TaraShea Nesbit’s debut novel, The Wives of Los Alamos, examines the lives of women whose husbands worked on the Manhattan Project in the secrecy of the New Mexico desert during World War II. The Ohio native had one question in mind as she began writing:
“Who were all of these women who picked up their lives? They didn’t know where their husbands were going to take them," Nesbit says. "They just followed them and tried to make a life in the desert. Then, what happens when they realize when they’ve helped build and what their husbands have helped build?”
One of the most notable elements of The Wives of Los Alamos is Nesbit’s employment of a lesser-used point of view—the first person plural. The narrative voice speaks of “we” rather than “I,” “he,” “they,” or “she,” making for a read that is unusually intimate. Nesbit says this point of view came to her while reading the stories of the women who lived at Los Alamos during the days of the Manhattan Project.
“There’s a great collection put out by the Los Alamos Historical Society of interviews," she says. "At one point they did a collective interview with three women. You can’t really hear the questions that are being asked as much as the responses. But one of the questions the women were asked was very standard: ‘What was life like for you in Los Alamos?’ What I found was that they would quickly move into the ‘we’ point of view. They were recounting stories from this collective ‘we.’ They would say, ‘We all had these stoves named Black Beauty that were really a pain. We all were fighting the military to not extend the firing range.’ They really had to see themselves as a group—both to use whatever sense of power they might have in a really powerless situation.”
Nesbit had thought of writing a non-fiction account of the women whose lives she researched but discovered that that project might prove more complicated than she had anticipated.
“One of the problems with historical research is that there are so many gaps, particularly in the stories of lesser heard voices," she says. "Though I could locate a lot of details—I could go to Los Alamos, I could listen to oral histories, I could hear the women talking about their experiences, most of them are dead, so I couldn’t ask follow-up questions. What you’ll find in the novel is that, in one way, it’s very, very much based on the research that I did, looking through the archives and listening to interviews that had been conducted in the past of the women. But there are moments when I wanted to go into a little bit more imagining because there were only hints of what came next. That felt important to me.”
Also important was the ability to explore possibilities, both for the writer and the reader.
“What becomes really interesting, I think, when you’re looking at a shared event, is how different the recollections are of the same event," Nesbit says. "So, these wives, some of them would say, ‘It was the safest place I ever lived. We never locked our doors.' And other women were recounting really tragic events that happened in which they felt very unsafe.”
Since its release earlier this year, The Wives of Los Alamos has met with positive reviews and although Nesbit says she’s happy for that, the book has come at a strange time in her life. She’s currently enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Denver, meaning that book tours and interviews and even the writing of the book itself have happened, more or less, thanks to stolen time. And that may have been the thing that helped her the most.
“I took a lot of classes," Nesbit says. "So I was very busy. I was studying things like Puritan poetics, and literary theory and Hermeneutics and these things that I was, like, ‘What? This takes a lot of time to think about.’ I was talking to one of my professors and I said, ‘I’m stealing all this time to write this book.’ He really consoled me. He said, ‘That’s completely fine. You know what? It’s probably when you feel that you’re not allowed to do something that you want to do it the most.’"
TaraShea Nesbit will be at Watermark Books on Saturday afternoon for a writing workshop and book signing.
Learn more about the event here: http://www.watermarkbooks.com/event/writing-connections