Monday, August 3, 2020

Stephen P. Kiernan Interview - Universe of Two

Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

As a journalist and novelist, Stephen P. Kiernan has published nearly four million words. His newspaper work garnered more than forty awards — including the George Polk Award and the Scripps Howard Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment.

Stephen’s newest novel, UNIVERSE OF TWO, will be out May 5, 2020. He is also author of the novels THE CURIOSITY (now in television series development), THE BAKER'S SECRET (a regional Indie bestseller), and THE HUMMINGBIRD. He has also written two nonfiction books, LAST RIGHTS and AUTHENTIC PATRIOTISM. His work has been translated into many languages.

Stephen was born in Newtonville, NY the sixth of seven children. A graduate of Middlebury College, he received a Master of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has chaired the board of the Young Writers Project, served on the Vermont Legislative Committee on Pain and Palliative Care, and served on the advisory board of the New Hampshire Palliative Care Initiative. He has spoken and consulted around the country about hospice, palliative care and advance directives.

A performer on the guitar since he was ten years old, Stephen has recorded 3 CDs of solo instrumentals, and composed music for dance, the stage and documentary films.

He lives in Vermont with his two amazing sons.


Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (August 4, 2020)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0062878441
ISBN-13: 978-0062878441


“Rarely does historical fiction get everything so right as Universe of Two: compelling characters, faithful detail, a story packed with unexpected twists, and a sure, authentic voice that never wavers. In this novel of the dawn of the atomic age and its profound consequences, Stephen Kiernan leads us along a journey of conscience as complex and infinite as the science itself.” —Beatriz Williams, New York Times bestselling author of The Golden Hour

“Stephen Kiernan has pulled off the nearly impossible, reminding us by wrapping a war story in a love story that although we hold the power for our own extinction, we also have the power to redeem, heal, and save. The most tender, terrifying, relevant book you’ll read this year.” —Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Lost Family

“Based loosely on the life of mathematician and organ-maker Charles B. Fisk, this fascinating novel delves into the guilt and remorse that wracked him for his part in the development of the atomic bomb. . . . The two main characters are complex and flawed, but when they come together, their world is in harmony.” —Library Journal

“Kiernan recreates the zeitgeist of America leading up to the atomic bomb on a national and personal level: the eager anticipation of wartime’s end, the grimly fascinating science, and the growing sense of guilt and dread. Simultaneously tender and hard-hitting, this riveting story offers much to reflect upon.” —Booklist

"Universe of Two skillfully educates, entertains and enlightens as great historical fiction should . . . . Masterfully researched and exquisitely told." —The Patriot Ledger

Tell us your latest news.
My sixth book comes out soon and I’m very excited. UNIVERSE OF TWO is a love story set in 1944 amid the development of the atomic bomb. In this story, love proves stronger than the bomb. The book will come out in multiple languages and countries, which is always thrilling. The publication date is Aug. 4, two days before the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. 

“The most tender, terrifying, relevant book you’ll read this year.” New York Times Best Selling Author Jenna Blum

Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way?
I have always been a storyteller, since I was a little kid. Fortunately I had encouragement from teachers to keep me going. I also worked for decades in newspapers, which taught me the value of research and the power of clear sentences. I read voraciously, which is like perpetual writing school, and I have writer-friends who give me valuable feedback on my early drafts. 

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
This is a difficult question, because there are so many rewards. I feel immensely fortunate to tell stories for a living. I remember when my first novel came out, and I spoke at a librarians’ convention. A young man came up and gave me a great bear hug. He said he wished my book had existed when his father was still alive, because he could have read it and understood why his son quit law school to become a librarian. But my protagonist is a woman, I said, and a scientist. That’s just on the surface, he answered. You have written the secrets of my heart. 

I will never forget that last sentence. 

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I want them to forget that they are reading, that I exist, that the book even exists. My hope is that their imaginations take over, so that reading the novel is like a dream, or a movie, taking place in their minds. They will conjure the settings, they will picture the characters, they will hear the voices. And when they have finished the book, I hope readers will continue to feel the story and the characters in their hearts. 

In your new book; UNIVERSE OF TWO, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it. 
Charlie Fish is a young mathematician drafted into the Manhattan Project. When he learns what he’s making, he feels deep moral qualms. His sweetheart Brenda, a church organist, is prohibited for security reasons from knowing what is job is. Whenever he hesitates in his work, though, she berates him to be a soldier, be a man. When the bomb devastatingly succeeds, Charlie feels a weight of guilt. Brenda feels a similar burden of culpability. They spend the rest of their lives seeking redemption together --- and they find it. 

