An Interview with Ciera Horton McElroy
Ciera Horton McElroy is a novelist and business owner originally from Orlando, Florida. She holds a BA from Wheaton College and an MFA from the University of Central Florida. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Bridge Eight, Iron Horse Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Saw Palm, among others. She currently lives in St. Louis with her husband and son. Atomic Family is her first novel.
"It’s November 1, 1961, in a small town in South Carolina, and nuclear war is coming. Nine-year-old Wilson Porter believes this with every fiber of his being. He prowls his neighborhood for Communists and studies fallout pamphlets and the habits of his father, a scientist at the nuclear plant in town.
Meanwhile, his mother, Nellie, covertly joins an anti-nuclear movement led by angry housewives—and his father, Dean, must decide what to do with the damning secrets he’'s uncovered at the nuclear plant. When tragedy strikes, the Porter family must learn to confront their fears—of the world and of each other."
Atomic Family is available from Blair here.
Sophia Shealy: First, let me just say it’s an honor to be interviewing you! Atomic Family is a beautifully crafted novel and such an impressive debut. As its title suggests, this novel is about a family: the Porters. We follow Nellie (a housewife turned activist for the day), Dean (a soil scientist at a nuclear bomb plant), and Wilson (their intelligent, obsessive, and staunchly anti-Communist young son) as they weather the oppressive anxieties of Cold War culture. While we think about this family, I want to consider yours as well. I saw on your website that your novel is inspired by people, places, and events your own family is connected to. What was it like researching your family’s background, and how did it feel to incorporate those findings into a fictional narrative?
Ciera Horton McElroy: First off, thank you for your kind words about the book! I have been obsessed with these characters for a long time—Atomic Family actually began as a short story cycle I wrote in college. The central story was about a father and son building a fallout shelter in the backyard. At one point in the story, the little boy starts asking questions. “If a bomb comes, will we hide here?” “Yes,” says the father. “Will it save us?” “Yes,” he lies. He knows it’s a lie, but he convinces himself that playing along in the central defense initiative will help his son feel safe. Feeling safe was more important than being safe. This came to me because I grew up hearing about my grandfather, Henry, and his work at the top-secret Savannah River Plant in Aiken, South Carolina. My dad told me that he grew up knowing his town was a target. I have always loved the 1960s, but something about this haunted me in particular. . . the kind of love it takes to lie to your child and even your spouse. The secrets you have to keep.
Henry died in the 1970s, so I never met him. But as I began researching the era, I discovered his own articles that had become declassified and available for public review. It felt like meeting him in person, seeing his handwriting, and reading his work that was once considered so dangerous that it was hidden from the world.
SS: Thinking broadly about the backdrop of this novel, what makes the Cold War interesting to you, and what do you feel connects that time period to our current one? Is there any other literature from or about this era that proved important for you while writing or researching?
I grew up during the rise of active shooters in schools and public places—we exchanged duck-and-cover drills for active-shooter drills. (The only difference is that one was precautionary and one is necessary.)
CHM: To me, the Cold War gives off such a noir mood. It’s such a sweeping period of time, encapsulating McCarthyism, the Korean War, Sputnik, the Berlin Wall, and throughout all of this there is the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. The parallels to today seem very clear to me. I grew up during the war on terror, fearing that attacks could happen at any time. I grew up during the rise of active shooters in schools and public places—we exchanged duck-and-cover drills for active-shooter drills. (The only difference is that one was precautionary and one is necessary.)
In writing about the Cold War, I found it imperative to read not only about the era but from the era. One novel in particular, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, was really insightful! It’s an apocalyptic novel about nuclear war actually happening. Every major city in the United States is bombed, and a small group of people in Florida survive, struggling to connect to other survivors without electricity or any mode of transportation. I also read countless primary sources, and watched short films and documentaries, including old fallout videos.
All of this helped me understand the fears that were actually held by people during the nuclear arms race.
SS: Among many things, what’s interesting to me about this novel are the layers of conflict intersecting within it, and the ways in which these tensions often overlap, compound, and illuminate each other. We have personal relationships versus ecological destruction, the stress of the Cold War versus the trauma of World War II, the wives’ striking against nuclear power versus the husbands working at a nuclear power plant. It all weaves a very rich, complicated tapestry that feels relevant today, decades after your novel is set. Can you elaborate on your writing process when it came to balancing all of these competing anxieties?
One of the questions I came back to was: “What does it look like to live and love in a time marked by anxiety?” Everything had to come back to this. . .
