Rachel Barenbaum, ATOMIC ANNA

Rachel Barenbaum, ATOMIC ANNA

“I love strong women, so that’s what I write.” Author and host of the Debut Spotlight podcast Rachel Barenbaum returns to talk about her latest novel, Atomic Anna, an intergenerational time-travel story. Rachel shares why the 1986 Chernobyl disaster has long been a source of inspiration for her, how she manages to write so visually, and what moral questions she believes more people should ponder especially after the past two years of Covid. Check out Rachel’s essay on Moms Don’t Have Time to Write!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rachel. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Atomic Anna. I was actually just looking at A Bend in the Stars. Where is it? I was like, oh, I’ll just hold it up at the same time, but I didn’t. Anyway, it’s right behind me. I loved talking to you about that book. I’m excited to talk to you about this book.

Rachel Barenbaum: Thank you, Zibby. Thanks so much for having me back. I’m a huge fan. You know that.

Zibby: I’m a huge fan of yours, so there you go. Tell listeners what Atomic Anna is about, please. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Rachel: Atomic Anna is the story of three generations of women from one family who work together and build a time machine to stop Chernobyl. That’s the surface. Really, what it’s about is healing their family and going back to find a way forward.

Zibby: Very cool. The time machine element of this story, it’s like Back to the Future Chernobyl-style, if you will. How did you come up with this? How did you keep it all straight, when people were in which time zone? Then you had different nicknames for people when they would go back and forth, Molly and Manya. Manya? Marya?

Rachel: Manya. Manya and Molly.

Zibby: Even the idea that someone could travel through space and see their child and granddaughter and then have to leave, oh, my gosh, explain, please.

Rachel: I know. Okay, so there are a lot of questions in there. I think I’ll start —

Zibby: — Sorry.

Rachel: No, it’s great. I love it.

Zibby: You could just spend the next half an hour answering them. That’s fine.

Rachel: I love it because that means that you read it so carefully. I really appreciate it. The first question that I love to talk about is where the idea came from. Chernobyl itself, the disaster, happened when I was little. Yet I remember so clearly, the moment that I was standing in front of the television. That’s how we got news then, seven o’clock news.

Zibby: I remember those days. Thank you.

Rachel: I just remember standing there looking at these pictures and hearing these stories. It cut so deep. I was so upset even though I was little. I’ve always sort of watched it from the side. Then at the thirtieth anniversary, lots of magazines, newspapers, news outlets were doing all kinds of retrospectives and looking back on, where is Chernobyl today? and Pripyat, the close city where people lived who worked at Chernobyl. That just got into my brain. I was thinking about that. At the same time, I’ve always been obsessed with this question of time. What is time? A Bend in the Stars, the same obsession. It’s always there. It’s a construct that we’ve invented. Einstein very famously has said there’s no difference between the past, the present, and the future. All that jumbles together with Back to the Future that came out just a year before Chernobyl happened, and I spit out Atomic Anna. It just came to me. Although I’m spending a lot of time talking about Chernobyl now and I talk about it when I pitch, give the logline, it’s really only a few pages of the book because what it’s really about is the question of, if we can go back and change time, should we? Should we do that? That is a moral, ethical question. I talk about a time machine being the worst, cruelest weapon ever built because nobody would even know if you’d gone back and changed time and erased lives. It’s really about this question of, should we? and then regret. You only think about changing the past because of regret. You do that because you want to heal something in the future. That’s really what it’s about and what I really spent my time thinking about and working through and writing. There is this really fun time travel and Chernobyl — Chernobyl’s not fun, but time travel element. Really, the book is much heavier. The sections are much more about, how do you heal a mother-daughter relationship? How do you find love? How do you find that future that you want?

Zibby: There was also this moral question that you posed, which is, should you save many lives, or should you do what your daughter needs from you right in the moment? How do you balance those? What’s more important? How do you prioritize the life that’s sort of dependent on you versus the ones you are indirectly responsible for? What do you do in a scenario like that?

