What if your life was destroyed by a nuclear disaster?
It would not take an atomic bomb laced with lethal doses of radiation to contaminate your homeland, and cause such chaos. When nuclear power plants fail and nuclear reactors experience leaks, explosions, and overheat, radiation is carried by the wind and contamination and chaos ensue. Since Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl in the Ukraine, and now the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown in Japan the lives of thousands of innocent people have been turned upside down and destroyed due to nuclear power risks becoming reality.
In the latest video feature from Fairewinds Energy Education entitled: , Fairewinds’ President Maggie Gundersen and award winning Vermont author Chris Bohjalian, discuss what life would be like if a nuclear meltdown occurred at a nuclear power plant in Vermont. In his most recent novel, Close Your Eyes and Hold Hands, Chris uses Vermont as the scene of a nuclear meltdown as seen through the eyes and experiences of 16-year old Emily Shepard, who is orphaned by the catastrophe, Bohjalian’s readers are drawn into the hardships and uncertainty that accompany a nuclear tragedy. With a haunting reality, Bohjalian creates images for his readers of the life currently being lived by the victims of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown, and previously experienced by the victims of the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
FAIREWINDS ENERGY EDUCATION – Chris Bohjalian Interview (transcribed 5-20-15)
MG: Thank you for joining us today with our special guest, Chris Bohjalian. Chris?
CB: It’s good to be here, Maggie. Thank you for having me on.
MG: You’re welcome. Chris Bohjalian is a Vermont author of 17 books, including 10 New York Times best sellers. His work has been translated into roughly 30 languages, and three books have also been made into movies. His books have been chosen as best books of the year by the Washington Post, and his novel, Midwives was a number 1 New York Times Bestseller as well as a selection for Oprah’s Book Club. Chris has written for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest and The Boston Globe Sunday magazine. Since February 1992, he has been a weekly columnist for the Burlington Free Press, one of our hometown newspapers. His awards include the Armenia National Committee of America – ANCA Freedom award for his work educating Americans about the Armenian genocide. And Chris is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Scientists. An Amherst college graduate, Chris lives in Lincoln, Vermont, with his wife, the photographer, Victoria Blewer. Today we will be discussing Chris’ most recently published novel, Close Your Eyes and Hold Hands, on sale now and soon to be released in paperback. Close Your Eyes and Hold Hands is the story of Emily Shepherd, a homeless teen after a cataclysmic meltdown at a fictitious nuclear plant in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom kills both of her parents and forces thousands of people to flee their homes. Emily makes her way to Burlington, Vermont, where she lives in an igloo made of ice and trash bags filled with frozen leaves. This novel will transport you to the very core of a nuclear disaster. Chris, we would like to thank you personally for the acknowledgment you gave in your book to Fairewinds Energy Education as the source for technical information regarding nuclear power risk and disaster scenarios.
CB: I could not have written this book if it were not for Fairewinds, if it were not for you and Arnie, the incredible graciousness with which you shared your wisdom about these important issues. Thank you.
MG: Thank you. Thank you very much. Fairewinds Energy Education is a small non-profit and we rely on grants and individual donations from people all over the world who believe in our work like you do. We very much appreciate it.
MG: When one reads your book, Skeletons at the Feast and Sandcastle Girls, another book, it’s evident that you portray government as pursuing its own interests rather than protecting and advocating for its citizens. We see this concept again in Close your Eyes and Hold Hands. Why is this concept important to you in your work?
CB: (3:07) We talk a lot about checks and balances and the need for governments to have checks and balances. Because all too often, a government is capable of putting real politic before righteousness. And that’s why organizations such as Fairewinds and advocacy groups matter. You help to provide that balance and that check. Artists, novelists, often do the same thing. You mentioned Skeletons at the Feast. Well, that novel is about one German family’s complicity in the holocaust. The Sandcastle Girls is about the Armenian genocide, a big sweeping love story set in the midst of the Armenia genocide. When I was writing Close Your Eyes Hold Hands, it was back in the present. As you said, it’s set in New England after a cataclysmic meltdown of Vermont’s lone nuclear plant, and one of the things I was after in this novel was to portray the aftereffects, not simply for everyone who is rendered homeless, for the environment that’s destroyed, but – and this is really important going back to your question – the way the news cycles move on and all too often, government is complicitous in allowing the news cycles to move on. Exhibit A: Fukushima. I have good friends who just got back from Japan and had a lovely time utterly oblivious to the devastation that remains around Fukushima.
MG: Oh, my gosh. We’ve had some friends, one of our board members recently came back also, and she was aware of even more devastation and more medical issues with children. So yes, you’re right, the press is very complicit. On your website in your Q&A, you discuss what your inspiration was for the protagonist in Close Your Eyes and Hold Hands. Would you share that perspective with our viewers?
