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A good book has the ability to transport you far away — to places where you get to meet different people, learn about different cultures and explore different time periods.
When you think about it, reading is basically traveling. Even if you never leave your couch.
During the pandemic, when reading is the only travel that’s 100% safe, a good book is more treasured than ever.
Luckily, Jennie Fields has just released a really good book. Atomic Love is a story of female empowerment, of love and espionage – and science! – set in 1950s Chicago. It focuses on Roz, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project but was fired because of her relationship with her colleague, Thomas Wheeler. Roz is working behind the jewelry counter of a department store when Wheeler suddenly comes back into her life. She also gets a visit from an FBI agent, Charlie Szydlo, who asks her to help find out if Wheeler is actually a spy.
Filled with history and characters you’ll care about, Atomic Love is a book to get lost in, and the Windy City plays a starring role. In fact, maybe the tourism board should start thinking about setting up an Atomic Love tour.
I reached out to Jennie Fields to talk about Chicago and its place in her novel.
First of all, congratulations on another great book. I think I finished it in two days because I couldn’t wait to see what happened. Give us the background! I know your mother was a scientist – how did that influence the idea to write Atomic Love? How do you think she would feel to read about such an empowering woman with whom she shared a profession?
My mother was a biochemist doing cancer research in the late 1940’s. She always told me she had her name on an important cancer paper, but it wasn’t until this year I discovered how important that paper really was. Apparently, it was referred to for decades! And yet, when she married, she was expected to give up her job to a man. She regretted the loss of science for the rest of her life. So I always wanted to write about a woman who loves science, and somehow has lost her place in that world.
I think my mother would have loved Rosalind and understood her, as well. Rosalind hasn’t just lost science. She’s lost her confidence as well. That happened to my mother, too. She used to say, “I could never go back to science. I’ve fallen too far behind.” That’s why it was so important to me that Roz found a pathway back. My mother would have revered the contribution Rosalind made to nuclear science.
I love when a book really captures a time and place, and you nail post-WWII Chicago. I felt like I was really there. In fact, I can still vividly picture being in Rosalind’s apartment or behind the jewelry counter with her. Why did you choose Chicago and how did you capture the perfect details?
Relatively few books are written about Chicago compared to New York or Los Angeles. And it’s such a cinematic city, so distinctive, really. I grew up in Chicago and lived there in the early part of my adult life and its brawniness and energy were the perfect place to create the noir post-war feel I was going for. Plus, of course, Chicago was a key location for the Manhattan Project – the place where the first nuclear reaction took place. It’s my love letter to Chicago. Photos from Pinterest helped me to fully envision what the city was like in 1950, before I was born. As did the local newspapers.
Did you ever think you’d write a spy novel?
The spy story just came to me and felt right, but no, I never imagined I’d write an espionage tale! Unlike most stories in that genre, though, my book is focused on the characters and the moral dilemmas they face rather than exciting chases and guns and gadgets – although all of those things make an appearance in the book.
What kind of research did you have to do about the Manhattan Project and about espionage, in general? What were some of the most surprising things you discovered?
I read all about the making of the atomic bomb, about atomic spies – including one at the University of Chicago who was never caught, Theodore Hall. They knew he was in place because the U.S. broke the code that the Russians used to send their messages. But they couldn’t indict him because they didn’t want the Russians to know they’d broken that code! He moved to England and lived out his life there as a professor. When the information was declassified in 1995, he was still alive, but a very old man and they opted to leave him alone.
Also, I did a ton of research about listening devices of the era. Batteries in those days weren’t small or long-lasting and these devices had to be wired into the electrical system. It’s amazing they weren’t easily found. Imagine going up to your light fixture to change a bulb and discovering a device the size of a cigarette pack cradled inside it! As for wires to be worn on the body, the weight of them alone was daunting. Between the three different batteries they used and the heft of the wire recorder, they could weigh as much as twenty pounds! Imagine wearing that surreptitiously!
Rosalind and her sister are both fascinating characters who are so different but, together, offer a real picture of women during that time. Can you talk a little about that?
