It takes a bold writer to personify two of the darkest events in human history. Author Mike Meginnis was the winner of Black Balloon Publishing’s inaugural Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize. His novel, Fat Man and Little Boy, hit the shelves on October 1st. The two atomic bombs dropped over Japan are born into human beings upon impact. Meginnis sat down to discuss his writing process and winning a fiction prize that got him published.
I found it while I was taking a class on war and Hollywood. There was an assignment where I was supposed to read archived newsweeklies from a period surrounding some major historical event; I chose the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was my assumption that I would see a lot of dramatic mushroom cloud imagery, as that’s what you typically see now, but there were barely any images at all, and none so dramatic.
So I had known that the bombs were called Fat Man and Little Boy, of course — I had seen a Fat Man-style shell in an Ohio museum as a kid, which made me feel very strange at the time — but I hadn’t thought about it for long time. So when I saw the names used again, I was surprised, and I thought it was such a strange thing to do, naming them (how many other named bombs can you think of?) and I thought, if they were people, they would be the saddest people in the world, because they would feel guilty all the time. And I thought it was enormously cruel to name them as if they were people, as if they had any agency in exploding. I had an image of the brothers (I always assumed they would be brothers) in threadbare suits, in the rain, trying to share a too-small umbrella, waiting for a bus in Japan. (This was a version of the scene where the sisters wait for the bus in My Neighbor Totoro.) I never found a use for that scene in the book, but it was always in the back of my head. Anyway, that became my thesis.
Are you a history buff or simply enthralled by the notion of telling this story?
I love history but I don’t have the memory to be any kind of buff. I can’t remember names or keep a timeline straight, and the things I most want to know — what it was really like to live in a certain place and time, how people saw themselves and related to each other — are often difficult for historians to cover. Of course, the postwar period is pretty thoroughly covered, being both quite recent and very much of general interest, so it mostly wasn’t too difficult to learn what I needed to know for the book, though the research was very much the most stressful part of the writing, as I had to do it pretty quickly (because the book was also my thesis).
Of course research is always an exciting process that affords writers a lot of opportunities to surprise and be surprised. Reading about the kamikaze gave me a lot of spectacular, surprising details and images that make the book more alive for me and for readers. Reading about Vichy France gave me the idea to use the concentration camp Gurs as one of the book’s main settings. Even if you’re writing something set in the present day, as I am now, historical research is an enormously useful tool.
There is an empathy you feel for Fat Man & Little Boy, which is a contrary notion when you think about what they represent. Why did you feel compelled the story of Fat Man and Little Boy in such a way?
I’ve always liked the idea that fiction can expand our capacity for empathy, but I think a surprising number of novelists who would name this as one of their primary goals restrict themselves to protagonists with which it is extremely simple and easy to empathize. I get excited when a book allows me to explore the far reaches of our ability to care for other people, or, in this case, other things. The bombs, which are not only objects but loathsome objects, seem like just about the greatest possible challenge for our empathy, so finding a way to humanize them was exciting for me.
Of course as an American I think you’re sort of predisposed to identify with bombs. We use them so freely. They’re sort of a shameful product of our big, weird national body, I think. You and I and all of us are implicated in that. So I feel a strong empathetic connection with Fat Man and Little Boy (the characters) because I feel I share their guilt; like them, I didn’t actively choose to blow up other people, but I can hardly argue that I’m not involved.
Were you at all nervous about the content of the book and how it would be perceived?
Yes! I still am. I worry about historical errors on my part (more or less inevitable) and cultural insensitivity, among other things. To some extent, any piece of fiction is a record of the shortcomings of its creator and his or her time, but that’s part of what I like about fiction, so I try not to worry about it too much. I also get a little bit stressed out when people I know personally read the book, because it has some really embarrassing passages: stuff about bodies, about having a body, about what bodies do. But so far, no one has really brought that stuff up, probably because they’re more embarrassed by it than I am.
Now that the book has been out for a few weeks, how are you feeling?
God, I just hope people like it. I hope they tell their friends they liked it. I get nervous pretty often and a little bit depressed sometimes. But so far the feedback I’ve been getting has been just incredible and heartbreakingly kind. So there’s a lot of joy too.
This book was published as a result of you winning the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize from Black Balloon Publishing. How did you find the contest?
I think I first found it through a retweet by Submittable’s twitter account, which is often a great resource and if you’re a writer you should absolutely follow them. I filed it away in back of my head but I think my initial reaction was, “Well, this looks like a great thing, but I doubt they’d want me.” So I planned to submit but I put it off for a while. Then I saw Roxane Gay mention it on Twitter, later that month, and the deadline was approaching, so I forced myself to get my submission in order and send it in.
They’re reading submissions this month, by the way, and if you have a fiction manuscript of 50,000 words or more, you’d be crazy not to give it a shot: there’s no entry fee, you get $5,000 if you win, and then they make your book into this beautiful, amazing object. Everyone should absolutely be doing this.
Describe the moment you found out that you’d won.
So I missed the call from Buzz Poole, who was my editor on the book. I
was looking at my phone’s history and I saw the number and I thought, “That’s strange,” because I recognized it as a New York number and because basically no one calls me ever. Then I checked my email and saw a very kind little note. Then I called him back and he said it again, that they would like to publish my book, and I said something like, “This validates everything I’ve done with my entire life so far.” Which is still how I feel. When you’re an artist, and especially when you’re trying to be one professionally, and especially
when you’re trying to make something as thankless as fiction, you’re always questioning whether you’re wasting your time. There’s always the strong possibility — the likelihood, the near certainty — that you aren’t actually good enough. So having my first book accepted by a great small press felt like permission to keep living my life the way I wanted to, felt like evidence against the prosecution, felt like permission not to kill myself.
What’s it been like working with Black Balloon?
They’ve been great. They’re professional, generous, and they make beautiful books. I can’t recommend them enough, especially because they’ve been doing really smart things to grow over the last year, and will I’m sure continue to do so.
What’s next for you?
Well, I wrote a really wild, sad, funny book about superheroes after Fat Man and Little Boy, so hopefully I’ll eventually get that out into the world, and presently I’m about 4,000 words into a weirdo spy thriller about love, lies, and skin suits, so, that’s pretty fun to write. I’m also really looking forward to Super Smash Bros. coming out next month.
Where can people connect with you?