Rachel: I wrestle with that a lot, thinking about that. I wish we talked about it more because I think it is a real dilemma. We’re here in COVID two years in. We’re talking about the benefit or the good that I can provide for my one child by doing X versus, what can we do for the greater good of Y? This is a bigger question. Do you save your immediate family versus millions of people? My character struggles with that in terms of, does she save her granddaughter and her daughter versus all the people who were at Chernobyl? I pose that question. I’m so glad you picked that up because I think it is a really important question. There is no right answer, of course. It is something I think that we should think more about in terms of what we do every day. Even on a smaller scale, I have twins. You walk into the room when they’re babies. If both of them are crying, which one do you pick up first? How do you judge which one needs you more? You physically can’t scoop them together. That’s on a smaller scale, the same question of, which need do you tend to first? It’s very hard.

Zibby: I, as a fellow mom of twins, relate completely. I think I usually just pick up the one screaming louder, which is probably the wrong answer. I guess it’s, what need seems even more pressing?

Rachel: Then sometimes you might look back, or I do, and it’s like, oh, I should’ve gotten the other one. Actually, the other one was really hurt. Again, there’s that idea of regret. I think it’s just natural for us to always relive what we had done and think about, how could we change that? That’s really what my characters are struggling with. How could they have done something better and different in the past in order to make a better future?

Zibby: I also love how you give women so much agency. There weren’t comic books, necessarily, with women at the center of the story. Here comes Anna making this whole sort of Marvel creatures line with Atomic Anna as this superstar, and how that is the way that she finds to really exert control over some uncontrollable universe around her. Talk about that.

Rachel: One of the main characters, the middle generation, is Molly in America. Her name is Molly. She was born in the Soviet Union as Manya, so there we go to the dual names. She becomes a comic book artist. I love writing strong women characters and books with women at the center because that’s what I love to read. That’s what I love to be around. I love strong women, so that’s what I write. When I look around for things for my characters to do — I love comic books. The comic book world is so deeply male. There’s this one historian, Trina Robbins. She was also a comic book artist. She’s sort of the mother of comic books and the one who’s done the most work on researching women in comics. I’ve spoken to her and been in touch with her. Traditionally, comics show women who are being saved by men. They’re being thrown into refrigerators. I don’t know where that comes from. That seems to be a common trope. They’re fighting over men as the center.

When I wrote Atomic Anna and I really dug into the comic book world for Molly, my character who expresses herself through these comics, I really tried to break that mold and create these characters who were the kind of women that I wanted to see and that I think they wanted to be. In terms of why she’s a comic book artist, what I really wanted to show — the first generation is Anna. She is a scientist. Actually, I have her engineering and designing Chernobyl itself and the first atomic bomb for the Soviet Union. Then I have Molly, the artist. Then I have Molly’s daughter Raisa, who is another scientist, more on the math side, more of a physicist. The three of them come together. They’re, all three, brilliant, but I show that they see the world in different ways. You can be brilliant as an artist because you see the way that light interacts or circles come together to form shapes. If you’re a mathematician, you see that in terms of numbers and define it with numbers versus colors. I really spent a lot of time focusing on those parts of the characters because I love that idea that we all see the world so differently. That’s how I tried to put that into the book.

Zibby: Yet you have to come together and have a normal conversation. I feel like this happens at every table with a mom and a grandmother and a granddaughter. You’re like, what? This is how you did things? What? It’s a universal —

Rachel: — Yes. My characters spend a lot of time fighting. Molly’s parents don’t want her to be an artist. They want her doing math. She’s like, but I don’t see the world that way. Then she doesn’t want her daughter, Raisa, doing math because she thinks that’s a waste. She hated having to do math. I love those dynamics. I love putting them in the same room and fighting because I think that’s so real. How do you deal with that?