CHM: Balance is so hard! Especially when you want to keep some subtlety while also maintaining clarity. What helped me was advice I received during my MFA regarding theme—there are so many ways to structure a novel, but I found that having a central theme or question helped me keep everything connected and consistent. One of the questions I came back to was: “What does it look like to live and love in a time marked by anxiety?” Everything had to come back to this: how Dean and Nellie live out their marriage, how they parent Wilson, how he navigates school, and his self-made drills. Especially with the different character arcs, this helped me ensure it would read as one novel, not three that have been forced together.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the women’s march. Finding that historical insight helped me piece the book together. Women Strike for Peace was a real movement, the first gathering of its kind since the suffrage marches, and considered by many to be the earliest forerunner to second-wave feminism. On November 1, 1961, women across America took to the streets to combat the nuclear arms race. Many of them pushed strollers or carried babies on their hips. Housewives claimed a new kind of political power, showing up en masse because they could and because they cared. How had I never heard of this, I wondered? It excites me to know that my novel may help shed light on this forgotten history.
SS: I would assume it’s not an easy task to write a novel that spans only two nights and one day, give or take, and I’d assume it’s even more difficult to tackle three very different perspectives–that of Nellie, Dean, and Wilson (as well as several epistolary sections)–within that constraint. Can you tell us more about that choice? What first drew you to this narrative structure, or did it occur naturally? Were there any novels that served as useful guides in your endeavor?
CHM: The approach felt natural to me as a short story writer. I felt that I could wrap my mind around a compressed plot! There’s a long literary tradition of what’s called the “circadian novel,” which just means a book set in the course of twenty-four hours. In college, I studied Saturday by Ian McEwan, which follows one day in the life of a British neurosurgeon. It’s brilliant. Other books that inspired me are The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and of course Mrs. Dalloway. I am personally drawn to fiction that has a clear before-and-after moment, and compressed fiction forces you to wrestle with this all the more. Every moment in the twenty-four hours matters. You have to ask yourself, why did I pick this day in the life of my characters? I think it’s safe to say that Atomic Family focuses on the day that will change the Porters’ life forever.
SS: Like the mark of most good novels (in my opinion), one thing I admire about Atomic Family is that it refuses to either simplify or vilify Dean and Nellie. The reader can sympathize with them both, and yet can also recognize their failings–to themselves, to each other, and to their child. I feel like we see your efforts at humanizing them both right away, during a party they throw. Nellie thinks of Dean, who was late getting home:
“But tonight, it’s not any one thing: it’s this house overfull, this stupid party and Dean running late, the threat of incendiaries claiming the sky at any moment, any day. It’s the way he said ‘just a party’ as though assessing a guppy on a fishing line. It’s only a little nothing. Too insignificant to matter.”
And Dean thinks of Nellie, after she leaves their party early:
“Nellie has not stirred since their argument–what, two hours ago now? He
tries not to be angry by this, but he can’t help it. She was the one always
wanting to entertain, and yet she abandoned their party guests and left him to
fend for their son for the night.”
Whether or not the reader sides with Dean or Nellie, it seems clear that your intention as the author is to allow both of them to tell their side of the story. When you think about Nellie and Dean’s relationship, what about it feels most important to you? What do you want readers to understand about them?
CHM: You know how in “The Gift of the Magi” the husband and wife both miss each other? She cuts off her hair to buy him a watch chain, and he sells his watch to buy her hair combs? I really do think relationships are often like that. When I think of Dean and Nellie, I think of two people who are probably not very compatible but who fell in love by proximity and convenience. I think they are both trying, in their own faulty ways, to love each other, but they keep missing what the other person needs. It was important to me that neither is the hero. I also wanted to complicate the 1960s housewife trope by making Nellie really yearn for nice things, adding a financial/class element to the marriage stress. In a world where she has so little, I can understand her fury when Dean is controlling about money—and in a world where his wife drinks alcohol in secret, I can understand his concern for her.
SS: I won’t spoil anything, but there’s a tragedy that’s crucial to this novel from both a plot and, I would argue, symbolic level. It’s heartbreaking but also narratively satisfying, as it seems as if there’s nowhere else this novel could have really gone. Can you talk about how it felt to make such a decision as an author?
This is a book about waiting for the explosion to come—all I’ll say is: a little explosion comes.
CHM: I felt that there were three possible endings to the book. There are three main arcs, Nellie’s, Wilson’s, and Dean’s. This is a book about waiting for the explosion to come—all I’ll say is: a little explosion comes.
SS: Taking what might be a more lighthearted turn, what are you currently reading? Watching? Listening to? What inspired what you’re working on next?
CHM: I am currently reading One’s Company by Ashley Hutson, which is giving me delightful Ottessa Moshfegh vibes. I am pretty much always watching Gilmore Girls and listening to Ben Howard. I’m working on a feminist reimagining of the road novel, inspired by the women of the Beat Generation.
SOPHIA SHEALY is an MFA student in fiction at Florida State University and serves as the Fiction Editor for Southeast Review.