Donna Meredith interviews Ciera Horton McElroy

Editor Donna Meredith interviews Ciera Horton McElroy, author of Atomic Family, our February Read of the Month.

Donna Meredith

DM: How many years went into the writing of Atomic Family?

CHM: I started the novel as a short story collection in 2014 while a sophomore at Wheaton College. The bulk of the novel writing happened during my MFA from 2018 to 2019 as I reimagined the characters in novel-form.

 DM: How much of Dean’s character comes from stories about and from your grandfather? Was he also caught in a moral dilemma similar to Dean’s?

  Ciera Horton

CHM: My grandfather Henry Horton was a top agronomist at the Savannah River Plant, which provided inspiration for the fictional Sterling Creek Plant in the novel. Dean’s look, mannerisms, and job were all based on Henry, who I sadly never met; but I grew up hearing stories about him from my father. Henry’s actual research, too, is now declassified, and I relied on his work to help me understand what it meant to bury nuclear waste. To my knowledge, he was not caught up in a dilemma like Dean’s—that part is fiction for the sake of plot and drama.

 DM: Was your grandfather’s marriage troubled like Dean and Nellie’s? What future do you envision for Dean and Nellie at the novel’s end?

CHM: Yes, it was. Actually, the first time I ever imagined the Porter family was in a short story where a young Wilson would skulk through the house and pour out his mother’s hidden liquor bottles. That was based on true stories. I think that my grandmother struggled as a housewife and often took it out on the family. As for the fictional Dean and Nellie, I imagine that they rally together in protesting the plant—and the arms race by and large.

DM: I am very curious about Wilson’s character. His mindset is so permeated by fear. Could you share a bit about what inspired you to write him this way.

 CHM: Wilson’s voice came to me the most clearly. His chapters were hardly revised—the voice was so prominent to me through every draft. I think it can be very hard to write children’s POVs because we want to filter them through the way adults think. But children are obsessive. They become fixated on both what they love and what they fear—Wilson’s fear defines so much of how he sees the world, and so his voice had to match that.

 DM: I know the bomb drills and fallout shelters were real in the fifties and sixties. But I have to know: did any schools actually pass out dog tags to the children? Where did that come from?

CHM: Sadly yes, this is true. And the reason the tags were distributed in many school districts is so families could identify the bodies of their deceased children. It’s grotesque and horrifying but a true part of Cold War history.

 DM: Nellie is such a troubled character. Could you talk a little about her?

CHM: I think Nellie is one of those people who will never be satisfied. There’s always one more thing…one more desire…one more problem that keeps her from happiness. I’ve known a lot of people like this, and I think her chronic dissatisfaction is both believable and a huge point of conflict in their marriage. She had a troubled childhood, but there’s no one reason why she’s an anxious and troubled woman.

 DM: Myra’s speech at the protest was brilliant. How much was taken from real protesters and how much did you invent?

 CHM: I’m so glad! Myra is one of my favorite characters in the novel. I wanted her to be this aspirational character for Nellie—a woman who feels a sense of calling and purpose and fulfillment in her work, which is social activism. A few lines in her speech were adapted from real Women Strike For Peace language, but most is her own voice. I did base her on some women whose husbands worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. The story she tells about watching the Trinity test, for example, is based on true accounts. She knows what it’s like to feel second-class and to live in a marriage colored by nuclear weapons.

 DM: It was genius to use W. H. Auden “Funeral Blues” as a couple of epigraphs. Tell us how you made the connection between his poem and your story.

CHM: I love Auden—if someone goes to read all of “Funeral Blues” then the poem would be a thematic spoiler. (So if you haven’t read Atomic Family yet, then read the poem after and you’ll see what I mean!) The poem itself evokes a sense of quiet, a calm after the storm. It’s very moody, and I wanted to evoke that in the novel.

 DM: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you?

 CHM:  These are all very good questions! But I think I’d like to talk about the challenges of writing a book that requires not only historical research but scientific. I’m not a nuclear scientist, and of course, this is fiction, but it was important to me to put the work in so the world will feel lived in, fully realized, and grounded in facts.

 DM: What’s next for you as a writer?

CHM: I am about to submit my second novel draft to my agent for review! Then I’m excited to start the generative process again and start a new project.


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