Today I am both excite and honored to be able to share with you all an interview with Stephen Kiernan about his latest release, Universe of Two (and, of course, a few extra question!)! I am extremely grateful to both Wunderkind PR for reaching out about the opportunity and especially to Stephen Kiernan for taking the time to answer these questions for me. If you haven't had a chance to read or check out Universe of Two, then I highly recommend you do! It's an intense and beautiful story of two people coming together in a turbulent time of history, as well as individual stories about two characters coming to grips with the roles they are thrust into and the decisions they must make. I've included a brief bit of information about the book below, but without further ado, let's get into the interview!
SK: This book was immensely difficult to write, in part because there was so much I had to learn, but more broadly because I had to construct a plot that would work within the timetable of historical reality. Building the bomb, testing it and using it all occurred on specific dates in specific places, so the characters’ lives needed to align with those facts. I spent decades in newspaper work, so I am accustomed to having to dig to find things out.Yet, ironically, when I’m researching, I am not particularly interested in the names and dates of history; I’m sniffing around for the human elements, the universal things that any reader would understand and embrace. For example, Los Alamos, where the bomb was built, was the largest collection of Nobel Prize winners ever gathered in one place, along with hundreds of PhDs and several thousand graduate students. Yet the milk there was always sour. They could fashion an atomic weapon, but they couldn’t figure out refrigeration. For a novelist, a detail like that is gold.
What most drew you to writing this story of Charlie, Brenda, and the atomic bomb’s creation?
SK: Partly it was a fascination with World War II. I’d written a book in part about the Pacific Theater of the war (The Hummingbird) and one about the European Theater (The Baker’s Secret), so I wanted to write a home front story.I read about an actual person who was involved in the Manhattan Project but who also opposed use of the bomb, and that was something I’d never heard before. With a little homework, I found that many of the bomb’s builders had qualms about it, and hundreds of them signed petitions begging the president not to use the bomb on people. When I learned that, and realized the weight on the consciences of all those smart people, I was hooked. Lastly, I needed a love story in there so that the idea of redemption was possible.
What was your favorite part about getting to share Charlie Fish’s story with your readers?
Speaking of Charlie--the moral dilemmas that he faces are hard to imagine as someone who has never and likely will never be in that type of position. How did you go about exploring such topics and figuring out how to write about them?
SK: I interviewed clergy. I read books about conscience (the collected sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example). I spent a lot of time examining my own conscience, remembering times when I had not been the best person I could be, and what I did to come to terms with that, and how I had atoned. It felt like touchy material, very sensitive, which increased my desire to write about it.
And as much as we love Charlie’s character, I found Brenda to be an equally compelling figure, especially in regard to her many internal struggles about both her relationship /feelings towards Charlie as well as her own feelings about herself. Where did your inspiration come for Brenda, specifically in regards to these conflicts she faces?
SK: I consider Brenda the character who does not have a security pass. She does not know what is really going on in Charlie’s work inside the barbed wire. She is, therefore, like all of us. Also I told her story in retrospect, so the reader could see her in two ways: the brassy know-it-all in 1943 Chicago, and the elderly woman in the 1980s who has learned what love is, and wishes that she had been kinder. Every time her voice as a wiser older woman appears, I felt the emotions on the page grow richer and deeper.
Is there anything in particular that you want readers to learn from Charlie and Brenda’s relationship?
SK: Yes. But to explain it would spoil it. Like I said earlier, if a reader comes to that last sentence, the power of their love, and of love to teach us and redeem us, will speak for itself.
Outside of Charlie and Brenda, do you have a favorite secondary character you’ve included in Universe of Two? Who and why?
SK: Thank you for asking this question, because I loved creating the minor characters in this book. There’s a rodent of a guy early on, named Beasley, who is so unlikeable I couldn’t get enough of him. The minister’s wife and Brenda’s friend in the boarding house stand out for me, as do the two young men Charlie befriends in Los Alamos. There are senior scientists and math geniuses, but by far my favorite is Brenda’s mother. Feisty and wise, she is definitely the source from which Brenda’s personality comes. Every moment that she’s on stage, the energy rises.
