Kristen Radke: The sheer amount of information in this book makes it impossible not to ask about your research process, first. What was most urgent to you while you were researching? At what point did the writing and image-making begin?
Lauren Redniss: I worked on the different elements — the written narrative, the artwork, and the design — simultaneously. It’s only in the interplay between the elements that the book can really be read. My first step was to bind a blank hardcover book. As I did research and drawings, I’d take my typewritten manuscript, cut it into strips with sections of text and Scotch tape them to the pages, and the same thing with the drawings — I’d photocopy my sketches and stick them in alongside the text. Then I’d move the pieces around until the story unfolded in a way that seemed to work.
This process worked for me — which is funny because now I’m doing my new book in a totally different way.
KR: The word “collage” may come to mind rather quickly for some when regarding the book as an object — images either highly stylized or artifact (and often both), your prose framing thick passages of text. You weave these varied elements and narratives together so seamlessly that it’s tempting to say it reads “effortlessly,” even though creating a form is generally anything but. How did you approach this organization?
LR: I try to respond to the material, so the form emerges from what seems to get the ideas across best. I resist the word “collage” for a couple reasons. Radioactive isn’t collage in the literal sense: none of the artwork is made by cutting up found materials and recombining them. Also, sometimes the term collage seems to lead people to think: scrapbook. I’m a fan of scrapbooks, but it’s not what I’m doing here.
KR: Can you talk a bit about the relationship between the visual images and prose in this book? You work to avoid redundancies between the images and the texts, and create a deeper significance through that enacted collaboration. How did you consider or think of that relationship? Can you talk a bit about the meaning that emerges within the space between text and image?
Lauren Redness: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m after—words and images each saying distinct things that add up to something more together. The words may convey specific facts or details that would be impossible to get across in pictures, while the images depict a mood or a moment that is made more poignant by the lack of exposition, or vice versa. There are a number of wordless spreads in the book because I liked the idea of the narrative being carried along at certain points through images alone. There is a kind of heavy silence that a wordless spread can bring.
KR: When considering that relationship—say, the text-to-image ration on a given page, for example — how did you reconcile practical and special concerns with artistic ones?
LR: It can be tricky! Sometimes I’ll make an image and realize it needs to be completely rejiggered to make room for the text. In the end, some pages come together more organically than others. I try to keep working on each page, each spread until the images and the text “click” together, with one element supporting the other. If the image undermines the legibility of the text, or vice versa, that’s not good.
KR: One of the many recurring critical acclaims in reaction to your book was how you’d “reinvented” Marie’s story. Did you feel trepidatious about approaching subjects that have been explored so frequently in literature and popular culture? What would you say to other artists who may feel this way before embarking on a project surrounding an oft-trodden subject of interest?
LR: Approaching a subject that had already been well documented freed me up. I felt less obliged to fill in every detail of the Curies’ biography, for instance. I don’t think artists should avoid topics that have been covered before. It’s a luxury to be able to assume a certain baseline of common knowledge and then have the opportunity to push things further.
KR: Although Radioactive is certainly not a graphic novel, many reviewers and readers have, perhaps by default, ushered it into that category. Why do you think this is? Graphic novel/essay/literature seems to move through waves of peeked audience interest and critical scorn (“such intellectual arousal rarely precedes creative glory,” wrote Mr. Schjedahl in The New Yorker several years ago). Where do you think such graphic work, and its reception, is headed over the next decade?
LR: To try and answer the different questions you ask here in order…
The term “graphic novel” has come to encompass both fiction and non-fiction, but it still seems mostly applied to books that use a traditional comics format — that is, a narrative is depicted in panels, with repeating characters who speak in word balloons. Radioactive doesn’t fit that definition. I just think of it as a book I guess!
As for critical scorn for the form, I haven’t read the Schjedahl piece you are referring to, but I think there can be great art in any format. Indeed, sometimes the critical reception to graphic novels or other books that combine words and images seems the opposite — almost too embracing — as if, if you add pictures to text, you get a pass and automatic praise. I think this will change as people become more accustomed to books that incorporate images in different ways.
Where are picture stories/narrative book arts headed? It seems to me things are only going to get more and more interesting. Electronic books open up amazing possibilities for sound and moving pictures. And as new media approaches to storytelling expand, traditional books will be able to evolve as well — just like painting evolved when photography was invented.
KR: Finally, is Radioactive an essay, to you?
LR: Sure, why not?
Kristen Radtke’s work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, Bellingham Review, Brevity, and others. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and lives in Louisville, where she is the Marketing Director for Sarabande Books. She is currently at work on a collection of graphic essays.