During the war, there were many women who had held challenging, satisfying jobs and then resented having to give up those jobs to returning GIs at the war’s end. And yet for many, like Rosalind’s sister, Louisa, that sadness had nowhere to go and only found expression in anger. Rosalind and Louisa, as you said, are so different, and yet it takes Rosalind a long time to realize how similar they are in their sense of loss. Rosalind’s realization is the one thing that can help her sister move forward.
I think I kind of fell in love with Charlie myself but it’s easy to see how Rosalind was still attracted to bad boy Weaver. In your own life, do you go more for a Charlie or Weaver type?!
Oh, I definitely fell in love with Charlie! In fact, I find it hard to leave him behind; he became so real to me. But at the same time, I didn’t want Weaver to be a villain. Past choices have woven a web Weaver can’t escape, and I do believe he truly loves Roz. In the course of the book, I think he becomes a better, kinder man.
You painted such a beautiful, rich portrait of Charlie and his devastating experience in the war. Really, every character in the novel is wounded, though, and your compassion for them all makes us care deeply about what happens. Do you think everyone was wounded after the war in some way? Did you have a soft spot for one particular character?
I do believe that by the war’s end, almost everybody was wounded in some way. Even those at home were marked by the daily horrors of war. The second paragraph of the book reads: “One didn’t lose the feel of the war, the rationing, the terror of opening the newspaper each morning and seeing the worst. Rosalind would never forget the sting in her throat watching the man next door weep as he changed the blue star on his Sons-in-Service flag to gold.”
And while the 1950’s were marked by a show of happiness, images of men in grey-flannel suits smiling as they walk into split levels where their congenial wives in aprons and heels are handing out cocktails, 2.5 children playing quietly on the floor behind them, underneath all those smiles were terrible scars that took years to heal. Widespread PTSD that couldn’t be discussed. Wives who’d been demoted to being helpmeets.
As for my soft spot, well, it goes to Charlie who is so physically and emotionally wounded. It touches me deeply that his worst physical wound – the loss of the use of his hand – came from a kind and moral choice he made to spare another man’s life.
What is it about historical fiction that’s so appealing to you?
I’ve always loved history. And especially in our troubled era, discovering the challenges of other eras is comforting. It’s good to be reminded that others have suffered and then triumphed, that whatever happened, time moved on.
On top of that, the details of other eras are delicious to me. How people lived, what they wore, ate, valued and believed have changed over time. Historical fiction gives us a chance to live in those other eras, to shake free the bonds of our own lives for a short while, and better understand the times that came before us and shaped our own era.
The book is so cinematic, it seems like it would make a great movie. Any plans for that? Who would be your dream cast?
I do have a movie/TV agent and there are some well-known producers presently interested in the book. We’ll see whether it will come to pass. I know I’m biased but I do think it will make a good miniseries! As for cast, I always thought Tom Hiddleston would make a fine tall, lanky Charlie. Armie Hammer, with his movie star looks, would be a good Weaver. Coming up with Roz is more challenging. Perhaps Felicity Jones because she can embody Roz’s intelligence. I’d love your suggestions if you have any!
What’s next for you? Are you working on a new book? No pressure but please write fast!
I’m interested in the Civil Rights era in the South, particularly the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville where I now live, and where John Lewis got his start. Right now, I’m reading about it and doing some interviews to learn more. I wish I wrote faster. Ah, to be 35 again, but without a full-time job and a small child!
How can readers trace Roz’s footsteps next time they visit Chicago?
So many of the settings in the book are still around to enjoy. Roz works at Marshall Field’s department store and, though it’s now a Macy’s, the exquisite, azure Tiffany domed ceiling is still there to dazzle. The iconic Field’s clock also remains, and holds a place in every Chicagoan’s heart.
One important scene in the book takes place among the Art Institute’s Thorne Rooms, exquisite miniature tableaux that thrilled me as a child and still take my breath away. And the Berghoff restaurant, opened in 1898, looks no different than it did in the fifties: polished and warm, leathery, masculine and German.
Whether in 1950 or in 2020, Chicago’s brawny skyscrapers, blue lake waters and the exciting sense of a bustling, refined city will always make Chicago a must-visit.