Zibby: You have this whole inherited trauma situation where one of them — which character? — sleeps with their boots on because they’re convinced that pogroms are coming to America. They didn’t used to be able to celebrate Shabbat openly. Now here they are in America. Finally, they’re bringing out the challah and lighting the candles. It’s almost like they’re taking all of this Jewish history and persecution for religion and nationality and all of this and then trying to make sense of it through the new generations, which I also found fascinating.

Rachel: Really, I think trauma is inherited and passed down. I can think of things that my grandparents did that maybe sound crazy, but they’re definitely still in my head, like always having a passport ready to go and enough money in order to pay for a ticket out of wherever you are. That was engrained in me for my entire life. That is inherited from two generations ago. Yet we still talk about it in the family. I do have that in the book. Anna is the character. The first time we meet her, she’s sleeping with her boots on because she’s so terrified that she’s going to have to run. She wears them her whole life. She won’t take her boots off when she’s sleeping. It’s just a detail to bring out this idea that we don’t really escape that past. Also, I wanted my characters to find a way to move forward with it, her daughter and her granddaughter saying to her, “You could take your boots off. We could move forward. I acknowledge that you’re still sleeping with them, but how about we move forward?” I think it does take a few generations to really push past and see where that can take you.

Zibby: Totally. This is so cinematic. I could just see it all unfolding. Have you started with the optioning process? Do you have any news or anything you can share? I feel like this is destined for screen adaptation.

Rachel: Thank you. Thank you for saying that. That’s a dream. If you know anyone, or listeners, you know anyone, let me know. I am working with WME. I have two film agents. It is beginning to make the rounds, so fingers crossed. We’ll see what happens.

Zibby: I have very high hopes because it literally felt like — I could just see it. It’s almost like, not The Hunt for Red October because I haven’t seen that in probably thirty years or something, but it just makes me feel — maybe the red or something of your cover and that and Russia. I don’t know, something.

Rachel: I love that you say that because, in my head as I’m writing books, I see them. I see every scene like a movie. I see every character. I know them. I can describe them because I see it that way. I’m so excited when readers say, it felt like a movie, because I feel like then I was able to translate all these crazy ideas in my head onto the page and to transmit them to you. Thank you. I’m glad you saw my scenes.

Zibby: No problem. Did you outline this progression? It was complicated too, in a good, interesting way, but in a way where I was thinking, how was she keeping all of this straight? This is a lot of interactions and twists and turns and all of that. How do you set out to do it? How much did you know about the plot when you started it?

Rachel: This is a tough question to answer because the book started in one way. I had it outlined. Then it took on so many different iterations. Actually, one of the very last scenes that I write where Anna goes back in time to the moment when her mom is arrested — she’d been protesting during the Russian Revolution — was one of the very first scenes that I ever wrote. I thought that was there the book was going to start, actually. It’s not a spoiler to say it is now one of the very last parts of the book. It has just changed around so much. When you’re doing time travel, you can do that. You can shoot people around. I started in finance, so I really love Excel and spend a lot of time in Excel. I have these Excel spreadsheets with — character, date, event, and emotions are my columns. I move them around a lot. It was very complicated wrapping my head around the character growth as you go through time. Sometimes I had to write it as a straight arrow. Then I can break up the chapters and put them back into the pieces. That was tough. I had a brilliant, brilliant editor, Seema Mahanian at Grand Central, who was very good at helping me keep track of where we were. I think, actually, the hardest part was, each of the chapter headings starts with — it will give you the time. “Eleven months until Molly dies on Mount Aragats.” You know from the very first page that this is the event the whole book is leading up to. I actually struggled a lot with how to communicate that. At first, my chapters were, “Eleven months, three days, twenty-three hours, and sixteen seconds.” I was trying to calculate down to the second, the time until Molly died. It was just getting too complicated. We shaved that down, shaved that down, and made it easier and easier and just said, eleven months, that’s good enough, until Molly dies.

Zibby: Wow. If you could go back in time, where would you land?

