The Beatrice Interview

Joseph Kanon

"For a beginning writer, this is a gift--I mean, who could make up Oppenheimer?"

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Los Alamos began with a fascination with the actual location. "I'd always been interested in the Manhattan Project in the general way any World War II buff is interested," says Joseph Kanon. "I wanted to know what it was like then, how they were actually living day-to-day. This was the most secret place in the world; officially, it didn't exist. There was no police jurisdiction, and when you signed on for the project, you literally fell off the face of the earth. And I thought, what would happen if there were a crime committed at Los Alamos? How would that play out? How would they feel about it? How would they deal with it? Who would investigate? What would happen?"

So Houghton Mifflin's former publisher wrote a novel exploring those ideas and, when it was finished, sent it out under a pseudonym. "I wasn't trying to do a Primary Colors number," he explains. "I always intended to put my name on it. But most of the people who were going to be seeing this either know me or know of me, and I wanted it to be read straight. As it happened, somebody I had previously worked with read it and recognized my voice."

RH: After years of working in publishing, what motivated you to write a book?

JK: I think everybody has a fantasy of publishers with manuscripts stuck in their drawers because what they really want to be is writers, but that wasn't the case. I liked publishing, I loved working in it. I think the real answer to the question is that you write when you're ready to write. I don't know that ten or fifteen years ago I would have wanted to have done this. But when I did start, I was compelled to do the story. There was an enthralling, underlying story that had always fascinated me, so when I had a notion about how to approach it, I thought, "Well, I'll try it." I never told anybody because what could be more embarrassing than a publisher who can't write? I never said a word until I finished it and had seen whether it would work.

I first thought of this story in the summer of 1995, the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, so there was a lot of talk in the media about the bomb, and it seemed to me slightly skewed. It seemed to me always about 1995's version of this event--but we were bringing 50 years of nuclear sensibility to this question, with a lot of mixed feelings, most of them negative. What was it like then? Supposing it had been you? Supposing you had been a physicist attached to the project? Or supposing you, for that matter, had been in the military and had been involved in these decisions? It occurred to me that I didn't know nearly as much about it as I wanted to know.

RH: Why did you pick the specific period of the war that you did?

JK: I picked the spring of '45 as the time because it seemed to me the most interesting time in terms of the ambiguities that would be set up by the work they were doing. By the spring of '45, it was perfectly clear that if they were right...

Nobody truly knew until the bomb was tested. Until then, it was just numbers on paper. They knew that it should work, but it was becoming clearer and clearer to a lot of people that it would, and that they were getting close.

RH: Which raised difficult questions for the European émigré scientists on the project.

JK: We now think of the bomb entirely in terms of Japan because that's where it was dropped. But nobody at the time was thinking about that. They were thinking about Germany. Almost all of the émigrés involved were refugees from Hitler and were perfectly aware of what the Nazis were capable of--not simply as political and military monsters, but also of their scientific capabilities. Many of them were colleagues of the people who were involved in the German program; for instance, a lot of them knew Heisenberg. They had no idea how far along the Germans were, but the possibility that the Germans might develop this weapon first was literally unthinkable to them.

So what happens in the spring of '45 when Germany drops out of the war? Some of them, I think, were determined to see the problem solved and see it through. Others had major reservations, and a lot of second guesses began to come into play.

The book is not meant to be a revisionist history or philosophical treatise. It's a mystery story and a love story and one reviewer who I think was not meaning to be kind and maybe taking me to task compared it to a '40s movie. But that's a compliment in my book--I wanted it to have the entertainment value of one of those movies, but also make you see some questions.

RH: I can see it as a noir movie with a hindsight that they wouldn't have had then.

JK: And it changes as it goes along, too. You can't just do a mystery. There are many mysteries involved in Los Alamos. Like Oppenheimer: originally, he was going to have one speaking scene. I always have mixed feelings about using, quote, "real people" in fiction. However, the project director is necessary to set the plot in motion. He has to authorize this investigation. And no one else was the project director. It had to be Oppenheimer. So I thought, well, okay, I'll do it and we'll have this scene. And it was that ultimate cliché of writing--the minute he walked onto the page he dominated the book. I realized as I kept writing him that so much of my interest in the Manhattan Project was really an interest in him. He is one of the great charismatic, contradictory, and of course ultimately doomed, tragic figures. For a beginning writer, this is a gift--I mean, who could make up Oppenheimer?

RH: We catch glimpses of a few other real members of the Manhattan Project. But only glimpses.

JK: At one point, I was going to put a note in the book saying that everyone in this book is imaginary, including those with real names. I do think that you have a responsibility to try and get as much of the historical record or detail right, so that you're not burlesquing or exploiting someone you want to use this way. But when all is said and done, I've never met Oppenheimer. This is Oppenheimer as I imagine him to be, just as the other characters are not meant to be the other scientists.

What I wanted to create was a story that would be historically plausible and would not contradict what we know to have happened. It was important to get the sequence of those details right for me. I don't know that it really matters that much to a reader; it's one of those games that you play with yourself on the page so that by the end of the story, it all could have happened exactly the way it's written.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
John Banville | Complete Interview Index | Val McDermid

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