WWII

Colleen, I miss you.

Colleen making her  NPR  debut.

Colleen making her NPR debut.

Into the lobby of Greenfield Assisted Living stepped a vision of sassy Christmas cheer. She was bedazzled in glitz, animal prints and smiles with a blinking holiday-light necklace draped around her neck and antlers sprouting from her head. Now burned into my memory like some nuclear-powered yule log, this was my first glimpse of the force of nature that was Colleen Black.

Colleen entered my life as a potential interview subject for the book I was writing at the time, The Girls of Atomic City. She was surprised I wanted to talk to her about her role in the Manhattan Project. After all, she assured me, she had no idea what she was working on at the time. While she couldn't imagine why I would want to hear about her adventures as an 18-year-old single gal living and working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, I couldn't imagine this vibrant 80-something-year-old not having plenty to say once I'd sat with her for a bit. Boy, was I right.

Long after interviews were logged and the manuscript edited, Colleen and I stayed in touch. We wrote and called, and I often visited whenever I was in town for an event. If I didn't get a hold of her beforehand, I always knew I could find her holding court at Panera's after morning mass, where their old-timer's coffee klatch often turned into impromptu book signings for Colleen. Friends and strangers often approached and asked her to sign their copies of The Girls of Atomic City. Colleen would write to tell me about these and other "celebrity" experiences, as she called them. She was Skyping with book clubs across the country, speaking to school kids down the road, and charming everyone in her path with her ration tales, wartime songs and Irish country wit, all wrapped up in that Tennessee twang.

I have a collection of collages Colleen has sent me over the years, most of them given to me long after the work on my book was done. Photos casually snapped in her apartment showed up in my inbox and mailbox, draped with historic news clippings and photos of the other atomic city "girls."  She was always there with a daily joke or up-by-your-bootstraps encouragement, with remembrances and prayers for my own mother, who is next to me as I type this, sleeping, waking and sleeping again, nearing the end of her own time with me. Colleen's daughter Suzanne called me earlier today to tell me that Colleen had died this morning. We had been in touch, Suzanne and I, two daughters waiting and watching as the mothers they loved began to move on from this world.

She is a collage all her own now, my Colleen. My mind today is a visual mish-mash of leopard-spotted, fuzzy-slippered, sing-songy snippets of chats—both on the record and off— and babblings over cheap wines with goofy or naughty names that gave her a giggle. (Fat Bastard was a house favorite.) Colleen died as she lived, surrounded by family and song and love, held close in the hearts of many of us who knew the joys of her friendship. I will lift a glass of  Marilyn Merlot in her honor. I can almost hear her laughing.

Happy Day for Books and Readers: GoodReads Choice Awards

   Download a Q&A about The Girls of Atomic City!

Thank you.

That’s right, you, the one over there who owes me nothing, whom I’ve never met, the one who isn’t related to me or feels they have to play the part of the dutiful friend. YOU.

You just happened to hear about my book somewhere. I can’t possibly know how or what struck you about it at that particular moment as you were going about your life. For some reason you looked it over and then proceeded to spend not only your hard-earned money on something I wrote but you gave that book your time as well. What’s more, you took the time to rate it, to recommend it, to pass it along virtually and verbally and even physically. And you’re not even my mom.

When I learned that The Girls of Atomic City was nominated as one of the best history and biography titles in this year’s GoodReads Choice Awards, I was happy for all of those sadly unevolved approval-seeking reasons, sure, but what is particularly satisfying about the GoodReads Choice Awards is that they are chosen by a community of readers, a group of folks connected in the magical land of the inter-webs by their love of a good book. 

In the words of nearly every nominee ever in the history of awards both great and small, “It’s great just to be nominated.” Well, guess what? It is. 

You can learn more about all the awards here. There are so many wonderful books. Give them some of your ever lovin' clicks. 

