In Amy P. Knight‘s debut novel Lost, Almost, Knight blends a high-concept exploration of history with a chronicle of an unique familial dynamic. At the center of the book is Adam Brooks, whose research into all things nuclear has earned him a grand reputation in his field; a contrasting view is provided by the glimpses of how his family perceives him, making for a more nuanced, complex portrait of a life. I talked with Knight about the writing of Lost, Almost and the newfound urgency of some of its themes.
What first drew you to using the legacy of nuclear weapons research as the backdrop for a decades-spanning novel?
Two things were going on at roughly the same time. First, a dear old friend of mine was visiting and told me a number of stories about his childhood in Los Alamos. He came from a family very different from the one I ended up creating, but listening to him reminisce got me very interested in what it would have been like to live in a town that only existed because of the science being done there. At the same time, I was in an MFA program and had signed up for a class on the literature of science. We read Freeman Dyson’s book Disturbing the Universe, which talked in depth about physics and physicists, and I was deeply intrigued by the contradictions they faced and the positions they got put in. It was still another year or two before I started really writing the book, but that was when I started thinking about it. It had to be decades-spanning because I was interested both in how people got there and what it would mean, over the course of a career, to have been there.
In the past year, there’s been an increased concern over the threat of nuclear conflict. Did that end up having any bearing on your process as you revised this novel?
It certainly changed the way I felt about it. I learned a lot about nuclear weapons as I researched the book, and all that knowledge became kind of scary when nuclear war came back to the realm of non-trivial possibility. That, in turn, gave me more empathy than I previously had for Adam, the book’s central character, who was acutely aware of the details and the risks throughout his life. I’m sure that made its way into the book in small shifts here and there.
What, for you, are some of the essential books–fiction or nonfiction–dealing with the rise of atomic weapons and nuclear power?
Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus—a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer—does more than anything I’ve read to bring the conflicts and crises of this work into relief. Richard Rhodes is probably the best historian on the topic; he wrote a four-book series called The Making of the Nuclear Age, with all the information you both do and don’t want to know about how we got to this point. Most of the fiction I’ve read on the topic deals either with the consequences, in the post-apocalyptic vein, or with imminent threat, often in the satirical vein. I think of books like Peter George’s Red Alert (the basis for the film Dr. Strangelove) or Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, or of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, or even The Road (although the source of apocalypse there is indeterminate).
The structure of Lost, Almost moves back and forth in time, contrasting the life of Adam Brooks with that of the members of his family. How did this come about?
I knew I wanted to explore both how a life in physics and weapons would unfold and what the consequences of that kind of life would be on a personal level. It turned out that moving around in time was the best (only?) way I could get at both of those things in the same book. I started with the chapters about the various family members, and added the more linear linking sections about Adam’s life as the whole book began to take shape as a unified manuscript.
The version of Adam that the readers encounter in the 1940s and 50s is, in some ways, very different from the patriarchal figure who interacts with his family decades later. What were some of the challenges of writing a character at these various stages of life?
For me the hardest part was figuring out how much guidance readers would need to follow the evolution from A to B to C. I knew, in my mind, how he was as a teenager and at the end of his life, and I knew I didn’t want to write a book that traced every incremental stage in that development, so I had to figure out what the key illustrative moments would be, both for Adam personally and for his various relationships.
With a book that spans decades and covers numerous aspects of a family tree, were there any difficult decisions that you had to make as far as what to leave in or take out?
Yes — there were things I ultimately ended up cutting out what I thought were interesting, but ultimately went too far afield — mostly things from the lives of other characters that intrigued me, but had nothing to do with Adam or the imprint he had left on them. If the book was going to be as diffuse as this one in terms of time and point of view, it needed to maintain a focus in some other way—specifically, in this case, that particular character. So certain other aspects of his family’s lives didn’t make the final cut.
What’s next for you?
I’m working, slowly, on a new novel, also spanning significant portions of a life, or lives, really. In some ways it will be similar to Lost, Almost, but it has a totally different setting (both time and place). That’s all I’ll say for now — I’d hate to jinx it!