The book is loosely based on an actual person, a young mathematician who worked on the team that built the detonator for the first atomic bombs. 

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
All distractions now pale beside the interruption known as COVID.

During the writing of this book, however, the biggest challenge was the science. I needed to learn a great deal about how an atomic bomb works, even if most of this information wouldn’t appear in the novel. Some of what I learned was fascinating, but much of it was beyond my scientific understanding. As a long time news guy, I feel compelled to over-research my books. In this case that meant reading, interviewing, traveling to the national lab in Los Alamos, etc. It took time, months, but I wanted to get the details right.

What part of Charlie did you enjoy writing the most?
His indecision. Most heroes know just what to do and when to do it. I loved that Charlie could not make up his mind, that his conscience and his sense of responsibility were in conflict. Brenda’s role in his decision-making was also the kind of challenge I enjoy writing – because she was so sure of herself in 1944, and today has many regrets about how she behaved. 

I also liked his strength. Charlie is introduced as a weakling, skinny as a pencil. But he turns out to have all kinds of inner strength, especially a conscience of iron. Putting a strong person in a non-hero body made all kinds of interesting contrasts possible. 

Also, although it is a small moment in the novel, I enjoyed writing about him square dancing. 

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
Interesting question. I would love for Charlie to meet Kate Philo, from my novel THE CURIOSITY. She is a cell scientist working for a high-powered lab that is full of brilliant but unethical people. I think she and Charlie could have a fascinating conversation about the role of morals in science, and what the proper role is for a person of conscience.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
I am always amazed at how complicated they become. I start with such simple ideas of who they are, and then each scene reveals different facets of their personalities: their physical selves, their intellectual selves, their sexual selves, their spiritual selves. One of the most fun parts of revising the first draft is adding all those layers to the simplistic early pages. If it works, a full personality appears right from the start. That’s actually why, of the books I’ve written so far, UNIVERSE OF TWO has my favorite first chapter. Charlie and Brenda are their complete selves from page one forward. 

For fun, I’m going to speak about minor characters, except for the first one because she’s my all-time favorite.
  • 1. Emma, the second baker in The Baker’s Secret. She has grown into adulthood during the Nazi occupation of Normandy. Believing the Allies will never come, she refuses to hope – and yet makes her days into a life of constant service of her small town and everyone in it. Fearless and unsentimental, she helps people to eat, to keep warm, to stay safe, with no expectations of reward. When the D-Day invasion occurs to liberate her nation, she cannot believe humanity is capable of such sacrifice and valor. 
  • 2. Thalheim, the first true villain I’ve put in any of my novels, gives The Baker’s Secret its terror and heat. Always in tidy uniform and freshly shaven, he is blasé about executing innocent people, and he has accepted as true every word of the Third Reich’s propaganda. His character’s fate is fully deserved. 
  • 3. Bronsky, head of the Manhattan Project’s detonator program in Universe of Two. He refuses to dance because of what the war has done to his country. He also sees and respects Charlie’s intelligence. A thick-accented Russian, he can only speak English in present tense. 
  • 4. Brenda’s mom in Universe of Two, a chain-smoking co-owner (with her husband) of an organ and piano store in Chicago. A true battle-axe, she spends her free time doing crossword puzzles and reading (there’s a cameo by one of my favorite YA novels, Johnny Tremain). She makes it easy to see where Brenda got her sass. 
  • 5. The girl in the beret. She makes two cameos in The Curiosity, and either gives readers a mystery or helps solve one.
  • 6. Monkey Boy. Nearly mute, possessing some form of developmental disability, he spends his days hiding in the upper limbs of Normandy’s trees. But he possesses hidden strengths, and serves a critical role during the D-Day invasion in The Baker’s Secret. 
  • 7. Monroe. He may speak with the twang of a Kentucky hillbilly, and swill bourbon too. But he is also a chemist with a PhD, and he has one of the strongest and clearest consciences in Universe of Two. He gets to play a joke on the Army guards in Los Alamos too, and that joke was actually played by the genius physicist Richard Feynman. 
  • 8. Gerber, a scientist in The Curiosity, has such intense mental gymnastics going on constantly in his head, he tunes out the world’s stimulation be wearing headphones all day so he can listen to long, wandering jams by The Grateful Dead. But he also serves as the novel’s Fool as in olden tales, speaking the truth and being ignored. 
  • 9. Barclay Reed is a fastidious historian with terminal cancer in The Hummingbird. But he’s so picky he becomes funny. And the story he wants told before he dies is a parable about how warriors can rejoin society, and become people of peace once again.
  • 10. Mather: an effete, elitist, unlikeable genius of a mathematician, he spends most of Universe of Two being a pompous jerk. Then he learns that his beloved younger sister is emotionally damaged by her experience as a war nurse.
What’s the most ridiculous fact you know?
If you build a detonator that weighs as much as a case of beer, and you surrounded it by tons of technology that can instantaneously crush the detonator down to a tiny ball, and in the middle of that ball you put plutonium that weighs as much as $1.50 in quarters, and that all gets pressed together too, the resulting explosion will have as much power as 18,500 tons of TNT.

