An Evening With Radioactive Author Lauren Redniss

On Monday night I attended a presentation by Lauren Redniss, author of Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Currie: A Tale of Love and Fallout. The book was selected this year for Go Big Read, UW-Madison’s common reading program. Admittedly, I was disappointed when I first picked up the book. As science was always my least favorite subject in school, the idea of reading about radioactivity seemed less than thrilling. And it also looked like a children’s book—complete with, what I assumed to be, superfluous illustrations and the overuse of color and cute fonts.

But luckily, my initial impressions turned out to be completely wrong. It was one of the most interesting and unique books I’ve ever read. It’s poetic, artistic, scientific, historical, and in so many ways, defies categorization. Redniss uses the interplay of art and text to tell the story of Marie and Pierre Currie—their love, work, and the modern repercussions of their research.

What I found so interesting about the book is the combination of all the creative elements, and how Redniss weaves them together to amplify the book’s themes and form deeper meaning. For example, the images in the book are made using a process called cyanotype printing (representing the “internal light” of radium). Furthermore, Redniss created the book’s unique font after being inspired by the formality and imperfection of title pages of manuscripts at the New York Public Library, and named the font Eusapia LR, after a spiritualist whose seances the Curies attended.

It was great to attend Redniss’ presentation on Monday evening at UW’s Union South. She talked a bit about what inspired the book (a combination of wanting to expand beyond her New York Times Op Art pieces and tell longer stories, coupled with a desire to incorporate elements that her previous book didn’t have). She also showed photos from her travels while researching Radioactive, provided a glimpse of pages from her sketch book and demonstrated how she pieced together one illustration in the book. Redniss ended with a brief reading from Radioactive, and provided a preview of her current project—apparently she was inspired to work on a book about weather after joking to a friend that, after Radioactive, her next book would be about “rainbows and clouds.”

Through it all, I loved her sense of curiosity, humility, beautiful smile, and how genuinely honored she seemed to have had her book selected for UW’s reading program.  She mentioned how grateful she is to have the opportunity to explore, write and create. I can’t imagine more fulfilling work.

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