So we are finally here today with the long-awaited interview with Kate Moore, author of The Radium Girls. As Kate takes off on her tour of the US with her book (which I urge you not to miss), we will be reading about the whys and hows of this book coming to life. Are you excited??!
So let’s get down to the interview. As I am a very emotional being, normally, you’ll find that that’s what it will focus on. As Kate has done a few interviews before, I tried asking things that are a little different, maybe less technical. And hopefully, they are questions you would have asked yourself.
Evelina. Hello, Kate, I am so happy to have you here on my blog. Your book has been such a strong hit for me, and the news of such a story existing seems to have moved most of my friends and readers as well. I never thought non-fiction could give me so many feelings! I have been reading a lot more of it since reading The Radium Girls, and it’s all thanks to you. So to start off the interview, can you share with my readers the story of how the inspiration to write The Radium Girls came to you?
Kate. I discovered the story of the radium girls through directing a play about them. Knowing the script was based on true events and real people, I felt a responsibility to do justice to them and make my production as authentic as it could be. I therefore read everything I could find about the radium girls. In so doing, I realized no book existed that focused on the women themselves and told the story from their perspective. I felt they deserved to have such a book exist, one that followed their personal journeys and drew on their own words in their diaries, letters and court testimonies to create a readable, accessible narrative. Given no one else had done it, I decided to write that book in order to celebrate and commemorate the women.
Evelina. From the book and from the preface, I gathered that writing this book has also been quite a journey for you – both emotionally and physically. I have always wondered how anyone would go about unearthing so much pre-internet information! Can you tell us a little about how many travels you had to do, what kind of archive digging it all involved?
Kate. It was a huge and very challenging undertaking to research this book. I spent a month in America gathering records, and then another two months at home in the UK sorting through it all and organizing the material so I could draw on it for the book. The material that existed was extraordinary. I found letters from the women in tiny local museums. I found their high-school yearbooks in their local libraries. The Library of Congress holds the legal files of the New Jersey case and that was an extraordinary resource. At Rutgers University in New Jersey they have a Harrison Martland collection – he was the doctor who first diagnosed the girls – which was also useful, with letters from the women to him included. The university is lucky to have the collection; some unknown person with a connection to Martland had dumped it in the trash, but luckily an enthusiast of his found it in time, and rescued it to donate to the university. I’m thankful that he did! I also tracked down and interviewed the women’s families, and they generously gave of their time and memories to enrich the book and help me bring their relatives to life on the page. The research took me all across America as I followed in the women’s footsteps and followed leads to unearth the source material for my book.
Evelina. I remember upon reading the preface, I thought it incredibly touching that you would put all those girls’ photos on your desk while you were writing about them. To put it bluntly–how many times did you cry when you were writing this book? Is there any part of the emotional journey you’d like to share with us?
Kate. I think I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve cried! I just did an event tonight before answering these questions and I was in tears earlier too! I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t cry when you see what these girls went through. Because the book is narrative in style and I was with them every step of the way as I retraced their journey, it was very emotionally compelling and I cried many times; I think at every death. I personally think that emotion not only flowed down my cheeks but also through my fingers as I typed, and I hope it has enriched the book as a consequence.
Evelina. As I mentioned, during the writing process, you said you had their pictures and would say hello to all of them often. Even reading it made me feel like I’m standing beside the girls, but when you were writing the book, did you not feel at least slightly followed by ghosts? And do you feel like they’re still with you? A person does not simply walk away from a bond like this.
Kate. I feel like I am the women’s representative. That’s all: I am helping them to fly, to speak out. I’m not the only one, I should add; those playwrights who have also chosen to portray their experiences, and others, are also part of this platform for the women themselves to have an audience. But, yes, it is a bond I feel personally and I do feel they are often with me. I draw on them: if Grace can do what she did, I can do this… Before the first night of my production of the radium girls’ play went up, I told my actors to go out on stage and shine; to do their best not for themselves – or even for me as their director – but for Catherine, for Charlotte, for Pearl and for Frances: for the radium girls. Every time I talk about the women, I tell myself: do it for them. Make it good, communicate their story, because they deserve this. They do feel like friends to me. When my husband and I had a glass of prosecco after I typed THE END on my first draft, before either of us drank a drop we first turned to the wall on which their pictures were pinned and raised our glasses to them.
