THE Q&A: LAUREN REDNISS, GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHER

Lauren RednissWhen Lauren Redniss was a child, her grandfather had a grocery store in Worchester, Massachusetts. Sometimes she worked with him behind the deli counter, other times at the cash register. When business was slow she'd busy herself making jewellery for the customers out of rubber bands and garbage bag twist ties, or she would draw on the backs of cigarette cartons with a Sharpie. Customers would tell her she was going to be an artist. But the young Ms Redniss wasn't interested in that kind of talk. "The idea there was a label for making these things," she says, "it didn't really compute." 

She continues to defy the usual categories. For Ms Redniss, the thing remains the thing, even if she is ten years into her career as a Pulitzer Prize-nominated illustrator for the New York Times and a professor at the Parsons School of Design.
 
Today the thing happens to be a book, "Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout" (It Books/HarperCollins, 2010), though it would undersell Ms Redniss's creative reach to simply call her the book's author. This is a unique graphic biography of the love and scientific discoveries of the two Curies, made using an archaic printing process and a typeface designed specially for the project (and inspired by the title pages of manuscripts housed at the New York Public Library). Historical details about their work on radioactivity are set among dreamy illustrations on luminous pages in a narrative that sweeps from bicycle honeymoons to Hiroshima. With this book, Ms Redniss has captured the best and worst parts of modern times.
 
When did you first feel the desire to make a book about the Curies?
 
I had been thinking about love stories. I wanted a certain kind of love story that would have resonance in the world but would also make sense with a visual story. I was talking to a friend on Tenth Street and Fourth Avenue, walking into the Three Lives bookshop in the West Village. We started talking about the Curies and it was a eureka moment because suddenly all the different threads I had been thinking about were woven together. I could picture how the book would unfold. 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.
 
RadioactiveWhy were you especially interested in telling a love story?
 
I think it's something everyone can relate to. It seems the most primal and exciting human emotion.
 
So the beauty of the Curies' love story to you is what exactly?
 
It's a few different things. The tenderness and mutual admiration and respect between them. They remained distinct individuals but they were also fused in such a way in the intensity of their collaboration, both romantic and scientific.

So you decided to make the book. What next? What was your first step toward bringing this idea into the world?
 
The first thing I did was to start reading biographies of the Curies. Simultaneously, I read other articles and books relating to subsequent events and moments in history following from the Curies' work. So, I basically just tried to immerse myself in the subject matter through reading.
 
What did your first draft look like?
 
Once I had a general lay of the land—a sense of the narrative's direction—I hand-sewed together 208 pages into a book. Then I began literally cutting and pasting things onto the pages of the book. That helped me structure the book so I could turn through the pages to see how the narrative was unfolding.
 
Tell me about cyanotype printing, which provided your book with its brilliant colours.
 
In the most basic terms, I take paper into a darkroom, which in my case is usually a closet or a bathroom, and I coat that paper with light-sensitive chemicals. I allow them to dry. I place a negative of my drawing on the chemically coated paper, expose it to the sunlight, which turns the paper blue.
 
Why did you choose cyanotype for this story?
 
First, the look of a cyanotype had the feeling I wanted to convey. That's to say, the slightly dreamlike quality. I think the range of blues gives that feeling. Also, it's a process based on the idea of exposure, and that made thematic sense to me, given the way radioactivity works. Radioactivity was discovered when the scientist Henri Becquerel left uranium nuggets atop a photographic plate in a desk drawer. And when he removed them it looked as though the photographic plate had been exposed to a brilliant light. That was the finding that intrigued the Curies and led them to pursue their work. Then, interestingly enough, the chemical used in the cyanotype process are actually FDA approved for treating radioactive contamination. I found that fascinating.
 
RadioactiveYour own fascination with radium's illuminative qualities is an infectious feature of the book. It made me wonder if you had any first-hand experiences with radium before you started making "Radioactive".
 
It's so funny you ask that. I didn't have any first-hand experiences with radium, but I always loved things that glowed in the dark. [laughs]
 
Hence the glow-in-the-dark cover.
 
Yes, absolutely. I love anything from underwater creatures that phosphoresce to luminescent ink. I went through a period a few years ago when I was doing a lot of silkscreen printing, and in every print I included luminescent ink. So all of those prints would have one presence with the lights on and if you turned the lights off they would become different prints. I just find it magical.
 
When did you begin to see art as something a person could do with her life?
 
Well, my mom was a dancer and I studied dance for most of my life. So the arts and the idea of pursuing a discipline were really familiar to me. I think it was in high school I had a really dear friend, Tina, whose mom was a painter. Tina, who's still a dear friend of mine, we'd paint and make stuff together. We'd take big sheets out to the driveway and paint on them. I think being around Tina and her mom, suddenly I had a broader sense of what it could mean to be an artist. Tina started life-drawing classes when she was ten-years-old. That kind of training made a big impression on me.
 

When you were approaching your high-school graduation what did you think your adulthood would look like?

 
I think I always imagined I'd be a painter. But when I applied to college, I didn't apply to art schools. I only applied to Brown. I applied there because I knew I'd be able to take classes at RISD. I wanted to keep learning a lot of different things and not turn too inward. So being at a liberal-arts school meant I could study these other subjects. I think that's a driving force behind the choices I make in the projects I pursue. I think, wow! I'm studying the Curies. I'm going to learn something about science; I'm going to learn something about our world today. I get to travel, I get to go into all these different fields and talk to all these experts and educate myself.
 
That reminds me of the full-page spread in "Radioactive" where you quote Marie's reaction to radium's glow. Marie writes: "These gleamings, which seemed suspended in darkness, stirred us with new emotion and enchantment." I associate that state of enchantment with how you pursue your own work.
 
You know, what we've been talking about made me think about that first question—the one about the beauty of the Curies' story. One of the things that links the Curies' scientific work to their passionate love affair is their curiosity—that ability to make a leap of imagination and to look into the unknown. I think that is common to all those threads and if there's an idea central to the book it's that intellectual adventurousness.
 
"Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout", published by Harper Collins, is out now. "Radioactive" is the subject of an exhibition at the New York Public Library until April 17th.