The Green Glass Sea, winner of the 2007 Scott O’Dell Award, tells the story of the creation of the first atomic bomb through the eyes of Suze and Dewey, two children of scientists working on the project. Bookshelf spoke with Ellen Klages about her sequel, White Sands, Red Menace (Viking), set in Alamogordo, N.M, after the war.
When and why did you decide to write a sequel?
From the beginning, I thought Suze’s and Dewey’s experiences would be one long book. I had the whole story in my head. But TheGreen Glass Sea—which began as a short story—became so long and involved that I had to end it where I did. It’s funny to think of the second book as a sequel. To me, it’s the second half of a whole.
Did writing the second novel, which is set in 1946, require as much research as the first book? What type of research did you do?
White Sands, Red Menace required much more research and was harder to research. According to most history books, the 1940s is a five-year decade. The war ends and suddenly it’s the 1950s. Not much has been written about that time in between. I went through about 11 feet of books to get answers and discovered that a lot of my assumptions about the period simply weren’t true. For example, the cold war stuff—like building bomb shelters—didn’t really start until the 1960s. I ended up going to Alamogordo to do more research. There I read local newspapers from the era and interviewed a 75-year-old man who lived in Alamogordo during the ’40s.
What interests you most about the period?
That I just missed it. I was born in the 1950s, so it wasn’t really considered “history” when I was a child. But I’d seen pictures of my parents, who got married in 1948. There was something about the colors and styles of the 1940s that appealed to me. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became.
Why do you think that it’s important for contemporary teens to read about that time in history?
There are so many parallels between now and then. You can almost substitute the word terrorist for communist and get the same story. I want readers of all ages to see that what’s happening now—especially what’s happening between the United States and Iraq—isn’t anything new.
The parents of your main character, Suze, have very different views on the development of rocket science and atomic research. Do you have strong feelings about the issue?
I do, but in my books I’ve tried to keep my opinions to myself. I would rather leave readers asking questions than receiving answers. I hope they can see both sides of the issue: the side of Suze’s mother, who is trying to undo the harm caused by the bomb, and the side of Suze’s father, who sees value in further experimentation and is working to protect his family against future disasters.
Like Suze’s parents, Suze, an artist, and her more scientific-minded best friend, Dewey, are two very different individuals. Do you identify with one of the characters more than the other?
I started out thinking I was more like Suze since I am more into art than engineering. But sometimes—like when I’m fixing the Xerox machine—my friends have said, “See, you’re just like Dewey.” I’ve come to realize that artists and scientists are alike. They go through the same processes using different tools. They are both driven to answer the question, “What if?”
We meet Dewey’s estranged mother in the second novel. Had you invented her while writing the first book or did ideas about her come to you later?
I knew from the beginning that Dewey’s mother was going to show up, but I first envisioned her as more of a stereotype biker chick—a big sloppy drunk. Then I discovered she was much more interesting—a strong and independent woman. I also began to realize that Dewey was as much her mother’s daughter as her scientist father’s child.
The ending of the second novel echoes the ending of the first, with Suze’s family preparing to move to a new location. Will there be a third novel tracing the girls’ adolescence?
I’m toying with the idea, but I also have ideas for two other books. We’ll see what happens.
White Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages. Viking, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-670-06235-5