In a narrative that spans more than 100 years, Lauren Redniss uses scientific papers, historic photos, and vibrant, at times unsettling, drawings that come to brilliant life on the pages of “Radioactive,” the book selected by UW-Madison for its Go Big Read program.
Redniss begins her story in the mid-1800s, with the births of Pierre Curie and Marya Sklodowska, who would become one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, Marie Curie. Redniss skillfully interweaves the important discoveries of the Curies with the impacts that their work had on our world today. Into the mix, she adds some salacious details about Marie Curie’s love life, complete with adultery and dueling Frenchmen.
On Monday, Redniss will talk at Union South about her experiences researching and creating her work. The event is free and open to the public. Reached by phone at her home in New York City, Redniss spoke about her work while the faint blare of sirens echoed in the background.
Q: Why did you need to tell this story?
A: A few different reasons came together. One is that as a visual artist,
I liked the idea that one main theme of this book is invisibility — the invisibility and power of love and radioactivity. I liked the different aspects of both of those. Power can be dangerous and beneficial. I thought it would be an unexpected way to both tell a love story and tell a story of scientific discovery.
Q: Why did you decide to tell it in this way?
A: For me, the different elements all come together to contribute to one whole. So, the artwork, the writing, the design, each sort of hold a different aspect of the story and communicate on a different level. The text might communicate on a cerebral level, and the physicality of the book, the size, the smell of the ink, that communicates on a more sensual level. In that way, the book embodies the different ideas that I was trying to get across.
Q: Did the text come first or the pictures?
A: It was pretty simultaneous. I was doing research and making drawings and sort of going back and forth between those things. I always make a dummy book, and that allows me to create an approximation of the way the book will feel, so I can literally type out my word manuscript and cut it up, Scotch tape the blocks of text onto the pages and physically move those pieces around in relationship to sketches I’m making. I’m kind of figuring out how a reader would experience the unfolding of the narrative as I work.
Q: You did a lot of traveling for the book, to Hiroshima and Three Mile Island. How did that affect you?
A: Your first question, about what made me pursue this topic, speaks to that. One important thing for me and for my work is that I’m learning and that I’m experiencing the world and things I’m curious about. I want to pursue them through my work. Travel is very important to me.
Both of those experiences, of Hiroshima and Three Mile Island, did affect me a lot. It’s obvious and it’s been said a million times, as much as you can read about something, to go to a place and to meet people who were there and to experience the proximity, there is no substitute for it. I think another thing that I always hope for is that I’ll be surprised by what I find in my research. I couldn’t envision when I set out what I might find. In all of my research, I just keep looking until I discover something that I didn’t anticipate and allow that to shape the work.
Q: What surprised you the most in your research of this book?
A: Gosh. So many little things. For instance, when I went to Hiroshima, I talked to survivors of the atomic bombing. One woman I spoke to was featured in the book. I had been really struggling with how to represent the experience (of the Hiroshima bombing) visually. I was so daunted by that. When I met her, she pulled out these cutouts that she had made to talk to children about the experience, and they were so affecting. I asked her if I could photograph them and reproduce them, and she agreed. So she did the work for me, which was such a surprise. I was so fortunate that she was so generous.
Q: Marie Curie is the heart of your book. After spending so much time digging into her life, can you think of a few words to describe her?
A: You know, I feel in one sense that I know her. That I have a clear sense of who she is from having read so much about her and having read her own writings and having seen film footage of her, and at the same time she remains elusive. For me, anyway. Many things about her, her passion, dedication, drive, ambition … lots of words are accurate to describe her, but she was also fundamentally guarded and private. Maybe because of some of the traumas that she experienced. I admire that about her, that there remains a shade of unknowability to her.
Q: How do you imagine this text being used in the classroom?
A: I hope that it is open enough that people can really bring their own interpretations and engage with it on different levels that may be personally meaningful to them. One person might be interested in the visual narrative, another in the science itself. That’s what I wanted to offer people, layers of meaning.