Elizabeth Stuckey-French is the author of a novel, Mermaids on the Moon, a collection of short stories, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa, and, with Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft. Her new novel, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, was released by Doubleday in spring 2011. She teaches fiction writing at Florida State University.
Several years ago, Stuckey-French stumbled upon “The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War,” a Pulitzer Prize winning report which exposed an abusive research experiment kept secret by government scientists for almost fifty years.
Throughout this horrific study, orphans were invited to join a science club at the Fernald State Asylum in Massachusetts. There, unbeknownst to the children, research scientists laced their breakfast oatmeal with radioactive iodine. Farther south, in Nashville, doctors gave low-income pregnant women prenatal vitamin drinks that were nothing less than radioactive “cocktails.” Many of these women and children developed health problems, including cancer.
This struck a personal chord with Stuckey-French, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in her 20s. In order to explore the topic, she penned The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, giving voice to one of the pregnant women who had been served one of those radioactive cocktails. Grieving her daughter’s death from cancer, the main character, Marylou Ahearn, plots revenge.
SLR contributor Donna Meredith discussed this pivotal novel with the author, Elizabeth Stuckey-French. An edited version of their conversation is posted below.
SLR: How did you come across The Plutonium Files, which inspired you to write The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady?
E S-F: I found it at the Leon County Library by accident!
SLR: Why did you choose to make your lead character nearly 80 rather than have a younger woman who had just lost her daughter seek revenge? Why the delayed revenge?
E S-F: Well, the experiments took place in the 1940s and 1950s, so, if I wanted to stick with the real time table, she’d have to be at least that old if the present time is 2006. Also, the victims in the radiation experiments didn’t know about them until the early 1990s, when Clinton had hearings on them in Washington DC. I’d already written a draft of the novel set in 2006 without Marylou in it, so when I finally realized I needed her I didn’t want to change the time it was set. And for my own personal reasons, I’m really interested also how one forgives somebody for something that happened long ago.
SLR: You created two teens with Asperger’s in Radioactive. (Three if you count the boyfriend.) What led you to this decision? What were the challenges in presenting the worldview of someone with Asperger’s?
E S-F: This is a syndrome I’m very familiar with, having a daughter of my own with Aspergers. I’ve been around lots of people with Aspergers—both adults and children and their families—and I’ve read lots and done tons of research about the syndrome and the available treatments.
It’s widely thought to be a genetic condition, so many families have multiple kids on the autism spectrum. It’s interesting to me how different a boy with Aspergers can look from a girl with the same condition. And, having one daughter who is neurologically typical and one who isn’t, I’m very aware of the family problems this can cause.
I really wanted to explore all these things in a novel, so I gave my family two kids with Aspergers and one “typical” kid. Also, I wanted to try writing from the point of view of someone with Aspergers. This was a challenge I set for myself, and I was very fearful of doing it. It seemed like it would be very hard to do, but weirdly, it wasn’t, maybe because I’ve been so exposed to Aspies, or maybe because I’ve got a little Aspergers myself! It was actually very liberating.
SLR: You also use an elderly man with dementia as a character. What does his condition add to the novel?
E S-F: My husband and I have both had grandparents parents with Alzheimers and dementia, and as you know, it’s heartbreaking and exhausting for all concerned. My mother has dementia but we are never quite sure how much she really has, because she’s always, well, lived in her own little world. She’s often tells me bizarre stories and I never know if they are true or not—sometimes I find out they are, sometimes I never know. For instance, she told me that man who lived next door to her, with his parents, was harassing her by stealing things from her porch, sneaking into her house, etc. We doubted her story but it turned out to be true. So, fictionally, I was interested in how dementia might complicate an already complicated situation.
SLR: Otis and Dr. Spriggs share an interest in radioactive materials. What were your intentions in serving up these two characters with a similar interest?
E S-F: I’m just very interested in the subject…don’t really know why, except that all the scientific and governmental delusion about it fascinates me.
SLR: How long did you work on the manuscript?
E S-F: For about three years.
SLR: What similarities were there in your writing process for Mermaids on the Moon; The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa; and Radioactive? Any differences?
E S-F: Each project I start seems entirely doable at the beginning, and I’m sure it will be the best thing I’ve ever written, and then halfway through I’m ready to give up because it’s become a huge impossible mess. That’s when I have to roll up my shirtsleeves and have faith, because it’s often a long haul and many trials and errors before I can see the light again. What I finally end up with never matches with what I imagined in the beginning, but I make it as good as I can and then move on and do the whole thing over again. It never gets easier, but I’ll never be bored in life as long as I have my little imaginary worlds I can return to!
SLR: Are you doing a book tour for Radioactive? Do you enjoy going out to meet the reading public or do you find it intimidating? What was your worst experience at a signing? Best?
E S-F: I just finished a wonderful book tour of about events and I am glad to be home. I went to some fantastic independent bookstores and had a great time. I’m an introvert, like most writers are, but I love love love meeting readers, so I really enjoy that part of it.
At the Bookmark in Atlantic Beach a woman hugged me and said that her father had just died and that she’d been reading my book to her mother because it was the only thing that could make her mother laugh. Experiences like that make it all worthwhile.
It is tiring being “on” for long periods of time, and I always worry that something will go wrong, because it often does. Many things are beyond your control—your reading might be scheduled on the same night that a blizzard happens to blow through town. That happened to me during this book tour!
SLR: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
E S-F: I’ve always loved to read and write, but didn’t think of it as something I could actually do till I took my first workshop in graduate school.
SLR: You teach creative writing at the Florida State University. How has this helped/hindered your writing career?
E S-F: It’s mostly helped. I get to talk about what I love most and discuss the problems and issues that are relevant to my own fiction writing. It’s so exciting discovering talented students. Also, I get a regular paycheck and benefits. It hinders in the sense that often my head is full of my students’ writing rather than my own, but I’ve learned to clear my head by keeping a regular writing schedule.
SLR: You and your husband are both writers. What advantages are there to being married to someone else who shares this passion for words?
E S-F: It’s fantastic. A real gift.
SLR: Do you edit for each other? Bounce ideas off each other?
E S-F: Of course. Absolutely!
SLR: Does the shared interest ever cause difficulties, such as professional jealousy?
E S-F: He writes non-fiction and I write fiction, so we aren’t directly competing, which helps. We both need time alone to write, which has to be negotiated, since we also have kids. But at least we both understand the other person’s desire to hole up and type. It doesn’t seem selfish or strange to either of us.
SLR: Thanks for your time.