What according to you is your most treasured possession?
My sons, who I do not actually possess, but admire and learn from every day. 

Best date you've ever had?
When I was 23, I took a girl named Kristen to a county fair. She begged to ride on the rollercoaster before we did anything else. The second it started moving, she clutched my arm and began to scream. She wailed the entire ride, top volume, hanging on to me for dear life. When we got off, she ran down the exit ramp, then turned to me, breathless and smiling, and said, “Let’s do it again.” 

We didn’t date long, and I have not seen Kristen in decades. But that memory still makes me smile. 

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
My sons were three and five, and one Saturday while I spread mulch in the gardens, they helped with their little shovels and tiny rakes. When we finished, I sat them both in a little red wagon and towed them half a mile to the local country store. We bought ice cream sandwiches, and sat on the bench, and ate them together. That was twenty years ago this summer, and I still live in the same Vermont small town. 

If you wrote a journal entry today, what would it say?
Back to the novel, kiddo.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
When I was 27, my oldest and dearest friend stumbled, hit his head wrongly, and died. Much as I grieved, much as I miss him even now, his death taught me irrefutably that I did not have forever to pursue my life’s dream of being a writer. Three months later I had quit my job in business, sold or packed up all my things, and moved to Iowa City to go to grad school in writing. His death kicked me hard, but fortunately it was in the direction of my heart’s desire. 

What was the best memory you ever had as a writer?
For me, writing is not a peaks and valleys sort of thing. It is more like a practice, a dimension of daily life much as exercise is for an athlete. My memories as a writer consist primarily of sitting at the same desk where I sit now, putting thoughts on paper, hour upon hour. There have been good reviews and bad, generous advances and parsimonious ones, fantastic book event audiences and sleepy ones. I hold them all in my heart, and try to make them instructive to my work. 

A few times I have marveled at the privilege I have, of getting to do for a living what I truly love to do. But the main memory is right here, in this chair, at a table whose finish I have worn off through thousands of hours of work.

From the critically acclaimed author of The Baker’s Secret and The Curiosity comes a novel of conscience, love, and redemption—a fascinating fictionalized account of the life of Charlie Fisk, a gifted mathematician who was drafted into Manhattan Project and ordered against his morals to build the detonator for the atomic bomb. With his musician wife, he spends his postwar life seeking redemption—and they find it together.

Graduating from Harvard at the height of World War II, brilliant mathematician Charlie Fish is assigned to the Manhattan Project. Working with some of the age’s greatest scientific minds, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard, Charlie is assigned the task of designing and building the detonator of the atomic bomb.

As he performs that work Charlie suffers a crisis of conscience, which his wife, Brenda—unaware of the true nature of Charlie’s top-secret task—mistakes as self-doubt. She urges him to set aside his qualms and continue. Once the bombs strike Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the feelings of culpability devastate him and Brenda.

At the war’s end, Charlie receives a scholarship to pursue a PhD in physics at Stanford—an opportunity he and Brenda hope will allow them a fresh start. But the past proves inescapable. All any of his new colleagues can talk about is the bomb, and what greater atomic weapons might be on the horizon. Haunted by guilt, Charlie and Brenda leave Stanford and decide to dedicate the rest of their lives to making amends for the evil he helped to birth into the world.

Based on the life of the actual mathematician Charles B. Fisk, Universe of Two combines riveting historical drama with a poignant love story. Stephen Kiernan has conjured a remarkable account of two people struggling to heal their consciences and find peace in a world forever changed.

You can purchase Universe of Two at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you STEPHEN P. KIERNAN for making this giveaway possible.
5 Winners will receive a Copy of UNIVERSE OF TWO by Stephen P. Kiernan.
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