Tell us the story behind the story. What was the inspiration behind A Fierce Radiance
On her bureau, my aunt kept a photo of her brother in the 1920s, when he was 9 or 10 years old, a blond boy paddling a canoe with his father, both of them laughing, in high spirits. This was the last photo she had of him, for he died at age 11 from a fast-moving infection contracted after a Fourth of July celebration. Antibiotics probably would have saved his life - except antibiotics didn't exist then.
Even sixty years after his death, my aunt mourned him. She reflected on the future he was denied and told me about the never-ending anguish of her parents. The light and happiness went out of her parents' spirits after he died, she said, and she grew up in a home filled with sadness. Her mother never hugged her again, and her father slipped into depression. I wondered how different my aunt's life would have been, and the lives of her parents, if he'd survived.
When I spoke to friends about this story, they often responded by telling me stories of their own: about a grandmother or grandfather, an aunt or uncle, a brother or sister, son or daughter, who died from a sore throat, or from the scratch of a rose thorn, or from a blister caused by new shoes - the story of a beloved family member who died because antibiotics didn't exist. These stories compelled me to write A Fierce Radiance
Are the characters in A Fierce Radiance real or fictional? How did you create the main character, Claire Shipley?
As in my first novel, "City of Light," I tell the story of "A Fierce Radiance" by combining real people with fictional characters. Making the main characters fictional gives me more freedom to conjure up their lives and to shape their individual fates, against the background of a real time and place, and real issues.
Claire Shipley, the lead character, is a photographer for LIFE magazine. She is a confident, forthright professional woman, and the novel begins when an assignment takes her to a medical research center. She's an outsider looking in at this world, learning about science and medicine as she pursues her work, just as I was an outsider looking in, when I began my research for the novel. Claire feels a profound, indeed heartrending, interest in the development of antibiotics because of the story's closeness to her own family. Claire's profession also gives her a unique perspective from which to observe the issues of her day, and this perspective was invaluable to me for the novel. In her fearlessness and pioneering nature, Claire resembles Margaret Bourke White, the great LIFE photojournalist, but Bourke White never had children, and Claire's life is shaped by motherhood.
Claire's profession, of photographer rather than reporter, is a kind of wish-fulfillment for myself: I'd thought seriously about becoming a photojournalist when I was younger, and I'd even worked as an assistant photo editor at a newspaper, before deciding on writing as my career. Creating Claire Shipley let me imagine an alternate future for myself.
How did you choose the time and the setting of "A Fierce Radiance"?
Most of the work which led to the mass production of antibiotics took place in America during World War II, so my time and setting chose themselves. In portraying the nation at war, I wanted to forget everything I knew about the course of the war, and imagine what those months and years must have been like for the people experiencing them moment by moment, not knowing what the future would bring. For example, from our perspective in 2010, we know very well that New York City never was bombed during the war. But as I discovered in my research, the people living in those days assumed that the city would be bombed. They were horrified by the devastating bombing of London, and they expected the same to happen in New York. I tried to capture their fears, their hopes, their desperate plans to take care of their families if the city were bombed and the nation invaded. I put myself into their shoes, asking myself, how would I feel, if occupation soldiers were marching down my street? What would I do to protect my family?
What was the most challenging aspect of writing A Fierce Radiance
I'm not a doctor or a scientist, so learning about medicine and about scientific research was by far the most difficult aspect of writing the novel. My research took years and felt like learning a foreign language. Once I had a rudimentary knowledge of the science, then I had to shape my knowledge into a novel, to make the information both accessible and intriguing to my readers.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I was lucky at the beginning of my research, when a friend introduced me to scientists and historians at the Rockefeller University in New York. I decided to place much of the novel's action there, years ago when it was known as The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. I also did research at the New York Public Library, reading everything I could find about both the science of antibiotics and the business of antibiotics. I spent hours simply reading through issues of LIFE magazine for the years of the novel. Some of the stories that Claire Shipley covers for LIFE are based on actual stories that ran in the magazine. I also spent hours walking the streets of Greenwich Village, my favorite New York neighborhood, to get a feel for the places that Claire Shipley walked, to put myself in her shoes and imagine what her life was like.
What was the most compelling piece of information you learned in your research into antibiotics and penicillin?
The most compelling piece of information I learned was that antibiotics won't work forever. The problem of resistance has already become so severe that several strains of bacteria are resistant to even the strongest antibiotics. Scientists are trying to develop new types of antibiotics, that will kill infectious bacteria in new ways, but it's a tough battle. My great fear is that in a few decades we'll return to the era when children died from a scratch on the knee.
What draws you to historical fiction?
Historical fiction is my favorite type of fiction, the type I almost always chose to read for pleasure. I appreciate the insights it gives us to how people lived in different times, and to the passions and struggles that motivated them.
In addition, I suspect that deep down, I have an emotional reason for being drawn to historical fiction: my father taught history, and my mother taught art and is still an artist, so history and creativity have always been part of the fabric of my life. From discussing history with my father throughout my childhood, I learned to place myself into different historical eras and to imagine what it would have felt like to live in those times. As I became a writer, I wanted to use my knowledge of history to portray how the events of the outer world affect the course of individual lives.
Why is historical fiction so important to our lives?
