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Worlds Apart

Novelist Bobbie Ann Mason on a man, a woman, the cosmos, and dirty bombs.

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Reed Futrell is a man in his late 40s with an ex-wife out of his hair, two grown children out of his house, and a dog named Clarence out in his backyard. He likes to strike out too, on his motorcycle, whenever he gets the notion, and that's the notion he gets on the opening page of Bobbie Ann Mason's new novel, An Atomic Romance.

Reed is also a "cell rat": meaning, he's a skilled technician doing the dirty work inside a nuclear processing facility -- dangerous work that involves maintaining the systems inside the plant (work he's proud to do, as his father did before him). But it's work for a company that may be responsible for contaminating the local landscape with radioactive waste (a landscape Reed cherishes) and could be in the business of manufacturing limited nuclear bombs.

Thank heaven, then, Reed's got his beloved planets and galaxies to focus on, as well as his love interest, Julia. She's a divorcée, mother of two, and a cell researcher studying infectious diseases, and where the astronomic and subatomic meet, that's where you'll find Reed and Julia -- talking string theory and quantum mechanics but having good sex while they're at it and when they're on speaking terms. When they're not speaking, it's because Reed has foot-in-mouth disease: meaning, a real sarcastic streak. He can't help it. He's his mother's son.

Julia wants Reed to own up to the costs of his job: its damage to him and to the environment. Burl, Reed's alcoholic good buddy, wants him to pray and maybe enjoy the "spectacle" of living. And Mom? She's just looking for some smart company and a caring hand (both would be Reed's) after she suffers a stroke.

But An Atomic Romance is by far a book about Reed, a man not without his faults but honorable to a fault -- more than honorable, brave, when his assumptions start to shift, his loyalties take a turn, and his worlds collide.

The Flyer recently spoke to Bobbie Ann Mason, writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky, who was talking from her home near Lexington.

Flyer: An Atomic Romance is your first novel in 10 years. Why the wait?

Bobbie Ann Mason: My father died, and my mother was left alone. I went through a lot. But I wrote a memoir, Clear Springs. It's been good to get back to fiction.

The book is about personal responsibility, aging, family, friendship, romance, environmental pollution, and the nuclear threat. What among these subjects got you started?

A number of things came together, but radioactive contamination drew me in. Then I seized on this character named Reed, and I followed him to see what his story was.

Were there problems getting inside the mind and motives of an unmarried middle-aged man?

Well, Reed interested me, and you might as well write about someone who's sexy and alive and imaginative. But I also felt his situation ... nowadays, we're all in this situation one way or another, what with nuclear terrorism in the back of our minds. You don't hear the phrase "nuclear terrorism" much, but it's what all this is related to -- dirty bombs, limited nuclear warheads.

The technology in the book must have required some real research on your part.

How a nuclear-processing plant works, what it's like to be inside one of those enriching facilities ... that was part research and part imagination. But it was the main thing I had to get right. The descriptions of the cosmos and quantum mechanics ... that was the fun stuff.

The location appears to be heartland America, but you never do identify where An Atomic Romance takes place. What was behind that decision?

I wanted the setting left open. I usually have my fiction take place in Kentucky and zero in on a very particular place. But for a subject such as this one, I didn't want the reader to think, Oh, this is happening in some little town, it's not about me, it's not about here. I wanted to "dislocate" the story, to make it anywhere in America. The subject demanded it.

As a returning novelist, was the writing process slow-going or smooth?

Well, when you're plugging away on a book and think you're not getting anywhere, it's different. But once it starts to come to life, once you see how it all fits together, it seems easier.

But only in retrospect.

Yes! You don't really remember even writing it. I never do.

An Atomic Romance ends on an encouraging note, not a final note. What do you think the prospects are for Reed and Julia as a couple?

Oh my gosh. We don't really know, do we? We don't even know what's going to happen to us. Those people right now in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, they don't have a good idea either.

Bobbie Ann Mason signing An Atomic Romance

Burke's Book Store in Memphis, Monday, September 12th

Square Books in Oxford, Thursday, September 15th

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