From the Archive: Julie Salverson

Writers Read looks back at hosting Julie Salverson with Peter van Wyck in January, 2012. Upon arriving at the York Theatre, attendees were treated to the cross-genre braiding of Salverson and Van Wyck’s research into Canada’s role in the Manhattan Project – the American project that resulted in the nuclear weaponry and attacks on Japan. The words of Salverson and Van Wyck, respectively a playwright and author of historical nonfiction,drew the audience through their travels and explorations into how Canada supplied the uranium that powered nuclear research and the weaponry used in 1945. Van Wyck read an excerpt from his book, The Highway of the Atom, while Salverson read excerpts from her research notes.

As of October 4, 2016, Salverson released her first authorial publication of historical nonfiction entitled, Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir, which incorporates her research on Canadian uranium mining.

Listen as Salverson reads a short excerpt from her work:

Here is an account of the 2012 reading:

Like many classic tales, the story began with the protagonists embarking on a quest to an unfamiliar land. And like any good story, it held its audience spellbound to the end. The subject, however, may have been a little unconventional: Canada’s connection to the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945.

Those who braved freezing rain to attend the Writers Read at Concordia lecture January 27 were well rewarded. Billed as a cross-genre reading that blended historical non-fiction with libretto, the lecture entitled Canada and the Atomic Bomb packed a literary punch.

Peter C. van Wyck, associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies, and Queen’s University drama associate professor Julie Salverson, a playwright and librettist, skillfully wove together the results of their exploration into Canada’s little-known role in the Manhattan Project.

Van Wyck read from drafts of his award-winning The Highway of the Atom while Salverson, who createdShelter, a clown opera about the atomic bomb that debuts in November, read from her notes. Their combined story began as they headed north, then curled through time and place as each explored themes of massive destruction, responsibility and communication, among others.

The uranium used in those first atomic bombs came from a mine on Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories.

Van Wyck initiated the research mission to the NWT mine after learning of its existence. “This was the back story to what I’d just done,” he says, referring to the book he had recently written about measures being taken to safely bury nuclear waste at a New Mexico site. “I thought, ‘Ah! That’s it! This is what I want to do next.”

What had hooked him, however, was the fact that when the Dene – hired to transport the uranium – learned in the 1990s what that material had been used for, a group of them went to Japan to apologize. He invited Salverson because he knew she would be very interested in the subject.

When the reading ended almost an hour later, there was a pause until the spell was broken. The lecture was followed by a question period that focused on Canada’s involvement in the bomb project.

Award-winning work
Following the talk, fans lined up to have van Wyck autograph copies of his book. They weren’t the only ones to appreciate the book: Last summer, Highway won a Gertrude J. Robinson Book Prize, which recognizes outstanding contribution to the discipline of communication in Canada. It was van Wyck’s second Robinson prize. He earned the first in 2005 for Signs of Danger: Waste, Trauma and Nuclear Threat, his book about the nuclear waste burial site in New Mexico.

“As a writer, you want to be read, and you want other people to know about these issues,” says van Wyck, who hopes the recognition raises the profile of the subjects that intrigue him.

For his next book project, he’s mulling over two ideas: the concept of apology and disaster, inspired by the Dene’s actions, or a third investigation of a nuclear topic. For the latter, he would investigate the new media forms demanded by toxic and nuclear materials that must somehow be kept safe for millennia.

“The very novelty of such ideas is spawning the need for new forms of media that are entirely future-thinking,” van Wyck says.

– Johnathan F. Clark

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