I am thrilled to have Andria Williams here today to talk about her debut novel, The Longest Night. Andria will be reading with Sherrie Fernandez-Williams and me at the 10th Annual Motherhood & Words Reading on April 16th!
I am so excited about this book! The Longest Night is a story of marriage, parenting, longing and loneliness set against the backdrops of small town Idaho and a Greenland military base in the late 50s and early 60s. Andria’s prose is exquisite, her characters carefully and lovingly wrought. And she’s funny as heck. Based on the true story of the only fatal nuclear accident to occur in America, The Longest Night is one of those books that you will not want to put down. I could go on and on about this book, but instead I’ll turn it over to Andria!
KH: First, congratulations on your book, which is getting rave reviews all over the place. I’d love to kick off our conversation by asking you how you got started on this novel. Did you know when you began writing that it was going to be set in this time and involve nuclear testing facilities?
AW: Thanks, Kate! And thank you for having me here on your blog, and with you at Motherhood and Words in April. I can’t wait!
When I was in graduate school, doing some research for a writing project (by which I mean a now-defunct novel), I’d read about the 1961 explosion of a small reactor in Idaho. Then, years later, I came across a book on the subject (Todd Tucker’s Atomic America) and read the whole thing in one sitting. The story was so riveting: this tiny reactor in a desolate stretch of Idaho wilderness that had been malfunctioning for a year; the crew members’ efforts to keep it running; its explosion and the rumors of an intentional murder-suicide, not based in any real evidence but which persisted for decades after the event. And even more than that, the people involved intrigued me: young Army nuclear operators, their wives, the local folks who’d seen their sleepy Mormon town grown exponentially with the arrival of this military base. The setting, in the West, was also right up my alley.
I’d been out of writing for about five years because my children were small. Having young kids and writing a novel seemed, at the time, mutually exclusive. But then I read about this incident again and, bored and stranded in a motel in Oklahoma on my way back from a Texas wedding, I had a quiet room to myself and lightning literally crackling along the horizon as if to spur my inspiration, I thought: What if I just sat down and dreamed up who some of these characters might be? What have I got to lose? I scribbled away and filled up the whole pad of complimentary motel paper and started in on some napkins at the bottom of my backpack. I thought: Sheesh, all the ingredients are here; I know how this thing ends; here’s a plot on a platter. I have no excuse not to try and write this!
KH: I read an earlier draft of this novel, and it was also wonderful, but it’s clear that you did a lot of editing and new writing in later drafts. Can you talk about the revision process and how that deepened the story and characters? Did you work with a developmental editor?
The first draft of The Longest Night (originally called The Falls) took a year, but then I revised it for a year and a half. I was working with this terrific young agent whom I could tell was really invested in the story, who just got what I was trying to do, and who had such smart suggestions for me. I incorporated pretty much every revision she suggested. It was a leap of faith.
I also had some friends read the book, including you, for which I am truly grateful, and I worked with an editor friend, Erin Wilcox. The whole process was alternately exhilarating and interminable. Well-meaning family members ask you every three days, “Any news on your book?!”
But all that going around in circles paid off, I guess, because when my agent went to finally sell the book it sold, to my great surprise, in one day.
KH: I LOVE that, Andria. I’m not at all surprised. But back to revising: what were the biggest kinds of changes you made in later drafts?
AW: Well, all told, I cut out about 300 pages of Paul’s backstory. Boy, I must have loved that guy because I went into great detail about his childhood in Maine, his abusive father and older brother, how he hid out in the school’s woodshed because he was afraid to go home; the wounded veteran teacher who encouraged him to run away and the morning he stole his brother’s boots and joined the Army, hitching a ride with a truckful of German POWs. My agent very diplomatically suggested that this all perhaps belonged in another book. So I cut it out of The Longest Night and set it aside. A few excerpts did get placed in small literary journals, and it informed my understanding of Paul in the long run, so it wasn’t a waste; but I do feel I know far more “about” him than Nat does.
KH: That’s so funny. He’s not the best communicator, is he?
I’m working on a novel in which actual historical events play a role, so I’m very curious how you dealt with history/fact in a fictional narrative. What things did you need to consider as you were creating this world and these lives knowing that real people died in this accident?
AW: First of all, Kate, I am so excited that you are writing a novel.
KH: It is slow—embarrassingly slow really—but I keep coming back to it, so I guess that’s good.
AW: For my own book, I did base it off of an historical event, and as for the timeline of that event, I followed history very closely. But when it came to the people involved, the book is pure fiction. I did read a lot of oral histories and depositions, so I am sure that shades of real people have entered the story, but there is no one-to-one correspondence between anyone involved and my main characters.
I had a couple of reasons for this. First of all, two very good nonfiction books have been written about the event (the aforementioned Atomic America, and William McKeown’s Idaho Falls), so I didn’t want to merely re-tread where they had already gone. I’m a fiction writer—I’m terrible at anything else—so I needed the freedom to imagine who these people involved might have been, how their lives might be intertwined to make a good story. What if two men ended up at the accident scene, for example, and something had put them at serious odds? What if there were someone waiting for them, who cared very deeply about what might happen to each of them? I had to give myself room to make stuff up.
