I absolutely love any book, play, movie, or television show about female scientists. My mind always expands when I delve into stories about the amazing work women have done in the scientific field. I find it incredibly inspiring. So- when I first read up about Atomic Love by Jennie Fields, I knew it was a book I needed to get my hands on.
I read it, loved it, and began researching more about the story and the author. Turns out- Jennie Fields and I have a LOT in common. We both grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, spent time in Chicago, and now Jennie lives in Nashville, a city I usually frequent for work (pre-COVID of course). I was so jazzed by what we had in common that I reached out.
Jennie responded with great enthusiasm and we were able to correspond. I am so thrilled to present an interview with Jennie Fields-Author Extraordinaire!
Bookish Vegan: We have so much in common! We both are from Highland Park, are Chicago gals, and now you live in Nashville (where I spend a few months a year). Did you always want to be a writer? What’s your earliest memory of writing?
Jennie: Becky, we really do have a lot in common!
In first grade, I read my first chapter book, ‘Twig’ by Elizabeth Orton Jones, and fell in love with the main character, a poor little girl who lives in a tenement. Twig’s family has no money for toys, but she comes upon a tin can sliced up the side in the alley behind her house. She decides it will make the perfect home for an elf, the slice providing a doorway, and sets it upside down in the weedy back yard, hoping one will appear. Of course, the perfect elf playmate arrives, and marvelous things occur. I loved that Twig’s imagination was more satisfying than any toy, and that the author’s imagination shook mine awake. From that very moment, I longed to write books so I could inspire other little girls. I sat down and penned a very bad imitation of Twig, about an impoverished little girl with a great imagination named “Emmy.” I still have a page or two in a bin in my basement. It starts: Chapter One. I had big ambitions.
Bookish Vegan: How did you end up in Nashville?
Jennie: My husband and I were college sweethearts at the University of Illinois, but he was four years older than I was and went off to Nashville to pursue music while I finished college. We wrote letters for about four years while dating other people, and when he married, we lost touch for twenty-five years. Still, I never forgot him. One day, before Google existed, I searched the ‘Alta Vista’ search engine and found what I thought might be his work email. Turns out we both had been divorced for a long time and we started writing emails to each other every day. It wasn’t long until we were in love again.
We commuted between NYC and Nashville for ten years, six years of which we were married! When I sold my fourth novel, we decided it was time to live together. My daughter was off to graduate school in England; his youngest daughter was leaving for college in California. The time seemed right. I soon fell in love with Nashville and have never looked back. It’s been eleven years now, and I have more writing friends here than I had in New York, wonderful neighbors, and needless to say, music everywhere.
BV: With “Atomic Love”, when did the idea spark? How long did it take you to work on the book?
Jennie: My mother was a scientist who’d given up her career when she’d married in the late 40’s and I longed to write about a woman scientist at that time, and how difficult it was for women to succeed long-term especially in science, but truly in any field. The character of Charlie came to me whole cloth one day, his extreme height, his injury in a prisoner of war camp, his unwavering moral compass, as though he’d been waiting in my brain for a role in one of my books. At the same time, I was drawn to the concept of Rosalind being asked to spy on an old lover. Aren’t we really all spies when it comes to our beloveds? The book required lots of research and many drafts. It took five years to write.
BV: How much truth and legitimate history are in the book?
Jennie: There really was one single woman on Enrico Fermi’s Manhattan Project team helping to create the first atomic reaction. Her names was Leona Woods. Like Rosalind, she was the youngest member of the team and an important one, Enrico Fermi’s mentee. I chose not to base Rosalind’s life on hers, but Woods did invent the boron trifluoride counter which I attributed to Rosalind. She also had a romantic relationship with one of her fellow Manhattan Project scientists. Unlike Roz, she married him.
Thomas Weaver is also based loosely on a real person. A Manhattan Project scientist named Theodore Hall worked at the University of Chicago and Los Alamos and did pass nuclear secrets to the Russians. The Americans discovered what he’d done when they broke the Russian messaging code. But because they couldn’t let the Russians know they’d broken their code, they couldn’t arrest Hall without corroborating evidence. And they weren’t able to find any before he moved to England where he spent the rest of his long life as a professor, undisturbed.
One more interesting point based in history: people have asked me, “How is it possible that any scientist working on the atom bomb could feel guilt that it was used. They knew were creating a weapon. Didn’t they expect it to be used? Well, actually, seventy members of the Manhattan Project signed a petition begging Harry S. Truman NOT to drop the bomb on Japan.
The Manhattan Project was begun because they learned that the Germans were creating an atomic weapon. The Americans thought of their weapon as a way of keeping the world in equilibrium, hoping no bomb so fearsome would ever be dropped. When the Germans surrendered, many of the scientists hoped that the government would use the weapon as a bargaining chip with the Japanese, warning them that they would use the bomb only if Japan didn’t surrender, something the Japanese were culturally reluctant to do. Unfortunately, the petition never reached Truman. His Secretary of State didn’t agree with it, and never shared it with him. The rest, is sadly a dark point in history with people arguing for both sides.
BV: What drove you to write about a female scientist? Do you hope to write more about women in science?
Jennie: As I said earlier, my mother was a biochemist doing important cancer research during and just after the war. My father wanted her to give up her career when she married, so she did, and deeply regretted it. It was very common after World War II to believe that jobs were needed for GIs and women should go back to the business of raising families. My mother often told me, “Whatever you do, never give up your career.” I took her advice to heart. I don’t have plans to write about more women in science, but it was a satisfying project for me. I wish my mother had lived to see this book published.
BV: What do you hope women and female-identifying individuals take away from the book?
Jennie: I hope that readers see what a struggle it’s been for women to own their own careers in the past – especially women in STEM positions. In my view, we still haven’t overcome anti-female prejudice and repression. I was in advertising for 32 years and many times, despite winning huge amounts of new business and passels of awards, I was passed over for the top agency position simply because I wasn’t a man. Or if I argued passionately for my point of view, I was dismissed as being ‘overly emotional.’ I hope the book inspires women to fight for their own successes. It’s still horrifying to me that our country has never passed the Equal Rights Amendment, and that women are still being paid less for doing equal work.
BV: What are you currently reading?
Jennie: I am researching a new book set during the Civil Rights Era in Nashville. I’m reading “The Children” a brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning book about that time by David Halberstam. And also because I’m not from the South and want a clearer picture of the Jim Crow years and Southern attitudes, I just finished rereading “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the third time. I found it profoundly moving once again.
BV: What’s your favorite independent bookstore?
Jennie: There’s no competition. My favorite bookstore is Parnassus Books, here in Nashville and owned by Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes. It’s created such a solid writing/reading community here in Nashville. I’m sure my life here would be very different without it. The events, the draw of it, has changed this city. And they’ve been so supportive of me. I will be forever grateful.
Thank you so much to Jennie Fields for this fabulous interview. Make sure and pick up a copy of Atomic Love!