Book Review & Interview With The Author
by Shelley Stout
Review by Adam Long
Author Shelley Stout’s debut novel, Radium Halos, is a book that is best described as historical fiction. It is based on the sad, but true, story of factory workers who were unknowingly exposed to the dangers of radium while working at a manufacturing facility that produced glow in the dark alarm clocks in the early 1920s. The factory that serves as the basis for Stout’s story is based in Illinois, although there was a similar one located in New Jersey. The ingestion of the paint, the factory bosses assured the workers that it was harmless to swallow, led to multiple health problems and, in some cases, the deaths of the workers. Eventually there was a law suit brought about by five former workers who were referred to by the media as the “Radium Girls.”
The book, Radium Halos, takes a unique approach in its dramatization of the real life events that form the basis of the novel. The story is narrated by a former worker, Helen Waterman, who now lives with her niece, and is haunted by both the loved ones that she has lost and a terrible secret that took place during her time spent as a sixteen year old factory worker at the clock factory.
Stout’s strengths as a writer lie in her ability to take such intense subject matter and to somehow keep it from becoming maudlin. The book’s narrator, Helen, has such a folksy demeanor that it actually made me chuckle on several occasions. Stout captures the vocal mannerisms of her lead character perfectly. She makes us care about Helen, as well as the multitude of characters that parade in and out of her life. We feel her pain, share her sorrows, and learn something about this little known tragedy that we may otherwise have not. Judging by her first novel, Shelley Stout seems to be a real talent to watch. I can hardly wait to see what she will be doing next.
Recently, I was able to sit down with Shelley Stout and ask her some questions on both her writing process and the evolution of her novel. What follows is a transcript of my interview:
Q: What inspired you to write Radium Halos?
A: In the late 1980s, I watched a documentary on the Discovery Channel called Radium City. I was stunned and horrified, but at the same time, I was completely fascinated by this story because I had never heard of it. The documentary was very well done and presented a great deal of information about what these women went through. Through the years, I continued to think about it, but it wasn’t until about five or six years ago that I felt it was time for me to write this novel. I wanted to share the story with a new generation.
Q: Was Radium Halos your first published novel?
A: Yes, it was the first one published, but not the first one written - some of my early literary attempts will remain on my hard drive. My short stories have been published online and in literary journals, and I have had s everal magazine articles published as well.
Q: What type of research went into writing Radium Halos?
A: My research was divided into several phases. The first was research on radium, its effects on the human body, the dial painters and the historical events. The research on the young girls working at the dial factory was obtained from two non-fiction books on the subject and from viewing the original documentary again.
Second, I researched mental institutions. I already had limited knowledge, but I had to make it believable for 1972, which is one of the time periods in which the book takes place. The visitor’s center at Broughton State Hospital (Mental Hospital in Morganton, NC) shared information and fascinating details about what life would have been like there for a resident in 1972. I was also able to interview a man who had worked there during that time frame. The insight from these two sources, and some additional non-fiction books, was invaluable in writing those parts of the story which take place in the mental hospital.
Additionally, I did a lot of research online, where there is an enormous amount of information available.
Q: Was there a reason why you wanted to set the book in the year 1972?
A: Yes, because of the historical significance. For several years during the 1970s, researchers asked many of the surviving dial painters to travel to the Argonne National Laboratory to participate in a radium exposure study. My novel takes place in both the 1920s and the 1970s, because Helen Waterman, the main character, is telling two stories.
Q: How long did it take you to actually complete the novel?
A: Most authors will tell you they revise their manuscript several times, rather than submitting a first draft to a publisher. That was certainly the case with me. From the point in time when I wrote the first paragraph until the time when the novel was finally published, it took me about four years. Soon after the first set of revisions, I signed with a small press in California who later went out of business prior to publication. The editor from this publisher continued working with me and she learned of Librifiles Publishing, who has now published Radium Halos. Librifiles has separate divisions for both Ebooks and paperbacks.
Q: How did the book evolve? Was it conceived as a short story from the beginning or as a novel?
A: That’s a very good question, and no one has ever asked me that before. It was always meant to be a novel. The only difference is that the first draft was written from the point of view of three characters. The final version still has these two additional characters, but the book is no longer from their perspective. Part of my extensive revisions included rewriting scenes so they were from only the point of view of Helen
Q: What is your typical writing process like?
A: I’m not the kind of writer who sits down every single day for an hour. I’m more driven by the muse. I absolutely love editing and, in fact, sometimes I don’t get things completed as quickly as I would like because I spend so much time editing. Also, I don’t always complete everything I start, and I have stacks of partially-written short stories and novels. It’s just the way I function. I have written numerous articles, and, for example, if someone has assigned an article to me, (which has a deadline), then yes, I work very hard on it. I despise procrastination, and I try to get a first draft done as quickly as possible so that I can spend more time on editing.
Q: I was wondering if creative writing was pivotal in your college education.
A: I did take a couple of creative writing courses in college, as well as attended numerous writer’s workshops and critique groups, but my degree is actually in education. I have also done extensive tutoring in writing, for children and adults. I didn’t begin writing seriously until about 10 years ago. Before then, I never thought you could “become” a writer. I thought you had to be “born” with the skills. Sometimes, even a news story will inspire me to create. There may be some ancillary characters in the news article, and I will wind up creating a story for them.
Q: Do you have any upcoming writing projects you would like to tell us about?
A: I am currently working on an American Civil War short story and a novel about a boy with migraine headaches. Also, because Radium Halos is appropriate for teens as well as adults, I am preparing a proposal for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to see if they might be interested in using Radium Halos in their U.S. history classes. I’ll be presenting that in August of this year.
Q: What is your advice for aspiring writers?
A: The best advice I can give aspiring writers is to write what you love. If you write something because you think it’s going to be the next best seller, it may not have your true voice. Like many authors, I have multiple interests, so I also have a romantic comedy, titled Celebrities for Breakfast. Although, it is available only as an ebook at this time, it has been selling quite well. The print version may be coming out later in 2011.
Next, is to continue working on your craft because persistence pays off. Continue getting feedback from family and strangers. You can even sometimes get feedback from literary agents. In many cases they may read your first three chapters as a sample. If they decline to represent you, take whatever constructive suggestions they may offer, and make revisions.
Lastly, if you try for years and years and can never connect with the right agent or publisher, go another route with either a small publisher or self-publishing. There are many ways to get published. Also, I wanted to mention that both a publisher in Korea and an agent in Turkey have expressed interest in both my novels, so you never know where the journey will take you.
You may purchase Radium Halos from: Poor Richard's Book Shoppe: 118 S. South St, Gastonia, NC 28052. Call (704) 271-4644 or online at www.prbookshoppe.com/index.html
Order online from Amazon, or directly from the publisher: Librifiles Publishing www.Librifiles.com.
Meet the author! Book signing and discussion: May 28, 2011 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. at Poor Richard's Book Shoppe.
Also, find Shelley Stout on Facebook, Twitter (@SStoutWriter), and on her blog: www.ShelleyStout.Librifiles.com
Shelley is available to speak to groups, book club meetings, and for interviews, via Skype or in person.