Do you have any specific process for how you get into the minds of your characters?
SK: I let them emerge as I write the book. Once I’ve gotten to know them, I revise and revise and revise until they are consistent from start to finish. As I get to know them better, they also reveal themselves more deeply to me.
I loved the square dancing portion of Charles' story; it added some levity to an otherwise rather dire situation and I think allowed everyone to have a break. Was this something that you uncovered as a hobby of Charlie’s in research or something chose to include from your own idea? If the latter, what sparked the idea to include it?
SK: I am not a square dancer, but I love the music and idea of square dancing. There may have been some of it at Los Alamos, but there definitely were amusements to give the people a break from the intensity of their work. Beer was plentiful and practically free. Also, it’s a form of dancing – often in groups of eight – where Charlie can have fun with women but not be at all unfaithful to Brenda.There is also a minor subplot about Los Alamos having a Bread and Circuses aspect: the parties, the alcohol, the amusements, all to help the people forget the potential consequence of what they were building.
What is one thing that you’d like people to take away from the story of Universe of Two?
SK: Conscience is an impeccable moral guide. And no matter what we have done in our lives, redemption is possible.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?
SK: I have been a storyteller since grade school.
Are there any specific books or authors that have inspired you?
SK: Too many to name. I read 100+ books a year, and I consider reading to be the best form of writing instruction. In that regard, the most helpful books may be the ones I dislike and don’t finish.
For the writers out there who are curious--do you have any sort of daily writing routine that you adhere to?
SK: Yes, though it depends on where I am in the process. During the first draft writing, I take no days off – not my birthday, not Christmas. I have to stay as close to the story as possible. I write early mornings, before the phone rings or emails arrive or quotidian tasks demand attention (this can include stopping work to eat). If I am lucky enough to be in the fever of work, I can wake as early as 3 a.m., not from an alarm but from the pull of the novel. Some days I have a second writing period, usually shorter and more about revising what I did earlier in the day. Most often this happens after I have exercised, because I’ll be out running or biking or swimming and something will become clear to me. I go straight to my desk to write down this better version of events. When I have a finished draft, I typically spend as long revising as I did writing the first draft. Then I entrust the finished work to a very few early readers (geniuses all), make changes based on their response, and only then does it go to my editor. Of course she has ideas and wisdom to offer too.
Do you find it more energizing or emotionally tiring (or neither!) telling your character’s stories?
SK: Energizing. I love my job.
Do you find that you have any ‘favorite’ words that appear a lot when writing (even if just in drafts)?
SK: Not that I am aware of. I do have some “unfavorite” words that creep in far too often. I think of them as moments of language laziness, or of concentrating so hard on one aspect of a scene that the prose dips in quality. When I finish the first draft, I do a search for those words and remove every one. There is always a better substitute.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about your current/future projects and/or is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Universe of Two? Thanks so much for your time in answering these questions!
About Universe of Two:
As he performs that work Charlie suffers a crisis of conscience, which his wife, Brenda—unaware of the true nature of Charlie’s top-secret task—mistakes as self-doubt. She urges him to set aside his qualms and continue. Once the bombs strike Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the feelings of culpability devastate him and Brenda.
At the war’s end, Charlie receives a scholarship to pursue a PhD in physics at Stanford—an opportunity he and Brenda hope will allow them a fresh start. But the past proves inescapable. All any of his new colleagues can talk about is the bomb, and what greater atomic weapons might be on the horizon. Haunted by guilt, Charlie and Brenda leave Stanford and decide to dedicate the rest of their lives to making amends for the evil he helped to birth into the world.
Based on the life of the actual mathematician Charles B. Fisk, Universe of Two combines riveting historical drama with a poignant love story. Stephen Kiernan has conjured a remarkable account of two people struggling to heal their consciences and find peace in a world forever changed.
Hardcover. 488 pages. William Morrow.