Writer and speaker on subjects of faith, doubt and conscience, and author of Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic

The Art of Fiction and The Scandal of the Particular

Many people have asked me lately what made me turn from memoir to fiction. (This includes a person who asked me, when I said I was writing a novel, Is that fiction?)

It’s taken me a while to understand for myself why I made the move from memoir to fiction, and tonight I’d like to talk about what I know so far.

I’ve written two memoirs, Things Seen and Unseen and Practicing Resurrection. They are about my own wrestling with faith inside and outside the Episcopal church. In writing these memoirs, I discovered that there are aspects of the memoir that are like the novel: you must have “characters,” you must have a “plot.” I learned the arc of a three- part plot from the Greeks: things get bad, things get worse, things are resolved.

I learned the hard way that a memoir must be about something more than the author’s life, as of course the novel must be about more than the sum of its characters. Moby Dick is not “about” whale hunting. Whale hunting is the circumstance of Moby Dick; the novel is about obsession. Lucy Grealy’s great memoir Autobiography of a Face, is the story of woman disfigured from repeated cancer treatments to her jaw. That’s the circumstance. What is it about? A human person coming to terms with who she is. We have all read memoirs that were like awful, narcissistic train wrecks in which the writer never figured out that the subject of a memoir cannot be the writer himself, and we have also read memoir that divulged the most secret and painful things about a life that were not at all embarrassing but instead connected us more deeply to the human condition.

I found another similarity between memoir and fiction: There is a wonderful phrase in theology: the scandal of the particular. The idea is that God, this enormous creative force that “hung the stars” and created “that great leviathan just for the sport of it” would care about one of us. The idea that the God of Creation–Aristotle's Prime Mover or Plato's Divine Source– would stoop to join us in the mundane details of every day human life, would care even if a single sparrow fell to the ground. This "Yahweh" was completely low-brow to the Greeks, a scandal: from Greek skandalon ‘snare, stumbling block.’

And yet, it is a beautiful scandal, isn’t it? That God would care about one singular, particular life. Where would we be, how would we understand our human story, without it? “The first chapter of Genesis moves gradually from a picture of the skies and earth down to the first man and woman,” writes Rabbi Richard Friedman. “The story’s focus will continue to narrow: from the universe to the earth to humankind to specific lands and peoples to a single family.” One family: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel.

Writers, too, practice this scandal: I trained in the camp of journalism. And I was lucky to work at a time when literary journalism was in vogue. When Joan Didion and Norman Mailer and Truman Capote showed us new ways of handling facts. It is not that the writer changed the facts, but what she or he brought to them. We have just lost a terrific practitioner of literary journalism in Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died this year, and who said that part of this kind of journalism was “the art of noticing.”

When I worked as a journalist, I was drawn to the stories of individuals in the shadow of history-making moments. After the Berlin Wall came down, I went to Prague and interviewed families about what their lives had been like under the regime. I wrote about daily life in Nicaragua when the Sandinistas were in power. This may be the same impulse that makes me religious: that is, here we are working out our own lives, making mistakes, trying to discern one path from another, while waves of history ebb and flow, causing everything to change. I am interested in the waves–who isn’t– but it’s the human particular that captures me.

The art of noticing, the art of story-telling, is all about the human particular.

I never meant to write fiction. Fiction, novels, were in a category saved for the great masters: George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford. I was a journalist. But one day, I was visited by an idea.

I grew up in New Mexico, a short distance from Los Alamos, where Robert Oppenheimer and his team built the atomic bomb. Guard towers were still in place, and the city had an aura of secrecy, isolation and guilt. From my college dining room, St. John’s in Santa Fe, I could see the lights of Los Alamos suspended in the sky.

One day some years ago, I was walking on a piece of land I owned near the Rio Grande not far from Santa Fe. I looked across the river, and the steep mesa that rose up on the other side, and realized that just on the west side of that mesa was the city of Los Alamos. And all at once I wondered what would have happened had one of the physicists working on the “gadget,” decided to jump ship. What if he had left the secret city under cover of night, and swum across the river. Who might have found him and what would have been their story?

