an interview with joseph kanon   introduction  

photo of joseph kanon

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photo at los alamos

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ask joe kanon!

Visit Bold Type's Bulletin Board, where author Joe Kanon will be answering questions all month.

Jesse Kornbluth: We all had big plans in college. Were yours to write a novel--or become a publisher?

Joseph Kanon: I had already begun to work in publishing at college as a reader for the Atlantic Monthly. At graduation, I assumed I'd be in publishing, but first I went to England and got a master's degree in English Literature. And then I came back to New York and had a series of publishing jobs, the way one does. For a long time, I was an editor, but while I was at Dutton, I became Publisher and then President. With that change, I became less editorial and more management.

Kornbluth: You're good with numbers? You don't freak out when you see a budget?

Kanon: The secret of all good management is to get a good Chief Financial Officer. So I did.

Kornbluth: And after Dutton?

Kanon: Houghton Mifflin asked me to become Executive Vice President of Trade and Reference--their general publications, covering the full range from adult trade books to guides. I was there for eight years. It was an unusual job: I live in New York, but their home office is in Boston. I was on an airplane 4-6 times a week. I felt I was never home. And I wanted to make a change.

Kornbluth: What kind?

Kanon: What I really wanted was to have time. And when you have time, you fill it. So when I resigned, I went to the Southwest. I love the desert, I love hiking--I had been there frequently. And I had been to Los Alamos a few years back and had been fascinated. I'd read a lot about World War II and had been really intrigued by the Manhattan Project. In the summer of l995, I found myself there again.

Kornbluth: What's Los Alamos like now?

Kanon: Eleven thousand people live there. It's like an All-American city of the l960s. The Los Alamos that interested me was almost entirely gone--only the pond remains. But that made it more intriguing. You have to imagine it. It's not like writing New York City, where there are things you must get right.

Kornbluth: Were you there researching the novel, or researching to research?

Kanon: Both at once. What fascinated me was that the place didn't officially exist. I thought: What would happen if there were a crime in a place that didn't exist? The police weren't allowed up there. People had no phones. No one knew where you were. You were signed up for the duration of the war. And then there was the sheer magnitude of the research. The Manhattan Project cost $5 billion in l945. That's $80 billion now--and no one knew it was being spent. Truman didn't know anything about it until he was President for three days!

Kornbluth: Any lucky breaks in your research?

Kanon: That same summer, the National Security Council released some decrypted Soviet communiques from the '40s. They suggested that the Soviet espionage effort during the war to penetrate the Manhattan Project was much more extensive than had been known. The New York Times estimated that as many as 200 Soviet agents had been involved. So I saw there could have been stories happening parallel to the ones we know about Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass and, ultimately, the Rosenbergs. I thought it would be interesting to do a story that might have happened at the same time as the stories we actually know to have happened. And there was a third thing: That summer was the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima. There was a lot of talk about that, and it seemed that people who were heroes in my childhood had been demonized. I thought, What was it like then? So I read, thought, and sat down to write.

Kornbluth: But you'd never written a word of fiction!

Kanon: Not since college. In fact, I didn't know if I could do it. So I couldn't tell anyone.

Kornbluth: Had you edited fiction?

Kanon: Some. The writers I worked with included Muriel Spark, Louis Auchincloss, Frank Conroy, Jayne Anne Philips, and Irving Wallace.

Kornbluth: How does editing affect your view of writing?

Kanon: They're different disciplines. Being an editor doesn't make you a better writer--or vice versa. The worst thing any editor can do is be in competition with his writer. When you're editing, you want to be the perfect appreciator, not another writer. Having written this book, the process is still a mystery. There are days when it just comes out, days when you can sit for hours writing one paragraph.

Kornbluth: What was your writing day like?

Kanon: Five days a week, I went to the public reading room at the New York Public Library. There's enough going on so you don't feel isolated. And when you need a book, the staff is helpful.

Kornbluth: Did you have an outline?

Kanon: Because it's a thriller, you know where it's going to come out. I wrote a thriller because I like to read them. And it forces you to pay attention to the story.

Kornbluth: At what point did you think, "This is working?"

Kanon: You don't know that until someone else has said so. I knew what I wanted to do, but until it registered with others, it hadn't really worked.