Historical fiction can give unique insight into the history of our own families. By its very nature, historical fiction is about individuals struggling with the choices that their societies give them. Reading historical fiction is the closest we can come to experiencing what it actually felt like, in a visceral, emotional way, to live in a different time and place.
Describe your writing schedule. Do you have any rituals or routines? Do you outline?
I work best in the morning. When my son was young, I'd get up early, at least an hour and a half before he got up for school, and begin work then. I felt a tremendous sense of peace and freedom during those early morning hours, when the house was quiet and the world itself seemed fresh. As he became older, I started the schedule I follow now: enjoying a quiet breakfast, looking through the newspaper, and then getting down to work - while fighting every second the constant pull to check email. I write for three or four hours, then break for lunch. I reserve the afternoons for research and visits to the library, for the gym, my piano lesson, and various appointments.
I always make an outline before I begin work - and then leave the outline behind after I start work. Once I'm deep into the minds of the characters, new ideas come to me about the plot and characters, better, more organic ideas, and in this sense, I let the characters "take over" the book.
What message do you hope readers take away from A Fierce Radiance?
Most important, I hope readers will enjoy the book for itself - as a good story, with compelling characters. I hope readers will come to care about the characters, about their choices and their fates, as if they're members of their own families. Then, I hope readers will take away a sense of the fragility of life, and of the appreciation we must always have for our loved ones, who can be taken from us in an instant, whether from war, or disease, or an accident crossing the street.
What are your favorite books and why?
These are the classics that I reread over and over:
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, a thoroughly modern story about a woman struggling to find a path for herself.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Each time I read it, I feel the yearning for usefulness that draws Dorothea to Mr. Casaubon and the important work he appears to be doing. I understand her decision to marry him, could imagine myself doing the same, even though simultaneously I see this so clearly as the wrong decision (both for Dorothea and for me!).
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, for examining the complex combination of morality, courage, and cowardice involved in the choices we make.
The Aspern Papers, by Henry James, for showing the lengths that people will go to follow their obsessions.
Contemporary novels that I adore: Atonement, by Ian McEwan, for its presentation of how fiction can be used to create redemption. The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, again for its examination of the redemption that fiction can bring. The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, for its portrait of England after the Second World War, and for the vital questions it leaves unanswered, questions I'm still debating with my friends months after I read the book.
In reviewing this list, I see that what these novels have in common is the ability to draw me into a fully described yet distant world, and make that world completely alive and compelling, populated with individuals I feel I know.
What are your favorite movies and why?
My three favorite movies are Gone With The Wind, Chinatown, and - don't laugh - The Devil Wears Prada. I adore Gone with the Wind for the remarkable characters pursuing their passions and goals against a devastating era of American history. In Chinatown, we're forced to confront the compromises and corruption that is part of the growth of a great city. And The Devil Wears Prada is a terrific portrait of an outsider trying to fit in and then learning the price she must pay to fit in. It's also lots of fun, and whenever I'm home with the flu, that's the DVD I reach for first
Do you have any hobbies or pastimes?
Between reading and writing and family, there isn't much time left, but three years ago, I began taking piano lessons. Playing the piano is extremely difficult for me, which is why I like it: just for me to put one note after another, and play the right and left hand parts simultaneously, I need to give one hundred percent concentration and not let my mind wander for a single second. This seems like good mental training (although for what, I'm not sure). I also love dogs, more precisely Golden Retrievers. My darling Goldie, Jasper, died last year. I still miss him.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
My main advice is to keep working and keep sending out your work. The first short story I ever had published was rejected 42 times before it found an editor who loved it. The second short story I had published was rejected 27 times before it found the right editor. If there's one thing I know for certain, those stories would never have been published if I'd given up after the first five rejections or even after the first twenty rejections. Someone once said that "eighty percent of success is showing up." I firmly believe that, and it's true in everything we do. Writers are very vulnerable, of course, and it's hard to keep sending out work that keeps getting rejected, but the acceptance is just as terrific on the fiftieth try as on the first try.
My second piece of advice is to write about what you don't know but want to learn about. Often, aspiring writers are told to "write what you know." What you know is the given, the background of everything you write, because it's part of who you are. I believe that the urge to discover, to find out things you don't know, gives a real push and passion to writing, and readers pick up on this energy and get caught up in the writer's voyage of discovery.
My third piece of advice is to write the type of book you yourself enjoy reading most. If you love to read mysteries set in small English villages, then try writing one. If you prefer espionage thrillers set in Washington, D.C., well then, try writing one of those, and so on. You'll always feel more motivated when you write within a framework that you enjoy. Which brings me to my final piece of advice: never stop reading.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old. I started out by writing short stories about magical animals and also about princesses - but strong princesses who ruled their kingdoms and rode into battle on white horses. In high school, I began to write poetry, which I submitted to literary magazines. I received rejection letters from all the best places.
Once I was out of college, I still wanted to be a writer, but I had to earn a living at the same time. So I got up early, before going to work, and wrote for an hour or so. I worked in a variety of jobs: in the photo department of a newspaper, at an art gallery, as a paralegal at several law firms, as an associate producer on documentary films, even as a fact-checker at magazines. Having a wide variety of jobs is terrific for a fiction writer, because it teaches you about professions that you can give to your characters.
What are you working on next?
Right now I'm working on a novel that's set in the present day in America and Germany. I'm very superstitious about talking about work in progress, so I won't say anything more, except that it involves a secret from the past.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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