Steve Sheinkin, author of the 2011 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Award–winning The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery (12–16 years, Flash Point/Roaring Brook), is fast emerging as one of the most compelling writers of narrative nonfiction for young readers today. His books, packed with action and drama, combine meticulous research with page-turning narration. Sheinkin’s latest — Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (12–16 years, Flash Point/Roaring Brook)— delves into Cold War history, science, politics — and spies.
1. We know of your longtime interest in Benedict Arnold — what drew you to the story of the first atomic bomb?
Steve Sheinkin: Unlike with Arnold, I wasn’t obsessed with this story for years before writing the book. What really hooked me was a Smithsonian magazine article about George Koval, a little-known Soviet spy in the Manhattan Project. I dove into Koval’s story, even getting a digital copy of his FBI file. Turns out they suspected him of spying, and investigated him in the 1950s, but he’d already slipped back behind the Iron Curtain. Fascinating stuff, though I couldn’t find out enough to make a book of it. I’d hit a dead end, but a lucky one, because the search had led me to Ted Hall and the other spy stories from Los Alamos, and that became the basis for Bomb.
2. Your approach in Bomb is unusual — you start with the micro and move to the macro. Why did you decide to look at your subject this way?
SS: A teacher in film class once told us to try shooting a scene “from specific to general,” meaning show something eye-catching first and then, gradually, pull back to let viewers know what’s going on. It’s a common technique, but the teacher’s description really helped me visualize it. I turned out not to be very good at making movies, but some of what I learned about structuring scenes and transitioning between them is applicable in my writing life. When I do school visits, kids are not shy about telling me they think history is boring — which is a total lie! That’s why I like to begin some sections with action or interesting scenes that draw them in.
3. You keep a multitude of characters and their stories up in the air, so to speak. How did you accomplish this juggling feat?
SS: That’s a good analogy. Writing this book did feel like juggling, which I can’t actually do. My secret: index cards. I realize that’s very twentieth century, but it works for me. When I know everything I want to happen in a book, I break the story into little pieces and write one piece on each card. Then I can arrange and rearrange the cards, kind of like puzzle pieces, until it all flows.
4. Bomb has been described as a “nonfiction thriller.” How do you create the feel of fiction without crossing the line into making stuff up?
SS: I was well trained in my many years in the textbook world, where I learned to obsessively back up every quote and fact. With books like Bomb, I try to track down several sources for each event, hoping to find tiny details that can help make things more compelling and visual. Sometimes you get lucky — like the scene with the Hungarian physicists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner searching for Einstein on Long Island. In that case, both Szilard and Wigner wrote their own versions of what happened. More often you end up wishing you knew more — I’d pay big money to listen in on one of the Los Alamos dorm room conversations between Klaus Fuchs and Richard Feynman! Either way, I put quote sources in the back of the book, but not sources for each fact — standard procedure for narrative nonfiction. If anyone wants to know where I got something, they’re more than welcome to email me.
5. How emotionally involved did you become in the story? For instance, I’m still amazed that Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall, the two scientists who literally handed the Russians the full design of the atom bomb, got off pretty much scot-free while Robert Oppenheimer was rewarded with the destruction of his reputation.
SS: I think the Ted Hall story — the existence of this eighteen-year-old spy at Los Alamos — was the most stunning to me, and it’s one kids seem particularly intrigued by. And, yes, I did find myself becoming emotionally involved, especially with Oppenheimer. Some biographers describe him as self-destructive, and he did do some foolish things, but I agree that the U.S. government kind of screwed him over. He was such a complex, confusing character. I think that if Shakespeare could choose to write a historical play about just one American, he’d pick Oppenheimer.
From the November 2012 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.