Evelina. I remember you talking very fondly of Peg Looney–and I can see why, her experience could be a model for writing a story for a modern-day Saint. You also gave a lot of your attention to Katherine Schaub, who seemed almost the very opposite of Peg (although, also absolutely understandably). Did you form a specific connection to any of the girls? And why?
Kate. It’s funny, but I find connections in all sorts of ways. Katherine Schaub wanted to be an author – that was my dream too. Sarah and Marguerite Carlough were sisters who shared a hospital room; I have sisters, and I found that element to their experiences very moving because of my own situation. What happened to Peg was outrageous and I think my connection to her came from a place of anger about what occurred. I’d also interviewed her niece and sister who both spoke so eloquently about her that they really brought her to life, and I think that helped to create a connection. If I had to pick just one or two, I would single out Grace Fryer and Catherine Wolfe Donohue. Grace really was the girl who kept the flame of the fight for justice alive and I thought she was extraordinary; Catherine equally so, for giving evidence on her deathbed. Catherine was the woman who had the starring part in the play I directed, so she was close to my heart already, before I even thought of writing the book.
Evelina. I know that Catherine Wolfe Donohue stood out for me quite prominently, being pretty much the main player on the victims’ side of the story. I have Googled her last place of abode and found out that she is buried only an hour from where my sister lives in the US! If I ever visit the States, I know I would love to put flowers on Catherine’s grave. And maybe leave behind a tear or two. Tell me, did you get the chance to visit any of the girls’ graves and pay respects?
Kate. Yes, I did. The relatives took me there. As you say, I left behind a few tears. I have no idea what the relatives thought of that: this strange Englishwoman crying at their long-dead relative’s grave. I hope it emphasized to them how much I cared about the women and their story. It was sobering to see those granite headstones; to realise that this sometimes fantastical-sounding story ended with a cold stone placed on grass, with a name inscribed upon it that should not have been until many years afterwards; to see the life and death dates for these incredibly young women who could have lived long and full lives, but for the job they did.
Evelina. And how would you sum up all of the experience? I can see very clearly how this book is going to enrich society, but how did it affect you and your personal life? Do you feel like you came out of writing it a different person?
Kate. It has been a transformative experience. In a way, perhaps it was like the women’s own experience: I didn’t know what I was capable of until I started walking down this path, following behind them and the example they set for me. I have been overwhelmed by the response and am so pleased that the thing I set out to do – ensure the women were remembered and celebrated – has been achieved on a scale beyond my wildest dreams. But this is not about me personally; it has always been about the women.
Evelina. As you might have noticed, most of my questions are solely emotional! So one last different question. What other books have you written or plan to write? What’s next?
Kate. I work full-time as a writer and editor so I’m pretty prolific; and versatile, too. I published a book earlier this year called Felix the Railway Cat, the true story of a famous cat who lives at Huddersfield train station in Yorkshire, UK, which was a Sunday Times bestseller. I also have a ghosted project coming up, written with a former policeman, which is a true-crime thriller about catching a serial killer. It’s out in June and it’s an extraordinary story, so I hope it will reach the audience it deserves. For the future, I would love to write another history book like The Radium Girls that brings to life a forgotten chapter of history. But who knows what the future has in store? I simply hope to keep on telling stories that will resonate with readers.
More about Kate Moore
Kate Moore is a Sunday Times bestselling author, book editor, and ghostwriter. In 2015, she directed an acclaimed production of These Shining Lives, a play about the radium
girls, and found the dial-painters’ story so powerful that she was inspired to write this book. Her research took her to New York and Washington, DC, to Newark and Orange, New Jersey, and to Chicago and Ottawa, Illinois. She walked in the women’s footsteps and met their families; visited their homes and graves; stood in the lobby of Grossman’s office and at the sites of the dial-painting studios, and remembered the radium girls. She hopes, through this book, that you will do the same.
Have you put The Radium Girls on your TBR or wishlist yet? Do you feel like you want to? Share with me if you’ve already heard things about it!