How did you discover the radium girls’ story?
Through directing the play These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich, which dramatises the experiences of the Ottawa dial-painters. Their story resonated with me hugely and the cast and I transferred our production to the Pleasance, London after the original run, as we felt so passionate about the show and the women, and wanted more people to learn about their courage, suffering and strength.
Why did you write the book?
When I was directing the play I conducted lots of research into the radium girls, wanting my production to be as authentic as it could be: I felt a responsibility to do justice to the women’s story – to be true to what they had experienced. So I read the other books available on the women, and was astonished to find that no book existed that focused on the radium girls themselves: no book told the story from their perspective. And no book told the story as a story, either – as a readable, chronological, narrative account – which to my mind was the most accessible way for people to learn about the girls.
I could deduce from the other books that first-person material from the girls existed, it had just not been used centrally in a book before. This meant there was a way to put the girls centre stage and to allow them to speak after all these years. That’s why I wrote the book: to give them a voice, to make the story about them, and not simply about their place in history. I wanted to bring to life the individual women and make them real: not just anonymous ‘radium girls’, but real women with personalities, passions and loved ones.
What does ‘narrative non-fiction’ mean?
It is non-fiction that reads like a novel. So everything you read in the book is true, but the author aims to take you on a narrative journey, such as a reader would experience in a fiction book. The people from history become characters, described in such a way as to give you insight into their motivation and thoughts. The events in the book are depicted as happening there and then – not in the past but very much alive. It aims to put the reader right into the heart of the story. My book, The Radium Girls, is the first narrative non-fiction account of the women’s fight for justice. The Sunday Times has described its tone as ‘Catherine Cookson meets Mad Men’, which probably sums it up best. This isn’t a dry historical tome, but instead aims to be a very readable account, with cliffhanger endings to its chapters that make you want to read on, and characters who will make you laugh – and cry. Yet everything you read in the book is factual, and very often are the very words and phrases that those involved at the time said or wrote in connection with the case. As my motivation was to bring the women to life, I have drawn on lots of first-person accounts from the women themselves, using quotations from their diaries, letters and court testimonies. In this way, this book tells their story in their own words as much as possible, so readers can discover what it was like to be a radium girl from those women who experienced it first-hand.
What was your research process?
I began from my desk in the UK. I located the relevant US libraries that held files on the women’s cases – such as the Library of Congress, which stores Raymond Berry’s papers, and Rutgers University, which curates the records of Harrison Martland – and tried to locate and contact as many relatives of the women and other key characters as I could, requesting interviews with them about their ancestors. My motivation with the latter was once again to bring the people to life, so I wanted to speak to those who had known them best in order to ensure that I was capturing their true personalities in my account of their story. I also reached out to those who had previously written about the women and knew a lot about their story. Almost everyone I spoke to was unfailingly generous in their response, agreeing to interviews, sharing materials and assisting me in any way they could. It seems that those who have been touched by the women’s experiences will do everything in their power to further the telling of their story.
With these leads in place, I put together a very detailed itinerary for a research trip to the States, which took me not only to New Jersey and Illinois, but also Washington, DC and New York. I flew out on 30 September 2015 and was in the States for almost a month. It was the most extraordinary trip. I visited the women’s homes, walking the streets they too had walked; I stood at the sites of the dial-painting studios; I paid my respects at the girls’ graves. For hours, I pored over the archives, finding the women’s X-ray pictures and handwritten letters; transcripts of their court testimonies; Pearl’s train ticket to Chicago to meet Grossman; snapshots of them at work and play; their names in their yearbooks and town directories; and much more. I took photograph after photograph of these documents, or made photocopies, or transferred files to a USB stick to read later, aware that my time in the States was limited and that I had to gather as much material as I could in the time I had. I was there to conduct and collect research, but not to analyse it closely at that stage.
It was only once I returned to England that the real work began. I had thousands of documents to read – company memos, hundreds of newspaper clippings, all the files from the archives I had captured but not properly read – and hours of interviews with the relatives to transcribe. I invented my own filing system, so that each record has its own code, in order that I could easily locate that exact source later. As I went through each source, I entered its details into a ‘timeline’ I constructed: a table that listed the date of what was happening, the quotation or information that was key, and then the code of the document from which I had taken that quote. It took months to process everything, and by the end of it my timeline was 250,000 words long. It was an essential part of the process, for not only did it allow me to ‘manage’ the various details of each source, some of which gave details on separate events many years apart, but I also pinned down what happened to each individual radium girl: when she started to feel sick; how her symptoms manifested; how that particular girl’s family responded to her demise. Every girl had her own story and went on her own journey; the challenge then was to shape these myriad journeys and all the key points of the case into a cohesive, complete and compelling narrative.
What was your writing process?
Before I wrote a word I read through the ‘timeline’ once again and created a very detailed, chapter-by-chapter storyboard for myself – a blueprint for the book – which cross-referenced with the timeline. It was a very specific and planned structure, but that meant I knew exactly where I was going with the story, when the ‘reveals’ would come, and crucially where to find the source I needed for that particular moment in the book. So those thousands of documents became immediately accessible; I could find a specific quotation in seconds. This ease of using the sources was crucial: because I wanted the book to read like a story, it was essential that I wrote fluidly and felt ‘in the moment’, and this way the ‘moment’ was not broken while I searched for the sources. Consequently, I wrote the book itself comparatively quickly. It was a very emotional experience; I was frequently in tears as I imagined the women’s suffering and described their deaths. I wrote with their photographs pinned to the walls around my desk, and said ‘good morning’ to them every day. I hope that the emotion and connection I felt with them ultimately enhances the book.