Also, on a more purely ethical level, the children, ex-wives, and so forth of the men who died are still alive, and because all three men were killed at the scene, we will never know exactly what took place that night. No one has survived to tell us. So I didn’t want to pin any blame, intentionally or otherwise, on any one person. I re-mixed all of the characters into composites, with aspects of pure imagination, to arrive at my final characters in The Longest Night.
KH: The Longest Night is narrated by three different characters (alternating chapters). What led you to this structure? How did this decision allow you to push toward the deeper story?
AW: Quite honestly, I have trouble writing a whole novel from one point of view. When authors do it well, it can generate a terrific momentum, but I am not a particularly fast writer and I tend to want to hear from multiple people. I was mixing aspects of history in the novel as a whole, so mixing up the characters just felt thematically appropriate.
I came to know three people well instead of just one, and I enjoyed all of their separate voices. Paul, a nuclear operator, is serious and honest; he can give the insider’s scoop on what’s going on in the reactor. His wife Nat is new to army life and has almost never lived outside southern California, so the move to a very small suburban community in Idaho is going to be a challenge for her. And one of those challenges comes in the form of her neighbor, Jeannie, a career army wife who’s become very jaded by all the cheerleading and the party-throwing and the keeping-up-appearances.
These three people are all so different. I felt refreshed when I’d switch from one voice to another.
It’s fun to hear with whom readers identify most. Jeannie is by far the most divisive character; people either love or hate her. Nat’s a close second because some people understand the way she deludes herself out of necessity, and others can’t get past the fact that she’s being willfully obtuse [particularly regarding her relationship with a local man]. Women readers in particular are vocal about which characters they love or hate, and I enjoy hearing it.
KH: I’ve asked you this before, but I’m going to do it again since most of my readers also have children. I’d love to hear a little about you juggle writing and parenthood and the other demands that life puts on you, especially as a military spouse.
AW: There will never be enough time; I’ve come to terms with that.
I used to allow myself little moments of self-pity where, being a military wife, I’d think, “I’m such a publishing-world outsider.” I wasn’t in academia or in any kind of intellectual environment whatsoever. And it’s true, we have to pack up and move every two years, which is disruptive, and occasionally my husband will go on deployment for several months, which is fairly disastrous for my work schedule. So when it came time to try to find an agent, I thought, “This will never work.”
I just started at square one, writing a bunch of “cold” letters to agents whose names I’d found in that annual “Guide to Literary Agents” book. It was terrifically humbling: “Hi, my name is Andria Williams, I wrote this novel, would you like to look at it? Oh, you wouldn’t? Okay, well thank you so much anyway, I’ll back away slowly now [grovel, grovel].” But enough agents wrote back saying sure, they’d take a look at my first three chapters, and I learned that all it really takes is that one person in the business who believes enough in your work and who has the skills to help you.
KH: Hell yes! Just one person. Remember that, dear ones!
AW: As for juggling writing and parenthood in my day-to-day: I wake up very early every morning and write until the children wake up; this is my only “guaranteed” time. And I write every single day, but I don’t think everybody has to. My only other “trick” is that when I leave off writing for the day, I try to stop at a place where I know how to pick it up tomorrow. Even if that means stopping a few sentences or paragraphs early—I might jot a quick note so I don’t forget where to go next—I will get more accomplished if I can hit the ground running the next day at 4 a.m. It’s just too darn early to sit around trying to figure out what to write; if I do that, I’ll fall back to sleep. But the combination of a very uncomfortable folding chair, lots of hot black coffee, and a clear storyline ahead of me keeps me awake and much more productive.
KH: This book has been very well received (as it should be!). But I’m curious if you’ve heard from anyone who was involved in the reactor accident. What has the response been from readers involved with the military?
AW: Military wives have responded well to the book, because I think a lot of the themes (the constant moving and reinvention, the emphasis on family; the tradition, loneliness, and occasional claustrophobia) ring true even today. Interestingly, Paul’s six-month deployment in the book is a walk in the park compared to what military families have been through in the last ten years.
I have heard from some nuclear engineers and from a couple of men who did tours in Greenland in the 1960s, and that has been really exciting. They have been overwhelmingly supportive. I think they must find it rather curious that this chipper little Navy wife is writing about nuclear reactors, but they have said they think the science in the book is pretty good.
More than that, though, I just love hearing from them. I love when people who were actually there contact me. The men who’ve been stationed in Greenland, in particular, have a pretty close network, because it was such an unusual and specific tour of duty and so few people ever did it. They’ve found one another in the intervening years and have a great online forum and oral history collection. A few of them have written to me, and I’ve been so grateful every time.
KH: What are you working on now?
AW: I’m writing another novel, this time set in the 1930s. I tried to write it from only one character’s point of view, but another one snuck in there.
KH: I can’t wait for the next one, Andria! Thanks so much for taking the time to email with me. I so look forward to seeing you for Motherhood & Words!
Friends, please mark your calendars: April 16th, 7 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center, Open Book, Minneapolis. I am pleased to have two fabulous sponsors for the event this year: Pacifer and Park Nicollet Women’s Center! It will be a blast! Please tell your friends!
And now, if you’d like to enter to win a copy of The Longest Night, please leave a comment below by Friday, March 25th!