Hello Darling Readers,
It is my distinct pleasure and honour to give you an Author Q&A (haven't done one of these in a while!) - for someone I most admire, and whose books I am absolutely *obsessed* with.
The one. The only. Kate Moore - author of The Radium Girls and The Woman They Could Not Silence!
Q: You've written fifteen books across various genres, so you've clearly developed a very good instinct for story in this industry. But what was it about your award-winning international bestseller, The Radium Girls, that felt different when you thought of it? Could you tell even at the point of the first burst of idea; that it would be a special one, and go off on the rocket-ship trajectory it did?
I genuinely didn’t anticipate the reaction that The Radium Girls has received. What was different about this story from my other books, however, was the passion with which I pursued the project and, ultimately, with which I wrote the book. At the time I stumbled on the radium girls’ story – which I did through directing a play about them – I’d been a freelance editor and writer for about six months. I was busy ghostwriting other people’s memoirs – usually, these were stories of courageously fighting for justice, which actually parallels my interpretation of the radium girls’ experiences perfectly – and working on very commercial projects, such as cat books and humour titles. I had never written a history book before. But I felt driven to tell the women’s story and I think that passion marked it out as different for me, even though I didn’t necessarily anticipate its subsequent success.
Q: I love Radium Girls *so much* - I have the hardback, paperback, and Young Reader's edition and have re-read it three times in three years. I adore it! So I've got to know; are there plans for it to be adapted? It's begging to be a Chernobyl-esque HBO series, if you ask me!
Oh my goodness, thank you so much for your love for the women and their story! I can say that there is interest from Hollywood and things seem to be going well, but if I’ve learned anything about dramatic adaptations of books over the past few years, it’s that it takes forever for anything concrete to happen. So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed – but not holding my breath! All I can say is watch this space.
Q: How did you come across the muse and historic-figure for your next investigations and new book, Elizabeth Packard? When did you first 'meet' her?
Finding Elizabeth’s story was a topsy-turvy situation because I found the topic I wanted to write about before I found my story’s actual heroine. The genesis of The Woman They Could Not Silence occurred in the fall of 2017, amid in the fire of the #MeToo movement. What struck me about that empowering time was not that women were speaking out, but that – finally – we were being listened to and, crucially, believed. It got me thinking about how women have been silenced and discredited in the past – namely, through the claim we’re crazy. And that’s what I wanted to write about – the medicalisation of female behaviour, and the way perfectly sane women are dismissed as mad simply for standing up for themselves.
Having decided on the topic, I went searching for a story – because I am at heart a storyteller, even though I write non-fiction. I hoped to find a woman from history whose real-life experiences could showcase these issues, which still resonate today. I fell down a rabbit warren of internet searches about women and madness, and on 15 January 2018, in a University of Wisconsin essay that I found online, in a single paragraph four pages in, I first read about Elizabeth Packard. That first clue was enough for me to dig deeper, and once I realized how special Elizabeth was – how resilient, how fearless, how inspirational – and how dramatic her story, I knew she was “The One”: the woman I would write about next.
Q: I can see strong themes and connections between The Radium Girls and The Woman They Could Not Silence - but I'd love to know for you personally, what tethers all your work in this nonfiction space? How would you categorise those threads? And are you constantly looking for new events and figures to keep exploring in your work?
I agree there are lots of parallels! For me, it’s actually several elements. The most obvious would be inspiring women fighting for justice, the indisputable drama of their stories, and the forgotten nature of their achievements, but I think there are also parallels in the shocking science history, in gothic horror, and in the way these historic events still resonate today. I think what tethers a lot of my work is the idea of helping people silenced through injustice to have a voice again. And I am always looking for new events and figures to keep exploring in my work – though it’s easier said than done to find the right topic, especially given the intimate narratives I aspire to write, which are packed full of first-person accounts, so you can hear from the people at the heart of these stories themselves.
Q: How do you go about just ... beginning? Once you've hit on a topic (person or historic event) - what's your first point of order in researching and just *starting*? First port of call?
