could you, you know, step outside with me? And then, you know, there’s this great job, you know, in an, in the eastern part of the state, I can’t give you too many details. You know, would you be interested in, in doing – and, you know, today, that sounds like the, the, you know, opening to a, you know, like, a bad CSI episode or something –

Sarah: Yeah, that’s like a Lifetime movie of the week –

Denise: Don’t get on the bus!

Sarah: – The Drugstore Temptation Story.

Denise: Yes, she’s going to be, she’s – Don’t get on the bus! And –

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: But she gets on, and she’s fine! It’s, it’s the – you know, she has a great job, and then, you know, she’s not there two weeks when, you know, two other guys in suits, like, yank her out of her dorm and, again, you’re like, don’t go out in the dark with the men you don’t know!

Sarah: Yes!

[Laughter]

Denise: What are you doing? And, of course, they’re asking her to be an undercover informant!

Sarah: Of course!

Denise: And, you know, and then, so, when those guys come up to her, you know, months later, and she’s at basketball practice, and these other guys she’s never seen before, you know –

Sarah: Wearing suits.

Denise: – wearing suits! Come to talk to us, she’s like, oh, my God, what is it now? What is it now?

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: And, of course – but they just actually wanted her to play on the, on the travel basketball team, but it was, it, it was just hilarious to me that there were something about, there was something about Helen that just, you know, people were like, ooh, she could be a, she could be a, she could be a spy, she could, you know, she’s a great basketball player, just, she was constantly having, you know, people say come over here and let me talk to you for a minute away from everyone else.

Sarah: Yes, because that is, that isn’t creepy at all.

Denise: No, of course not!

Sarah: Not in the slightest little bit.

Denise: Yeah, when you’re, when you’re 18 from a, you know, when you’re 18 and grew up on a farm –

Sarah: Yeah.

Denise: That’s not, that’s not weird at all –

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: – to have that suddenly happen to you.

Sarah: Especially because that’s kind of a common thing, like, if some guy’s like, would you come outside and talk to – No. No.

Denise: Yeah, no!

Sarah: NO. NO. Nonono.

Denise: Actually, no.

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: But, you know, the guys who came to the, when they came to the dorm and, you know, asked her to start, you know, listening in on people’s conversations and in-, informing on, on, on fellow workers and, you know, dorm, you know, people who lived in the dorm and, and such, you know, it’s like she gets called down by her dorm mother!

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: And it’s, you know, there was this, you know, if somebody in a position of authority tells you to do something, you say, okay! You know, it was like, the idea that you would say, no, I’m not going to talk to these people you told me to talk to, that’s just, it, it didn’t cross – and they would say this, you know, they’d say, we did, Colleen used to say that all the time, she’d say, we did what we were told! That’s how I was raised, you know, I did what I was told.

Sarah: Yep. And you know, if it happens enough, maybe this is just a thing that happens to you a lot.

Denise: Well, yes, that and also, it was, I think at a certain point it was, I mean, she told me it was a, when she was asked to, to inform, she said that was a, that whole experience was a little unnerving, but you know, on the other hand, there was so much stuff to get used to there, I mean, you know, people, you know, with all the badges and security, and they had security briefings and all the printed reminders everywhere about not talking and –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Denise: – and all of that sort of stuff that you – in a sense it, it sort of worked with the atmosphere. I mean, it didn’t, I guess it didn’t necessarily seem all that – not that it didn’t seem odd, I mean certainly she’d never experienced anything like that before, but, you know, I think so much of her experience and the experiences of others there, especially early on before you got used to it, it was, I mean, everything seemed very new and different. So you just sort of thought, well, here’s another one of those new and different and kind of strange things.

Sarah: With the guy in a suit. Always the guy in a suit.

Denise: Always the guy in a suit. And it sounds so cliché, I was like, really, a guy – she goes, really!

Sarah: Was it Will Smith? Or was it Tommy Lee Jones?

Denise: [Laughs]

Sarah: One of the things that I was also fascinated by was the number of times that a person would be, like, out on a date, and some stranger would be like, are you okay, Dot? And she’s like, how the hell do you know my name and why do you know I’m here?

Denise: Oh, that, I thought, was very –

Sarah: That’s creepy! And then, later some guy comes up, and he’s like, I don’t want you to see him anymore.

Denise: You shouldn’t date him anymore.

Sarah: Like, I don’t even know you!

