Sofi Papamarko's debut collection of stories, Radium Girl (Wolsak & Wynn), makes it clear she is a writer who does nothing by halves: the stories are big, brave, and refreshing, leaping into perspectives as varied as Marie Curie's subconscious, that of a lecherous magician, and the titular factory worker, a fictionalized version of the exploited young women who contracted radium poisoning in the early twentieth century while working in watch factories.
The twelve tales shimmer with deft twists and turns, evidence of a writer delighting in the craft, while still being anchored in a core of emotional truth; amidst the magic and humour, these characters yearn nakedly for love, recognition, and simply to be witnessed. A thrilling debut, it has earned Papamarko, a former professional matchmaker, praise for her "enormous heart" (Jessica Westhead) and "wit, humour... and superlative writing" (Andrew David McDonald).
We're excited to welcome Sofi to Open Book today to talk about Radium Girl as part of our Keep It Short series, which focuses on short story collections. She tells us about how and why "Radium Girl" became the collection's title story, what the very different characters in each of her stories have in common with each other, and how she researched the real-life counterparts who inspired her characters.
What do the stories have in common? Do you see a link between them, either structurally or thematically?
All of the stories included in Radium Girl are meditations on loneliness and isolation. They also have strong female characters. Not necessarily strong in the sense that they have any power in the often-terrible situations they find themselves in – strong because they know who they are and/or what they want. There are also undertones of apocalyptic paranoia and dread, which certainly makes for fun reading during a global pandemic.
How did you decide which story would be the title story of your collection? Why that story in particular?
“Radium Girl” was last story I wrote for the collection. The title really encompassed the surprising inner strength and hidden potential of so many of the women and girls in these stories.
Do you think your characters have anything in common with each other, from story to story?
All of the protagonists in this collection are outsiders. For whatever reason, they just don’t fit in. From awkward teenaged girls to reluctant pedophiles, they’re a broad range of people with very little in common otherwise. It’s such a universal feeling and I wanted to explore it using a really varied cast of characters.
What do you enjoy most about writing short fiction? What is the toughest part?
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I love the lack of long-term commitment. If I quickly grow tired of these characters, I don’t have to spend very much time with them. If I don’t know what happens next in their lives after a handful of scenes, I don’t need to worry about that – their story is already complete. The toughest part is a crafting a satisfying ending. You won’t always have all of the answers, but you do want to offer the reader a bit of closure or resonance.
Did you do any specific research for any of your stories? Tell us a bit about that process.
I researched the title story and “Five Full-Colour Dreams of a Young Marie Curie” at the Toronto Reference Library over several weekends. With “Radium Girl,” I read two non-fiction books on the tragic events on which it is based and one narrative poem to see how it had previously been turned into art in a thoughtful and respectful way. With the Marie Curie story-poem, I read several books about Curie’s life, focusing on the years before Pierre was killed. I took thorough notes as I read and pulled the most interesting (to me) details. I took those facts and scenes and objects and snippets of her life and ran them through my own creative filters. I wanted to do justice to the real lives that inspired these works, but I also wanted the stories to come more from my imagination than fully-formed from history.
Sofi Papamarko is a former regular columnist for The Toronto Star, Sun Media Newspapers and Metro Canada. She’s also written for The Globe & Mail, Chatelaine, Flare, CBC, Reader’s Digest, Salon, Exclaim! and many other publications, both living and dead. Her short stories have appeared in Taddle Creek, Maisonneuve, Room and The Toronto Star. She lives in Toronto with her partner and his son.