On Writing “A Fierce Radiance”
On her bureau, my aunt kept a photo of her brother in the 1920s, when he was 9 or 10 years old, a blond boy paddling a canoe with his father, both of them laughing and in high spirits. This was the last photo she had of him. He died at age 11 from a fast-moving infection contracted after a Fourth of July celebration. Antibiotics probably would have saved his life – if antibiotics had existed.
Sixty years after his death, my aunt still mourned him. She told me that the light and happiness went out of her parents’ spirits after he died, and she grew up in a home filled with sadness. Her mother never hugged her again, and her father slipped into depression.
When I spoke to friends about this story, they often responded by telling me stories of their own: about a grandmother or grandfather, an aunt or uncle, a brother or sister, son or daughter, who died from a sore throat, or from the scratch of a rose thorn, or from a blister caused by new shoes – the story of a beloved family member who died from an infection because antibiotics didn’t exist.
These stories compelled me to write “A Fierce Radiance.” I wanted to learn how penicillin and other antibiotics were developed, and how the momentous transformation they brought to humanity was experienced by individuals living the change in their daily lives.
When I began work on the novel, I knew next to nothing about this topic. Even the physicians I consulted, who relied on antibiotics everyday in their work, knew little about the origins of the medications. Then a friend introduced me to scientists and historians at the Rockefeller University in New York, where some of the early antibiotic investigations were conducted. Drawn into the bucolic, idealistic atmosphere of that center for medical research, I reviewed the pioneering work of René Dubos and other scientists. I studied photographs of laboratories in the 1930s and 1940s. I began to feel my way into the world of scientific and medical research, a process that took years and felt like learning a foreign language.
Even as I became conversant in the language of science, however, I kept in mind that I didn’t want to write a textbook or a treatise. I wanted to write a novel, a close portrayal of individuals, their emotions, dreams, and struggles. And so I created Claire Shipley, a photographer for LIFE magazine. Claire is a confident, forthright, passionate professional woman who fights for the stories she believes in. The novel begins when an assignment takes her to a medical research center. She’s an outsider looking in at the world of science and medicine as she pursues her work, just as I was an outsider looking in when I began research for the novel. Claire feels a profound, indeed heartrending, interest in the development of antibiotics because of the story’s closeness to her own family. In her fearlessness and pioneering nature, Claire resembles Margaret Bourke White, the renowned LIFE photojournalist, but Bourke White never had children, and Claire’s life is shaped by motherhood – by motherhood and by war.
In portraying the American home front during World War II, I strove to forget everything I knew about the actual course of the war, and instead imagine what those years must have been like for individuals experiencing them moment by moment. I wanted to portray the terror, vulnerability, and uncertainty that people experienced in those days. From our perspective in 2010, we know very well that New York City never was bombed during World War II. But at the time, New Yorkers assumed that the city would be bombed. I tried to recreate their fears and their hopes, their desperate plans to take care of their families if the city were destroyed and if the nation were invaded. In the winter of 1941/1942, invasion, too, seemed possible.
As I thought about Claire Shipley, about who she was and how she was raised, I chose Greenwich Village as her home. The Village is my favorite part of New York, to me the most intriguing and haunting, because of its centuries-old homes, its narrow, cobblestone streets, and its tradition of Bohemianism and political and artistic rebellion. I pictured Claire and her family as part of the tumultuous history of their neighborhood. I spent hours walking the streets of the Village, conjuring up the places that Claire Shipley shopped for groceries or went to dinner.
In the roughly sixty years since antibiotics became widely available, these medications have been so successful that they’ve become simply part of the background of our lives, always there when we need them. Because of antibiotics, nowadays we presume our children will survive into adulthood and that adults generally will survive into old age.
As I learned during my research, however, this presumption is false. The story told in “A Fierce Radiance” has a frightening relevance to our world today. Due to overuse, more and more antibiotics don’t work. Infectious bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to these medications. Even methicillin and vancomycin, two of the most powerful antibiotics, have been weakened by resistance. An entire class of bacteria has now been labeled “MRSA,” for methicillin-resistant Staphlococcus aureus. Another is called “VRE,” vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium. What these complex phrases mean – as I’ve learned from my research for “A Fierce Radiance” – is that husbands and wives, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, are once again dying from infections that were curable just a few years ago, dying, sometimes, even from a scratch on the knee.