Denise: And then you don’t know – she said, I didn’t ask him why I shouldn’t. She said, he said not to, so I thought, okay, I’m not going to. Because that’s what you’re, ‘cause I, you know, I remember talking to her and saying like, but why? Did he know him? Did he – ? She goes, I think he might have been his boss. She goes, I don’t know, I just, he said not to, so I didn’t, you know, so it’s – [laughs] – and that was, you know, and that was, that was it! But the whole idea that, yeah, somebody you’d never seen before, you know, just sort of knew your name and, you know, knew, somehow, where you were and, you know, came up to tell you that, you know, to get involved, essentially, in your personal life.

Sarah: Yep, yep.

Denise: I mean, she wasn’t at work when this happened, and –

Sarah: She was in a car!

Denise: Yeah.

Sarah: On the side of the road! Just hanging out, probably about to neck. I mean, come on!

Denise: Yeah, they were probably about to make out, and, you know, it, so, it was – but, you know, it could have been – that’s the whole thing is, you know, it could have been anything. Maybe this guy, you know, she said she thought it might have been his boss, and she, you know, so, for all we know maybe the boss knew the guy was a troublemaker and was saying, you know, don’t, you know, just kind of, you know, heading her off at the pass. I don’t know. But – or maybe he knew the guy was, you know, snooping – who knows? It’s – so much, because people, because so many of the, the folks did what they were told to do and didn’t question things, a lot of the follow-through, you know, didn’t happen. Why did he say that to you? Why was he –

Sarah: I don’t know.

Denise: Why was he looking after you as opposed to any of the other 22,000, you know, people who worked at that particular plant complex?

Sarah: I don’t know. [Laughs]

Denise: Yeah, exactly, I don’t know, but he told me to, and I did. Okay.

Sarah: Yes, ‘cause that always works so well with people who are young adults. Tell-, telling them not to, and then they say, okay. That just works effectively all the time.

Denise: I know, right?

Sarah: I mean it works great on my eight year old, too! Not.

[Laughter]

Denise: Yeah, it works like a charm. Yes, we’re going to play hi- – Okay, do you think you can use this with your kid? We’re going to play the Oak Ridge game.

[Hearty laughter]

Denise: Remember, remember how we play the Oak Ridge –

Sarah: He would be so freaked out. [Laughs]

Denise: – I tell you to do something, and you say, okay.

Sarah: That’s right. Or a man in a suit is going to ask you to talk to him about a 65-cents-an-hour job.

[Laughter]

Denise: Yes. And you’re going to go off without –

Sarah: Yes.

Denise: – without knowing exactly what you’re doing.

Sarah: And the number of people who are like, so she went, and she didn’t tell her parents. I’d be like, oh, my God, I would have been so dead.

Denise: Oh, my God, I know. Well, it, what’s funny is, you know, I think about, it’s quite adventurous, what a lot of these young women did. I mean, I think it would be adventurous for 2014, let alone 1943 or 1944. You know, it, it’s, it’s really interesting to think about. I mean, I have friends who, you know, just this past fall sent their, you know, daughter off to college, and –

Sarah: Yep, yep.

Denise: – she’s very, you know, she, she had a scholarship, and she’s very smart, and she has a, a phone, and she has a good car –

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: – and she has – You know, they know, pretty much know where she, exactly where she is –

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: – and they were worried.

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: And, you know, but these, these, these people are just, you know, hopping on trains and buses, and they’re sort of like, well, I’ll see what happens when I get there.

Sarah: Yep. But I won’t tell my mom, ‘cause she’ll be worried.

Denise: Yes! They won’t want me to do it, so I just won’t tell them.

Sarah: Yes, that –

Denise: That sounds –

Sarah: And I’m just going to live to a, move to a town where they can’t send me a letter, and my letters come out with black bars on them. That won’t scare them at all. That’s terrifying.

Denise: Yes, that won’t freak them out at all, but they –

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: What’s funny is the, you know, when you think about it, it’s sort of like, I guess that is a little how, that was a little more in keeping with, like, how things might happen today.

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: Well, my parents wouldn’t want me to do it, so I’m just not going to tell them.

Sarah: Yes, that part is completely perennial and everlasting; that never changes.

Denise: She did tell her sister, though. Like, she wanted somebody to know –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Denise: – so she did tell her sister, which was, I guess, her, as, as far as she was going to go.

Sarah: And she grabbed a friend and was like, you know, we should go do this together, ‘cause you need a job, and this is a good job, so let’s go! Okay, sure! Like, what?!

Denise: Yep. Let’s do it. A good job, and a job for the war. But again, that’s like, you know, when you need work, it’s, you know, you need work and –

Sarah: You take that risk.

Denise: And she was anoth-, she was another one who had, you know, she, her brother was away fighting. The idea of working for the war was very, you know, pleased her as well.

