Excerpted from An Atomic Romance by Bobbie Ann Mason. Copyright © 2005 by Bobbie Ann Mason. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
An interview with Bobbie Ann Mason
Q: An Atomic Romance is your first novel in ten years. Readers have
come to expect your fiction to take place in a small town in Kentucky.
Why did you change the setting for this novel?
Bobbie Ann Mason: I deliberately set this in an indeterminate
place in the heart of the country to suggest that it could take place
anywhere in America. Not just the romance in this romantic comedy,
but the troubling hint of nuclear mischief that lies underneath
it, a threat that affects us all, wherever we live.
Q: What is an “atomic romance”?
BAM: The romance between Reed and Julia is fired by a shared
sense of wonder. They are essentially rational, looking to science to
answer their questions. They are open to possibility and fun. They
are entertained, not threatened by, the possibility of the indifference
of the universe. They play with the nature of the basic, and extreme,
contradiction of contemporary science: the order and design of the
Einsteinian universe vs. the randomness and indeterminacy of the
subatomic, found in quantum mechanics and string theory.
Q: Reed Futrell’s fascination with the cosmos is key to his character.
Why did you choose to immerse Reed in this unconventional
BAM: Reed is a dreamer. He dreams of traveling through the cosmos
in his zippy little “Reedmobile,” freed from gravity and time.
He contemplates the images from the Hubble telescope. And he
tries to make sense of his own exposure to radioactive elements by
arranging on his computer screen images of the planets that those
elements were named for. The book is about aspiration, the yearning toward the ultimate.
People always want to find some higher meaning or transcendence,
especially nowadays, in our post-9/11 angst. Reed and Julia are more
attracted to Stephen Hawking’s questions about time and space than
they are to easy answers to who we are and why.
Q: Julia is the second player in this “romance.” Tell us a bit about
Julia. Do you admire her?
BAM: Although Julia is practical, no-nonsense, not caught up in
illusions, she dreams of making a scientific discovery that will cure
disease. She is sensual and vibrant, ready to have fun with string
theory or Hawking’s space-time. Julia says, “Who knows what
might be out there waiting to be discovered?” I love Julia. I like the
way she doesn’t care about her appearance and yet Reed finds her
so sexy. I like her confidence.
Q: An Atomic Romance sets Reed’s working life in opposition to his
love life. Why is Reed so dedicated to the plant?
BAM: Reed is proud of being a working man. Most of the characters
Reed encounters are seen while they are at work—the mini-mart
clerk Rosalyn, the gun shop owner Andy, Burl the Bobcat contractor,
and numerous others. Reed believes his job is important because he
helps maintain the safety of the plant. He works at a uraniumenrichment
facility, which prepares fuel for use at nuclear-power
plants. Formerly it made fuel for atomic bombs. During the Cold
War workers proudly contributed to national defense, but the carelessness
and haste in handling toxic waste created a nightmare of
pollution for subsequent generations. Reed is struggling with the
weight of his legacy.
Q: What inspired you to use a scientific motif in the novel?
BAM: It was inevitable, given the nature of Reed’s work. Working
in the atomic industry, Reed is involved in the most deadly scientific
developments in history. He has to come to terms with it and its history.
He inherits a pride in working to defend the country by helping
to build atomic bombs. Now, with proliferation, radioactive
contamination, and the dirty secret we are afraid to talk about—
nuclear terror—Reed has to consider what his job means. Moreover,
he works for a corporation making fuel for power plants now,
a peaceful if debatable process, but he has to go to the nucleus, so
to speak, of the question: who were the scientists who thought of
atomic energy? What were they thinking?
Q: How did you research the scientific aspects of the novel? Did
you have to brush up on your string theory a bit?
