Behind the Song: How The Killers’ ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ inspired an apocalyptic story

It’s amazing drama for a story. I think Flowers clearly meant the opening lines of “Miss Atomic Bomb” to be from the POV of a determined admirer, thinking back to a long-ago lost love. I just hope the rest of this story stays fiction. Walton offered me a storytelling challenge for an anthology she was editing called Behind the Song: Create some kind of narrative inspired by a piece of music. And what if the child from that ad, who barely remembered doing it, was now a teenager trying to live as normal a life as possible in a world she inadvertently made much, much worse? You can read the opening excerpt here, as part of EW’s cover reveal for Behind the Song. No premise, no song. (You can see her interview below.)

Monique Corzilius (now Luiz) had been a child model and claimed her parents had no idea what their toddler daughter was selling when an advertising company hired her to pluck petals off a flower. As she counts, she adorably mixes up some of her numbers. You were standing with your girlfriends in the street
Falling back on forever, I wonder what you came to be
I was new in town, the boy with the eager eyes
I never was a quitter, oblivious to schoolgirls’ lies
I thought: what if he was more than an admirer? Within the story, I also get to pay tribute to some of my favorite apocalyptic storytellers: A teacher is named after On the Beach writer Nevil Shute, the “good” presidential candidate who has the ad used against him takes his last name from The Maze Runner author James Dashner, and the maniacal politician I dubbed “Chet Stillman” is a tribute to Stephen King’s demented candidate in The Dead Zone (and — for fun — the late, great Bill Paxton’s horrible older brother in Weird Science.)
Once upon a time, the idea of an unstable, divisive person being elected president seemed like good material for fantasy. We must either love each other, or we must die.”
Pretty stark. There’s something mesmerizing about the end of the world. Goldwater and his supporters remained enraged by the ad, which they saw as dangerous fearmongering. If you read EW regularly, you know I do a lot of reporting on Star Wars, Marvel movies, Stephen King and others, telling the stories of other storytellers. The ad branded Goldwater as volatile and hawkish, a warmonger who might use nuclear bombs to end the war in Vietnam. Maybe conjuring it in fiction is a way of keeping it at bay. If we can imagine a worst-case scenario, perhaps it won’t come true. Boom. Sort of a “he loves me, he loves me not” thing. But the ad was so frightening and divisive that her parents kept their daughter’s participation secret, fearing the angry blowback. I’d always loved Flowers and his work as the frontman for The Killers, but thanks to Erica, I suddenly found myself listening to more of him. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. As the fireball swirls, we hear Johnson’s Texas drawl: “These are the stakes. I owe a debt of gratitude to The Killers, a 1964 political ad that terrified America, and a true-life young girl who hid a frightening secret for decades. What if he was a predator? Moments later, her eye becomes a mushroom cloud from a nuclear blast. I needed a seed, and that was planted by one of my closest family friends, Erica Canales, a singer with the The Songbirds who had just landed a dream job: singing backup for Brandon Flowers on the tour for his solo album, The Desired Effect. The innocence of “Daisy” combined with the horror of the all-too-real nuclear blast, were factors   credited with helping Johnson’s landslide victory. Show Full Article That’s where “Miss Atomic Bomb” fused with another piece of unlikely inspiration: a black-and-white political ad that aired only once on national television 53 years ago, but generated shockwaves that are still felt today. With The Killers’ music setting the tone, and the real-life “Daisy” girl’s secret suggesting a plot, I had my story for Behind the Song:
What if there was an ad like this in the recent past, something that helped elect a man who not only successfully scared the hell out of America, but then tore the nation apart after he took office? Here’s how I came up with one of my own. Since she is on the road a lot, she uses our place as her home base. My previous novel, Brutal Youth, borrowed some inspiration from Elvis Costello, but that story was already mostly formed when his music came into the process. (I used this in my story, too.)
As she reaches the end, a booming countdown begins. I didn’t have anything at the ready when K.M. Some are wistful and melancholy, others are funny or inspiring, a few are pretty twisted. Behind the Song debuts in bookstores today, more than a year later, and it’s full of authors and essayists meeting her challenge in different ways. And the final “what if”: What would happen if a young man with “eager eyes” figured out her secret — and decided to blackmail her? Mine is definitely a tale from the dark side. That’s where my mind went when author K.M. invited me to play along. Anger and grudges remained. It opens on a three-year-old girl who is plucking petals off a daisy. There are many ways to end life as we know it, after all. — deep Goldwater country. Johnson’s opponent, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater isn’t even mentioned, but the implication was clear for viewers who had watched with halted breath two years earlier as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. We know the ad as “Daisy” these days, but President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign titled it “Peace, Little Girl.”
It’s 1-minute long… and horrifying. The nuclear blast and voiceover were added later, of course. The image freezes as she looks up into the sky. I hope it makes for an interesting thriller: A Twilight Zone-style story that takes the premise to unexpected twists and conclusions. Not only is it a haunting title, but the lyrics — about a woman who blows apart of the life of the man who loves her — are enigmatic enough to be open to a twisted kind of interpretation. But what brought this to my mind was something I’d read only a few years before, when the little girl from that ad, now middle-aged, came forward in an interview with Dan Nowicki of   The Arizona Republic to tell her own story. The end of the world is always better at a distance. She and her husband had settled in Phoenix, Ariz. Some even wanted the people associated with the ad to be arrested for inciting panic. Music often helps me get into the headspace and mood of a character when I write fiction, but I’d never tried this particular exercise before. Even decades later, as an adult, she kept this part of her past hidden. One day, she put the group’s 2012 song “Miss Atomic Bomb” back on my radar. It wasn’t until 50 years after the ad, when Goldwater was long gone, that she came forward to talk about her role in the scariest political ad of all time.