Q&A with Shelley Stout, Author of ‘Radium Halos: A novel about the Radium Dial Painters’

It seems like we are constantly learning about a drug or product that may be silently killing us. Back in the 1920s, there was even less precaution taken to protect workers and consumers from coming into contact with deadly toxins than there is today.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Shelley Stout, author of Radium Halos: A novel about the Radium Dial Painters.  In this captivating piece of historical fiction based on the true events of the Radium Dial painters, Stout tells the story of a 65-year-old mental patient named Helen Waterman who worked at the factory when she was just 16.

The narrative is told through Helen’s eyes in flashback format, and paints a clear picture of the pain – both physical and emotional – that was caused to the female workers who contracted radium poisoning while painting luminous watch and clock dials with the toxic paint in the 1920s.

Stout’s strong storytelling skills and clever use of humor make this a novel that just won’t stay closed.  She is able to educate and entertain the reader with simple language, fully developed characters, and riveting sub-plots. This book should be mandatory reading for everyone in the OSHA, CPSC, and the FDA. Maybe, if we can start to learn from our past, we can begin to prevent some of the same tragedies from occurring in our future.

Below is the transcript of my conversation with Stout:

What was it about this historical event that intrigued you enough to make you want to write a novel about it?

Stout: 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, the story of these young women fascinated me, because I had never heard of it. The documentary was phenomenal – it presented a great deal of information about what the young women went through. Every so often, I would think of it, but it wasn’t until about four years ago that I decided the time was right: I needed to write a novel based on this true event, because so many people were unaware of it.

In your book, the boss at the factory basically taught the girls how to put the brush between their lips. Do you think the bosses at the factory didn’t know or didn’t care?

Stout: It’s clear they didn’t know their actions were dangerous.  People in the early 20th century had no knowledge of the dangers of radium. They routinely used it for medicinal purposes. These innocent young women were taught by their supervisors to dip their brush into the paint and then between their lips for a sharper point. In the process, they were swallowing small amounts of the radioactive paint. This scenario happens in companies even today, where management is merely following instructions from someone higher in authority. In this particular case, the Radium Dial Company denied any wrongdoing. Their focus was on production, not on safety.

How did you conduct your research?

Stout: There are several nonfiction books and information online on this topic. I was able to view a very grainy VHS tape of the 1980s documentary, which was only available through an inter-library loan from a small town near where the events took place.  I viewed the tape a couple of times to refresh my memory, and I learned a lot of additional information. Even today, radioactive waste from the demolished building remains in the landfills there, and of course, it’s in the ground water. The former site of the factory is now the parking lot of a used car dealership. They’re still trying to clean up the radioactive waste, but there’s just not enough funding from the EPA.

Was the main character, Helen, based on a real person, or if not, how did you come up with the idea of her?

Stout: Helen isn’t necessarily based on a real person, but I think some parts of her personality resulted from watching the documentary.  The producers interviewed some of the remaining dial painters on camera, so I borrowed little aspects of each one and compiled them into one character. The decision to make Helen a mental patient was my own. As a long-time resident of the fictional state hospital, “Mannington,” Helen was content there, and wanted to be left alone. So that was my own literary device, to add more depth to the character.

Her grammar wasn’t very refined – was it difficult for you to write in that style?

Stout: It wasn’t difficult at all.  The way I create any character is to write a few scenes, just to “learn” who that character is. Once I start writing, the voice just starts to flow. Of course, revision is critical for a writer, but once I got into it, it was very easy to continue. The funny thing is, whatever speech pattern a character uses in chapter one, it has to be the same in chapter 20, so occasionally, I’d find myself wanting to correct Helen’s bad grammar, and then stop and think, “now, wait a minute….this error is correct.”

Why did you make the decision to write in this style?

Stout: I wanted to make Helen a relatable character, and also to make her believable. She was just an average, simple person who was innocently involved in something because, like the other young women, she was unaware of the dangers.

Why did you choose to focus on a personal story rather than the legal angle?

Stout: At the point in time when I started writing this novel, I knew there was also a stage play about the same topic. I also knew that that stage play focused more on the trials. I wanted my adaptation to be different in that respect.  Also, as a writer, I’ve always written stories that were character-driven rather than plot-driven, so that’s why I chose that route.

How did you choose the title and the book cover design?

Stout: Actually, the title Radium Halos was the second one I chose. The title was originally Halos in the Dark, but for several reasons, my publisher and I felt that title could potentially be misunderstood and misinterpreted. So instead, we decided on the title Radium Halos, with the subtitle, A Novel about the Radium Dial Painters.  We went through several different cover designs, until we chose the tunnel because it not only relates back to an early scene in the book, but also a tunnel is a metaphor for something that you ‘go through.’ These young women had to go through a horrific ordeal. Also, to borrow a cliché, there was a light at the end of the tunnel for these women, in regards to worker’s rights.  Lastly, the picture on the cover is as eerie and disturbing as the true story itself.

Are there any recent workers’ rights issues that remind you of this story?

Stout:  Yes, but not merely workers’ rights. There is also the issue of environmental and workplace toxins.  There’s mesothelioma and asbestos. People are just now discovering they may have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation from the CAT scan they had two years ago. Prescription medications to treat osteoporosis have been linked to jaw problems similar to what the dial painters experienced. Experts can’t even determine yet which people are at risk. Every time you turn on the news, there’s a new story that makes the topic of this novel seem timely. Even though this event happened 90 years ago, similar dangers exist today.

What one thing would you want readers to take from your book?

Stout: That’s a tough question, because there are so many possibilities. But if I had to choose one, it would be that we our placing our safety in the hands of others. We are surrounded by dangerous, toxic chemicals; not only in the workplace, but in the environment—found in everything from our drinking water, the air we breathe, even the chemicals in our shampoo.

What’s your next project?

Stout: Radium Halos is not the first novel I’ve ever written.  However, it is my first published novel. Presently, I’m working with my publisher to decide on my next release — possibly one of my previously unpublished novels.  Also, I’m working on a new manuscript. This one is about a woman in 1962 whose son suffers from severe migraine headaches.  It’s about her peculiar journey through the healthcare system, as doctors attempt hypnosis and even implant electrodes in her son’s brain.  But first, I hope to find an agent to sell the film, book club, audio, and foreign rights for Radium Halos.

Related Links:

Radium Halos Publisher’s Website, Librifiles Publishing

Radium Halos on Amazon

Leonard Grossman’s Website (son of the attorney for the Dial Painters)

The Historical Novel Review’s Take on Radium Halos