***Sign up for my mailing list here. Important news coming soon!

The Next Big Thing—my turn in the hot seat

Recently, my husband, author Joseph D’Agnese,  “tagged” me in his “The Next Big Thing” blog post. “Next Big Thing” works like this: one writer answers some questions about her next book and then passes that blog post along to other writers she knows, “tagging” them. (See end of this post for my author picks.) Those writers then answer the same questions a week from now and so it continues, kind of like a chain letter, but without the threats of doom and dread.

So now, tag—I’m it. 

1) What is the title of your next book?

The Girls of Atomic City. Here’s a look at the cover:

image

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Years ago, while researching another project, I came across a fantastic black-and-white photograph by Ed Westcott. In the photo, two rows of young women sat on stools in front of large panels covered in knobs and dials. The caption next to the photo explained that these young women, many right out of high school in rural Tennessee, were working to help enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb…only they didn’t know that at the time. I was instantly hooked and began researching the town—Oak Ridge, TN—and tracking down people who had worked there during the war. 

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Narrative non-fiction, narrative history.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I would love to see Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone portray young women in an adaptation of this story. I was really mesmerized by Lawrence’s layered performance in Winter’s Bone.  

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Young women travel to a secret city in East Tennessee to work, unbeknownst to them, on the world’s first atomic bomb.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I took the traditional route, start to finish. The book was represented by my agent, Yfat Reiss Gendell, of Foundry Literary + Media, and will be published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster on March 5, 2013.

I am looking into self-pubbing some upcoming works that I think would have trouble finding a more traditional home. I love the increasing number of options that working writers have today. 

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Oy, that question is almost impossible to answer. I often have several projects at different stages of completion at any one time. I might be reviewing copy edited pages of a completed book while I’m doing initial research for a new book and writing a first draft of my whatever project is in what I call “first position”. That, for me, is one of the hardest things about the writing life: managing several projects at once. This particular book has been in my life for nearly seven years, and I have done countless drafts. I also spent a lot of time outlining and revising that outline before I started writing. So, time to complete the first draft? Maybe 6 months? But that doesn’t reflect all the organizing and planning and interviews and outlining that preceded that, the most intense period of writing.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Also a tough question. I’ve heard publishing people who read the proposal and early drafts compare Girls of Atomic City to Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, which I took as a huge compliment. I can see why they would say that, though. Both are a look at significant moments in history through the eyes of the everyday folk who lived through them.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My curiosity is often the jumping off point for anything I write about and this story is no different. However, had I not found the surviving workers from Oak Ridge to be as inspiring as I did, I may not have kept with this project and seen it through. I loved doing those interviews, and found the women—and men—who lived through this experience to be remarkably fascinating.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The book is divided both visually (thanks to typesetting) and thematically according to the two “worlds” of the Manhattan Project: those who knew a good bit about what was going on, and those who knew next to nothing. In this way, the reader “knows” more than the main characters, the women, as the book progresses.

And there you have it. Now, it is my pleasure to introduce and “tag” Kim Ruehl. Please check out her blog and see what she’s been working on. I hope you’ll be moved to support her work along the way!

—Denise

The Next Big Thing—my turn in the hot seat

Recently, my husband, author Joseph D’Agnese,  “tagged” me in his “The Next Big Thing” blog post. “Next Big Thing” works like this: one writer answers some questions about her next book and then passes that blog post along to other writers she knows, “tagging” them. (See end of this post for my author picks.) Those writers then answer the same questions a week from now and so it continues, kind of like a chain letter, but without the threats of doom and dread.

So now, tag—I’m it. 

1) What is the title of your next book?

The Girls of Atomic City. Here’s a look at the cover:

image

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Years ago, while researching another project, I came across a fantastic black-and-white photograph by Ed Westcott. In the photo, two rows of young women sat on stools in front of large panels covered in knobs and dials. The caption next to the photo explained that these young women, many right out of high school in rural Tennessee, were working to help enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb…only they didn’t know that at the time. I was instantly hooked and began researching the town—Oak Ridge, TN—and tracking down people who had worked there during the war. 

