Steve Sheinkin Returns! A Deep Dive Into the FALLOUT
For those of you unaware, for a long time Steve Sheinkin and I had a weird reciprocal relationship. He would create Walking and Talking interview comics based on actual rambling conversations with other authors and I would post them on this blog. They must have taken a ton of energy for him, and I was more than happy to reap the rewards. Well, Steve hadn’t been creating any new ones lately (the last was an early pandemic piece with Candace Fleming) so I wondered what he was up to. The answer is being released this year on September 7th. It’s called FALLOUT: SPIES, SUPERBOMBS, AND THE ULTIMATE COLD WAR SHOWDOWN and like his other multi-award winning books it promises to be a hoot. Here’s the description:
New York Times bestselling author Steve Sheinkin presents a follow up to his award-winning book Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, taking readers on a terrifying journey into the Cold War and our mutual assured destruction.
As World War II comes to a close, the United States and the Soviet Union emerge as the two greatest world powers on extreme opposites of the political spectrum. After the United States showed its hand with the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, the Soviets refuse to be left behind. With communism sweeping the globe, the two nations begin a neck-and-neck competition to build even more destructive bombs and conquer the Space Race. In their battle for dominance, spy planes fly above, armed submarines swim deep below, and undercover agents meet in the dead of night.
The Cold War game grows more precarious as weapons are pointed towards each other, with fingers literally on the trigger. The decades-long showdown culminates in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world’s close call with the third—and final—world war.
Who could resist? Naturally, I had some questions for the man:
Betsy Bird: Steve! So good of you to join me back on the old blog. But enough with the pleasantries, let’s dive right in. How did you come to decide to write this book? Was this something that came naturally out of BOMB (which is to say, it was planned from the start) or was it more of a surprise to you?
Steve Sheinkin: This is a follow-up to BOMB, but not really a planned one. FALLOUT comes from my love of spy stories, and the Cold War is the golden age of high stakes spy drama. Once I got that far, a Cold War spy thriller, I realized I could use a similar style and structure to what I did in BOMB, the mix of science, espionage, and politics, with quick cuts between scenes all over the world. Basically, this is the kind of the story that makes me want to keep writing narrative nonfiction.
BB: I’ve noticed that often your books hinge on particular individuals and their personal stories. Who are the people that FALLOUT focuses on?
SS: Yeah, I like really big stories told through small details and individual people, famous and unknown alike. I have that mix in FALLOUT. You’ve got Kennedy and Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, but you’ve also got a thirteen-year-old paperboy who stumbles into a Soviet spy ring in Brooklyn, a British woman in Moscow who operates as an MI-6 courier while pushing her kids around in a stroller, a young Soviet submarine officer who probably saved the world, an East German cyclist who turns his talents to digging escape tunnels under the Berlin Wall. A cast of thousands!
BB: I know some authors for whom the research is their favorite part of the process. Physically pulling themselves away from research can be a struggle. Does that describe you or are you capable of saying, like the man in the bar, “I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough”?
SS: Some of both, I guess. The research is definitely the fun part, the chance to play nerdy detective. But I always have a timeline in mind, a deadline for a finished manuscript, and I know that I need half of that time for writing and revising. Really, pulling myself away from the research is hard not because research is so fun, but because starting a first draft is so miserable. I know the first couple weeks are going to go badly, and nothing’s going to sound as cool as it does in my head, and I’m going to get frustrated and discouraged. You’d think I’d have figured out a way around this by now, but I guess it’s just part of the process.
BB: I hear that. Happens to the best of us. Now, too often we think of the period of the Cold War coming on the heels of WWII. We forget about the later years. I, for one, have clear-as-crystal memories of doing drills under my desk in the 80s and discussing the possibility of “the bomb” falling on us while at sleepovers with my friends. What amount of time does your book cover? And how did you come to decide the amount of history you were covering?
SS: Yes, same here. As a cynical high schooler in the 80s, I drew comics about hydrogen bombs, World War III, that kind of thing. Funny stuff! I was particularly infuriated by this idea of MAD – mutually assured destruction. I remember thinking, “Is that really what adults have come up with?” But as far as FALLOUT goes, the focus in on the really scary part of the Cold War, the late 1950s and early 1960s. In just a few years you’ve got both sides developing hydrogen bombs and the rocket technology to deliver them, the American U-2 shot down over Russia, the Bay of Pigs, Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis… that’s the heart of my story.
