Your Guide to Painting With Radium: An Excerpt and Craft Response


Many readers of Sycamore Review are also writers. So we wanted to pose a few craft questions to Susan Frith that might illuminate her process and techniques when writing her beautiful story “Your Guide to Painting with Radium” which can be read in its entirety in Issue 23.1-Winter/Spring 2011.

First, consider your other options.

Silent Cal is in the White House and you’re a girl just out of high school in Ottawa, Illinois. This will limit you, but there are a few possibilities in town.

Do you have short arms? Then you cannot be a switchboard operator. Now look at your hands and fingers. They’re slender, yes, with well-formed tips. But what about that crescent scar from the stove lid? No department store will hire you. Don’t fret though. Few girls have the proper looks for the sales counter, and even those who do wind up in the stockroom after a while.

Have you thought about marriage? If you were planning to marry anyone, it might be Ted. He comes by on Fridays for dinner and takes you for walks downtown, past the storefront with the cloche hats in Easter egg shades you can’t yet afford. You like how Ted’s pale lashes shine under the streetlights. You let him kiss you, but only when no one is looking, because you don’t want to be called a charity girl. Still, there’s something about Ted you resist.

Well, never mind that. Radium dial painting is good work. Those glowing watches helped guide our soldiers through the dark, and now everyone wants one on their wrist. How hard can it be to paint a couple hundred watch-dials each day? And hHow else will you earn $23.00 a week? Think of the gravy-stained garter that holds together your mother’s cookbook, the one wedding present she hasn’t been forced to sell. Think of the damp grooves in your father’s forehead when you kiss him goodnight.

On your first day your supervisor, Mr. Wilson, will demonstrate. He’ll pace past each desk in the training circle like he’s ticking away the seconds on a giant clock. “Take some paint home and practice on your teacups, girls,” he’ll say. “Paint your teeth and your fingernails. Paint your dog if you have one.” He’ll pause for laughter, thumbing the belt loops of his sharply-creased trousers. Eileen, who sits next to you, will raise her twine-thin eyebrows. Then Mr. Wilson will tell you how you must constantly re-point or “tip” the brush with your teeth or lips.

He’ll lick the paint like it’s cake batter to show it tastes fine, and a dollop will cling to his bushy grey mustache. Try not to laugh. Think of something sad—the scene in The Big Parade when John Gilbert comes home from the war with his leg amputated. Do not look at Eileen.

Listen to Mr. Wilson talk about the benefits of radium—how it relieves fatigue, constipation, even baggy eyes. You know there are special tonics that the ladies on Catherine Street sip while sitting at their mahogany vanities, but you couldn’t afford them before. Now you’ll have radium with you all day long. Think of how lucky you are.

It’s your turn. Dip the brush in the paint pot on your desk. After you slip the bristles into your mouth, slowly pull them out through puckered lips. Feel the cool grit dissolve on your tongue.

To read the rest of the story, order your copy of Issue 23.1-Winter/Spring 2011 today.

Sycamore Review: The first and most obvious question concerns the length of “Your Guide to Painting with Radium.” I hoped that you might discuss the germ of the story and how your first draft differed from the final draft, and how many drafts were there in between. The story is amazingly economic, but it doesn’t lose any of it’s emotional depth in the pages that ended up on the cutting room floor. What aspects of the narrative did you focus on that enabled you to do that? Was there ever a point when the story was told in 1st person or 3rd person, and do you think that 2nd person POV allowed you tell the story in so few pages?

Susan Frith: I read an article in The New York Times several years ago about the radium-dial painters. One thing that haunted me was the short-term beauty these women gained from this poison—literally, a “glow”—in light of their later plight. I first tried to write about the topic in a third-person POV story. My draft was 26 pages long. There was so much going on—career ambitions, a love interest, family illness, immigrant discrimination—that the story had no center. On top of that, it was bogged down by my journalistic reporting of events (this happened in 1926, this happened in 1927, etc…).

I tinkered with the piece through three different workshops, doing the kind of wimpy revision that I am prone to do—cutting a few lines, adding a new scene or two—but it wasn’t until I took a class at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival that I had the guts to completely re-work the story. One night the assignment was to write a single-page “how to” piece in second person POV. I had never written in second person before, but I suspected this might be the makeover that the radium story needed. The restrictions forced me to step back from the many characters I had felt so obligated to flesh out (and the historical timeline I had clung to) in order to focus on the images of the dial painting and the women’s glow.