Sarah: Yes. And that’s definitely, I think, a, a common experience, especially for women, that when something has happened and it’s horrible, and there isn’t a position for women to get involved and fix it or help in some way, any opportunity to actually apply all of those feelings of fear and hopelessness and outrage, any opportunity to do something constructio-, constructive with that feeling is very, very welcome.

Denise: Well, they fent, felt, I mean, you know, most people I talked to felt a tremendous sense of purpose and –

Sarah: Of course.

Denise: – and pride in the fact that they were asked to help out with something, and they, they, you know, came through, and they, and they did their, you know, did their part.

Sarah: Yes.

Denise: And that, you know, that did mean a lot to, to most of these folks. It was a very, it was a very unifying event, World War II.

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Denise: It defined that generation, and it brought, brought everybody, you know, people together in an incredible way. I mean, I can’t – It’s, it was really quite, quite interesting when you talk to so many people who, who lived through it. I mean, I think if you could, you know, going to back to your time travel adventures, I think if you could go back then and, you know, stop just the average person on the street and say, you know, if you could change, you know, if you could do one thing right now, what would you do? I think the vast majority of people would say, I’d end the war.

Sarah: Yep. I, I was thinking about that a couple years ago. It was actually when, when Barack Obama won election the first time, after California’s polls had closed and he finally had enough electoral votes, and the news media was showing pictures of people celebrating all at the same time in different places, so these, this group of students in Georgia and these people in Seattle and this group of people in Kansas City, all of these people, and I was, I remember being struck by the idea that we don’t even celebrate New Year’s Day at the same time. We celebrate it five different times, and even more if you count the Pacific Islands and Puerto Rico.

Denise: Right.

Sarah: We don’t do anything all at the same time –

Denise: Yep.

Sarah: – and the only time in my experience, ‘cause I’ll, I’m almost 39, and the only time in my experience when the whole country has stopped and paid attention and felt the same thing was on 9/11.

Denise: I was just going to say, was September 11th.

Sarah: And I don’t think it was more than a week before we were divided about what to do, but on that one day –

Denise: Yeah.

Sarah: – and the few days afterward, that was the only time and I, I can experience and remember where we all did the same thing and felt pretty much the same way all at the same time.

Denise: Yep.

Sarah: Most of the time, we are extremely divided. We don’t even celebrate the New Year at the same time. We divide that up too.

Denise: September 11th is the only other sort of, you know –

Sarah: Unifying moment.

Denise: …really unifying event that I can, that I can think of, and –

Sarah: And I’m sure the Kennedy assassination was similar, but I wasn’t alive then; I didn’t see it. So to hear people talk about how, during World War II, everyone knew and was personally involved and understood how difficult it was and were all looking for opportunities to do something.

Denise: Yeah.

Sarah: That is a rare thing to experience now.

Denise: Oh, yeah, and I, I mean, I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced it. It’s – yeah. I mean, short of maybe an alien invasion or something.

Sarah: Yeah. It’s juuuuuh – No.

Denise: And then what would get everybody, you know, motivated to, to take action on one particular issue.

Sarah: Yep.

Denise: And – yeah. Very, very interesting perspective. And they, and, you know, when you talk to people who, you know, lived through World War II, most of them will say – and I think they’re probably right – you know, you guys, you guys don’t understand, and I’m, I always say, yeah, I think you’re probably right; we don’t understand. [Laughs]

Sarah: Oh, no, not at all. What were some of the things about your research that really surprised you? I mean, you were already looking at a situation where you thought, you were thinking, am I the only person who doesn’t know about this secret town where people were splitting atoms? Like, does everyone else know about this but me? You were already surprised, but was there anything that you learned as you were writing, or as you were researching, that made you just sort of go, okay, why does not everyone know about this?

Denise: Well, it’s the, that’s the point, is like, why doesn’t everyone know about this? I mean, if you go in and around, you know, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, northern Georgia, I mean, you can find com-, I mean, certainly people in that area know more about this, you know, on, you know, than people in other parts of the United States, or you know, someone who, or if you know someone who worked there. It was just so overshadowed by Los Alamos, really.

Sarah: Right.

Denise: I mean, all anybody, you know, it, it was always all about, you know, if you think about the development of nuclear weapons, it’s always Los Alamos, and it’s always the scientists, and it’s – but then, you know, it’s such a, it, it’s such a reminder to me that, you know, things don’t happen, usually, without a lot of, a lot of people involved who are often just sort of never, never considered. You know, those, again, those moments in history when there are, you, you can kind of look at them from a different angle and sort of say, well, yes, I’ve heard about those very important people you keep telling me about, but what are these people? Who are they? You know, and how are they all – ? The more I looked into things and, and saw what a tremendous endeavor this was – I mean, the speed with which they created this place –

Sarah: Oh, my gosh!

