Denise Kiernan: First Comes Curiosity

by Marie Hefley

Denise Kiernan

Denise Kiernan, author of the best-selling The Girls of Atomic City

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
Zora Neale Hurston

Imagine yourself as a young woman in 1942. You’ve never been away from home before, never traveled, never taken a brave leap across a chasm without knowing what’s on the other side. But Uncle Sam wants YOU to help fight World War II on the home front. So, even though you don’t know where you’re going, what you’re going to be doing, or for how long, you answer the call. Denise Kiernan, author of the New York Times best seller The Girls of Atomic City, tells that story.

Kiernan sinks into an overstuffed, comfy sofa in her Asheville, North Carolina home, surrounded by fat pillows and beloved collectibles that include an antique sewing machine from her husband’s family of garment workers, to talk about why she felt compelled to write the story of these young women. Framed black-and-white photos of these employees at what became the town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and who worked on what they eventually found out was the Manhattan Project, hang on one wall amid Kiernan’s other favorite things.

Kiernan is a curious observer of the world around her. “I always have Evernote®* with me, so when I find something interesting I can always snap a picture of it and stick it in a particular file.” Her critically acclaimed creative nonfiction book arose out of that curiosity and circumstance as much as did the lives of the women she profiled in it.

Born in Ausburg, Germany into a U.S. Army family that returned to the United States when she was a baby, Kiernan lived in several states before landing in New York City “for a very long time.” Although she began writing as a child, she says, “I always enjoyed the sciences, so getting a degree in science and then going to medical school seemed like a good, smart, steady thing to do.” She earned an undergraduate degree in biology from New York University and moved to Rome, Italy, where she pondered her original plan and decided that, as someone who had “always been a fan of the outdoors,” she would instead go back to NYU for a Master’s degree in environmental conservation education. She considered continuing on for a PhD, but while an intern with an environmental group in Seattle, she wrote for a university newspaper and once again changed her trajectory.

With no formal training in writing, Kiernan sought internships and learning through working. She came back to New York and interned for the Village Voice, where she researched, assisted staff writers, and was allowed to pitch and write her own pieces. That experience led her pursue “all kinds of journalism.” She did some sports writing and worked for ESPN in Rome, where she lived for the second time. Since then, in addition to the history books, she’s written one on finances for freelancers, as well as educational materials for schools and children’s publisher Scholastic, a book for the Smithsonian, and several ghostwritten projects. She and her husband, Joseph D’Agnese, are sometimes co-authors and are principals in NutGraf Productions, whose services include writing and producing for television and films, book trailers, music videos, and educational materials (

Curiosity and the Smithsonian book led Kiernan to research and write about the women who worked at Oak Ridge. While researching “nuclear medicine or some related field,” she came across an old Department of Energy newsletter whose history corner had a photo that caught her eye. She says, “the caption talked about young girls from rural Tennessee right out of high school, enriching uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb, but they wouldn’t know their role until after the war. I found that fascinating.”

Despite knowing a “fair amount about the Manhattan Project,” Kiernan hadn’t heard about these young women. She thought that “maybe I was just asleep that day,” and that everybody else knew about these girls. She talked to others to determine if they had the same knowledge gap she did. The answer was yes. Most of their knowledge of the Manhattan Project consisted of “scientists in New Mexico.” Kiernan knew she had something new to tell.

Since she lives so close to Tennessee, she jumped in her car and drove to Oak Ridge. ("If I had been living in California, I never would have written this book," she muses.) She tracked down a man who worked at one of the plants still there and who wrote a history column for the local newspaper. He knew some workers from the war years, and introduced Kiernan to a 101-year-old retired employee, Connie Bolling, a resident of an assisted living facility, who gave her valuable information about his role at Oak Ridge. Colleen Rowan, a key figure in the book, lived in the same place and subsequently introduced Kiernan to other residents who had worked in various capacities at the plants.

Kiernan spent a lot of time in Oak Ridge. She went to luncheons and historical preservation society meetings, did library research, and followed up on all referrals, slowly amassing “boxes of photos and tons of research stuff” that now reside in her basement.

She stresses the importance of good research in writing creative nonfiction. “Even if something doesn’t end upon the page,” she says, “it informs what you ask somebody the next time you talk to them, or you might see something you don’t use but it makes you think of something else that winds up on the page. It doesn’t mean that one thing wasn’t important.”

While she used a lot of what she unearthed, she noted that as a writer, she couldn’t use it all. “You always have to cull,” she says. “In writing, more than anything, what’s important is what to leave out.”

A major challenge for Kiernan was deciding how much scientific information to include. Although she “took a fair amount of chemistry and physics along the way, college was a long time ago.” So she did a lot of reading on atomic physics. Kiernan decided that the book needed at least an overview of the science involved in building the bomb, thinking that her book “could be the only book someone reads about the Manhattan Project, so if you don’t have some understanding of what was going on, it lessens the impact of the story of the women.”

“Originally,” she says, “the book started with a lot more science. At first, I had too much, then not enough, then I got to the point of bringing in other readers.” To make the book accessible to the lay reader, Kiernan looked for readers “without a science background to see what jumped out as too much, for when they’d say ‘My brain is overloading.’” She feels that through testing and revising she found the right balance.

Another challenge was deciding which of the women she interviewed to feature in the book. “It was hard,” Kiernan says. “I wanted there to be as much of a variety as possible, so I tried to include people from different plants, married, single people, people from other parts of the country, those in houses, dorm, trailers, trying to get as much of a mix as possible.” She also sought people who had been in Oak Ridge for enough time so their story would carry through the length of the book. “How extensive their memories were came into play, too. It was very hard [to choose].”

As Kiernan learned more of the women’s stories, she became fond of many of them, but couldn’t, as a documentarian, let that color her portrayals. Objectivity, however, wasn’t really a factor as the project unfolded. “When I started out, I was objective because I didn’t know them, and it stayed that way for a while. The natural cycle of work kind of lends itself to objectivity.” She explains that while working, she didn’t have time to “hang out and have a good time and get to really know them. That came toward the end of things and afterwards.”

Another aspect of maintaining objectivity derives from Kiernan’s decision to make the book the women’s stories, not her interpretation of them. “If they liked something, I said they liked it, and the converse. I tried to keep myself out of it as much as possible.” She didn’t want to do a lot of analysis, but to “tell their stories.”

Several controversial issues arose from the development of the atomic bomb—radiation exposure of the workers, the effect of the bomb on humanity, segregation of the African-American workers, the snubbing of the women scientists by the Nobel Committee, among others—yet Kiernan maintained objectivity in presenting the story. “Coming at things from a place of curiosity as opposed to judgment is always best. You get deeper, better information if you’re just curious about why things happen instead of just going ‘that’s wrong.’ Just sit with the curiosity and stay outside of it. Just keep digging.”

One of those controversial issues arose in Kiernan’s interview by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. While discussing with Kiernan the injection of an individual with plutonium to test its effects, he used humor to soften the edge: “If this weren’t true,” he said, “it would be a great start to a super hero comic book.” Kiernan laughs as she recounts this anecdote. The whole experience, she says, “was awesome! He was great. I’m a big fan of his.” She was also pleased that Stewart “clearly read the book from cover to cover.” Despite her experience as a producer and inside news organizations, she appreciated Stewart’s taking the time to make her feel comfortable. “ It was a pretty raucous crowd,” she says. “It was different than being on Morning Joe, or in a newsroom. Appearing on The Daily Show was like ‘pinch myself time.’ The Daily Show is tremendous for books.”

Kiernan continues to pursue other projects while she works on a film documentary about The Girls of Atomic City. Although involved in so many avenues of communication, she says, “Books dominate about 80 percent of my life. But I love TV and film stuff, too.” She sees a lot of overlap between journalism and film and TV, but doesn’t see reading as a dying endeavor. She cites the many digital and visual outlets available—“What’s that Springsteen song about 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)?”—but still sees room for books.

She laments, however, that people don’t write letters anymore. Having spent so much time in archives going through letters for her research, she wonders, “What will we do in the future? A hundred years from now, will we look at people’s Facebook pages, or Twitter feeds?”

Kiernan reiterates the importance of research in writing nonfiction. “It’s critical. Find a topic you’re very interested in because it’s going to be with you for a while. Get as many different perspectives as possible, whether archival, anecdotal, newspapers, books, personal interview, and so on.” She also encourages writers to “get a little sunshine,” physically go where things took place, which allows “operating with more senses.”

Kiernan uses Scrivener® extensively for managing her projects. She loads her research—“pictures, videos”—into the program and uses it for reference as she writes, finding it very accessible and easy to incorporate into her work. She also praises its ease-of-use for revising and especially for doing endnotes. “Oh boy! I’m a big fan of that!” she laughs. She’s looking forward to an IOS version so she can use Scrivener® to capture information for current and future projects on the spot.

While she appreciates the productivity gains and convenience of technology, Kiernan still relies on the physical page for editing. “There’s a visual element in laying ten pages out on the carpet and a rhythm to reading on a page that’s different from reading on a screen.” She also does “a lot of idea mapping and connecting with pen and paper.”

After twenty years in journalism and writing, Kiernan can distill her advice to writers to a few simple points: “Give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft. Don’t edit while you write—just bust it out and know it will be horrible. And write every day. This is hard to follow, especially the thing about crappy first drafts.”

Kiernan looks out her front window onto her garden, which she describes as “a little unruly, but colorful—very Asheville.” A slightly tipsy floor lamp casts a soft orange-yellow glow on her and the massive bookcase that also serves as a room divider. A box with several copies of Girls, written in Italian and Chinese, butts up against the end of the bookcase. The title of the Italian version, Le Donne Che Cambiarono La Seconda Guerra Mondiale (The Women Who Changed World War II), reflects Kiernan’s spirit as well as that of the women themselves—curiosity, a sense of adventure, seeking new experiences, and creating change, even if from behind the scenes.

Denise Kiernan has been working as a writer for nearly 20 years. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, Ms. Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Discover and many more publications. She has also worked in television, serving as head writer for ABC's “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” during its Emmy award-winning first season and has produced for media outlets such as ESPN and MSNBC. She has authored several popular history titles including Signing Their Lives Away, Signing Their Rights Away, and Stuff Every American Should Know. Her most recent book, The Girls of Atomic City, is a New York Times, Los Angeles Times and NPR Bestseller, and was named as one of Amazon’s Top 100 Best Books of 2013. She has been a featured guest on NPR’s "Weekend Edition," PBS NewsHour, MSNBC Morning Joe and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Please see her web site for more information about her and her projects.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Program and Managing Editor of this publication, is a graduate of the Masters of Liberal Arts program at UNC Asheville. She is also a frequent contributor to the Forest Companion. She invites you to read her interviews with Cynn Chadwick (Issue 6), Wiley Cash (Issue 8), Terry Roberts (issue 9), and Megan Shepherd (issue 11), found in the Great Smokies Review Archives.

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