So, the idea for the novel came to me all at once as if dropped from the sky. I did what many of us do with gifts: I put it away in a drawer.

But it kept calling out to me from the depths of the desk. A little voice, and finally, several years ago, I pulled it out. It lay on my desk, breathing.

I started researching the time, filling in the things I didn’t know. I found out all these surprising and wonderful things about Los Alamos-particulars: the scientists who were asked to work on this secret project in the New Mexico mountains often did not know where they were going. Some of them were handed train tickets and only read of their destination as they walked toward the train. Others did know more or less: At one university, a librarian noticed that suddenly lots of professors of physics were checking out books on New Mexico. When Los Alamos ran out of water one hot summer, they brushed their teeth with Coco-Cola. Oppenheimer made punch with 200-proof lab alcohol. He named the place in southern New Mexico where the first experimental bomb was tested, in July of 1945, Trinity site. Where the heat from the blast was so extreme that it melted the sand to green glass. “Those men who built the bomb,” said a girl from Hiroshima, “what did they think would happen if they dropped it ?”

Finally, it was time to stop researching and write. I remember what it felt like: A woman—I didn’t know her name– stood up in a garden where she was tilling a plot for early lettuce. I knew it was early lettuce. She walked back toward her adobe house and suddenly there was a dog beside her, sniffing the air. And so she and the dog walked toward the house and why was she walking toward the house? Because inside was a man she had found by the river the night before, delirious, who had kept her up all night muttering in a language she thought must be German. There they were: the woman and man who would later be named Eleanor and Leo. The woman who would end up being a painter, had a brother, Teddy, in the Pacific in a prison camp, and he sent her letters that were full of recipes.

Fiction, I began to see, was about things that came out of somewhere: Teddy’s letters, for example: my father’s best friend was interned during the second World War on Bataan, and one day my aunt standing in the kitchen of her dairy farm in Wisconsin read some of them out loud to me. The name of Eleanor’s housekeeper was the name of my brother’s bloodhound: Griefa. When Leo escapes from Los Alamos in the night, bats fly right past his nose. Where did that come from? I once sat on my cousin’s summer cabin porch in the middle of the night and stayed still, amazed, as tiny bats used sonar to fly inches from my face.

Pieces, facts, sifted and remade as if I were a person collecting scraps from a giant garbage heap of memory to shine them up and resell them as something new. Something out of nothing? Not quite. Something out of something else. And then there were those great leaps, what I came to call the fictional leap: when something really did come out of nothing.

I was working on a flashback: some history for the reader. Eleanor has just arrived in Santa Fe from the East and is walking back to her hotel room one day, she sees a boy standing outside her door holding a telegram——and instead of walking toward him, she ducks into a nearby room through the open door and stands there, looking at the remains of breakfast on plates and the unmade bed. Why? I wasn’t sure. She had begun to do things on her own.

That, ladies and gentleman, is a moment so striking it is nearly impossible to describe. It’s why writers get hooked on fiction. In the movie, Stranger than Fiction there is a scene where Emma Thompson, a writer, meets one of her characters. He has come alive and he walks into her office. As he walks in, she gets down on her hands and knees. She says, “Your shoes!” At that scene, watching the movie, I burst into tears. I knew just how she felt. If Leo Kavan, my physicist, walked into my study, I would have fallen to my knees because he would have been wearing the clothes I made for him, and yet he would have been himself, entirely.

And so it went: bits and pieces from parts of my life, or friends’ lives, or history, and these astonishing leaps of something from nothing.

I began to wonder if this is how the Holy Spirit works. Whatever the Holy Spirit is– real or metaphor of something beyond both—she is certainly an overflowing of creativity, an exuberant about making things: I know that the variety of life on earth can be explained by evolution, by the blind chance of natural selection. I am not promoting Creationism here. But still...a world that has goshawks, komodo dragons, weird multi colored beetles of thousands of varieties, bright orange newts. Come on! Someone, somewhere is having a wonderful time!