CB: I would. I love my fictional narrator of this novel, 16- and 17-year-old Emily Shepherd. This book actually had its origins in December 2012, in Beirut. I was on a speaking tour in Beirut talking about the Armenia genocide and I landed about 3:30 in the afternoon Beirut time, 10:30 at night back here in Vermont, went out to dinner with my hosts and a sane person would then have gone right to bed. But I didn’t, because on the flight, I’d started a novel and I was riveted. I had to finish it. It was called Room. It’s by Emma Donahue. And it is about a mother and her five-year-old boy who are entrapped in a shed, and it’s narrated by the five-year-old boy. And I knew instantly I wanted a narrator that authentic and that unexpected. So ten days later, I’m back in Vermont. I’m having lunch with a friend of mine, Annie Ramniceanu, who at the time worked for Spectrum and worked with teens in trouble. And she told me about these kids who’d fallen through the system and they were living on Lake Champlain – and this is December – in igloos made of trash bags filled with wet, frozen leaves that they had constructed into this strange architectural marvel – an igloo. And that’s where they were living. And I thought of these poor kids and my heart just broke. And I knew instantly that the narrator of my next book was going to be a kid like that – Emily Shepherd, a 16-year-old cutter, Oxycontin addict with a serious girl crush on the poet Emily Dickinson. And I was off and running.
MG: Well, you did an amazing job. I taught for a number of years with kids who needed a second chance. And I worked with cutters and kids who had issues, either with drugs and they’d come back to school after rehab. And so it really touched my heart how well you created Emily.
CB: Thank you, Maggie.
MG: You’re welcome. Why do you also envision a nuclear plant disaster as part of that scenario? What brought you to that?
CB: Yeah. I wanted Emily Shepherd to be recognizable as any of our children, our grandchildren, our nieces, our friends – a kid who we can empathize with. And so I needed a reason for her to be homeless. I needed a reason for her to be in this igloo made of trash bags and wet, frozen leaves. And I started the book on December 28th, 2012. It’s the end of the year. And at the end of the year, you’re always looking back on the preceding 12 months – successes, failures, friends you’ve made, friends you’ve lost. And 2012 was a really lovely year for me because it was the year The Sandcastle Girls was published, a book that’s so important to me, but there’s a yin and yang to everything. And my disappointment is that my father, who is the son of genocide survivors, had died. So he had not lived to see that book published. And whenever I think of the beginning of the end for my father, I think of sitting on the foot of his bed in March 2011, and watching as the cataclysmic news rolled in from Fukushima. The more I thought about that moment, watching not one but two reactors on fire, knowing the ramifications of this were going to be horrendous, not simply for the people living in Fukushima that moment, but arguably for their children – my gosh, think of the children – I knew that that would be the catalyst for Emily Shepherd’s homelessness – not Fukushima, but a fictional nuclear plant in Vermont. And I think this is really interesting because so many times when readers talk to me about Close Your Eyes Hold Hands, they want to know about the exclusion zone in Vermont and what I’ve created in this novel around Newport. And I tell them, the exclusion zone I created is tiny compared to the real one right now in Japan. And that’s why I don’t view this as a post-apocalyptic novel, because it’s not. We have exclusion zones around cataclysmic accidents right now.
MG: Exactly. Disasters like that, meltdowns, chemical spills. There are exclusion zones. And in some areas, they’re not. They’re just uncovering what people are drinking in their water, are eating in their food. So it’s very tragic. I appreciate your insight with that. In look at this, as you got to know more about nuclear power and Vermont Yankee, did you know that Vermont Yankee is a sister plant to Fukushima Daiichi?
CB: I learned that actually from you and Arnie. I did not know it when I started this book. When I started this book, I knew virtually nothing about nuclear power except that it scared me. I knew nothing about nuclear power except that I didn’t want it. And I think that on some level was one of the reasons why I reached out to Fairewinds, so I could learn more. The thing about my books is I want them to be not merely plausible, but unassailable. Because the last thing you want to do with a novel is wake your reader from the fictional dream with mistakes, with errors. That’s why I do so much research. So when I was creating Emily Shepherd, it wasn’t simply wanting to reach out to teens in trouble – and I’ve met so many over the years through my work as a columnist and the wonder work that Spectrum Family Youth and Services does – but it meant getting the nuclear disaster right. It meant getting what the engineers were experiencing as the plant is melting down right, and to convey that sense of terror for them; and of course, for Emily Shepherd, because Emily Shepherd isn’t merely a homeless teen, rendered homeless because of this meltdown. She is a homeless orphan because her father is the engineer of the fictional nuclear plant and her mother is the head of communications for the nuclear plant. They are nicknamed Vermont’s Power Couple by press. And they are among the 70 people who die in this wrenching, horrific explosion.