Denise: – was phenomenal.

Sarah: Like, one house every 30 minutes? For real?

Denise: Yeah, at the hi-, at the height of, of construction, they would put up a prefab house, one almost every 30 minutes. But even the, you know – it’s, you know, it was a purpose, it was a purpose-built town. It didn’t exist before.

Sarah: Right.

Denise: It’s not like some abandoned town that they repurposed to serve the war. They went in and –

Sarah: And they evicted people.

Denise: A thousand families, yeah, got moved off their land, and these small communities ceased, some small communities ceased to exist, and, you know, between the time they broke ground on the, the first building in late 1942, between then and, like, the middle of 1945 – so less than three years, really – the population swelled to more than 75,000 people. That’s fast to get that big! And, you know, and all the facilities and plants and everything that goes along with that, and, you know, sucking down more electricity than New York City, and –

Sarah: That’s incredible.

Denise: All of that happened, you know, so, so incredibly quickly, just the infrastructure, I mean, let alone, you know, the research and the other sort of stuff that was going on there, but just, you know, schools and cafeterias and dorms and houses and clinics and –

Sarah: You know, drugstores, magazine shops –

Denise: – stores and recreational facilities and all of this sort of stuff. To get that much done that quickly, that, that still stuns me. It’s – ‘cause you know, you always, you always drive, you’re always driving by and you think to you, oh, look, there’s another, you know, that office building’s going up. You drive by six months later, and you think to yourself, when are they going to finish that building?

Sarah: [Laughs] I know!

Denise: It’s like one – what are they doing? You know? And to think, and then you have, you know, an entire, you know, a town of 75,000 people, and a bus system and, you know, all this other stuff.

Sarah: Yeah, it was one of the largest bus systems in the country at the time.

Denise: Yeah. Yeah, one of the largest ones in the country. It was, it was, it was – it was, that, that kind, that never, that has never stopped amazing me, how, how quickly they put all that, put all that together and got all that constructed.

Sarah: I feel like the, the federal government has sort of shown its underwear, because, like, now I know they can be organized –

Denise: [Laughs] They can be, yeah, like –

Sarah: – and they can be efficient. You know, like dealing with post-Sandy funding and anything else involving a federal, federally managed disaster, it’s like, oh, it’s the federal government! They’re inefficient and disorganized. No, I know you can be now! I have seen organization and efficiency! Don’t lie!

Denise: Well, well, but here’s the kicker, though. I mean, it was par-, maybe, maybe, you know, part of the reason they were so organized and efficient is that not everybody had a say in it.

Sarah: That’s true. It was probably, like, three dudes, who were like, yep.

Denise: When you eliminate, when you eliminate congressional oversight, you –

Sarah: You don’t say. [Laughs]

Denise: – will find that they can – [laughs] – they get a little more streamlined.

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: That’s, yeah, that was, that’s one of the, yeah, that’s one of the more, the more interesting aspects. It’s like, [sound effect?] When you’re not basically, you know, having everybody having to pass things or agree on things, you just like, you know what we should do? We should do blobbity blobbity blah. Okay, go! You know?

Sarah: Yeah.

Denise: Where are we going to get the money? We’ll hide it over here. Don’t worry about it, you know.

Sarah: Yeah, you know, we’re just going to borrow silver from the Treasury. Don’t even worry about it.

Denise: Just don’t tell, just – we’ll give it back, we promise.

Sarah: I got an, I, I got, I know a guy. Don’t worry.

Denise: Yeah, they knew a guy.

[Laughter]

Sarah: It is just incredible, the degree to which ordinary people had such extraordinary experiences –

Denise: Oh, yeah.

Sarah: – doing something they weren’t going to tell anybody about.

Denise: You know what’s, what’s – well, oh, yeah, because they’re not, I mean, generally, they’re not a braggy generation.

Sarah: No, not at all.

Denise: They’re just sort of, like –

Sarah: There is no sort of don’t-you-know-who-I-am? attitude.

Denise: It’s not a look, hey, look what I did. They’re just sort of like, I did, you know, I wanted to do my part. I felt good about doing my part, that’s it. I, and it’s, they didn’t – yeah, no one was sort of, you know, very self important about any of it at all.

Sarah: What were you doing for your country? I was enriching uranium; how ‘bout you?

Denise: Yeah. None of them were tor-, yeah.

Sarah: No big deal!