And fiction is as close as I’ve come to that kind of creativity: Fiction, as theologian Sallie McFague says “ is itself an experience.” A novel is... alive. It is, as McFague says, “ a thing in the world.”

Fiction is human imagination working on the world, and it is a human gift---given to each of us—a way to make something out of nothing.

And of course, this imagination, this human creativity is what produced the atomic bomb. May I excerpt a section from Changing Light? In this section: my hero, Leo Kavan, is lost in the snow, having walked out of Eleanor’s house to try to make his way to Santa Fe.

[pages 104-108]

The snow was thick and wet. Every now and then as he walked, the snow leaked into the top of one or the other of his low boots. It melted into the top of his socks and made its way down. Cold, and now, wet, feet.

He thought of the many hotel rooms he has lived in, the men who worked at the desks, the one in Chicago who had a memory, he said, “like a steel trap.”

He patted the letter in his coat pocket that Felix might deliver for him. It was what he lived for at this moment. Life’s meaning, he had learned, was found in deeds. He turned over in his mind again how to phrase the rest of it.
“Please exercise your power as commander in chief… To rule that the United States shall not.” Or maybe “ in the present phase of the war, shall not…”

He realized he had stopped. Must not stop, he told himself, but he did not move. His mind fogged with despair. No use, it said, no use. He shook himself. He looked up and saw a tree some distance away. I will get to that tree, he said. He realized he had said it out loud. That tree, the bent pinion in the snow. He walked along the rut, and missed seeing the hump of snow underneath which was a rock. He fell forward, crying out in surprise, his ankle twisted around the rock, his bare hands skidding into the dirt under the snow. He felt tears on his face. Must get up.

Leo stood up, brushed the snow off his clothes, placed his hands in his pockets, and waited until the pain in his ankle subsided enough to move forward. It hurt to walk but he could still manage it. He would still manage it. He got to the tree. There he rewarded himself. Good. You got to the tree. But standing still brought the cold into his bones. He thought of hopping, but the ankle stopped him. He waved his arms and flapped them against his ribs. He looked up the road. He could see a rock ahead, red with white patches, a crystal of some kind. He realized the snow had stopped falling. Only a few flakes spiraled down out of the gray sky. He thought for the first time about how far snowflakes must fall. From a cloud layer, thousands of feet, how many thousands? He thought of the structure of a snowflake, the things that are asymmetrical and the search for the few things that are not. He blinked. He had slept, again, this time standing up. Fear shot into his stomach. He could not, could not sleep. He stomped his feet, and pain flew up his leg from his ankle; he swore. The rock was the next goal. He would get there, to that rock. He started walking, the snow wet and soft under his feet. Some mud appearing in patches along the ruts. Red mud, white snow. He decided to make himself remember. The old Cavendish lab. His friend, Guy, lounging across the table, an Imperial cigarette rakishly in one hand while he gestured toward the black board.

“See here, you stupid Czech, there is a way. We can use paraffin wax instead of lead.”

The bathtub near Trafalgar Square, the big white enamel tub with the lumpish square feet, no fancy claws here. Soaking in the morning, all morning, there was no better place to think than a bath. The maid would come to the door every hour to ask if he was all right. Neutrons were better than alpha particles for bombarding nuclei.

He got to the rock, and placed a hand against it as if touching home base in a child’s game of hide and go seek. He looked up the road and saw a tree, this one low and round, rather like a cypress from his old youth when the family had gone to the seashore for a bathing. He tried not to think of his youth. Hidden among his memories, he realized, was an irritant, a faint scraping at the edge of his consciousness, something that had always been there, in the dark, but dislodged by the accident, set free to float, as if a bit of moss had been loosened from the bottom of a lake.

He had thought, all this time that he was working on the gadget–no, here in the snow alone, he would call things as they were–the bomb. He had told himself that he worked on the bomb for the sake of Lotte, to blow the Germans to kingdom come, whatever the risk to the world. And, of course, because the Germans were working on the bomb themselves. He had wanted to end their awful sense of a right to dominate, their pitiless arrogance. He had pictured more than once Hitler being blown to bits, and been surprised by the amount of pleasure it gave him. But here in the snow, leaning against this cold ancient rock, on this long empty road, freezing, he realized the lie he had told himself.