BB: Well, as a former Child of the 80s, I know I’m terrified. But while kids today have loads to worry about, nuclear war doesn’t tend to be one of them. So what, to your mind, is it about FALLOUT that’s going to attract their interest in particular?
SS: Mostly, I hope it’s an exciting story to read. We’ve talked about this over the years—we need to get nonfiction out of the health food aisle! I have this technique I’ve developed over the years, a way to test a new idea. I’ll picture myself in the scariest place on Earth: a school stage in front of 300 middle schoolers.
Okay, go. Try to hold their attention for 45 minutes, or an hour.
I’ll imagine telling them a true story from history, something I found in my research. Is it working? Are most of them with me? If so, I’m onto something. If I can find a bunch of stories like that, and fit them into one narrative, I’ve got a potential book. That’s how FALLOUT is built. Is it a nice bonus that you learn a bunch of stuff your teachers want you to know? Sure, definitely. My main goal, though—well, there are two. To tell a good story, and to make the reader curious to find out more.
BB: Sorry, I’m still stuck on that nightmare scenario of standing in from of 300 kids for an hour. *shudder* Let’s switch the subject to something more appealing. Tell me why the Epilogue is called “Choose Your Own Ending”.
SS: That’s a way of saying the story is still going, that you guys, the readers, are in it, and will be become the main characters in the near future. The Cold War is over, but we’re stilling living in the world it made. In the summer of 1962, as things were really heating up, Kennedy said, “Ever since the longbow, when man had developed new weapons and stockpiled them, somebody has come along and used them. I don’t know how we escape it with nuclear weapons.” We still haven’t really solved that problem.
BB: What didn’t make the final cut? What did you have to leave behind as you edited this book, and do you have any regrets?
SS: So many regrets. I cut dozens of cool stories and details from FALLOUT, for the usual reasons: either they happened at the wrong time, or they slowed down the main action of the narrative. Just to give one example, I wrote a bunch more Pushinka action in earlier drafts. Pushinka was the daughter of Strelka, one dogs the Soviets sent into space and brought safely home. Khrushchev gave the fluffy white puppy to Kennedy as a gift—and as a dig, a reminder of who was winning the space race. Kennedy was suspicious, and had the dog checked for listening devices. When she came back clean, Pushinka moved into the White House and even had a Cold War romance with another of the Kennedy dogs, a Welsh terrier named Charlie. She gave birth to four healthy puppies and 5,000 kids wrote to the White House asking to adopt one!
Karen House, a sixth-grade animal lover from Illinois, got Butterfly. Streaker, named for the white streak down his brown belly, went to ten-year-old Mark Bruce. When Mark went to meet the puppy at the airport in Columbia, Missouri, reporters asked if Streaker would be following his grandmother’s footsteps into space. Mark shook his head and hugged the puppy close. The Russian-American mutt looked up and licked the boy on the chin.
How do you cut something like that? Discipline, experience, and a mean editor (I mean that as a compliment).
BB: Good God, man. You do realize you just inspired someone to write a nonfiction picture book about this, yes? Okay, last question. Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
SS: Lots going on—mainly because I’ve been trapped in my office for the past 18 months, and my kids are old enough to entertain themselves, and I need to keep myself busy. I did a graphic novel adaptation of BOMB, and the artist Nick Bertozzi is doing the comics. The drawings are amazing, even better than I could have imagined. I think that’s due out in early ’23. I also wrote a picture book, and yes, it’s as hard as everyone says. And I’m working away on my next nonfiction project, the most incredible true escape story I’ve ever come across. And I’m always looking out for the next story idea…
Sorry. Still psyched by the ideal of a Sheinkin/Bertozzi pairing. Best news I’ve had all day.
As mentioned before, FALLOUT is on shelves everywhere September 7th. Many thanks to Steve for answering my questions and to Morgan Kane and the folks at Macmillan for arranging this talk.
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