The first draft may have come relatively quickly, but it was also far too long, as I used as many sources as I could and tried to ensure each of the many women had her story told. It was too long for the accessible book I wanted to write. So the editing process that followed was rather brutal – 60,000 words were cut – but essential to make sure the women’s story was told in the most accessible way, which will hopefully mean as many people as possible will learn about them and their legacy. Some of the material I cut has ended up on this website instead!
What was it like to meet the women’s families?
Incredible. Because I learned about the women while directing a play about them, there was a very strange art-meets-reality feeling to those meetings: I’d directed actors to portray these people, and now I was looking at childhood photographs of Tom Donohue and finding out he was a twin! That ‘back story’ had never been imagined in the character work I did with my actors! The families were astonishingly generous with their response to me, sharing contacts and memories that have incalcuably enriched the book. I could not have written it without their help and will be forever grateful. They brought their relatives to life for me, and I hope I have done those relatives justice in the book. I found so many of the interviews immensely moving: hearing from Peg Looney’s sister Jean how she used to watch out for Peg limping home from the dial-painting studio and then run to help her; learning from Catherine Donohue’s niece Mary about how Catherine’s interaction with her children changed as the poisoning took hold. Some of the relatives closed their eyes as they spoke with me, and I could tell they were picturing these long-dead women in their mind’s eye, recalling their painful memories so as to help me tell their story. The Radium Girls is dedicated to all the dial-painters, and those who loved them. This book is for them.
Where can I find out more about this story?
Beyond my own book, there are two further books I would highly recommend: Dr Ross Mullner’s Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy and Claudia Clark’s Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform 1910-1935.
Len Grossman, the son of Leonard Grossman, has built a fantastic website featuring newspaper clippings about the case, taken from his father’s scrapbooks.
There are two plays that depict the radium girls’ story (some elements are fictionalised for dramatic purposes): Radium Girls by D. W. Gregory tells the story of the Orange women and These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich stars the Ottawa dial-painters. Please do support productions of these plays if they are staged in your area.
Finally, Young Adult novelist Megan E. Bryant has chosen to feature the story of the radium girls in a fictional book called Glow. The novel has a dual narrative, moving between a present-day teenager and a family of World War One dial-painters.
Will there be a film about the radium girls?
The women certainly deserve one and I hope there will be one day. Production companies can contact my dramatic-rights agent, Joel Gotler at IPG, to discuss adapting my book for film or TV. Email: [email protected]
What is radium?
Radium is a highly radioactive, luminous element in the alkaline earth group of metals. It was discovered in December 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie, and is extracted from pitchblende or carnotite ore. It was a huge job to extract radium in the 1910s and 1920s: from a whole ton of ore, only 5 to 7 milligrams of radium could be obtained – an amount about the size of a head of a pin – and the method involved combining 60 tons of water and 6 tons of chemicals, acids and alkalis with the original ton of ore, and then putting it through 900 different refining processes, including a one-month standing period in a vat. At the end of it all, the resulting radium salts would be put into a dish smaller than a butter pat. Such a process was costly, and at the time the radium girls were working, radium was the most valuable substance on earth, selling for $120,000 ($2.2 million in today’s money) for a single gram. Radium-226 – the isotope of radium primarily used in dial-painting – has a half-life of 1,600 years.
Did this happen outside the US?
Internationally, radium as a craze stopped at no borders and radium products were successfully sold across the globe. There were also many dial-painting studios outside America. However, because lip-pointing was not used as a technique in other countries, there are no widely documented cases of non-US dial-painters being killed in exactly this way. Nonetheless, given the belief in radium as a wonder drug and the lax safety standards of the time, it is probable that some of these workers were ultimately harmed, even if not for many years. And harmed, too, were the areas in which they painted: the clean-up of former dial-painting sites contaminated with radium has been documented beyond the US, including in the UK.
Does the story have any relevance today?
Yes. We are still faced with companies putting profits before people, and covering up the truth. Len Grossman, the son of Leonard Grossman, shared this eerily familiar case with me: the victims are still fighting for justice today. And although the radium girls’ case transformed workers’ rights in the US, bringing in legislation to ensure safe working conditions, companies still try to circumvent such legislation in the pursuit of profit. Just look at the Volkswagen emissions scandal, or at the working conditions of those building the football stadiums for the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar: even modest figures put the employee death rate there at one worker every two days. Employees in the Indian tannery industry are also dying from the chemicals involved in leather production; and risks to workers’ safety aren’t just a problem for developing nations: in February 2013 two young British men lost their lives on the Blackmoor Estate because of unsafe working practices. As a society we cannot rest on our laurels. In the UK, the Government’s austerity cuts have led to a 91 per cent reduction in workplace safety inspections, meaning any companies willing to circumvent protective legislation are now more likely to get away with putting workers’ lives at risk; 53 local councils have abandoned proactive workplace inspections altogether. More could be done internationally to protect workers so they don’t suffer the same fate as the radium girls. The women’s story is, sadly, all too relevant today.
I’m directing/acting in a play about the girls – can I contact you?
By all means! I love hearing about new productions and I’m more than happy to answer any questions you may have about the women and their story that are not answered in the book. I’m passionate about spreading the word about the girls’ achievements and would like to support the telling of their story in any way I can. You can email me at [email protected] or tweet me @katebooks.