Science Book a Day Interviews Denise Kiernan


Special thanks to Denise Kiernan for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

I am a writer and producer. I write books and scripts of my own, I ghost write, I write for adults and I write for kids, occasionally with my husband, author Joseph D’Agnese. I started out in journalism and have covered everything from women’s issues, sports and history to food, travel and education in places like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Saveur, Discover, Ms., Reader’s Digest, and others. – From Denise’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus behind The Girls of Atomic City?

I was working on another project when I came across an amazing photo by Ed Westcott, who was the official War Department photographer in Oak Ridge during World War II. The picture is actually in the book. It shows a number of young women operating the calutrons in the Y-12 plant. I was struck by the machinery, the size of the room and the youth of the operators. The caption indicated that a number of the women were recent high school graduates from rural areas in the south. I was immediately fascinated by this aspect of the Manhattan Project, one with which I was not at all familiar. I wanted to know more about the lives of these thousands of young people, many of them women, who worked on the first nuclear weapons.

#2 – With so many people involved with this project, why hasn’t this story come to light earlier?

That’s a difficult one to answer. The town has always been there and people do visit. It has been covered in different ways over the years but I wanted Oak Ridge and its women to be the focus of my book and wanted to find out as much as I could about the way the people there worked and lived during that time. I think that when it comes to the Manhattan Project and other significant moments in history there is a tendency to focus on the individuals involved who are the most well known, who have the most influence and power. The story of the Manhattan Project has most commonly been told from the perspective of the scientists at the very top of the ladder, and that is certainly a valuable and fascinating perspective. However, I am always interested in examining history from the point of view of those who just happened to be in a certain place at a certain time and became a part of events much larger than themselves.

#3 – Your book is replete with interviews that you conducted over some 7 years. How do the women who worked in Atomic City feel about those years?

It was a unique experience for all of them. Even those individuals I interviewed who did not stay in Oak Ridge after the war, or who did not like the food or the housing, still viewed that moment in their lives as being exceptionally interesting. They had never experienced anything like it and their time there really stayed with them. Many of the people with whom I spoke are still quite nostalgic for that time. For many of the women I interviewed, attending college was not an option and Oak Ridge provided an opportunity for them to leave home, make good money, support the war effort and go on an adventure. The war brought a lot of those people together. It was a very unifying moment in history and many of the people I interviewed enjoyed that sense of coming together with a common purpose, that camaraderie.

#4 – Now that this history is coming to light. What has the response been to your book?

I have been humbled and overwhelmed by the response to The Girls of Atomic City. It has been far more successful than I imagined it would be and it has delighted me to see the stories of these women reach such a large audience. It is also very special to receive emails and letters from individuals whose parents or grandparents lived and worked in Oak Ridge years ago. So many people have shared their family stories with me since the book came out. I love that the book is helping start some conversations among these readers and their relatives.

#5 – Do you have any new projects/books you can tell us about?

I am in the early stages of another narrative nonfiction book that takes place in the late 19th and early 20th century. I don’t discuss books in their early stages, but I will be sure to let you know as soon as the cat is out of the bag!

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