Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Lauren Redniss at Varsity Hall


Radioactive author Lauren Redniss with Chancellor Encore David Ward and a sign language interpreter.
When Lauren Redniss took the stage on Monday night, I wasn't sure what to expect.  Not that my expectations were low; I just wasn't sure how, exactly, an hour-long talk could incorporate all of the interesting things about Radioactive.  Unlike many other authors, Redniss was charged with the task of discussing not only the process of researching and writing, but also the process of creating the unique artwork and aesthetic that is as integral to the book as the narrative. Redniss explained that she wanted Radioactive to be a "complete object, with every aspect carefully considered."  Nothing about the book, she said, is "set on a default setting."  She even put in the work of designing her own typeface, in addition to experimenting with a new method of artistic printing, arranging the text to fit the moods and shapes of each individual page, and, of course, actually writing the whole thing.  Now she just had to tell us how she did all of it.

It's not often that an author giving a lecture is faced with such a tall order, but Redniss carried it off with aplomb.  She began by giving a short summary of the book, and then took us back into the work's very beginnings: her drawings for the New York Times and her first book, Century Girl.  From there, she moved into Radioactive itself, beginning with the research and writing and following it up with a discussion of the book's visual elements: not only the cyanotype process itself, but the various sketches and inspirations that eventually found their way into the pages, as well as those that didn't.

Redniss signs a book for a fan.
If you've been following us on Twitter, you'll have seen that I live-tweeted a few of my favorite lines during the event itself (as often as I could without bugging the people around me!).  But there is one line that particularly stood out to me, which I live-tweeted in paraphrase but want to bring up here in its entirety.

There is a kind of cliche about writing, a kind of mantra that's repeated to aspiring writers: write what you know.  I'm sure you've heard this. I think about that. I think it could be fine advice, as long as it's not interpreted as, "Don't bother writing anything new, just write about whatever you happen to know already."  So I think maybe another way that that advice could be interpreted is, "Go out, pursue what interests you, learn about it, be absorbed in it and immersed in it, and then come back and then write about what you now know."
This, I think, is such a refreshing and useful way to look at writing.  Certainly, as Redniss herself pointed out, a great deal of the work that went into Radioactive was learning: being no scientist herself, Redniss had a lot of reading and exploring and thinking to do as she chronicled the life of one of the world's greatest scientists.  And I also think that this quote speaks particularly well to the University's Year of Innovation.  That's what we're all here for, isn't it?--to innovate, to go out and learn things and immerse ourselves in learning.  That was what the Curies did, and it was what Lauren Redniss did, as well.  And we should all follow in those footsteps.

Redniss signs books and meets with members of the community.
The wonderful photos above were taken by Micaela Sullivan-Fowler, one of our campus librarians.  If you would like to view her full gallery of photos from the event, click here.

If you weren't able to make it to the talk, you can watch a video on our homepage (the link is under "Features").  Unfortunately, the video is not yet captioned, but a captioned version should be available soon.  A transcript of the event is also on its way, so please let us know if you are interested in receiving a copy.

For those of you who did come: we hope you enjoyed it, and we'd love to hear your reactions to Redniss's discussion!  Let us know what you thought on Twitter, Facebook or in the comments below.

Brooke, Go Big Read grad student

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