BAM: My expertise doesn’t go beyond the popular books. I think
I’m probably not even up to Reed’s level, but I can grasp enough of
quantum mechanics to feel the wonder of it. Physicists must feel
they are in the most exciting field in the world. Their minds must be
afire. What was especially fascinating to me is the way the cosmos—
the infinitely vast—is perhaps mirrored by the infinitely small, the
subatomic. This is Julia and Reed, looking in different directions
but then trying to tie things together with strings, just as scientists
are trying to find the Theory of Everything—and it might be
Q: What do you feel is the major theme of the book?
BAM: It’s all about dancing, I think. A romance. Spinning, whirling,
dancing are central images: the spinning of the liquid uranium
compound through the gaseous-diffusion process; the whirling of
flocks of birds, centrifuges, minds and moods; the dancing of Reed’s
parents to the Artie Shaw big-band song “Dancing in the Dark.”
And what music are Julia and Reed listening to as they dance? Why,
the cosmic hum, no doubt—the vibrating strings at the bottom of
it all. I think of the title, An Atomic Romance, as a celebration of the life
force in the face of indeterminacy and chaos. That’s dancing in the
dark. It’s one of the most exciting phrases I know.
Reed’s favorite poem is the familiar Coleridge poem “Kubla
Khan.” I could hear words from that poem—“ceaseless turmoil
seething,” “dancing rocks,” mighty fountain,” and “tumult”—echoing
in the atomic fuel processing system, the Cascade. It was exhilarating
to me to think of that central tension between the destructive
power of the tyrant and the creative power of the artist. It seems so
prophetic and apt. Maybe it’s about dancing in the dark.
1. Why are Julia and Reed attracted to each other? What accounts
for their “romance”? Do you sympathize with Julia or Reed in the
breakup? Do you think Reed is being reasonable?
2. Consider the role of science in the novel and in the romance.
Why are Reed and Julia so interested in such uncommon topics as
quarks and the genome project and black holes? What questions ultimately
lie beneath Reed and Julia’s flirtation with quantum theory
and string theory?
3. Why does Reed keep working at such a dangerous job? Can you
explain his loyalty? How does his attitude toward his work evolve?
How serious are the dangers of radioactive contamination? How
does he deal—or not deal—with his potentially lethal exposures to
plutonium? How serious is the problem of nuclear waste for the
4. Reed dreams about a woman killing herself in the wildlife refuge,
a “private screening of a horror film” (10) in his mind. How do you
interpret the meaning of this dream, and why is Reed haunted by it?
How does Reed’s dream connect to all the other dreaming in the
novel? Consider also the epigraph, and Reed’s favorite poem,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a poem that arose from a
dream. Why do you think there are so many dreams in this novel?
5. The novel begins as if Reed is watching a movie when he rides
into the wildlife refuge. How does this point of view—and the passive
way we watch movies—arise from Reed’s character and situation?
Can you find other references in the novel to the ways in
which movies influence our way of seeing?
6. There are numerous insects in this book, including the oversized
praying mantis. Why are these insects flying around in this story?
Look for other clusters of images, such as birds, clouds, colors, and
discuss why they might be significant.
7. How does Reed feel about his mother? What is her role in our
understanding of the atomic legacy passed down to Reed? Why
does she like to pretend?
8. Reed has a special fascination with images from the Hubble telescope.
Trace the sequence of Reed’s sessions at the computer with
his astronomical pictures. Why does he move from the stars to the
planets? What are the transuranics?
9. Why does Reed think his buddy Burl is wise or even “holy”?
What does Burl mean by serving as Reed’s “Prayer Warrior”?
10. Julia is a person who’s out for a second chance, a mother who
starts a career after her daughters are grown. How realistic are her
ambitions? Does Julia know herself? Can Reed share and support
11. What is the role of the mysterious Celtic Warrior Reed encounters
in the wildlife refuge?
12. After Julia leaves for Chicago, Reed finds himself in a series of
situations that carry him along until he can make a decision. What
do these scenes—the ride with Burl into the country, the farewell
trip to the wildlife refuge, the meeting with his Internet pen pal, and
the church pageant with Burl—contribute to Reed’s state of mind
and the progress of his romance with Julia?
13. Does the novel have a happy ending?