Denise: – did, you know, kind of took that attitude. They were all very sort of matter of fact about it and never sort of thought it was anything, anything special or, or unique. If you go to – it was funny because there are, a lot of the places in the book are, a lot of the places in the book are still there, you know, and I, you know, some of the people are still there, and actually, what I love, one of my favorite things about what’s happened since the book has come out is, if you go to the Panera’s coffee shop in Oak Ridge and, you know, if you go there in, in the morning, some mornings Colleen and, and, you know, some of the others, they’ll actually have signings. Like, people ask them to sign their book, and they’ll do little signings at the coffee shop.

Sarah: [Laughs] That’s excellent!

Denise: Isn’t that awesome?

Sarah: That’s so cool!

Denise: They’re learning to, like, you know, Colleen wrote me the other day, and she said, you know, she’s, she’s learned to Skype. She was Skyping with a book club in Arizona or something –

Sarah: [Laughs]

Denise: – like, fairly cool, and they’re, and I think to myself, it’s, you know, I, I hope I’m that, you know, engaged and, and eager to learn new things and, and do stuff when I’m –

Sarah: Yes.

Denise: – when I’m their age, and she’s, you know, they’re still quite, you know, as, as spirited as they were when they decided to, you know –

Sarah: Hop a train.

Denise: – go off to work in some mystery government city.

Sarah: Yeah. I think my favorite moment in the story is when one of the biochemists, Waldo Cohn –

Denise: [Laughs]

Sarah: When the secret came out, he’s just driving through town screaming out the window, uranium! Uranium! Whoo!

Denise: Well, it was so, that’s what was so interesting is that even the people who, like, chemists who knew –

Together: – what they were doing!

Denise: They were working, but they still weren’t supposed to use the word, and it was, you know, you, you know, you called it Tube Alloy, or you called it product, or you called it whatever, and that’s, even the day that, you know, they, when the secret was finally out, I mean, Bill still has that day from his calendar – I scanned it – and he wrote down T day, and T was for Tube Alloy. I mean, so even after the secret was out, it was like sort of the, some of the code, the code still persisted.

Sarah: Yes.

[music]

Sarah: And that’s all for this week’s podcast. I hope you enjoyed this interview. Like I said, it was a bit outside the romance genre, but I thought the subject and the history was fascinating and could not wait to share it with you guys. And I also want to thank Denise for agreeing to sit down and do the interview with me twice, because the first time, the technology wasn’t working. Never count on Skype sometimes, I’m telling you.

This podcast is brought to you by New American Library, as I told you during the intro – and did you know that the part after the podcast is called the outro? That’s totally what it’s called. This part? is the outro. New American Library is the publisher of Fall from India Place, a steamy new romance from the New York Times bestselling author of On Dublin Street, Samantha Young. I will have information in the podcast entry about this book so you can learn more about it and then go check it out at multiple fine, fine vendors of all the books that we like to read.

The music that you’re listening to was provided by Sassy Outwater, who knows many cool musicians and gets us their music because that’s awesome. This is “The Naughty Step,” and it is by the Peatbog Faeries from their CD, Dust. I will have links in the podcast entry about where you can find them as well.

And speaking of the podcast, which I hope you are still listening to, you can subscribe to our feed, you can talk to us on Facebook, but if you have ideas or suggestions or you want to beg me to go find some author at RT and interview them, and I’m going to try my best to interview as many people as I can, you can email us at sbjpodcast@gmail.com or you can call us at 1-201-371-DBSA, and if you’re going to be at RT, I would love to know because I would love to meet you, and it would be very cool to interview people who listen and find out what they’re reading, because, really, that’s what we all want to know, right?

Future podcasts will involve me quizzing Jane because I have no heart or no soul and I’m a terrible person. No, really, just ‘cause it’s fun, although I don’t know if I can top that whole milk maid pirate book thing that we found before. That really is just the pinnacle.

But in the meantime, on behalf of our lovely sponsor and on behalf of Denise Kiernan and Jane and myself, wherever you are, we wish you the very best of reading. Thank you for listening.

[grooving music]

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  1. 1
    LML says:

    This transcript was The Best!  After reading a review last year, I put The Girls of Atomic City on my ‘read someday’ list.  After reading this transcript of your conversation with Ms Kiernan, I’m at “must read now”.  Thank you again.

  2. 2
    CarrieS says:

    Thanks so much to Garlic Knitter for transcribing this.  I loved the podcast and the book – I thought the book was fascinating!

  3. 3
    garlicknitter says:

    I’ll be getting this book for a birthday gift – and then borrowing it from the birthday girl.  I love this job.

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