Without his contribution, they simply would not be where they were. He remembered Fermi looking up at him when he had said, “chain reaction,” and the light in that handsome face. Being part of the brightest group of men ever assembled, and more than any of that, being part of something so large, so completely– he almost laughed at the innocence of the word that came to his mind to describe the project– so completely practical.

No more theory, no more working in space. No, this had a real object, a real goal, as real as the rock under his hand. They would actually put all of the theory to work and find out if it really worked. Make a material object, a practical military weapon. And this weapon would…his mind went blank, muddled. Keep going, whispered a part of his thoughts, keep going. It would destroy whole cities at once, and kill hundreds of thousands of people. They would die exactly as… Leo stopped.

He had worked on the bomb because he had enjoyed it. He had liked the science, and the camaraderie and the solving of problems, one by one. He had seen his theory made real and he had reveled, finally, in the power it gave him. Until he had seen, just precisely, what was to come, what would be unleashed, what would fly from the box they had opened.

He made for the tree. The sky was darkening, the light was fading. Night. Panic rose in his throat. If he didn’t get somewhere by night, then he was really done for. He felt furious all at once. That he would have got himself into what the American’s called, what was it a jelly? A pickle, one of them said. Why a pickle? No, a jam. He had gotten himself into a jam, having pulled himself out of much worse situations, he was going to die of the cold on a dirt road in a place so unnoticed by the world that you could build a bomb there that could, very well, blow everything up. He wondered to himself if they had built the tower at the test site. He had looked at a map carefully when he first arrived. Not much in the south. A long stretch of desert down there, low mountains, flat areas. A few villages. No real city until you got to El Paso, Texas. Good place to detonate a bomb and close your eyes.

They would have had to solve several problems first. He wondered how they were doing. The old sense of purpose came back to him, briefly. Had they solved the purely mechanical problems? The cracks in the molds? Had they tested the theory of the empty core, the falling spike? It would take a while to move everything south, to the test place. It would have to be not too far from the Hill, so they could get everything down there in a day at the most. They might be transporting men even now, and the thing itself, the core. God, he thought, how are they going to move that?

“In cotton swaddling,” Slotin had said. “Wrapped like a babe in the manger.”

That morning, Slotin had greeted him with a slap on the back. His narrow boy’s face full of light and promise, frozen in Leo’s memory. Leo will always see Slotin standing in front of him, his white lab coat open, his hands in his pockets, making a joke about the mud.

They began the experiment. The idea was to move two hemispheres toward each other on a rod, to allow them to reach only the first step, and then separate them, so as to avoid, as Slotin used to say, “a little accident.”

Slotin was moving the two half moons together with screwdrivers. The counter ticked and the red signal lamps were blinking. Leo was behind him. Writing on the board with a chalk.

A screwdriver fell to the floor; the meter stopped. Leo heard the silence first, he half turned. The room was filled with blue light. Leo yelled “Geh aus der flamme!” to Slotin. As he screamed, he saw out of the corner of his eye that the lights had stopped flickering. They were glowing, a bead of red. Get out of the flame! But Slotin leaned forward, and with his bare hands separated the hemispheres to keep them from reaching critical mass, saving Leo, the assistant, the room, the lab and the city and sacrificing himself.

Leo heard himself shouting. Slotin turned, slowly, and with great courtesy told Leo to be quiet, please. The assistant was standing by the door. Slotin told them both to stand still, not to move, please. He walked to the chalkboard, and drew their positions, estimating their distance from the assembly. He looked over his shoulder at Leo.

“What do you think?” He said. “Seven feet?” Leo nodded, his head felt like a balloon made of tissue, like one of Guy’s paper balloons.

Slotin said, “So they will know how much you got.”

Leo watched Slotin write. His hand was already turning red.

“Okay,” Slotin said, and then he turned and the three of them walked outside. They sat down beside the muddy road. Leo looked across at one of the green buildings. It was as if the whole town had gone silent. Leo could think of nothing to say. The Slotin turned to him and said, “You will come through all right.”

