Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
He is a good friend, but I know next to nothing about his past. He’ll begin a sentence, “When I was a musician,” or “When I was a medical assistant in Honduras,” but I never have been able to figure out exactly what he was doing then. I do know that a dozen years ago he founded Conjunctions and has edited it throughout its impressive history, somehow finding time along the way to write three extraordinary novels: Come Sunday, The Almanac Branch, and his latest, Trinity Fields, the story of two close friends who grow up together as the children of scientists at Los Alamos, part ways during the years of the Vietnam War and then meet again to confront each other, their history, and their fate. It is a beautiful, admirable book.
Jim Lewis I wanted to ask you about going to the Trinity Site at Alamagordo.
Bradford Morrow It was an astounding experience. Here, I brought something to show you.
JL Am I going to get cancer from this?
BM Well, plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years or so.
JL And what is that exactly?
BM It’s radioactive trinitite.
JL Which you carry around in your pocket.
BM I’m having a lead box made for it; it’ll go in that. The Public Relations Director at White Sands Missile Range will tell you it’s so safe you could live at ground zero, but the clicking of a Geiger counter might suggest otherwise.
JL Was this a backwards-looking research trip for Trinity Fields or are you working on something new?
BM Actually it was forward-looking: I don’t know how many novels will come out of Trinity Fields, but it will at least be a diptych. At the end of Trinity, Ariel, the narrator’s daughter, is given a diary and a key, which I find irresistible.
JL So, going to Trinity was a part of finding what Ariel would find out?
BM When I inhabit a character, I have the opportunity of seeing the world twice: I, myself, get to see it, but I am also allowed to see it through fictive, narrational eyes, at the same time. So I’ll visit a place that already has a resonance for me, a timbre. That’s how characters become manifest in me; it’s partly through the language that appears when writing. A novel occurs under your fingertips but it also occurs in the field. Trinity Fields involved spending a lot of time in Los Alamos; I’m a member of Los Alamos Historical Society. And, I spent a lot of time in Chimayo, up and down those roads. The book was heavily researched. For the Laos passage, I put in hundreds of hours talking with Colonel Roger Daisley who was head of a highly covert task force in Laos called the Ravens, including flying with him over defunct volcanoes and green mountains that resembled Southeast Asia. I interviewed other surviving Ravens from our secret war in Laos. That was my form of research, not so much sitting in the library reading books, though I did that, too.
JL All of your novels seem to be set in New York and someplace else. A character will start out in New York and end up going farther and farther away, and the book will end with him or her at the farthest distance from the city.
BM To what degree they’re autobiographical; I suppose those are my trajectories. My wobbly place in the world, in New York and elsewhere. I come from elsewhere, and even though I’ve been in New York for 14 years now, it still feels like a way-station. But then, when I’m elsewhere, I want to get back. So, I suppose the novels manifest this in-betweenness. It’s a beautiful curse in a way bad for roots, but good for branches.
JL You grew up in Denver?
BM In a dusty suburb of Denver called Littleton.
JL What were your folks doing there?
BM This all goes back to my grandmother’s tuberculosis. Our family migrated west in the early ’20s because my grandfather Morrow wanted to place his dying wife in a tent city outside Chicago. Then he got it in his head that her tuberculosis might be retarded by the clean air of the high Rocky Mountains, so they traveled to a hamlet called Oak Creek. She died, and he set up a medical practice there, and became Mayor of this tiny coal-mining town. When he retired, he moved down to Denver. My mother’s side of the family are farmers from Nebraska who lost their homesteads in the Depression and migrated to Colorado seeking work. I was conceived in the back of a Plymouth on Pike’s Peak. So, I grew up in Denver. Once I was 15 I went on an American Medical Association grant to Honduras, and never went back home again. After that I was itinerant—Europe, all around America—until I moved here. These years in New York are the longest stretch of time I’ve ever been in one place.
JL So explain to me how Trinity Fields got started.
BM Insomnia. I was staying at an adobe near Tesuque, New Mexico, with friends, at the end of a long reading tour for my last novel, The Almanac Branch. One night, I noticed these amber, twinkling lights in a long string up along the western mesas at the foot of the Jemez Mountains. They were entrancing. Here was a desert, all dark, and this vast spray of constellations and stars overhead, and then this peculiar man-made amber twinkling going on in the foothills. I asked my host about them the next morning and he said, “Oh my God, that’s Los Alamos.” I said, “I’d love to go there.” But they weren’t willing, so we wound up going to the desert chapel of Chimayo instead that day, 25 miles in the opposite direction. The seed was planted. Chimayo is an extraordinary, mind-boggling, pure, and inspiring place. The Santuario was built about 1818 by Hispanic Catholics in a valley that’s been sacred to the Indians for thousands of years. The soil is said to have magical properties, healing properties, and the Indians, the Tewa and their ancestors practiced geophagy for years there before the Catholics. This little place is the Lourdes of America, but instead of drinking miraculous water …
JL You eat dirt.
