“Atomic Anna:” Time Travel, Nuclear War, and Motherhood

In 1986, renowned nuclear scientist Anna Berkova is sleeping in her bed in the Soviet Union when Chernobyl’s reactor melts down. This is the exact moment she tears through time. When she opens her eyes, she’s landed in 1992 only to discover Molly, her estranged daughter, shot in the chest. Molly, with her dying breath, begs Anna to go back in time and stop the disaster, to save Molly’s daughter Raisa, and put their family’s future on a better path. 

So begins Atomic Anna (Grand Central, $28) a tour de force on an epic scale, and the second novel by Rachel Baranbaum, whose debut novel,  A Bend in the Stars, put her on the literary map. She talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about what she hopes to accomplish by spanning both space and time. 

YZM: Time travel—how and why did you get interested in it?  What’s the attraction for you? 

RB: Imagining “what if?” is something I love to do. Sometimes it feels like life happens too quickly and I don’t really have time to live in a moment and do everything I want to do. Looking back and writing historical fiction allows me to press pause and stretch into an event or piece of history where I want to spend more time. That’s how I came to my first novel, A Bend in the Stars. That’s also why Atomic Anna  is first historical fiction – and then about time travel. The novel is about three women who build a time machine to stop the Chernobyl disaster and save their family. 

When I say ‘time travel’ people often assume the book is sci-fi but I always counter them by saying time travel is not sci-fi. It is actually the absolute best kind of historical fiction, because I literally send my characters back and forth through different time lines. 

So what interested me in time travel was historical fiction. 

I love the dream of going back to fix mistakes, of thinking about what else could have happened. But it’s a love/hate. I am as fascinated as I am terrified of the dream of time travel because while it is romantic in some ways, it is also a deadly weapon. By changing small parts of the past entire generations can be erased without anyone even knowing. 

YZM: While researching this novel, did you spend any time in Russia?

RB: My family came to America from Russia and they never looked back. Growing up I was never allowed to talk about Russia or speak Russian or Yiddish. My grandparents and parents only wanted me to speak French – aside from English. The extension of this is that I was forbidden to go to the Soviet Union and now that my grandparents have all passed away, I still can’t bring myself to ever travel back – especially not now with what Putin is doing. My research, therefore, is not travel based. Rather it is based in books and interviews. 

I’m not a sit-in-a-library kind of researcher. I read widely, many different kinds of books and magazines, and I love watching movies. Most of the research involved me seeing something that caught my eye, that I wanted to know more about, and then using that in the book. For example, the cosmic ray research station in Armenia is a real place. I read about it in the New York Times and couldn’t get enough. I pulled up everything I could about the station, its history, and its present and knew I had to make that Anna’s lair. From there I embellished the station, changed it using my imagination. Similarly, I try to pick experts’ brains, to sit down and talk to them or catch them on the phone, because I need a character like Raisa to sound like an expert. That means I need to use the vocabulary, the examples, and sometimes even hand motions people in her field use. I can’t just understand a math equation and have her describe it. I need to really understand how a math professor would talk about that equation and make sure Raisa uses that same mode of explanation and conduct. So I’d say I’m a field researcher, and I tried to jump into many fields to learn just enough to write Atomic Anna.

YZM: Molly becomes enamored with comic strips, especially those featuring powerful women, and she eventually creates comic book characters of her own; can you elaborate on what that means to her? 

RB: Different arts exist because there are different ways of seeing the world. In Atomic Anna, I show that Raisa sees a triangle as a set of equations whereas her mother sees it as a contrast between light and dark. It’s important to recognize these different ways of seeing and to celebrate them. And I wanted to capture them – that’s how I came to Molly.

I knew I wanted one of my characters to be an artist to show an alternate view—but what was her art? A friend introduced me to Trina Robbins, one of the pioneers of the women’s comix movement, and as soon as I read her book Last Girl Standing, I knew I had to make one of my characters a comic artist drawing powerful women. 

For Molly, it’s important that her art features strong women because she wants to break away from the old stereotypes typically found in comic books. There was a long period where women in comics where always being thrown into refrigerators and/or fighting for a man. I wanted a different path for Molly, I wanted her to realize she could be more and I wanted her to show her daughter, Raisa, that she could also be more. 

YZM: Shocked to learn that her biological mother Anna had a hand in creating the atomic bomb, Molly still refuses to believe that Anna is evil; what’s your view on that? 

RB: No child wants to see their parents as evil. I couldn’t just make Anna one-sided, that it wouldn’t be believable to write Molly as a kid who hated her mother. Her emotions towards Anna would have to evolve. That’s the way we all see our parents. 

This brings up a bigger point, the question of whether building a weapon makes a person evil. At the time the atomic bomb was being built there were a million ways to justify its existence. People often fall back on the idea that it was the way to beat Hitler, but that’s really simplifying things. 

What I find most interesting is the question: Is it evil to build weapons? In the abstract you could say yes. We need them for self defense and deterrence. But do we? This opens up a huge can of worms that I find endlessly fascinating and I think we don’t talk about enough. Just because we can build a deadly weapon doesn’t mean we should. 

YZM: Anna makes this comment: “I have lived terrified of the Czar, the Nazis, and the Soviets.  No government can be good in this world. They don’t want to govern, they want to control.” Agree or disagree? 

RB: I love that you pulled out this quote I would like to believe that government can be good, that a group of leaders can steer a nation in a good direction, but the fact is that egos and desire often get in the way. People who rise to the top are too often more concerned with themselves than the people they govern – at least by the time they make it all the way to the top. 

One of the problems with government occurs when people in charge think they’re doing the right thing. This begs a question I’ve been obsessed with for years: Does intention matter? I remember thinking about this when I first learned about the Chernobyl disaster, the day I watched the news and began to understand the enormity of the catastrophe. Nuclear power was built by the government and intended for good, but in Chernobyl’s case it ended up killing and destroying the lives of countless people and animals. I remember asking myself, if it was meant for good but ends up killing, is it actually good?

Similarly, I remember teachers introducing the idea of mutually assured destruction in history class and suggesting the arms race was in our best interest. But was it really? Is it really? Surely the governments that led us to MAD meant well, right? Their intentions were good. 

When I sat down to write Atomic Anna, I wanted my characters to ask themselves that same question. And I wanted to base it on some reality—but I love writing books with women at the center, so I imagined Chernobyl was run by a woman and came up with Anna first. In my head, she was obsessed with this central question of intention. As I started to write, the story came to life and shifted because Anna’s intentions changed over time as she grew and changed. Even more, I realized Anna didn’t exist alone. I found myself writing about Anna’s daughter and granddaughter because even though Anna didn’t intend for her decisions to affect the future of her family—they did. And that central question of intention haunts every generation. It also haunts every government, every ruler. I do believe that most set out to do good – but can they? 

YZM: Where do you think your next novel will take you? 

RB: I am deep into my next novel and it is taking me back to 9-11, to New York City. I was down there when the towers fell and finally was able to sit down and write a story around what I witnessed and lived through. It wasn’t easy to write, but I think it’s important and so I’m working hard on it.