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Jennie Fields: Mining Family Stories for Historical Fiction

Author Jennie Fields shares the inspiration behind her new novel, Atomic Love, and her advice for other writers.
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A combination spy thriller, romance novel, and exploration of the moral questions faced by the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, Atomic Love by Jennie Fields is a fast-paced story of post-World War II Chicago. It's also an August 2020 Book of the Month pick. Jennie was kind enough to answer a few questions about the writing process for us to celebrate the release of the book.

Jennie Fields_author photo_(c)Anthony Scarlati

Name (byline): Jennie Fields

Literary agent (if one): Susanna Einstein, Einstein Literary

Book title: Atomic Love

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons/ Penguin Random House

Expected release date: August 18, 2020

Genre/category: Historical Fiction

Elevator pitch for the book (1-2 sentence pitch):

In 1950 Chicago, a former Manhattan Project physicist is asked to spy on her ex-lover because the FBI thinks he’s selling atomic secrets to the Russians.

Previous titles (if any) by the author:

Lily Beach, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, The Middle Ages, The Age of Desire

What prompted you to write this book?

I’d say three things went into the writing of the book:

1.) My mother was a biochemist during WWII doing cancer research, and gave up her career when she married. She loved science and regretted that decision all her life. I always wanted to write about a female scientist at a time when that was rare.

2.) Her cousin worked on the Manhattan Project and the story of the first nuclear reaction taking place under the stands at the University of Chicago—right in the middle of a crowded city—has always intrigued me.

3.) I longed to write about people who are emotionally and physically scarred and how a personal bond, especially love can help heal. After the horrors of the war, the 1950s were meant to be a time of healing, but because of the atomic bomb, those years were also a time of a fear.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process? (Explain.)

The book took five years, starting with six months of research. And I researched all along as well. I tend to write in layers, so for me it was more a matter of the story and its themes coming more into focus with each draft. Also, I’m not a writer who outlines. I see where my characters take me. It’s always a surprise. My editor did suggest a juicy plot twist for the end which I thought was a wonderful, unexpected addition.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? (Explain.)

I was astonished, especially after five books, at the enthusiasm during this book’s sale. The rights to Atomic Love have been sold to eight countries. That’s been a treat! And I’ve been so lucky with my editors. Tara Singh Carlson, who was the editor of Where the Crawdads Sing has been such a joy to work with. The pandemic, now that’s something I never could have predicted.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? (Explain.)

I guess the biggest surprise was that one of my main characters, Charlie Szydlo, the FBI agent, came to me whole cloth. One day, I just knew everything I needed to know about him, that he was 6’7”, that he grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, was horrifically wounded in the war, and had a strong moral compass. That PTSD from the war kept him emotionally closed off and deeply lonely. It was as though he were speaking to me, telling me his entire life story. One of those magical gifts of serendipity that writers live for.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope that readers relate to my main character, Rosalind and her struggles to be accepted into the scientific world as a woman. Sadly, seventy years later, not much has changed. Women still fight for their place in all fields. In the US, we haven’t even passed an equal rights amendment for equal pay. I would have thought by now that women would have shifted the paradigm.

Jennie Fields quote

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Never write with a focus on publishing or hoping to make money. Write because you love it. Write because you have something you have to say. Focus on the journey, never the destination. The real joy is in the work. There will be days when it comes easily. Other days when it’s poisonously slow. But write, rewrite, put your heart and soul into it and appreciate the wins. Getting out there with your work is scary stuff. The reviews come in and they won’t all be positive. They may well break your heart. Things won’t go as planned. But if you did all you could to make it your best, you can face the world with satisfaction, and that’s a powerful shield.

jacket ATOMIC LOVE

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Learn to write your own historical fiction book with this Writer's Digest University online course.

Learn to write your own historical fiction book with this Writer's Digest University online course.

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