BM You rub tierra bendita on you and are cured that way. Somehow it all got fused in my head that day: the death-magic of Los Alamos and life-magic of Chimayo, the rationality and science of the Hill and the faith and religion of the valley. I had seen Chimayo for the first time when I was nine-years-old, and had been up to Los Alamos and Bandelier Canyon. I just felt very inspired by the proximity of such a pure, simple, powerful place as Chimayo, and this postmodern high-tech place, this—what to call Los Alamos?—this other kind of mecca.
JL Almost like a monastery itself.
BM Yes. Every major physicist on earth went there in the ’40s to develop the atom bomb. They all lived in total isolation for the 27 months it took to complete both the plutonium and the uranium devices that were eventually detonated at Trinity, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two poles of death and life, community and isolation, drew me, too. You know, you still have Pueblo Indians at San Ildefonso, dancing corn dances their ancestors danced, working their fields. And just up on the Hill, you have the place where Chaos Theory was developed, where neutron showers rather than rain showers were what were valued most.
JL How did they settle on Los Alamos?
BM Oppenheimer chose it. As a kid, he’d gone to New Mexico and loved it. The Manhattan Project people needed a place that was isolated and protected, and the mesa was perfect. Also, they needed to be away from large population centers, in case something went wrong.
JL He seems like a really interesting character, Oppenheimer.
BM One of the most remarkable Americans of the century.
JL Son of a bitch, apparently.
BM He was a son of a bitch? Oppenheimer?
BM I don’t know; I am ambivalent about him. The way this country treated him, the way he was beat down by Senator McCarthy and by the reaction against nuclear weapons, is scandalous if typical. He became a scapegoat figure. His brilliance in helping put that project together was awesome. But they did make an atom bomb, a fact Oppenheimer himself came to regret.
JL I didn’t mean a son of a bitch for building the bomb. I just got the impression that he was maniacal, extremely vain, and overbearing. Did you talk to anyone who knew him? Are any of the scientists or the military people still alive?
BM Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, gave a piano concert up at Los Alamos last year. He played the untuned grand at Fuller Lodge. Unlike Oppenheimer, Teller is someone for whom I harbor no fondness. But yes, a number of the scientists are still alive.
JL One of the interesting things about Trinity Fields is that, even though part of it is set in Los Alamos, you never talk about the actual making of the bomb. The bomb is brought up as an issue, but the story of how it was made and the people who were involved in it is almost assumed.
BM Well, I figured Richard Rhodes had already done that so brilliantly in The Making of the Atomic Bomb that I didn’t need to do it. At a certain point, I had read so much on the making of the atomic bomb that I felt I could build one in my basement. (laughter) But I wanted to write about growing up in America in the post-atomic era by focusing on two boys who not only were raised in the shadow of it, but right at the epicenter where the whole project had taken place. Brice and Kip didn’t build a bomb, their parents did. That’s as close as I needed to get. The narrator, Brice, has a naivete, an innocence, that carries into his adulthood. It’s interesting: the sequestration in which Los Alamos was founded has provided for a kind of brilliant naivete which is evident when you meet scientists and mathematicians who are still working there. Their minds are extraordinarily active, but there’s a kind of unworldliness to them that seems childlike.
JL The Institute for Advanced Studies is like that, also.
BM Although you can feel Princeton nearby when you’re at the Institute. At Los Alamos, you really are away from everybody. You cross the Rio Grande at Otowi bridge, and drive up the same road Enrico Fermi, Segre, Neidermeyer, Bohr, and Oppenheimer all drove up. Going up that road was really one of the most astounding emotional events I experienced when I was starting this book. This community was brought into being for a specific purpose; it didn’t exist before. I mean, a boy’s ranch was there. William Burroughs and Gore Vidal both went. There are photographs of them in the Historical Society office.
JL That is perfect. They were there at the same time?
BM No, different years. In the photo of Burroughs’s class, you can see him sitting in the lower left hand corner. He looks so unhappy. He’s staring at his feet. He just wishes he were anywhere else.
JL Why is it called Trinity?
BM There are conflicting theories about that. One is that Oppenheimer named it Trinity Site because he’d been reading a poem by John Donne with the line, “Batter my heart, three person’d god.” He was a big admirer of the Bhagavad-Gita, and there is a moment in the narrative when Vishnu is manifest in his multi-armed form and says, “I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” So, another theory is that he named it for the three-spirit Hindu godhead.
