Lauren Redniss is a graphic biographer whose writing and drawing have appeared in the New York Times, which nominated her for the Pulitzer Prize. Her idea for a life of the Curies occurred to her because, she told the online magazine, Intelligent Life, “I had been thinking about love stories….What struck me as an interesting challenge was that the two main themes were love and radioactivity. And both of those things, of course, are invisible. I loved the idea that I could try to make a visual book out of invisible things.” Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie was a finalist for the National Book Award. Redniss teaches at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City.
Q: In addition to Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, you’re also the author of Century Girl: 100 years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies. There seems to be a dramatic or theatrical element between these two works. Do you think in terms of staging your books: how they might appear, scene-by-scene?
I have a dance background, I think that may inform my approach to narrative – the sense of pacing or drama. Also, in my family growing up, the worst sin you could commit was to be boring. But I was very shy, so I had to figure out ways to be interesting while remaining quiet and invisible. A book works.
Q: When you were a child, did you illustrate your own books, or make miniature scenes?
When I was a kid I was always drawing, or making three-dimensional things. I used to sew slippers, leather ones and silk ones. My grandfather and great-uncle had a grocery store where I worked sometimes. I would slice chickens or make sandwiches. My grandparents were great storytellers, and in college I started tape-recording our conversations. My grandfather was an extremely sentimental person, with an incredible feel for describing small moments that could be hugely poignant. He never finished high school and then was sent overseas as a private in World War II, on the front lines in Italy and France. He was wounded twice and was awarded two purple hearts, but he completely fell in love with Europe. He was like a painter or a novelist when he’d describe the mattresses stuffed with straw that the soldiers slept on, or the pretty Italian girl who poured him a glass of water. I think that was the beginning of my interest in oral history. Eventually, those two threads – storytelling and drawing – came together in my work.
Q: It’s exciting what you’ve done: expanded the genre of nonfiction by creating adult-level biographies that are works of art. Is this new, or an extension of ancient history told in pictures by, say, the Egyptians or Chinese?
I don’t know, maybe both? I’ve never consciously modeled my work on any particular artist or tradition. The combination of images and non-fiction just seemed natural, even necessary, to tell certain kinds of stories, and to convey both detail and emotion. But as you say, people have combined words and images for millennia. And I love looking at ancient and historical examples of picture stories. In particular, I love medieval art, the language of symbols that was familiar to contemporary viewers but today we need to learn the key in order to decode.
Q: Did you meet with skepticism from publishers when you proposed Century Girl as art and biography? Generally, publishers like proposals that fall easily into categories for the sake of marketing, i.e., “My book, George Washington in Love, is a combination of “When Harry Met Sally” and Johnny Tremain.”
My first book was rejected by just about every publisher in New York. The reaction I got was, in short: We’ve never seen something like this before, so we don’t want anything to do with it. I had an agent who would not call me back. Then one night I was having dinner at a friend’s house, I met a publisher and described to her what I was working on. Her reaction was the exact opposite of everyone else’s that had seen the proposal. She said, I’ve never seen anything like that before, which is exactly why I want to publish it. Once there was the precedent of the first book, things got easier.
Q: Radioactive has a quality of being alive. After all, you made the book’s images using cyanotype, a camera-less photographic technique using photo sensitive materials, and the sun’s UV rays, to create blue prints. So your images emerged the way photographs would in a darkroom, I imagine. Were you excited about using science to make a book about science?
Indeed, I think the aesthetic choices should support the book’s themes. Cyanotype printing allowed me create negative versions of my drawings: white lines against a deep blue background – in other words, a sense of glowing in the dark. I felt this simulated what Marie Curie called radium’s “spontaneous luminosity.” Also, cyanotypes are beautiful, and a little dreamlike, which seemed to fit the mood I was trying to set.
Q: You’ve said you were intrigued by the thought of exploring something invisible, such as radioactivity. Love is also invisible, as is sexual tension, which apparently was part of the Curie’s marriage. Are levels of meaning important to you as an artist? Why?
Of course! I try to use every element of the book format to contribute to the book’s ideas, to, as you say, layer the book with meaning. In addition to doing the reporting and writing and the creation of the artwork, I design the typeface, the cover, back, spine, the end-pages – everything down to the copyright page. I want every aspect of the experience of the book to be considered, down to the array of colors that fan out along the page edges as a reader flips through.