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Vermont Author's New Novel Chronicles Romance & Redemption During A Global Crisis

Vermont author Stephen Kiernan
Beowulf Sheehan, courtesy
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How do you define love during a global crisis? Well, maybe it's how Vermont author Stephen Kiernan's character Brenda talks about the early days of her romance with her eventual husband, Charlie, in the midst of the Second World War. She says, “Those afternoons in 1943 felt like living in a snow globe. The world's brutality made our haven of innocence all the sweeter.”

That long love affair amid the backdrop of World War II is the anchor for Kiernan’s latest novel, Universe of Two. The book is a work of historical fiction based on real-life events and some of the real people who set them in motion.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb recently spoke with Stephen Kiernan, and their interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Universe of Two is a love story, but it's also a fascinating exploration of the origins of the ultra-secret Manhattan Project. And you base one of the chief characters, Charlie Fish, on a barely-veiled nonfictional counterpart, Charlie Fisk. Who was Charlie Fisk and what was his role in eventually helping create the weapon that changed the world forever?

Stephen Kiernan: Charlie Fisk was a bright, young mathematician. He was 19-years-old when he was drafted into the Manhattan Project, and he ended up being involved in assembling components of the detonator of the atomic bomb. The Department of Energy is very reluctant to give out a lot of details about people. But as I learned about the arc of his life, I thought it would make a good basis for a novel, because it's clear that he had misgivings about his work on the bomb. And as I did research, I found out that a lot of the scientists and division heads had a lot of concerns. They signed petitions and wrote letters to the president to try and keep the bomb from being used on people.

So I wanted to explore the struggle of that man's conscience, and I wanted to do it in the context of a love story, because his partner, Brenda, is outside of the Manhattan Project. She's not allowed to know what he's working on. So the love story between them is really the framework for looking at this very difficult time for the conscience of the scientists.

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So how much of your own expertise as a fiction writer did you put into the character of Charlie Fish? I'm thinking about a moment, especially, in the book – it's so dramatic – where he realizes, he finally understands when he gets to New Mexico, what's happening here. And as he puts it, the bomb, because he's such an expert at soldering and getting those detonators you talked about ready. It all starts with him. How much of that moral quandary that Charlie Fish has in the book was from your own mind? And how much of it was from what you found out about the real Charlie Fisk?

What I found out about the real Charlie Fisk was minimal. The character Charlie Fish comes from imagination. But you know, the thrill of writing historical fiction, is to find a skeleton of facts on which you can build fictional characters. You know, most scientists were not fascinating conversationalists during their work on this. They were speaking in physics all the time. But my characters needed to be engaging characters. And what really went on is that as I began to understand how the bomb worked, I saw that kind of the match that lights the fuse is the detonator. And that Charlie is part of the detonator team.

And there's a moment of realization when he just thinks, ‘Hey, I'm one of 100,000 people working on this.’ There's a moment when he realizes that the detonation, the use of this weapon will begin with something that he personally built with his own hands. And he has the weight of moral culpability with him. And because Brenda doesn't know what he’s working on, she's always urging him to keep going forward and ‘Be a man.’ And then when she finds out what he was building, she also has that weight on her conscience. And so they set out spending the rest of their lives together to find redemption. And to me, that was my favorite thing about this book; that they find it together.

Book cover
Credit Stephen Kiernan, courtesy
Stephen Kiernan's new novel, Universe of Two.

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Brenda is such an interesting character too, because we hear her voice in the first person. And some of it is coming to us as she’s speaking to us as an older woman. She's looking back on her life in the ‘40s with Charlie. How does her support for him change her as a character?

Well, you know, at the beginning, I think he falls in love with her because she's a fascinating and excellent organist – a pianist. And she's a very sassy Chicago girl, very tough, unless she's playing music, and then she has all kinds of depth of soul. And this is what Charlie falls in love with. And what she realizes, as an older woman looking back at that time, is that she really let the sassy part of her personality and the maybe overconfident part of her personality push Charlie further than she should have.

Maybe he would have come to the same decision about building the bomb, but she definitely had a hand in it. And so, some of the voice that she has speaking is an older woman is a voice of regret. And it's why them finding redemption together is so important, because it feels like they both found in their love a way to overcome what the war had required of them.

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I know you wrote this book well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and it took you a long time, I'm sure, to write it. Because these are both global crises – of a different nature, of course – is there anything that we can learn, that we can glean, from what folks went through in the 1940s? Sacrifices that had to be made on the home front, etc. and what's happening right now?

This is the third book that I've written about World War II, and they reveal the extent to which people felt a sense of common purpose and were willing to make sacrifices for a larger good; sometimes small sacrifices, sometimes enormous and heroic ones. That is not the mentality that exists in our country now. And I think that these stories can remind us, sometimes we need to make a sacrifice, even if it hurts – even if it's going to hurt for the rest of our lives – for the greater good. And I don't think that's a uniform feeling in America right now. And that's something that I lament.

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Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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