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Q&A with Andria Williams via Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb

Andria Williams is the author of the new novel The Longest Night. She runs The Military Spouse Book Review, a blog that focuses on the writing of women veterans and military spouses. Her husband is an active-duty naval officer, and they have been stationed most recently in Virginia, Illinois, California, and Colorado.

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A: I’ve always had a weird fascination with nuclear power–possibly a strange quirk for a chipper, upbeat little Navy wife–and I finally traced this back to its genesis: The fact that, every summer as a child, I visited my nanna in Seabrook, New Hampshire, where she lived within the 10-mile “danger zone” of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant.

The only way to get into the small town from the beach was to drive past the plant, which sat a distance away at the end of a glossy marsh that rose and fell with the tide.

I’d look out the window, headed to DiMoula’s to get groceries with my mom: there it was, a rounded gray shape, its reflection shimmering. Ride home at night sucking on a Dairy Queen Blizzard: look out over the marsh and there it would be, its lights blinking silently. I was never scared of it, but I always noticed it.

I remembered my mom’s story that some senator who championed the plant had told residents: “If the reactor has a problem, just go stand in the water.” It was sort of a Marie Antoinette “Let them eat cake!” cultural memory for the locals.

Anyway, while researching for my MFA thesis, I learned about a fatal reactor accident at a small Army-run plant in Idaho Falls, Idaho in January 1961.

The accident was notable not just because it was the U.S.’s first (and only) fatal nuclear meltdown, but also for the circumstances surrounding it. The small SL-1 reactor had exploded on one of the coldest nights of January 1961, killing all three operators.

Since there were no survivors, the accident has always been shrouded in mystery, but the prevailing explanation for many years was that the explosion had actually been deliberate: that one of the operators, a young man distraught over his wife’s filing for divorce (and with a history of problems at work), had yanked the central control rod too high on purpose, in a murder-suicide.

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There were larger implications as well: emergency responders who were on-call that night found themselves in the midst of a catastrophe, and some of these brave workers died young, within a couple of decades, from the sorts of rare blood cancers that are almost exclusively caused by radiation overexposure.

Then there were reverberations for the Army nuclear program, which for the most part collapsed after 1961.

And, as I was writing the novel, the Fukushima reactor accident occurred, and when I learned that that reactor had been based on the same, mid-century model of the SL-1, I realized that the significance was even bigger.

That said, I should make it clear that The Longest Night isn’t just a nuclear-accident novel–I don’t want to disappoint Tom Clancy fans. While the accident is the climax of the book, I’m a literary-type writer, so I really wanted to explore the people involved.

Read more at Q&A with Andria Williams

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