I grew up in Indianapolis, hearing mention at family gatherings of a close friendship between a Civil War nurse ancestor and the not-yet- famous environmentalist, John Muir. They met just after the War. He was working as a factory foreman. She helped him recover from a grisly industrial accident that left him temporarily blind. But it wasn’t until adulthood that I realized the significance of the episode. For Muir, it was an existential crossroads. And his before-and- after experience mirrors the industrialized debacle of our world today. The recovery of an ecological vision from the blindness of Consumerism.
Back in Indianapolis, family lore also rumored that in 1886 the nurse’s college-student niece was caught kissing the president of Indiana University and to avoid a scandal, she was sent to lie low at John Muir’s ranch in California.
Musing on such stories over the years, I slowly hatched a scheme for a tragicomic novel that recasts Muir’s saga as the quixotic, cross-country journey of a contemporary Everyperson. Until recent current events began overtaking the climate-fiction side of the novel at an alarming rate.
I began writing this novel one week after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Amazing how a brush with mortality can focus the mind. Amazing how a sustained creative endeavor can bring healing. That was five years ago. I put aside another project. This one had been simmering for decades. Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb is the story of a generation of Midwestern preppies that I know only too well.
One seed for the plot came from my mother’s early life. Two years out of college in 1951, she was hired by the State Department to start a school in Moscow for the children of English-speaking diplomats. She lived in Moscow from 1951 to 1954. The Cold War had begun. Many of the Moscow details in the book come from her diaries. And she really did take the family poodle with her. The Anglo-American school still exists today. My brother and I always wondered: was she a C.I.A. spook?
Another inspiration came in 1989. I was driving home from work, turned on the radio and heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hit by an inexplicably large wave of emotion, I pulled over. Suddenly it was visible – the insidious Cold War TENSION that pervaded American life for so long that it blurred into normalcy. I began to think about a novel that would capture the charged interweave of big-stage influences with a local, day-to-day family drama.