An Interview with Ciera Horton McElroy

  • By Mary Kay Zuravleff
  • March 7, 2023

The debut novelist talks nukes, family secrets, and her memories of 9/11.

An Interview with Ciera Horton McElroy

Ciera Horton McElroy’s debut novel, Atomic Family, which plays out over one day, is a devastating and heartfelt page-turner. In it, McElroy captures the patriotism and paranoia of the early 1960s at ground zero; namely, the Porter family’s living room. What’s more damaging to Dean and Nellie’s marriage and to their young son: school duck-and-cover drills, stocking a backyard fallout shelter, radio reports of Russian nuclear bomb trials, or the secrets Dean must keep as a soil scientist at the local nuclear plant?

I kept thinking of the book’s title as a mashup of the typical nuclear family and the oddball Addams Family. The novel features a mother-father-son trio that’s the poster family of their era but also deeply troubled and somewhat spooky. 

What a great comparison! The title is a play on the sociological “nuclear family” — we also wanted it to be clear that it was a historical novel set in the atomic age. There are so many ways to spin the title, too. Something that is atomic is something very, very small, of course, and I love that as a way to examine fiction regarding family life: a series of small things that are really quite big and significant to those involved. The book also starts in media res, given the 24-hour time constraint, so there are a lot of issues brewing and tensions flaring. This is a family that’s just about ready to combust.

The betrayal at the heart of the novel — the knowing contamination of a community’s soil and water with nuclear waste — is one you grew up knowing about. Can you talk about steeping yourself in family stories, declassified reports, propaganda, and so many books as you wove a work of fiction? 

My grandfather — who died in 1976, nearly 20 years before I was born — was an agronomist (soil scientist) responsible for disposing of nuclear waste at the Savannah River Plant outside Aiken, South Carolina. At the time, this meant burying irradiated materials in the ground. This also meant his work was top secret: His wife and son [my father] knew nothing about his other life. My father grew up knowing some about this work — at least he knew it was dangerous and important. As the Cold War wound down, much of this work became declassified, so when I began probing my own family’s involvement in the nuclear arms race, I was able to read my grandfather’s actual research. This was unbelievably special and helped provide a unique insight into what is a little-known element of the Cold War in small-town America.

There are many novels where a single event changes a family, but you’ve shown how, in a single day, each family member changes. As you wrote for Dean: “What’s different today is that he no longer believes the things he’s said before.” And for Nellie: “She has the disorienting sense of waking up. As though she’s been living a dream.” What was it like to manage them all falling?

There are three main points of view in the book, and as someone who writes both long-form and short stories, I approached each POV as a short story. I wrote them in separate documents pretty much straight through and then divided them up to braid together as chapters. This approach to craft helped me hone the different voices and ensure that they each had their own tone, mood, style, and plot. It was important to me that each character carries equal weight in the story and that each has their own climax and resolution. Dividing these three strands to work on individually is what helped me manage their characters in what I hope is a very human and authentic way.

You have a masterful ability to take each character on a mythic journey. Dean is determined not to return to the family’s hardscrabble fruit farm, where he dug his own parents’ graves. Yet, after serving in the war and becoming a soil scientist, he’s back where he started. His hometown has been razed (and his parents’ graves moved) for the energy plant, where he is hired and which is poisoning the very soil that nourished him. 

I’m so surprised no one has asked about this before! This was a very important part of the Southern Gothic style — this near-mythic connection to the land. The dirt. The ancestors that haunt it. The atomic plant is built on land that was claimed by eminent domain, forcing many poor farmers and sharecroppers to move. (This really happened, by the way. And in an effort to destroy any structure, lest it become a security risk for communist spies hiding out on the base, the plant also exhumed mass graves and moved them to the new town.) So, when Dean is working there, he can’t help but remember the place of his youth. “It’s been so long since this was Ellenton. What was here, then, when he was a boy? Are they standing where the post office used to be? Or the depot, where old women sat stringing beans on hot evenings, shaded by the portico? What crop grew here, before tritium, plutonium? Who was buried in this ground, before this waste?”

Alongside your talent with the epic is your knack for the telling detail. For example, Nellie’s tipping point is learning that Dean has been collecting their son’s baby teeth to test for radiation. Do you remember learning some of these magnificent particulars? 

Research saved the day time and time again on this book! There really were tooth drives across the country, sometimes called “Operation Tooth.” Parents could donate teeth, or dentists could request submitting teeth on their behalf. I found this so macabre! The thought of testing fallout levels in baby teeth was a very specific and haunting example of the effect of the Cold War on innocent children. I loved adding this detail to their marital conflict, especially since Dean has been taking Wilson’s teeth in secret.

At 10 years old, Wilson has absorbed the Cold War talk like radiation — commie danger, the death radius of a nuclear explosion, and his duty as a responsible citizen. Can you talk about writing through his eyes?

Wilson is my favorite character. He is very dear to me for many reasons — not the least of which is because my earliest memory is 9/11. I was in kindergarten, and suddenly my world changed because my parents’ world changed. (And I was only half Wilson’s age!) Children are very aware of what makes adults afraid. I became afraid of airplanes and large crowds and terrorist attacks. I remember my mother explaining to me that “there are people who hate us,” and I took that us very personally as the war on terror roared through my childhood. I think one of the keys to writing in a compelling child’s point of view is to tap into childlike obsession. Children take things at face value — they are all in. And Wilson is all in. He believes so deeply that a communist attack is coming that he will go to dangerous lengths to keep himself and his loved ones safe. I will forever find that deeply haunting and endearing.

Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of the novel American Ending, coming in June 2023 from Blair Publishing. Her three earlier novels are Man Alive!, The Bowl Is Already Broken, and The Frequency of Souls. Zuravleff is also a founder of NoveltyDC, which offers manuscript consultations and private coaching.

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