Rachel: You know, people ask this a lot. I have to say that I don’t want to go back.

Zibby: I hate asking questions that people ask a lot. I’m sorry. I feel like a total failure now. Thank you for , but okay.

Rachel: It’s a good question because I think we ask ourselves that all the time. I’ve obviously thought about it a lot. My answer is, I don’t want to go back. I’m happy with my decisions. Sure, there are things I regret. There are things I wish I had done better. Like my characters, I have to come the point in life where I think it’s time to go forward and to say I’m sorry if I need to say I’m sorry, to change what I need to change, and just keep going. That’s where I am. It took a long time to get there, by the way, but that’s where I am.

Zibby: I used to wish that I lived in the time where very voluptuous, heavier women, that was praised, like in the Rubens, Rembrandt — back in the — I don’t even know when that was — 1800s, maybe 1700s, as opposed to — anyway, I used to wish that. I don’t wish that anymore.

Rachel: I love that image of you in a painting eating crêpes.

Zibby: Exactly, and not horrifying anybody by what I looked like. I also used to want to go back to the 1950s because I really love A-line skirts. I feel like that would make my wardrobe really easy. I love all those outfits, buttoned-down shirt dresses and maybe a little apron around my waist or something just swishing around the kitchen. I feel like I would’ve done well back then without so much stimulation. I could just read and do whatever, and write and pretend I’m Erma Bombeck or something.

Rachel: I hear you. I know. Then the problem is, in my head, I’ll start to think, I’ll be like, yes, but that’s only a flash second. The reality is, I wouldn’t be able to work or I wouldn’t be able to do anything. Then I get caught up in my head. I’m always like, okay, I’m okay here. I know where I am.

Zibby: I’m happy here. I’m happy to be my age right now. Yes, I am.

Rachel: It’s hard. It is hard because you can always look at other lives, even in the present day, and be like, wouldn’t it be easier if I just did this or if I just did that? Then it takes that work, and I think it’s worth it, to say, but I am what I am. I have to take myself for who I am and who I’ve become and my decisions, for better and for worse. I just keep reminding myself that.

Zibby: Not only are you whipping out these very dense-in-a-good-way, plot-intensive, awesome, multi-timeline books, but you’re constantly interviewing authors and lifting them up and all of that too. Tell me about that aspect of your life.

Rachel: Yes, thank you. Like you, I love writers. I cannot get enough of talking to them, asking them for advice, hearing about their new books. I interview them. I started this podcast, “Debut Spotlight,” particularly to focus on debut authors because there’s so much energy in a debut. Sometimes I feel like I talk to authors who are on their sixth or seventh book, and they’re a little more jaded. I get it. They’ve earned their stripes. They know a lot. The debut authors, it’s also that struggle to get published. What did it take today? is so different even from when I published my first book, which was only 2019. It’s not that long ago. I love it. I just love being a part of the whole book community and meeting all these authors and reading and reading and reading. I feel like the best way to learn how to write, and to write better books, is just to read everything you can from all over the world, all over. It’s amazing.

Zibby: It’s funny, when you were talking about debut versus more established authors, it’s so similar to first-time moms versus moms of multiple kids. The first-time mom needs all this support. It takes a lot to get there. All this anxiety, you’re not sure what’s going to happen. Then by the time you get to your fourth kid, you’re like, okay, I got it. I know what I need to do. Not that each one isn’t exciting and amazing and unique, just like kids, but the way you come at it is a little bit different. Of course, you keep getting better the more experience you have in any area.

Rachel: You get better. Also, sometimes I just find that this energy is missing, this pure, gratefulness that the world is finally listening to my words and my crazy ideas. I just love that about debuts. Although, I love, love, love the ideas that some of the more established authors are putting out. I devour their books. I sometimes just don’t see it as much in the interview itself. That’s why I really focus on debuts. I love them. I want to see more voices out there, more diverse books, more new ideas. I’m hooked. You get it.