MG: I thought both parts were really on target. The child that Emily was and the woman she had to become after this event. That’s what I saw with many of the teens I’ve worked with. And then to couple it with the tragedy that’s happened at Fukushima Daiichi and you showed only a small portion of the magnitude that exists there. And different people I’ve spoken to who have read the book, it resonated with them that way, too.
CB: Thank you. I worry about my Emily Shepherd every day. I mean I finished the book awhile ago and I still worry about her because I love her so much as a character and I miss her so much as a character. I think she’s so courageous and so interesting and so funny. I think she’s got a very good sense of humor, given the nightmare that her life has become.
MG: I think what I learned with the kids I worked with is if they had a sense of humor or you could help them develop it, that helped them survive what they were facing. In light of that, with a nuclear disaster, children are the most affected. They’re the most vulnerable. They fall victim to radiation exposure, displacement, destroyed family and social structures. How are these themes portrayed by you – without giving too much away – in Close Your Eyes and Hold Hands? And do you believe that Emily in her struggles serves as a symbol of the present turmoil faced by today’s children around the world?
CB: One of the terms that I learned from you and Arnie is radiosensitive. And children are more radiosensitive than adults, and girls are more radiosensitive than boys. So when you contemplate the generational legacy of Fukushima Daiichi, when you contemplate the generational legacy of any nuclear plant disaster, it’s the children. It’s their children’s children. It’s the drinking water. It’s the milk. It’s the animals that are infected. It’s the fish that are radioactive. And so Close Your Eyes Hold Hands I think is to some extent about not simply the present generation but the future generation. A reader said to me not too long ago that it’s a lot of kids in this book, a lot of children and a lot of teenagers, and it feels almost like Teen World. And I think there’s some truth to that because Emily Shepherd is hanging out with a lot of teens. She’s mothering a runaway 9-year-old foster child – a boy named Cameron, who I also like a great deal. And so I think you’re really onto something. I didn’t make a conscious decision when I was writing this book that I want to point out to people how radiosensitive people are, but I’m really glad that it’s a book about children.
MG: I am, too. I’m really glad. Because throughout the world now there are so many pockets of turmoil caused by climate change, by depleted uranium weapons, by nuclear power plant leaks and chemical leaks and chemicals in fracking, and this legacy is being left to this whole generation that’s just coming up now as teens.
CB: Somebody else pointed out to me – I think this is really interesting – that adults in this book are not especially helpful, especially adult men. All of the adult men in Emily Shepherd’s life are either sexually exploiting her, exploiting her for other reasons, giving her drugs or, in her father’s case, an alcoholic absentee nuclear engineer.
MG: Well, when I look at organizations like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who is currently promoting the revival of nuclear power in Japan – they want to see it revived, they’re using some of our U.S. tax dollars to promote the reuse of fuel, of used nuclear fuel – we call it spent because it’s dead and it can’t be recycled. But I just – I’m appalled. And there’s this mindset that we know science and they’re not looking at the other aspects that doctors have spoken to us about or biologists. And as you said, the bio accumulation. Because when we see the radioactivity accumulate in food – it concentrates as it goes up the food chain. So it’s a tragedy. I’m really so thrilled that you have written this book and that you’ve put your name to something so powerful, on two levels: because of my work with kids and because of my work in the nuclear field.
CB: Thank you. Thank you for your great work, Maggie.
MG: Chris, before we close, could you read an excerpt of your book for us?
CB: I’d be honored. This will be a very short, three-paragraph excerpt, just to introduce you to Emily’s voice. As I said, I think she’s got a lovely sense of humor in her own dark way. And also, I thought this is appropriate given that we are here in the wonderful world of Fairewinds. This is Emily Shepherd, 17 years old at this point: The poetry of a nuclear disaster is weirdly beautiful. There is alliteration. Rads and roentgens and rems. To a scientist, those are just units of measurement. To a poet, lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my! And then there are the iums. Tellarium, cesium, strontium and – and I know this ruins the rule of three, but it is the mother of nuclear iums – plutonium. Unfortunately, whenever I write those words down, I instantly recall the dead cows and the dead moose and the dead birds. And the poems in my head turn to steam. That’s Emily.
MG: And that’s so powerful. Thank you, Chris.
CB: Maggie, thank you. Again, I thank you for all that Fairewinds does.
MG: You’re welcome. I look forward to having you back.