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Talking Location With Ciera McElroy – SOUTH CAROLINA

23rd February 2023

Ciera McElroy#TalkingLocationWith…Ciera McElroy, author of Atomic Family – South Carolina

There is a long literary tradition of novels set near rivers.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the Mississippi; a canoe trip gone wrong in Deliverance; Marlow on the Congo in Heart of Darkness. For some reason, it’s also a traditionally masculine tradition: stories about journeys, movement. Coming of age in the wild. Violence.

I wanted to go in a different direction.

In my novel Atomic Family, I went back to the land of my ancestors, mid-country South Carolina, in a small town near the marshlands of the Savannah River. The river runs from headwaters in Appalachia to the Atlantic ocean. The river is beautiful, calm, dipping in and out of various ecosystems and southern towns.

And it’s also dangerous, but in a quiet way.

It’s contaminated by nuclear waste—which just happened to leach from the atomic facility that once employed nearly half the town.

The atomic facility was the Savannah River Plant. In the early 1950s, the U.S. government commissioned DuPont to build and operate a cutting-edge nuclear facility that would create the materials for the hydrogen bomb. This sleepy little town became the next top-secret site, complete with laboratories and reactors and heavy-water systems. My grandfather worked at this plant in the 1950s and 60s, serving as a health physicist, which meant he helped with the disposal and burial of nuclear waste.

Ciera McElroy

Given this background, I knew from the beginning that the environmental angle had to be important. Cold War fiction so often focuses on Eastern Europe and we forget about the effects in our own backyard.

What made the Savannah River Plant all the more fascinating to me is that it was located just outside Aiken, South Carolina. Aiken was once called the “Winter Colony,” known for its horse racing and winter homes for tycoons like Willie Vanderbilt. It’s a town of old streets and drooping trees and cocktails on patios. I found it strange when walking through Aiken to pass elegant columned hotels and then to see remnants of Fallout Shelter signs on public buildings, the yellow peeling from years of exposure.

It was 2018, and I was visiting Aiken as a researcher, one year out of college and one year into my Masters of Fine Arts in fiction. Atomic Family was in its early drafts. My father and I had signed up for the Cold War history tour of the Savannah River Plant. The site had been decommissioned and focused on both research and environmental containment. The private bus tour led us behind the barbed wire fences and through the winding, wooded roads of the site. The whole place was much larger than I had imagined.

“Everything was spread out intentionally,” our guide said. “So that if one part of it was bombed, other structures would still stand.”

The eeriest part was driving by the “nuclear cemeteries.” These were open-air trenches where waste was simply buried in the ground. A problem for tomorrow.

Ciera McElroy

(Citation: https://www.postandcourier.com/news/deadly-legacy-savannah-river-site-near-aiken-one-of-the-most-contaminated-places-on-earth/article_d325f494-12ff-11e7-9579-6b0721ccae53.html)

I could picture my character, Dean, standing here. Watching cranes lower waste into the ground…knowing in his heart that this was wrong. That the risk was great. But what was he to do? He would feel so small and powerless in such a large place, where military officials patrolled with guns, and jets were ready to intercept enemy aircraft at any moment. I imagined he would feel claustrophobic, convicted, but also certain of what he must do. And I could picture his wife in town, unable to pass the armed perimeter, always wondering what it was he did…why their perfect little southern town was considered a Russian target.

The book grew from there. From being there. The ghosts of the Savannah River Plant and the Aiken of the 1960s seemed to whisper to me—behind the facade of cocktail parties and government badges, there was something ominous in the water. Something worth writing about.

Ciera McElroy

Catch the author on Twitter @cierahorton

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