Zibby: You’re not a debut author now, and you still have all the energy, all the feels, everything. There are exceptions to the rule.

Rachel: I think I soak it up from the debut authors that I talk to.

Zibby: Maybe you could launch a second one, “Sophomore –” I don’t know, something with an S.

Rachel: It’s funny you say that because now a bunch of the authors are coming out with their second books. They’re all coming back to me and sending them. I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I loved your first book. Of course, I want to interview you again.” I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.

Zibby: I struggled with what to do about that, too, on my podcast. At first, I was like, oh, no, I’m only going to have people on once because I want to get to know them. Then everyone’s like, “Here’s my next book.” I’m like, well, I don’t want to not help you on your next book. I decided that was a stupid rule. I got rid of it. I started having people back on because they kept writing really great books. I’m trying to do twenty-five percent old, repeat authors, generally. Of course, none of the math really translates. That is true. I feel like there’s also a huge difference between authors who have it more as a “This is what I do. I write a book a year” authors versus “Here’s my second book. This one took me seven and a half years.” There’s a slight difference for the people who take it just like another job. This is what they do. They crank. Not that the books are any less good, necessarily, but just, it’s a different approach.

Rachel: I’m in awe. I love talking to them, too, because they’re machines. They have these big, brilliant ideas. They’re like, this is how I earn my living. This is how I’m going to pay my rent. I’m going to sit down and write this book every year. I think some people don’t realize that writers also need to pay our rent, our mortgage, or nannies, babysitters, whatever it is. It is a business. We have to make money. I think that a lot of those writers who are doing a book a year have that unspoken pressure of, I need to make the money. They still write these brilliant books. It’s amazing. Not to say writers that are doing every seven years don’t need the money in the same way. I find that a lot of them putting books out a lot, we end up talking about that, the life of a writer.

Zibby: It’s funny, my cofounder of Zibby Books, Leigh Newman, we were talking to, I think it was an aspiring author or somebody who had — I don’t know. Somebody. They said, “Which of your authors are just authors?” I remember Leigh being like, “Nobody is just an author anymore. Nobody can afford to do that. Everybody teaches. Everybody does something else or freelances or something because it’s very hard to cobble it together with just that.”

Rachel: It is. Right, because you’ve got to do a book a year. If you’re not publishing, you’re not getting paid. That is hard to do, a book a year. I don’t know that I could do that.

Zibby: Each book is so much. The time to write it is one thing. You could whip it out in three months, even, but then you have all the editing and then all the marketing and the publicity and all of that. It’s a lot.

Rachel: Just copyedits. I feel like I spend three months on copyedits, finding things like I send my character to the bathroom two times in one paragraph, these little details that you just can’t have in a final draft. It takes a lot of time.

Zibby: I literally think I just did my eighteenth round or something for my memoir. I’m like, this is never going to — they’re finally like, “We can’t do any more changes.” I’m emailing, “Wait, just add .” It’s endless. Ultimately, that’s why each book is a team effort. That’s why some of the aspiring authors feel discouraged. They’re like, whoa, it comes out just like this? You’re like, well, this is not my first draft.

Rachel: This is five hundred. Actually, I had one of a more junior editor, Carmel Shaka at Grand Central, who went through Atomic Anna, an earlier draft, and she just went line by line by line. “This is the wrong time period. This happened five years after this happened. She wouldn’t have been wearing this skirt in 1990,” these little details that you just need help with, this team effort to get — even though I, as the author, have the big idea and the big characters, you could say, it still takes this whole group of people to shepherd me through to say, no, your character went to the bathroom twice in this paragraph. That can’t happen.

Zibby: This last person just came in and edited mine. I was like, ooh, this person is good. She’s right. This wasn’t supposed to be here. That wasn’t the right book, or whatever. I’m like, thank god for other people helping.

Rachel: Yes, and copyeditors. I swear, they are amazing.