The very first port of call is the internet, which is probably not surprising in this day and age. In the very early stages of a project, you not only want to know the bones of the story (at least as people currently understand them to be – sometimes deeper research reveals inaccuracies!) but also whether people have written on the topic before (sometimes, that can be the nail in the coffin if a narrative non-fiction account already exists). The second stage for me is always research, research, and yet more research. That means visiting special collections, libraries and museums, conducting interviews with key figures and their families, travelling to key locations, and reading other books on related topics (including scouring their bibliographies for yet more research inspiration…). For me, it’s essential to conduct all my research for a book before I write a single word of the manuscript.
Q: I'm so interested in narrative nonfiction, and the way the form has been elevated in recent years - I'm curious to know as author and researcher, what are the "rules" of nonfiction that you stick to, and what have you enjoyed playing around with in a more artistic sense? (I know some nonfiction authors are constantly tackling the 'what were they thinking' problem in non-fiction; inferring what these "characters" based on real-people would have felt in a moment, etc.)
I always aim to stay tethered to the facts as my sources show them to be. In terms of the “what were they thinking?” problem, I’ve been blessed that with both my history books to date, I had a wealth of first-person material to draw on, so I knew exactly what my “characters” were thinking and feeling as they left a record behind. There are of course always holes in research and sources where you don’t know exactly what happened. My solution in these situations is usually to make it clear to the reader that there is a question, but to plant seeds of what might have been so the reader still sees that situation in their mind’s eye. For example, when Elizabeth Packard confronts Dr. McFarland at one stage, she’s uncharacteristically coy in her account of the meeting about what actually happened at the climax of their impassioned discussion. In the book, I therefore wrote about this moment as follows:
She observed with some surprise, “his feelings burst their confinement.”
Did he slam the table? Stand up with force? Grab at her elbows to shake her roughly? We do not know; she did not say. It could have been a glare or a grasp or a guttural roar: all we know is that, with strong feeling, he finally reacted to her words.
In terms of what I enjoy playing around with artistically, my love is storytelling, so I love two things in particular – 1/ creating and setting scenes based on extensive research – describing the click of Elizabeth’s boots on the stone steps of the asylum, for example, and the way that intimidating building is lit by the glow of gas-lights as she approaches it in the dusky twilight – and 2/ trying to prompt an emotional response in the reader to the real events I’m describing.
Q: I imagine in both your books, hefty as they are!, there's still a lot that gets chucked out in the edits. So what are two facts or quirky findings you had in both Radium and Could Not Silence that you regret had to be cut?
Oh, *so* much goes in the edits! I’m terrible for overdelivering and having to cut back afterwards. Hmm, two facts or quirky findings that had to go… For The Radium Girls, a fact from early on in the book that I had to cut was that, at that time, 75% of teenage girls worked for wages and they made up the majority of women in the workplace (older women tended to be married with children, and they therefore stayed in the home). You might also be interested to know that the Parisian laboratory in which the Curies discovered radium was so ramshackle it was described as “a cross between a horse stable and a potato cellar.” In The Woman They Could Not Silence, I had to cut a paragraph about the history of hydrotherapy (water therapy) to treat mental illness. “Patients were…blasted with high-powered hoses, wrapped in wet sheets, and submerged for hours in tubs of cold water,” I wrote of this historic treatment. “It was not a new therapy: one eighteenth-century doctor developed a treatment—conceived to treat wives who would not sleep with their husbands—in which the women were stripped, blindfolded and tied to a chair, before being showered for up to 90 minutes with incredible quantities of water (in one case, 15 tonnes).”
Q: Any helpful 'how-to' books, podcasts, Ted Talks etc. that you encountered and helped you in your creative process?
I’d highly recommend The Exploress podcast (which is actually an Australian podcast!), which takes you on a fully immersive time-travelling journey through women’s history. I found several of her pieces super helpful and fascinating. Visit www.theexploresspodcast.com
Q: What are you reading and loving right now?
I just finished historical novelist Marie Benedict’s latest book, Her Hidden Genius, which is about the scientist Rosalind Franklin. It’s due out in January 2022 and I think readers are going to devour it.
Q: What's next, and when can we expect to see it on bookshelves?!
I’m currently tackling the “what’s next?” question and as of yet haven’t settled on an answer! Whatever it ends up being, it will likely take me several years to research and write… so maybe set your calendar for 2025 (or thereabouts!).