At AW Teen, we’re lucky to have two great YA novels—both which put a spin on history—publishing this fall. In Glow uncover the secrets of the Radium Girls one hundred years later with a contemporary teen. In The Girl with the Red Balloon a contemporary teen time travels to 1988 East Berlin and discovers a plot to alter history with dark magic.
We were lucky enough to have Megan and Katherine sit down to chat about writing historical fiction, revising, and being debut YA authors.
Megan E. Bryant: Hi, Katherine! Congratulations on The Girl with the Red Balloon—the best book I’ve read this summer. What a stunning book!
Katherine Locke: Hi, Megan! I am obsessed with Glow and I’m excited to reread it—my mom read my ARC after me and now she’s obsessed too! What made you decide to write about the Radium Girls and specifically using two timelines?
Megan: Thanks so much for your kind words, Katherine. I stumbled across an article about the Radium Girls in the summer of 2010, and was immediately captivated by their story. I was also shocked, and even horrified, that I’d never heard of them before—especially because I adore history and science, and I’m even married to a history professor. It seemed so terribly unjust that their story had been largely forgotten, when they sacrificed so much—truly, they were just as much casualties of World War I as the soldiers who fought on the front lines. At the same time, the Radium Girls’ determination to learn the truth behind their illnesses, and to make sure no one else would suffer as they did, has impacted many generations, including our own. So I felt called to tell their story and to help bring wider recognition to this remarkable group of young women. However, their stories were so heartbreaking, and so distressing, that it felt too hopeless, almost, for YA novel. A dual perspective with a modern-day narrator brings in some relief from the relentless suffering of the Radium Girls and allows for some hope (at least, I hope it does!).
Katherine: I think it worked! It was definitely a tearjerker, but it was also hopeful. And interesting, and complicated. I really loved the relationship between Julie and her mother and how that developed. Job well done.
Megan: Thank you! Tell me where the idea for The Girl With the Red Balloon came from. What inspired you?
Katherine: Is it cheating to say 99 Red Balloons on the radio and driving alongside a median on my way to work? I feel like it should be more inspiring than that, but that’s what happened. I’d been wanting to write a book about forgiveness, and then when I heard that song, I had a mental image of a girl floating over a wall, holding onto a red balloon. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. What wall? Why a balloon? What’s she leaving?’ And when I got to work, I sat down and quickly wrote the first chapter of the first draft. That’s now the second chapter, and from a different point of view than the first draft, but the heart of it is still there. Did Glow change a lot in revisions?
Megan: I love that the song was part of your inspiration. It’s basically been in my head since I first held my ARC! Yes, Glow definitely changed a great deal during revisions. There was an entire supporting character who was chopped—along with the 10,000 words he occupied! —just last summer. My writing process is very revision-based because I like to layer my work, and for me, the layering mainly happens once a working draft is in place. In fact, the layering for Glow was one of the most challenging aspects, because there was so much to keep track of: when Julie found the paintings, and what Lydia wrote in particular letters that related to them, and the related artifacts that Julie finds during her search for paintings. I have several notebooks and charts from the years of revision—fond memories now, thankfully!
I’m curious if you have any particular writing rituals or routines.
Katherine: I almost always write out of my house. If my couch or my bed is within reach, I’ll probably take a nap instead. So I usually work out of my house, with a chai latte, and headphones on, even if I’m not listening to any music. And like you, I think that my books are born in revisions. I really like tinkering with them, layering on different aspects, pulling one plot thread through and tugging at another. If it wasn’t for deadlines, I’d tinker with a book forever.
I think the other thing about writing historical fiction is that it’s very easy to fall into a black hole of research. I usually start by reading a few books that give me a broad overview, and then doing some research on the internet before I begin writing. But I also research as I write, check street names and maps, making sure I had the Berlin Wall on the correct side of the river and the right distance of the death zone or the correct spelling of a subway stop. I layer in things like slang, dialect, clothing, and food of the time in revisions. Is that how you did research?
Megan: Yes. I was slowly plotting and processing, writing bits here and there—sometimes actual scenes, sometimes just notes for scenes—while I researched. I read several secondary sources to get a better understanding of the time period, and of course many primary sources, including newspaper articles chronicling the Radium Girls’ struggles, as well as a wonderful book of World War I-era letters called Letters from a Lost Generation. I also conducted several in-person interviews as part of my research and managed to get myself kicked out of a hospital when I investigated their radiation-exposure protocols and viewed their decontamination room (one of the lines in the book—“She shouldn’t even be here!”—was actually spoken about me! I had to use it.). My favorite part of the research is the fascinating little tidbits that are uncovered—searching for recipe cards and restaurant menus from a hundred years ago; period valentines and typical holiday gifts. All the tiny ways in which we express our humanity from generation to generation.