Zibby: Amazing, under-celebrated, but so essential. What’s your next book? I’m assuming you’re not on the one-book-a-year train, but what do I know? Maybe you picked up the pace and there’s another one coming around the corner.

Rachel: I’m not on the one-book-a-year train, but I am finishing up a draft of my third book. We will see what happens. That, again, of course, has a very smart woman in the middle who is very good with numbers and actually is headed to Wall Street. She will be a stock trader, but then is thrown off course. More to come.

Zibby: Ooh. What era?

Rachel: About the year 2000, it starts.

Zibby: Getting closer and closer.

Rachel: Yes, getting closer. Yet I still find myself reaching back to mothers and grandmothers. She still is very much in touch with her great-grandmother. I think because I had such a strong great-aunt — my own grandmother died when I was very young. Her sister was sort of like my grandmother. That great-aunt was such a strong presence in my life. She was there all the time. I’m finding I can’t write a character without thinking about her, having her in there because those women’s voices are in my head. Go out there and be strong. Be a strong woman. Make your way in the world. That’s what I want for my daughter, for my characters, for my books. It’ll be there again.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. I love it. I feel like we’ve already given lots of advice for aspiring authors, but is there one parting piece of advice?

Rachel: This is my favorite question to ask authors, by the way, because it’s amazing, the range of answers that you get, right?

Zibby: I agree. I learn something every single time.

Rachel: Exactly. I always tell people my advice is, you should write six days a week. Writing could include time where you’re taking a walk, thinking through a conversation. How is this going to work? It doesn’t actually mean sitting at your computer. Although, I do think you should at least open your file at least five days a week and look at that book. Then I just think everyone should read seven days a week. If you want to be a writer, don’t tell me you don’t have time to read because if you’re not reading, who’s reading? Before we go, I just want to show you — this is my first interview for this book. Check out my new pictures behind me. In the top, this is actually the cosmic ray station, the real one that’s on Mount Aragats.

Zibby: No way.

Rachel: Yeah. This amazing National Geographic photographer did this whole special. I was actually in touch with him. He gave me permission to put his pictures on my website. This is his at the top there. When I talk about Anna being in her tower around the cosmic ray station, this is what inspired them. It’s a real place. Can you believe the Soviet Union built that and put people up in those towers to study cosmic rays? It’s unbelievable. I have this picture. Then also, I’ll move over even further, these are the computers that Anna was using to build her time machine.

Zibby: Unbelievable.

Rachel: I showed this to my kids. I was like, “Can you imagine? That was a really super powerful computer. It’s probably not as powerful as the calculator you have right now in your bag.” Yet this is what Anna used to build her time machine. This is what she had. This is actually taken from inside the cosmic ray station. This is the computing power that they had. I just love these photos. I do a lot of research looking through archives and old photos. I just wanted to show them to you because I think they’re awesome.

Zibby: More powerful than the calculator that my daughter dropped this morning and went skittering in all these different pieces across the kitchen floor. She’s like, “It’s fine.” I was like, “I cannot order you another calculator.” These calculators are like — it’s ridiculous.

Rachel: Yes, I know. Yet look at this, a whole room of computers. It could not do what that calculator did, that broke on your kitchen floor.

Zibby: Hopefully not. We’ll see. Rachel, thank you. This was so fun. I am so excited for you for this book. It’s bold and awesome. The cover’s awesome. It’s just really exciting.

Rachel: Thank you. My first Kirkus Star!

Zibby: Yay! I can’t wait to see what happens with the launch and everything. I’ll be following closely and can’t wait.

Rachel: Zibby, thank you so much for having me. I always love chatting with you. I just love how much you support authors and books and how you built this amazing community. Thank you for letting me be a part of it.

Zibby: I could say the same for you. Thank you. Have a great day, Rachel.

Rachel: Thanks. You too. Bye, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye.

Rachel Barenbaum, ATOMIC ANNA

ATOMIC ANNA by Rachel Barenbaum

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