Confessions of a Nonfiction Nerd by Winifred Conkling
I’m a nonfiction nerd. I love fiction, too (of course), but, for me, nothing compares to the satisfaction of discovering a book that reads like great fiction – a story with character development, a well-matched antagonist, plot twists, dramatic arc, climax — made even more astonishing because the events are all true.
As a writer, I delight in identifying topics that lend themselves to narrative nonfiction. I love sleuthing for the perfect anecdotes, pithy quotes, and details that bring a subject to life. After a long day of digging through source material, I look forward to sharing all the bits of trivia I have unearthed in my research. Unfortunately, rather than appreciating my enthusiasm, those who share the dinner table with me often find my excitement a bit bewildering. I start out, “Did you know…” and my kids immediately stop listening and say to one another, “Mom’s been writing again.”
It’s immensely rewarding to uncover a specific anecdote that brings a character or subject to life. In many ways, narrative nonfiction is constructed like fiction, but it uses true-life anecdotes instead of imagined scenes to build a story. When narrative nonfiction works best, these anecdotes build on one another to convey a greater truth about who we are and what we believe.
My latest book, Radioactive! How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World (Algonquin Young Readers, 2016), tells the story of two female physicists – both life-long pacifists — who made essential discoveries that contributed to the creation of the atomic bomb. In partnership with her husband, Irène Curie discovered artificial radioactivity, which allowed scientists to begin to create new elements by changing the structure of atoms. Lise Meitner unlocked the mystery of nuclear fission, the mechanism that unleashed the energy of the atom.
But there’s more to the story. The experiences of these two women also reveal a greater truth about the way female scientists were treated in the first part of the 20th century. While Irène Curie was able to find a place in her mother’s laboratory (her mother was Marie Curie, after all), Meitner had to fight for the chance to attend college and graduate school, and her first real job was in a makeshift laboratory in the basement of the science building, because women were not allowed to set foot in the main lab.
Women were also often overlooked when it came to prizes and professional recognition. Meitner never received the coveted Nobel Prize; instead, it went to her male research partner, Otto Hahn. While Curie did earn the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1934, she was denied admission to the French Academy of Sciences because she was a woman. Immediately after she was turned down, the Academy voted to disqualify all women; female scientists were not admitted as full members until 1979.
Surprised that women were treated so shabbily just a generation ago? Outraged? I was motivated to write about this injustice against female scientists in part because I grew up hearing stories about my own mother’s struggles to get the respect she deserved in the lab in the decades following Curie and Meitner’s stories. As one of two women in her medical school class at George Washington University in the mid-1950s, she sometimes had to deal with discrimination and sexism in the classroom. On one occasion a couple of the male members of her class decided to play a prank on her. The students had been dissecting human cadavers in an anatomy class. Before my mother arrived, the pranksters placed a severed body part — yes, that one — from one of the cadavers in her lab coat pocket. After she got there are slipped on her coat, one of the men asked to borrow something to write with. When she reached into her pocket to grab a pen, she pulled out her classmates’ souvenir instead. Sizing up the situation immediately, she coolly handed it to her male companion and said, “I think this belongs to you.”
I cherish this off-color story not only because it portrays my mother at her feisty best, but also because it makes a point about sexism in science more pointedly than I could otherwise. It’s much more powerful because it’s true.
Okay, I have a confession: I also love nonfiction because I struggle with plotting fiction. I tend to worry when my fiction takes an unexpected turn – would that really happen? I don’t have that concern when writing nonfiction. I cherish the wild plot twists and strange coincidences in my nonfiction work precisely because they really happened. There’s nothing better than reading a story that surprises and challenges and stuns a reader, especially when the reader realizes that not only could the unlikely events in the story happen, they actually did. Truth can be stranger than fiction — and allow writers to create stories and books just as absorbing and powerful as great fiction — and that’s why I love nonfiction.
Winifred Conkling is the award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers, including Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery and the middle-grade novel Sylvia and Aki, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Literature Award and the Tomás Rivera Award. She studied journalism at Northwestern University and received an MFA in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also loves to Skype with classrooms so feel free to reach out to Trevor@workman.com to get more information if you’re interested. For more about Radioactive, go to http://algonquinyoungreaders.com/book/radioactive/.