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Narrative non-fiction, narrative history.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I would love to see Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone portray young women in an adaptation of this story. I was really mesmerized by Lawrence’s layered performance in Winter’s Bone.  

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Young women travel to a secret city in East Tennessee to work, unbeknownst to them, on the world’s first atomic bomb.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I took the traditional route, start to finish. The book was represented by my agent, Yfat Reiss Gendell, of Foundry Literary + Media, and will be published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster on March 5, 2013.

I am looking into self-pubbing some upcoming works that I think would have trouble finding a more traditional home. I love the increasing number of options that working writers have today. 

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Oy, that question is almost impossible to answer. I often have several projects at different stages of completion at any one time. I might be reviewing copy edited pages of a completed book while I’m doing initial research for a new book and writing a first draft of my whatever project is in what I call “first position”. That, for me, is one of the hardest things about the writing life: managing several projects at once. This particular book has been in my life for nearly seven years, and I have done countless drafts. I also spent a lot of time outlining and revising that outline before I started writing. So, time to complete the first draft? Maybe 6 months? But that doesn’t reflect all the organizing and planning and interviews and outlining that preceded that, the most intense period of writing.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Also a tough question. I’ve heard publishing people who read the proposal and early drafts compare Girls of Atomic City to Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, which I took as a huge compliment. I can see why they would say that, though. Both are a look at significant moments in history through the eyes of the everyday folk who lived through them.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My curiosity is often the jumping off point for anything I write about and this story is no different. However, had I not found the surviving workers from Oak Ridge to be as inspiring as I did, I may not have kept with this project and seen it through. I loved doing those interviews, and found the women—and men—who lived through this experience to be remarkably fascinating.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The book is divided both visually (thanks to typesetting) and thematically according to the two “worlds” of the Manhattan Project: those who knew a good bit about what was going on, and those who knew next to nothing. In this way, the reader “knows” more than the main characters, the women, as the book progresses.

And there you have it. Now, it is my pleasure to introduce and “tag” Kim Ruehl. Please check out her blog and see what she’s been working on. I hope you’ll be moved to support her work along the way!

—Denise

Manhattan Project Round-Up

A lot of interesting and diverse articles about the Manhattan Project have popped up in my browser in the last week or so. Here are the ones that I think are the most interesting:

Manhattan Project Mystery

Cameron Reed at the American Physical Society has a new take on an old document: A handwritten note from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Vannevar Bush.

Inside the Centre Review

A new book by Ray Monk on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer is reviewd byThe Telegraph.


Science Around Us
In Honor of Veteran’s Day, the Da Vinci Science Center posted resources and a video about the Manhattan Project, including links to quizzes and original documents.

Manhattan Project National Park
Gregory McNamee at the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog gives his take on the proposed National Park sites in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford.

Ed Westcott’s Secret City Photos
Last, but certainly not least, here is a nice feature on photographer Ed Westcott’s work during World War II by Chris Barrett at Metropulse.

todaysdocument : 
 
  Fire!  
 This photograph shows the USS  Nevada  providing naval gunfire support for the troops storming Omaha and Utah beaches in Normandy. During the first 3 days of the invasion, the battleship fired 876 rounds of 14-inch and 3,491 rounds of 5-inch ammunition. The ship’s ten 14-inch guns threw 1,800-pound shells that landed as far as 17 miles away. 
 via  DocsTeach

todaysdocument:

Fire!

This photograph shows the USS Nevada providing naval gunfire support for the troops storming Omaha and Utah beaches in Normandy. During the first 3 days of the invasion, the battleship fired 876 rounds of 14-inch and 3,491 rounds of 5-inch ammunition. The ship’s ten 14-inch guns threw 1,800-pound shells that landed as far as 17 miles away.

via DocsTeach