And while we’re on the topic of research, I can tell how exhaustive yours was just from reading your book. Are there any fascinating things you discovered that didn’t make it into the final draft?
Katherine: I love that hospital story! I definitely have a tendency to over-research, so I can go down some really fun rabbit holes. Because of food shortages, East Germans almost always carried a shopping bag with them so they could jump into line as soon as they heard about the availability of a rare product. And they used shopping bags made out of Dederon, which was the East German equivalent of nylon. This was just a way of life. And I learned a lot about feminine hygiene product availability in the GDR (spoiler alert: they were hard to get). But I also learned a ton I didn’t know prior to the book, like the ghost stations. The subway trains in Berlin used tracks that went through East German, but after the wall went up, they couldn’t stop at those East German subway stations. They were patrolled by soldiers and remained empty for years. I used one of those for the magical underground guild’s hideout. I love finding gems like that in history, something that I can share with others that they might not know.
What surprised you the most about writing Glow?
Megan: Those are wonderful pieces of knowledge! You did a great job subtly incorporating the history so that it’s an organic part of the story and never a distraction. As for Glow, I was stunned to learn that the Radium Girls were put in deliberate danger. Even after the (male) managers and company owners were aware of how deadly exposure to radiation can be—and even after the men issued themselves protective gear—they took no steps to protect the women who were using powdered radium every day. And there were no legal protections at that time, either. One of the reasons I find the story of the Radium Girls to be so compelling is because one hundred years before “Nevertheless, she persisted” became a rallying cry for women, the words could just as easily apply to them. No one wanted to acknowledge what was happening to the girls; no one wanted to help them—even doctors and dentists turned them away; in some cases, their own communities shunned them—and yet they didn’t give up until the whole world knew about the dangers of radium, which led to safer practices and protocols, including workplace safety requirements that we all benefit from today. The Radium Girls didn’t have to die, but they used their activism to save countless lives. In fact, one of the most heart-wrenching facts I learned in my research is that radium dials were used during World War II as well, but no one died, and no one got sick, because of basic safety protocols that were enforced thanks to the Radium Girls and their fight.
I’d like to talk a little about the ways in which you combine historical fiction and fantasy. How do you manage to bring two distinct genres together without, say, disrespecting the real experiences and tremendous suffering of those who experienced persecution and genocide? This was really beautifully nuanced in your book and I’m curious about what led you to this approach and how you executed it so successfully.
Katherine: I don’t know what made me decide there’d be magic in the book, but my first love has always been fantasy books. And specifically, I think I’ve always loved books that felt like one genre, with splashes of magic (I’m thinking of A Wrinkle in Time, which felt contemporary—for its time—with a fantastical element, and Bridge to Terabithia, which was contemporary, with a fantastical element). I think it provides a gateway to looking at difficult times in our history, especially times we might not learn about in school. I didn’t learn about East Germany until I was in college, and I know many people who didn’t grow up in Jewish communities don’t learn about the Holocaust until middle school. Those are big events, big ideas, and sometimes it’s easier to get access to them through magic. I wasn’t a huge fan of history in school and I really fell in love with it later when I started learning individual stories and how they fit into a bigger picture. There’s a line in the book where Kai says, “The people never mentioned in history books still made history.” And I think that’s what guides the historical fiction I write, magic or no magic.
Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
Megan: Yes, I have a series for younger readers coming out from Scholastic next year; it’s called Pocket Geniuses and it’s about a boy who is struggling in school and makes a wish for extra help only to have his miniature set of “Heroes of History” action figures come to life to help him, with unexpected consequences! So it blends some history and some magic in a modern-day context, and has been just tremendous fun to write—a lot more light-hearted than Glow, that’s for sure! I’m also starting work on a new YA, but it all feels so early and fragile that I’m too superstitious to say anything else.
What have you been working on lately?
Katherine: I’m about to start edits on the second book in the Balloonmakers series! It’s a companion novel, set in the same universe (Ballooniverse? My friend Paul Krueger, also an author, came up with that) but with a whole new cast of characters. It’s about a sister and a brother who are both recruited to use magic on different facets of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was the super top-secret project to build a nuclear bomb during WWII before anyone else did. It was so top secret that the Vice President didn’t know about it. When Roosevelt died, Truman was sworn in and had to be told about this enormous moral, financial, and political power he’d inherited. All from splitting an atom. It has a big, dynamic cast and I am really excited for it! It’ll be out Fall 2018.
This was fun, Megan. Let’s do it again sometime.
Megan: Yes, absolutely! You’re an incredible writer, Katherine, and a fantastic person to explore Chicago with during the ALA Annual conference. I’m so glad that our books brought us together. Best of luck with the release of The Girl with the Red Balloon and all your upcoming books!
Katherine: Same with you! I’m so excited for people to meet Julie and Lydia.