2011 National Book Award Finalist,

Lauren Redniss

Lauren Redniss

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie,
A Tale of Love and Fallout

It Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

Interview by Megan Gilbert

Megan Gilbert: What compelled you to write about Marie Curie's personal life, when, as you present in your Apologia of sorts, she saw no connection between her work and her personal life?

Lauren Redniss: I apologize to Marie Curie at the beginning of Radioactive, citing her comment: “There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.” It’s a slightly cheeky epigraph. The premise of my book—at least in part—is making that connection.

Marie’s quote is from 1911. She is defending herself to the Nobel Committee, which has just awarded her a second Nobel Prize. Then news that she has been having an affair with a married man, the scientist Paul Langevin, is made public. The Nobel Committee is scandalized; they ask her to refuse the prize until she can clear her name. She refuses to capitulate, responds with this statement, and travels to Stockholm to accept the award.

I wanted to call attention to the quote for a couple reasons. First, because Marie Curie is, of course, correct. Her discoveries of two new elements on the periodic table, and the advances she made in our understanding of the atom, are unchanged by whatever she did or did not do in private. On the other hand, her adventurousness, her passion, her unwillingness to be disciplined by convention—these qualities characterize both her love life and her scientific achievements.

MG: How did you conceive of the structure of the book? Did you find it challenging to weave together events of the distant and immediate past into a coherent narrative?

LR: The connections between the Curies’ story and contemporary events seemed very natural to me. If a juxtaposition ever felt forced, I didn’t use it. I wanted the past to illuminate the present, and vice versa.

MG: You traveled to Hiroshima and Three Mile Island to conduct research for Radioactive. What influence did seeing these iconic places firsthand have on the book? How did your travels impact your work?

LR: In Hiroshima, I interviewed atomic bomb survivors. I met a woman named Sadae Kasaoka who was thirteen years old in 1945. She showed me the paper cut outs she had made to help explain her experience to schoolchildren. Seeing them ripped my heart out. She had cut a featureless silhouette of a man out of black construction paper. “This is what my father looked like,” she told me. “His body was black and shiny.” On another sheet, a black rectangular flap lifted up to reveal a scarlet patch. “When I touched him, his black skin peeled and showed the muscle underneath,” she said. Sadae allowed me to reproduce these cut-outs in Radioactive, which I did, unembellished. I had been worrying about creating imagery related to the atomic bombing—how I could do justice to the horror and the magnitude of the event. It was done for me.

I visited Three Mile Island with an anti-nuclear activist. We trespassed, almost inadvertently, onto the grounds of the power plant. Security did not appear to be tight. Later, I spoke to residents who were nearby during the 1979 partial meltdown. One neighbor shared with me a collection of mutant plant specimens from her garden. (I include photos of one of these, a rose with a double set of petals and no reproductive parts, in the book.) When I left Pennsylvania, I went directly to Washington, D.C. to a convention held by the nuclear industry. The theme was creating a “nuclear renaissance.” At the hotel, I made the mistake of watching the movie Silkwood. My head was spinning. The Fukashima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe occurred five months after my book was published.

MG: How did you devise the printing process and typeface for this book? What in the story motivated your design?

LR: Many of book’s images are made using a technique called cyanotype printing. Cyanotype is a 19th-century, camera-less, photographic process in which chemically saturated paper turns blue when exposed to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It made sense to me, in a book about radioactivity, to use a medium based on the idea of exposure. Also, cyanotype images have a kind of photo-negative effect, white lines on a dark background. I felt this captured what Marie Curie described as radium’s “spontaneous luminosity,” the way that radioactive elements can glow in the dark.

I’m a bit of a control freak. For Radioactive, I designed everything: front cover, back cover, spine, endpages, all the pages in between. It was important to me that the design of Radioactive be as carefully considered as the written narrative and the artwork—to echo the story’s themes and to layer the book with meaning. Since text often appears within a drawing in this book, I felt every letter needed to be created with as much care as any other line in the drawings. I designed a typeface based on the frontispieces of old scientific manuscripts in the New York Public Library. I hand-drew every letter and number, the punctuation, the symbols and accents. I wanted the typeface to have a stately but imperfect quality. I named the font Euspia LR, after Eusapia Palladino, an Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies attended.

I’m a professor at Parsons and see digital technology students experimenting with all kinds of electronic storytelling in new media. It’s exhilarating. Still, the bound book is a technology that needs no improvement. There is something powerful, intimate, and irreplaceable about paper and ink. I wanted Radioactive to be a beautiful physical object. The cover is printed with phosphorescent ink—it glows in the dark.

MG: Describe the process of creating the art for the book. Did you write first, then draw, or vice versa?

LR: I’m always shifting back and forth between the artwork and the text. The two elements play off each other. I make adjustments as one or the other comes into focus.

MG: How do you feel about Radioactive being the first visual book ever nominated for a National Book Award in Nonfiction?

LR: It’s incredible! I’m thrilled.

Megan Gilbert's writing has appeared in the New York Press, Paste online, Laughspin.com, and Underwater New York. She is a senior copywriter for Gawker Media. Read her work at ithardlymatters.com and follow her on Twitter @ithardlymatt3rs.