Ann Cummins discusses her first novel, Yellowcake
Why is your novel titled Yellowcake?
My novel is set in the uranium-rich lands of the American Southwest, the Four Corners area, including the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and the Navajo Indian reservation in northern New Mexico and Arizona. My subject is the lives of Navajos and Anglos for whom the mining and milling of uranium was a way of life from the fifties through the early seventies. Yellowcake, a controversial energy source used to power both nuclear bombs and power plants, comes from processed uranium ore. I titled my novel Yellowcake in part because the making of yellowcake was such an important element of my characters' lives, but also because it's a long-lived energy source emitting radiation for years after the ore is mined. My novel is set in 1991, twenty years after the closing of many uranium mines and mills on the Colorado Plateau, but my characters continue to feel the industry's effects in many ways physically, emotionally, and spiritually. History and the present converge in the characters. Yellowcake, or rather the "half-life" of the processed ore, represents the echoes and consequences of historical events and how they play out in the present.
So is it like the Karen Silkwood story about environmental hazards associated with uranium?
Only a small part of the story explores environmental hazards. I'm more interested in creating complex characters driven by a range of interests in the land and in each other. I tell the story from five points of view. One character, an ailing man in his sixties, a former uranium mill foreman, comes from generations of miners and has always seen mining as his legacy, his right. Even though he's sick, he is not quick to blame, and environmentalists irritate him. Another, a twenty-five-year-old Navajo woman whose father worked in the mill and was diagnosed with cancer at an early age, is angry at the industry, and yet she feels conflicted, too. She turns to Western medicine to help her father and thereby alienates her Navajo grandmother, who is as suspicious of Western medicine as of the uranium industry that she believes made her son sick. My other characters play out different conflicts. An Anglo mill worker who had an affair with a Navajo woman who was a rodeo pro obsesses about his lover twenty years later, though he rarely sees her. His mixed-blood son, virtually fatherless and raised by a mother who was always on the road, has grown up to be a solo flyer. For this young man family is tenuous; he has come to believe he has only himself to rely on, but still his big passions get him into trouble. There is also the story of a uranium mill divorcée who lives in the half-life of a marriage gone bad, still haunted by memories of her ex-husband.
Why did you choose this subject?
I grew up in the Colorado Plateau area and, like some of my characters, I'm from generations of Colorado miners. So the history and landscape are personal to me. My father was a uranium mill worker in Durango, Colorado, and his company began operating a mill in Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo reservation when I was nine. So the reservation, too, is personal to me. I lived there for nine years and went to public school there.
To what degree does autobiography play into your fiction?
It's interesting to answer that question at the end of a project rather than at the beginning. When I started this novel, my intent was to write a story based on my parents' marriage, using the uranium industry for plot. My parents had a long marriage; my father was sick for the last nine years of it, and my mother took care of him until he died. It was hard work and literally broke her back. To be honest, such a burden frightens me, so I wanted to create characters that would allow me to explore that sort of commitment. I had Tilly Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle at the back of my mind. That book, so brutal and beautiful, is such a moving portrayal of a marriage that has atrophied under the burden of historical events in Olsen's case, the Holocaust that continue to play out for decades in the characters' minds. I wrote a couple of hundred pages about this testy old guy bucking against his growing dependence on others, who all blame his work in uranium for his illness. As usually happens with my characters, this guy quickly developed into somebody very different from my father. As the story develops, the characters encounter problems, and they have to improvise to solve them.
Improvisation is the life source for my characters, who, through the drafts of the book, matured into wholly unique people. I was pretty happy with how my couple wrestled with each other, but the book was turning into bitter medicine because the subject was illness. My editor suggested I try some other points of view to broaden the story. It was a great suggestion. It got me out of the sick room and into New Mexico's high northern desert, a landscape I love, and it allowed me to do something that frightens me, writing from the perspective of characters who are racially and culturally different from me. Risky business, I think, but a challenge worth taking, especially when trying to tell how these events affected a diverse community. I find character-driven fiction liberating. Ultimately, I'm interested in creating individuals, not races or cultures, though I guess individuality, race, and culture are intertwined. It helps to know something about the people one auditions for fiction, which brings me back to autobiography. This is a novel about the kinds of people I grew up among, set in a place I know well, but while the characters and story germinated in fact, they matured in the imagination.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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