JL That line that Oppenheimer spoke, right after the bomb went off, about becoming death, the destroyer of worlds, always struck me as kind of bullshitty. It seemed so …
JL Prepared, designed for what was very self-consciously a historical moment. Who was it who said, “Now we’re all sons of bitches?”
BM That’s the great line, and it strikes me as totally unrehearsed. It was Kenneth Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity test: he turned to Oppenheimer and said, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” He wasn’t wrong.
JL So what’s it like when you get up there?
BM Trinity site? It’s a scratch land of mesquite and creosote and rabbitbrush. It is Billy the Kid’s old stomping ground, really desolate land. Desolate, beautiful, towering skies, little water—the Jornada el Muerto, the journey of death. And Alamogordo, which is young as towns go—founded in 1898 by a railroad entrepreneur named Charles Eddy—is snuggled up against the Sacramento mountains. You set out in the morning from the Otero County Fairgrounds and there’s a pleasant group of people with turquoise Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce T-shirts on, and 200 cars caravan out under military police escort, with their lights on, like a big funeral procession. It’s about three hours in through White Sands Missile Range which is very eerie, with telemetry bunkers and radar installations dotted around the landscape.
JL I love this vocabulary. I mean, “telemetry”: what a great word! I was jealous of Trinity Fields because I’ve always wanted to have an excuse to use the word “ordnance” in a sentence.
BM Write a war book. Then you can have all the ordnance you want. Well, you can have emotional ordnance, of course.
JL I’ll use it metaphorically.
BM Anyway, you can’t use cameras on the way in, so I took many pages of notes which, whenever the MPs came by, I hid under the seat, just in case.
JL Is there still research going on there?
BM All the time. Since the Trinity blast, there have been 40,000 missiles fired on this range. The Cruise missile, the Stealth fighter and bomber programs were developed there. So you arrive and walk the last several hundred yards and suddenly a black lava stone obelisk rises from the center of the shallow crater marking ground zero. To me, it’s one of the most emotionally startling, disturbing, moving national monuments in this country.
JL Especially because nobody can see it.
BM Only twice a year, on the first Saturday in April and the first Saturday in October.
JL Like the plaque on the moon.
BM After the plaque on the moon, this is the most hidden monument we’ve got. Only open nine hours a year. I can’t think of anything more humbling than standing in this place where the world changed. Because when that bomb worked, we were at a new historical era. We wrested the apocalypse away from God and had it at our own disposal. You can see sanitary scale-model reproductions of the Fat Man and Little Boy devices at the Bradbury Museum in Los Alamos. TNT tonnage equivalents are given on the exhibition plaques but no mention of casualties. We’re still in denial about our newfound demonic potential.
JL Now, I want to talk about your near death experience. I know that in August you nearly died from peritonitis.
BM I was in such extraordinary pain that my memories are really specific, and mostly interior. The experience was not anecdotal though I remember an orderly in the emergency room in this little hospital upstate touched my side and I did a double jackknife and screamed. He said, “If I can’t touch you, I can’t help you, champ.” And I said, “Don’t call me champ.” (laughter) I remember that.
JL I’ve never felt extreme physical pain. Is it like regular pain, only more so?
BM Regular pain, which hurts and is annoying and disturbs your normal mental processes and which you hope to get out of your life as soon as possible, is different for me from the pain I experienced at the brink of death. That pain was fully occupying. It was me, that pain. My consciousness became active in a brighter, different way: I wasn’t against the pain so much as inside it.
JL Does it reach the point where it almost gets abstract?
BM No, it’s very concrete. (laughter) What gets abstracted is the sense that something exists outside that pain because it becomes so completely a part of your existence while you’re in it, there’s no consideration of what might lie outside the envelope. You simply begin to think inside of it. You view other people from inside the fleshy border of your body as if you’re one universe and they are another.
JL So it becomes a proprioceptive fact.
BM It’s not that you have a pain. You have become an organism that is pain. You feel yourself as a physiological complex in which everything has gone wrong. It’s a moment at which I abandoned hope, and therefore, fear wasn’t part of the experience either. Which is, in retrospect, one of the most astounding aspects of the whole thing. At the end of a hundred-mile ambulance ride to the city, I remember coming across the George Washington Bridge and looking up at those big silver spans, and thinking, this is how you die. I was more fascinated by it than afraid of it. It just seemed very normal and natural and things were falling into place. I couldn’t get up and help myself; no one could help me. It was peculiar in that I was so intellectually and imaginatively conscious and alive but my body was falling away. Suddenly, I was in this amazing free-fall. Time became bendy and warped and peculiar. It was a great experience. I mean, I’ve come out of it sharpened, honed. Your purpose can’t help but become focused, refocused. I got ripped to the roots. Everything had to be re-evaluated. Everything. It’s been like a small, personal atomic explosion; there’s a green, glassy trinitite on the bottom of my being. It’s like a green monocle through which I can look up into the universe and review everything. Things re-fused; other things were unconfused. Friendships were strengthened. My work seems to have a meaning to me now that it didn’t before. I have to say, I’m not as convinced as I was before all this occurred, of the eradication of the imagination, the consciousness, or the soul, after physical death.
