Kate Moore reports on how chancing on the moving story of the Radium Girls has led to an extraordinary publishing success
July 4, 2014 was my very own Independence Day: my last day as an editorial director at Penguin Random House before I went freelance. I'd always wanted to become a professional author, but it had seemed a pipe dream. However, to my astonishment and delight, on day one of my freelance career non-fiction writing became my full-time occupation.
I could never have done it without my years in publishing. Not merely the contacts I had gained - I am hugely grateful to those former colleagues who believe in me - but also my insider knowledge. I knew what editors wanted; how to package my ideas and negotiate contracts; even how to edit my own work. I was especially inspired by my time at innovative independent Michael O'Mara Books: much of their list was then generated from in-house brainstorms, and it taught me that brilliant ideas could become bestsellers. When you had the right idea, amazing things could happen.
So it has proved. Since "day one" less than four years ago, I've written 11 books (some of them created via the privileged responsibility of ghostwriting), and most of them have become bestsellers, translated into languages worldwide. Through these books, I've caught serial killers, endured 30 years of captivity in a cult, and even followed in the pawprints of a famous station cat. From pet books to true crime to inspirational memoirs, the versatility of my writing career has been joyful. I write now what I used to publish: commercial non-fiction that inspires, entertains and grips its readers.
I'd been freelancing for about six months when I stumbled across what has become a life-changing project, through directing a play about the Radium Girls. (Theatre has long been a passion, as anyone who ever saw one of my sales conference presentations may recall!) It was the most wonderful moment, when everything I'd ever loved came together in one unassailable reality: I had to write a book about these courageous women.
For those who don't know their story, the Radium Girls were the American teenagers exposed to the "wonder" element of radium during the First World War. They were assured that the luminous paint they worked with was safe - so much so, they were actually taught to twirl their paintbrushes between their lips - but as the years passed the women began to suffer from mysterious and crippling illnesses. Their employers denied responsibility. So these spirited women - in the face of unimaginable suffering - became determined to fight back, launching a ground-breaking battle for workers' rights and scientific recognition that still resonates today. In refusing to stay silent, these women changed the world, including impacting on such global events as the Manhattan Project and the nuclear arms race. To this day, we all benefit from their ultimate sacrifice.
Yet I was astounded, learning of this legacy, that no one had told their heartbreaking and inspiring story before. No book existed that focused on the personal struggles of Catherine Donohue, Grace Fryer and Charlotte Purcell. I wanted to write that book: one that honoured their humanity, and stitched the girls' own words into a page-turning narrative that read like a novel.
When you have the right idea, amazing things can happen. Within a few months, I had sold the book on proposal to Simon & Schuster. What followed was the most incredible research trip as I flew to America and spent a month in the girls' home country, poring over original documents in archives, flicking through microfilmed newspapers, walking the streets the women had walked, and interviewing surviving relatives. The families were surprised that an Englishwoman even knew this little-known history, but were universally supportive.
Early in its life, there were signs that the book was going to do something special. My British publicist, Jamie Criswell, secured a mass of high-profile PR, including a spot on Woman's Hour and a five-star lead review in the Mail on Sunday. I actually squealed when I saw my US publisher's advance mailing: Sourcebooks had invested in radium-green envelopes and tea-stained "vintage" press releases to command people's attention; while their production had me geeking out over metallic ink, printed endpapers and even head- and tailbands! Perhaps the most extraordinary thing, though, was Sourcebooks' commitment to PR. They wanted me to promote the book in person... on a national book tour... lasting five whole weeks.
The experience of that tour - of being able to champion the Radium Girls through my presentations; of meeting the thousands upon thousands of readers that I did - is something I will never forget. The book has gone on to achieve so many things I never thought possible for me as a writer: it is a multiple New York Times bestseller; a multiple award-winner; US librarians' favourite non-fiction book of 2017; a Notable Non-fiction Book of 2018; and the number one recommendation for reading groups for summer 2018, according to US booksellers. I still have to pinch myself that any of that is true. Meanwhile, just last month - and coinciding with the UK paperback publication - it was announced that the book had been selected for Emma Watson's book club, which has over 200,000 members. To think of all those readers now learning about Catherine, Grace and Charlotte is something that fills me with enormous gratitude and pride.
The last few years have been an awfully big adventure. I've seen the Arizona desert, the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes of the Midwest, visiting 24 US states in total. I've breakfasted in LA with my Hollywood agent and lunched with the cream of the New York media. It all feels a very long way from my old desk on the fourth floor of 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road. But however and whenever you follow your dreams, you always have to start somewhere, and I feel blessed by the lessons I learned in publishing. If anyone is reading this with a similar dream in their heart: go for it. After all, with the right idea, amazing things can happen.
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (pb, £8.99).
Further information: www.theradiumgirls.com or www.kate-moore.com.