Kornbluth: Did you have a model?

Kanon: No. At some point, it becomes a reverie on a '40s movie. That time had conventions--like a train scene. After a while, you begin to have fun with it. And, historically, there is a kind of game you play with yourself. Although you want to get the details right, you know this could become obsessive--at a certain point you have to take liberties. But I didn't want to do that with the science or with characters who had real names: Groves and Oppenheimer.

Kornbluth: So is yours the "real" Oppenheimer?

Kanon: Mine is more real to me than the historical figure, but I have no idea. You try to pay attention to the record, but at a certain point you have to let go and write a character. In this case, Oppenheimer was a gift to a writer--he was so contradictory there's no end to him. When I began the book, I imagined him having one scene. As I researched and wrote, I became so fascinated that whenever he appeared on the page, it seemed to go like blazes. Beyond this, his character symbolized the contradictions and themes of the book.

Kornbluth: I take that to mean: He wanted to do the science, but to get the funding, he had to create the military application.

Kanon: We now see it as a Faustian bargain. Oppenheimer understood that--or feared it--at the time. What struck me was that in l945, when this work was nearing completion, a lot of people saw it as an heroic act. There was an exhilaration about the place. For many, it was the best time of their lives. They were young--the average age was 27. Oppenheimer was only in his 30s. They were on the cutting edge, about to make history. And they were going to win the war. This wasn't Teller's Superbomb or any of the horrors of the height of the Cold War.

Kornbluth: Who read the book as you went along?

Kanon: No one. I didn't want my wife [literary agent Robin Straus] to be the first reader. If the book didn't work, I didn't want to hear it from her. So the first reader was my agent, Binky Urban. And she didn't know it was me.

Kornbluth: How did you pull that off?

Kanon: I'd asked her if she would read something. She was in a hurry; she said to drop it off. We didn't really have a chance to talk about the author--who I said was "Alan Whitman." Happily, she liked it very much.

Kornbluth: Did Binky really not figure it out?

Kanon: As she was making the call, she thought it might be me. She said, "Is it you?" I said, "If you like it, it is."

Kornbluth: But why submit the manuscript to publishers with the pseudonym?

Kanon: Not for the Primary Colors reason, but because I had been in the business so long. I knew many people. I didn't want those relationships to get in the way.

Kornbluth: And then the book was bought by John Sterling....

Kanon: ....who had been at Houghton when I was there. So it was a happy circular thing.

Kornbluth: And now you're at the library writing another novel.

Kanon: Yes. And that is all I can say about it. I don't mean to be secretive. But if I talk about it, I lose it.

Kornbluth: Do you miss publishing?

Kanon: Yes and no. I like the busy-ness of office life. What I discovered, to my surprise, is that I love the solitary nature of writing. What happens is that you write when you're ready. I didn't have things in drawers that I had written while I was publishing. I just wasn't ready to do it. I am now.

Kornbluth: Just for the evenhandedness--the mature, balanced take--of your characterization of great scientists building ultimate weapons of death, I think the waiting was worth it.

Kanon: It's easy for people to demonize these scientists. I don't think they were wrong to pursue this knowledge. In our hearts, we know the genetic engineers will create an impossible moral dilemma. But that's no excuse to stop the research.

Kornbluth: No, that's the very reason to stop.

Kanon: Those are the two points of view, aren't they? The thing is, they're not going to stop. If there's something to be found, people will do it. What we do when we find it--that's the subtext of Los Alamos.

Kornbluth: There's some wonderful writing here that's so carefully laid in it's easy to overlook--like a car cruising down a street to deliver the news of a soldier's death.

Kanon: I wanted to get in what that was like. This was 1945, and we were looking at the highest casualty rate of the war--and everyone knew it was winding down. On Okinawa that spring, there were l00,000 casualties. There were kamikaze planes. People thought an invasion of Japan would mean an incredible loss of American life. Would I have dropped the bomb? In 5 minutes. Seeing it from the perspective of the time, it wasn't the moral issue it is now. My concern wasn't with what people SHOULD think, but what they DID think.

Photo Credits: Marion Ettlinger; Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Copyright 1997, by The Book Report, Inc.
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