He patted his arm. Leo nodded. Then Slotin said, this time with a second of catch in his voice, “But I haven’t the faintest chance myself.”


My characters, Eleanor and Leo, fall in love. They are in their own human particular, that world created by lovers that is full of life and possibility. But a wave of history overshadows them at every turn. As I witnessed their increasing desperation, I saw more about why the human particular is so scandalous. It is because I cared about what happened to them, these two, she with her dark hair and paint on her fingers. He with his loathing of the desert and love of cities and cigars. Humanity is made up of one person at a time: one person who loves the color aureolin and another who desires scrambled eggs with matzo. Singular. Irreplaceable. I felt Eleanor and Leo deserved to have their own particular lives and life together–and this desire for them on my part must be like God’s desire for each one of us– this is scandalous, that two human lives matter more than, what? Everything?

And so, to Hiroshima. Hiroshima had a population of 400,000. 100,000 were killed on August 6. By the end of 1945, 140,000 were dead. The five year death toll was 200,000. The death rate was 54%, compared to fire bombing, which was ten percent. Civilian deaths to military: 6-1. These numbers, of course, stun our minds but do not penetrate our hearts. Another way to look at Hiroshima is by visiting the two museums: The museum in Los Alamos is dedicated to the technological: models of the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, photos of the labs. Very distant, detached. It is a view, as a friend said, from above the bomb. The museum at Hiroshima is another matter. There you will find, among the photos of destruction, the stories of those who managed to survive. Each one a human particular. Here is one, from a woman Shin Bok-Su, a Korean married to a Japanese man, age 28 at the time:

“My grandmother was going into the living room to wash the dishes. I had pulled the hose out of the bath and was using it to change the goldfish water in the yard. First there was a flash, then an ear-splitting roar. Instantly, everything was dark: I could see nothing. I heard voices calling, "Help me! Help me!" Terrified and dumbfounded, I stood on shaking legs in the pitch black. It grew a bit lighter. Where had my house gone? The neighbors' houses too were smashed. Everywhere I looked was a plain of rubble. I hid my mother and second son in a field of millet growing in the corner of the grounds of Hiroshima City Commercial High School and hurried back to the house. I began to pull the roof tiles off the fallen house one by one to get to my two children caught underneath. I screamed their names as if I had gone mad. Rain as black as oil fell from the sky.

Early on the morning of the 7th, our house caught on fire. I desperately shrieked "Takeo! Akiyo!" The fire ignited a mosquito net that was near where I expected the two children to be. Then I saw Takeo's corpse burning. The three buttons on his school uniform remained properly aligned as he burned.”

This is the view from below the bomb, in the particular human world.

When an interviewer asked Robert Oppenheimer in 1965, what he thought about President Lyndon Johnson’s proposal to initiate talks with the Soviet Union about halting nuclear proliferation, Oppenheimer replied. “It’s twenty years too late....It should have been done the day after Trinity.” The day after the experimental bomb was tested in July 1945 in New Mexico.

One hundred and fifty scientist who worked on the project signed petitions that summer to President Truman to try to stop him from dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. They called atomic bombs "a means for the ruthless annihilation of cities " and continued, “Our use of atomic bombs in this war would carry the world a long way further on this path of ruthlessness."

Several days after the bomb was dropped, reporters asked Gandhi what he thought and he replied, the atom bomb, “resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see.” That question is what I have been turning over in my mind since completing this novel.

What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation ?

What happened to us as a nation on August 6, 1945? Did the use of a weapon designed to ruthlessly annihilate whole cities contribute to where we find ourselves today? How did Hiroshima erode our sense of morality, what we permit ourselves as a nation to do? How did it affect our fragile sense of what is permissible for one human being to do to another? Finally, what is the connection between Hiroshima and Abu Ghraib?

These questions are not easy to think about. The novel helps us to ponder them by illuminating the particular. The novel reminds us of what it is to be human. My lone, particular human voice speaks to your lone particular voice and that is what we have in the face of the enormity of these questions.

© Nora Gallagher 2007