Author Interview: Denise Kiernan

denise Kiernan

photo by Treadshots

At the height of World War II, thousands of civilian women were recruited to work in a secret city, where they were told their efforts would end the war. Few would ever guess the true nature of the tasks they performed in the hulking factories amid the Appalachian Mountains. Denise Kiernan, author of The Girls of Atomic City,rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of American history from obscurity.  Here, she discusses how her book has resonated with students across the United States.

Any idea about how many Community Reads types events you’ve done over the years?

Not too many. So far I have been connecting more with colleges, universities and even high schools. There are a lot of inspirational women (and men!) in The Girls of Atomic City, and their experiences connect with a wide audience, especially younger adults.

What do you like about the Campus/Freshmen Class Reads structure as a literary event format?

I thoroughly enjoy being able to interact with the students and get their perspective on that moment in history in general, as well as my book specifically. The kids I meet at Campus/Freshman Reads events are the same age as the majority of the people in my book. The young women and men in my book left home at 18, went off to a place they’d never seen before, ate in cafeterias, slept in dorms, made friends, went to dances, fell in love… They were on their own for the first time and in that way it is very similar to the experiences of incoming freshmen. Of course, the people interviewed for my book were forbidden from knowing more than they were permitted and were cautioned not to get too curious or ask too many questions about what they were working on. Students at university are strongly encouraged to be curious, explore, and investigate the world around them.

Any thoughts on how they could be more effective?

I was impressed by how Ole Miss handled The Girls of Atomic City as their common read. They got so many different departments and professors involved and have even gone so far as to feature concerts where the music was inspired by my book. The library created an entire resource site within their university website that has all kinds of related articles, studies and books. I do think most schools could focus more on encouraging interaction between the author and the student body. Normally, the author gives a speech and there’s a signing and I don’t think the students–who have already read the book–get as much of a chance to really interact with the author as they could. It’s a great opportunity for them, and having a forum in which the students could share their thoughts and ask questions might be nice. I really enjoy the events, though. Students raise my spirits.

What do you think are some of the themes that people most connect with in your book, The Girls of Atomic City, and why?

“Could this happen today?” is a discussion that often comes up at my talks. AFINALgirls of atomic city 9.21 secret city…thousands of young people willingly working on a government project that is never explained to them… Is that even possible in our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/SnapChat world?  The idea of committing to something and feeling a sense of duty is often discussed. We live in a time of war but it does not envelop our lives and permeate our day-to-day experience the way that World War II did. Espionage and secrecy attract a lot of the younger readers. Issues like human experimentation, race relations and gender inequality spark some fascinating discussions as well. The idea that we often relate historical experiences from the point of view of the “important” people while overlooking the perspectives of everyday citizens grabs a lot of people. Why should we only look at the Manhattan Project from the point of view of the scientists and military? Hundreds of thousands of people–many of them young women–were instrumental in that project and their stories are just as important and, in many ways, much more accessible and interesting.

Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at Community/Campus Reads events that you’ve participated in?

A couple things jump to mind. One was meeting a very excited 18-year-old man who was a huge fan of the book. It was so interesting to hear from him how he felt so close to the characters and enjoyed trying to relate to what they were going through. I have met many, many people–young and old–who have told me that they never knew what their grandparents/great-grandparents/aunts and uncles did during World War II until this book came out. Reading it and sharing the stories of the people I interviewed provided a springboard for their own conversations. That’s very gratifying and means a lot to me.

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