JL Oh, you’re not going to start getting all pious on me, are you?
BM No, I didn’t go gooey. (laughter) I’m just as crinkly and cranky as before. It was just one of the noticings that occurred when I was that sick: I was still able to perceive what was going on with me, and I remember thinking, how could the mind be this active when the body is this distressed?
JL All right, let’s talk about Vietnam. One of the first things that struck me about your treatment of Vietnam in Trinity Fields was your description of the Pathet Lao dropping yellow rain on the Hmong. I was under the impression that the notion that the stuff was a form of chemical warfare was a pet theory of the right wing. The left, in this country, always maintained that it was just bee droppings. But you seem to endorse quite strongly, in the book, the idea that there was, in fact, a great deal of chemical warfare. Not that you shouldn’t believe anything that isn’t left wing, but I was curious about how you came to that conclusion.
BM Well, I have a left hand and a right hand. And the fact is, the Hmong people are being eradicated by military extremists in the Pathet Laotian regime and the Hmong are neither left nor right. They’re mountain people, farmers, who’ve been itinerant for 4,000 years, and basically have been pushed from mountaintop to mountaintop by whomever was in power at the time: the Chinese, the Cambodians, the Vietnamese. It’s true they were funded by the CIA; we gave them weapons and helped them to sell heroin so they could have funds to fight the Pathet Lao and the NVA. But the Hmong got tricked by the Americans the same way they’re being systematically eradicated by the Lao. So you’ll find that the right wing is just as anxious to embrace the bee droppings theory of yellow rain as the left wing is, because neither conservatives nor liberals much want to deal with the war anymore. It always comes down to money, finally, and there’s not enough potential commerce or money in Laos for us to bother with it, yet. I think Vietnam has opened because there’s sufficient commerce promised that enough money would be lost by both countries if ties weren’t reopened. So the Hmong meant more to me than left or right; they just seemed, again, innocents, in the same way the physicists in Los Alamos were, insofar as they became part of a machinery larger than themselves. The Hmong became pro-democratic extremists in the fringe of the CIA, out of a need to survive. And you can’t expect them not to fall prey to things they don’t really understand or can’t control. In the end, we deceived and abandoned them, and it was a Republican president who did it after two Democrats got it going.
JL There’s this kind of vice that afflicts people, for example, who write about the police a lot: they become cop-groupies. They very quickly lose all their objectivity, and become so infatuated with the romance of police work that it becomes very clear whose side they’re on. Given all the time you spent with the Ravens, how did you keep yourself from doing that?
BM Don’t forget, the narrator of Trinity Fields is an anti-war activist who studied law so that he could get other anti-war activists out of jail, and he’s essentially a liberal. So I was no more tempted into a romance with the elite Air Force spooks known as the Ravens who fought clandestinely in Laos, than I was into a romance with the anti-war activists I talked to, as I was writing the Columbia riot sections. I think the journey for me as a novelist was just that: as a novelist, I got into it as much as I safely could, without going native.
JL Is there a name for … ?
BM Yeah, going bamboo. But the novels I like reading and the novels I seem to write tend to be anthropological by nature: they explore how the culture works at a macrocosmic level, as well as an individual level. So I try the best I can to ensure that the novel expresses itself, that the form fulfills itself properly.
JL And yet the narrator has your initials.
BM I noticed that. (laughter) But I don’t relate any more personally to Brice than I do to Kip, or Jessica, or Ariel, or anyone in the book. What’s dicey about writing a novel that has politics as one of its facets, is that you’ve got to remain true to your characters and to the fiction itself, but at the same time, you can’t sell your own political views down the river. And, I think it’s apparent by the end of Trinity Fields: I don’t consider this government, or any other government, to be much more than made up of generally ambitious, often selfish, sometimes cruel people. What interests me as a novelist is how individuals live a life in the shadow of these larger, monstrous grotesque dancing figures, how you live a life in the presence of people who really aren’t good. And there are people in the world who are really evil. That’s part of what the book’s about.
JL Do you have a theodicy? Why do you think people become evil? Because they’re weak? Because they’re malevolent? Because they’re ignorant?
BM Because they’re incapable of empathy. And because they’re full of fear and therefore overprotect themselves, and become selfish and greedy. If you can’t empathize and embrace, you can’t understand, and if you can’t understand, you’re on your way to becoming evil.
Jim Lewis is the author of Sister, a novel.
Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane.