The Big Idea: Denise Kiernan

Fiction and non-fiction are different categories of storytelling — but in both cases the author has to decide what to tell and how to tell it, shaping the story so that it is a story, rather than just a leaden bundle of information. When researching the real-life information the would become The Girls of Atomic City, author Denise Kiernan found an interesting idea… now all she had to do was make a tale out of it. Here’s how she did it.


A story without conflict is like an inhibited lover. It just lies there. No matter how hard you try to get turned on, you lose interest. It can’t be over soon enough.

What attracts me as a writer to a particular story, what inspires that chemistry, is often—on the surface at least—unpredictable. Though there may not appear to be much rhyme or reason to my tastes, the one thing that always hooks me is that those tales keep me guessing. Their conversations grab me and I keep coming back to get to know them better, to keep turning their pages.

As a writer, sometimes it is just a look—photos, specifically. That’s what happened with my latest nonfiction book. I came across a vintage, black-and-white photo of some very young women operating some very odd-looking machines. The caption explained that many of these young women were recent high school graduates from rural Tennessee, and that they were enriching uranium for the first atomic bomb. The kicker: they had no idea that that was what they were doing.

Fantastic dramatic tension! I thought. You’re working on the most destructive weapon known to mankind and you have no idea until that very same weapon is revealed to the world? I dove in, and the story kept getting better. People were recruited from all over to live and work in a secret government city not found on any maps. They were highly trained to perform intricate tasks with no idea what larger purpose those tasks served. Better yet, if they asked too many questions, their stay living and working in this mysterious town was over in a hurry.

I was hooked by the Orwellian feel of it all. Looming billboards reminding everyone to keep their lips zipped. Undercover agents and citizen informants stealthily listening in on conversations in dorms and cafeterias. While I felt the story had all the hallmarks of an engaging novel, I figured that when truth seems stranger than fiction, why not stick with the truth?

This presented a couple of challenges. First, my subjects were in their eighties and nineties. If I  was going to write a work of narrative nonfiction, I wanted the women’s experiences to move the story forward. I wanted to stay with their voices and their perspectives. While I was routinely amazed at the level of detail many of them recalled regarding events that had transpired so long ago, there were certainly gaps in everyone’s memories. In order to tell what I considered to be a complete story about the town of Oak Ridge during World War II, I had to use multiple women. There was an incredible amount of time-lining and Post-It shuffling going on all over my living room floor (no computer screen was big enough in the early stages) in order to piece it all together.

Another central challenge revolved around the book’s big idea: Only they didn’t know… I wanted to embrace the “not-knowingness” of those characters, which was going to provide the most juice, dramatically speaking. So while the reader knows the story is headed to the dropping of the world’s first atomic bombs, I still needed a way to let the main characters drive that story, even if they were essentially driving blindfolded.

I considered various approaches. Omitting the entire behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the Manhattan Project officials and scientists kept my female leads in control, in a sense, but it risked leaving the reader too far behind. If he or she knew too little about the history of the Manhattan Project, the real stakes of that moment in history would be lost. Third-person omniscient seemed promising for a bit, but whenever I heard my inner voice beginning to say, Little did they know… I started to feel as though I was writing a cheesy movie trailer instead of a nonfiction book.

So I decided to take a hint from the Manhattan Project itself: I decided to compartmentalize. One of the ways the folks in the know kept a lid on the Manhattan Project was by keeping jobs, responsibilities and access to information as limited and as separate as possible. There were two worlds, really, one in which workers toiled away with little idea what they were working on and a much smaller, more exclusive world in which strings were pulled, strategies were devised and nuclear history was made.

I decided to create two worlds, too. I wrote interstitial chapters that took the readers out of the world of Oak Ridge and gave them a peek at what the was going on at the highest levels of the Manhattan Project. I deliberately kept my women, my characters, out of that world and those chapters. That separation reinforced one of the key strategic elements of the Manhattan Project, kept my characters in control of their piece of the puzzle, while helping the reader understand the larger stakes impacting my characters’ lives.

In the end, this freed up my characters to explore their own wartime dramas, ones I found were filled with the kinds of surprising twists and challenges that we all can relate to. They found loves and lost loved ones. They faced fears and forged unexpected friendships. They wondered what was going on around them, but put their heads down and got to work and I, in turn, got to work for them. They kept me hooked, and I was happy to let them take the lead.


The Girls of Atomic City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

23 Comments on “The Big Idea: Denise Kiernan”

  1. This one sounds fascinating! In my advancing years, I find that non-fiction, whether essay, history, biography or other, draws my interest far more than fiction. And being the offspring of a WWII vet, non-fiction set in that era is especially interesting, as I fit it against the oft-recited tales that my father felt able to share of his own experiences. I frequently find that written works from that period fill in some of the gaps I noticed in Dad’s stories, gaps that I suspect represented the experiences he couldn’t bring himself to describe.

    I’ve still got a gift card for B&N from Solstice celebrations a few months back. I think I know how it’s going to get used.

  2. Just a few months ago, I was reading “Now it Can be Told” by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, and one of the most striking asides was that workers at Hanford (and possibly other sites) had to use Red Cross Care Packages to stay in touch with their families, just like prisoners of war (which they effectively were). They had a little more agency than prisoners, in, say, Colditz, and could form their own Red Cross branch, but it was still a very lonely existence.

    So, while reading the view from the top of the Manhattan Project, I was continually wondering what the view from inside was like, and along comes the very book I wanted. Nice!

  3. My grandfather worked at Oak Ridge as a young engineer during the last few years of the war. (I’m not sure, but I think my grandmother did as well.) In his effects after he died, we found a couple of commemorative pins from that era, including one labeled Manhattan Project. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t get to talk to him more as an adult; I can only imagine the questions I would have had.

    Might be the first “Big Idea” that gets me to go out immediately and purchase the book, rather than putting them into my queue.

  4. I hope you read “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Rhodes while you were working on this. It’d make an interesting counterpart.

    Only one of the atomic bombs, Little Boy, used material from Oak Ridge. Fat Man used plutonium from Hanford.

  5. I lived in and around Oak Ridge for several years when I was a kid and up through high school. I knew some of what had happened in that town, but not much. I’ve always been curious about it. Going to need to check this one out, now. Thanks!

  6. This looks fascinating. I discovered, when packing up a box of old photos, that my own grandmother had worked in munitions up here in Canada. So many of women of her generation did incredible things in the war effort, then quietly returned to life as “wife and mother” without talking about what they achieved, what they felt, how they coped.

  7. I need to read this book. I’ve written about Los Alamos, but the number of people working there was small compared to the thousands at Oak Ridge and Hanford. I’d like to hear more about those workers, so I am looking forward to The Girls of Atomic City.

    I need hardly add that libraries contain far more information about the men of the Manhattan Project than about the women. A worthwhile book is Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos, edited by Jane S. Wilson and Charlotte Serber in 1988.

  8. This sounds awesome in both the subject matter and the way the story is put together. Can’t wait for Amazon Prime (TM) to bring this new morsel to my door this weekend.

    I need to win the lottery so I can devote more time to reading. :)

  9. I know that picture! I’ve seen it hanging on an office wall in Oak Ridge! I too have been fascinated by the story of the city that couldn’t be found on a map and eagerly look forward to adding this to my collection of Manhattan Project books.

  10. Okay, now that I look again I realize I don’t really recognize that picture. I was thinking about the one with the girl scouts behind the fence ….

    ** Abashed **

  11. Bought this for my MiL for Christmas as she’s a big reader of WW2 history. The reviews I’ve heard/read all make it seem like a great read.

    Thanks to Bill for the heads up on the Los Alamos book, I’ll check that one out with the MiL in mind too.

  12. I was mesmerized by this book – she did a wonderful job of weaving fragments into a dramatic narrative that told much more than “just” the story of the making of the Bomb, although that alone is a great tale.

  13. Sounds like an interesting book! My late uncle was a chemist at Oak Ridge during WWII working on the uranium refining process. He had some interesting stories to tell…

  14. I’m ecstatic to see this book here! I’ve heard from fellow Oak Ridgers that it is great, and I’m looking forward to reading it soon. If you like the photo on the cover (or great photographs in general), check out Ed Westcott. He has a book called Oak Ridge, and the pictures are truly iconic.

  15. I have read this last year, and have to say I found it a bit too chaotic. It tries to follow several women through their lives in Oak Ridge, but the result is that the individual stories are short and sometimes trivial (or so they seemed to me). The most memorable – and horryfing – part had been the story of Ebb Cade aka patient HP-12, who had the misfortune of being in a car accident near Oak Ridge, and chosen as a suitable patient for some tests. And of being black…

  16. My grandmother was one of those girls, and knew some of the people in the book, including Toni. Thank you for telling their stories!

    My grandparents met at Oak Ridge, as my grandfather was a scientist on the project. My mother has his Manhattan project pin as well. A strange thing it is to know that project is what caused her parents to meet.

  17. Late to the party: Had this on hold at the library because of this post. It’s incredibly good. Really, really, really, really good.

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