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An Interview with YALSA Nonfiction Award Finalist Steve Sheinkin

Copy of BombSteve Sheinkin is the author of several history books for young people. His most recent is Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, which is a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, the winner of which will be announced on January 28). His previous book, The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery, won the 2012 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction and the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction. Mr. Sheinkin answered these questions this week over email. (And be sure to check out our interview with him last year, too!)

Congratulations on being one of the finalists for the 2013 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction! Did you see that Bomb won the Mock Newbery over on the Heavy Medal blog? What was your first reaction when you learned this?

My wife had been following the blog, keeping me posted so I wouldn’t have to look! But really, it was a great honor to be chosen.

You won the 2012 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction last year for The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery. Do you believe in the second book jinx? Did you feel any extra pressure that this book wouldn’t measure up to your first one?

The Arnold book was so close to my heart, a story I’d wanted to write for at least ten years. So I knew the next one would be different, but, no, there was no added pressure. With the bomb story, the quality of the source material is so amazing, I knew that once I figured out how to structure it, I could do a good book.

What is your research process? How long did it take to gather the materials used in Bomb?

Well, I spend a lot more time reading than I do writing. For Bomb, I read more books and other sources than I’d ever read for any other project. I guess about a year of gathering sources, and then the gathering continued through the outlining and even into the writing process. One of the hardest parts of this job, I find, is cutting myself off from the research and turning to the writing.

Do you have an idea from the beginning of your research process what you want to include? For instance, did you always intend to have the three plot strands that included the resistance efforts to destroy the Vemork hydroelectric plant in Norway? For most readers, that doesn’t seem the most obvious choice to include in a book about building the atomic bomb. One would think that you might have included more about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage for giving vital national secrets to the Soviets, and executed, yet they were barely mentioned in Bomb, and not even included in the index.

No, I didn’t know exactly where I was going when I started the research. I knew I wanted it to be a nonfiction Manhattan Project spy thriller, which sounds pretty specific, but could include thousands of story lines and people. When I started learning about the Norway action, I absolutely had to include it. It’s super exciting, and gave me action scenes to weave into the science and spy scenes, which seemed like a great way to create momentum in the narrative. I didn’t get into the Rosenbergs because, in spite of their conviction and execution, they really didn’t play a major role in passing atomic secrets to the Soviets (though Julius, in particular, may have wanted to). In terms of spies, the physicists Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall were the key players. But in the end, I did have to pick and choose among the almost endless stories that could have been included.

One of the things many readers have remarked upon is the fact that you didn’t make any moralistic judgments about the decisions made by the players in Bomb, particularly by the various spies. How were you able to remain impartial as you wrote this book?

That was very important to me, to avoid making those kinds of judgments. First, because I think it would have gotten in the way of the pace of the story, and ruined the whole “spy thriller” feel I was going for. And second, because I’d really prefer for young readers to think about and make those kinds of judgments for themselves.

The Common Core State Standards puts a greater emphasis on kids being required to read more nonfiction. Did you write Bomb and Benedict Arnold with this in mind?

No, not at all. As a textbook writer for about ten years, all I did was read standards. I’m all for the idea of more nonfiction being read, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to write to some specific set of standards. I’ll just keep trying to write books that are fun to read and that tell an important story.

Have you done any school visits for Bomb? What type of teen response have you gotten?

Yes, lots of visits. The reactions have been very enthusiastic (by middle school-kid standards). People seem curious about the motivations of the different characters — the spies who betrayed their county, the scientists who made this terrible weapon, the military and political leaders who used it. We’ve had some good conversations.

There is no doubt that both Bomb and Benedict Arnold are exciting and compelling books due to your use of “you are there” moments. Both books have instances where narrative text is presented as dialogue — something that isn’t considered acceptable in the academic world. Can you elaborate on why you chose to do this?

Yes, I love including dialogue, because it can really make a scene come to life. But I only include it where the sources support that — that is, when it comes from the recollection or notes of someone who was there. For instance, Richard Feynman includes a fair amount of dialogue in his writings about Los Alamos, as does Knut Haukelid in his memoir of the Norwegian commandos, and Harry Gold in his testimony before Congress. That scene in Santa Fe, where Charlotte and Robert Serber try to spread the false “electric rocket” story has a lot of dialogue — all from their own written recollections of the night. This kind of use of dialogue is something I admire in narrative nonfiction for adults. It’s true you wouldn’t see it in academic writing, but my whole mission is to write books kids and teens will find entertaining, as well as informative.

Are you aware of some of the issues that were discussed about your book on the Heavy Medal blog and elsewhere? How do you respond to these who question your narrative style choices and lack of page numbers from your sources?

I actually agree that the source notes could have been more detailed. For my next book, I’m going to make it easier for readers to follow a quote or passage from the book back to the sources I used. In terms of narrative style, you can’t please everyone.

There are some terrific photos and images in Bomb. As the author, how much input do you have to the book design?

Very little! I saw various versions and proofs and made comments, but my editor and the design folks did a great job, mostly without me.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you read more fiction than nonfiction as a teen. What made you decide to write nonfiction books rather than fiction?

I’m not sure I did decide, exactly. After college I worked for an environmental group in D.C., and then made movies in Austin, and then worked on textbooks in New York. And the textbook job led to writing nonfiction, because I was collecting all this great material they wouldn’t let me put into the textbooks (that’s another interview). Only by doing this kind of writing did I come to realize how much I love the process of finding and telling true stories. So essentially, I never meant to have this job — but now I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

Thanks to Mark Flowers, Mia Cabana, Nicole Dolat, Becky O’Neil, and Liz Burns for their assistance with this post.

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