Lauren Redniss is a successful creator of visual nonfiction, which is a form that incorporates both illustrations and words to convey a story. She has written and illustrated three books, and her work has appeared in numerous editions of The New York Times.
Redniss has received positive recognition for her works thus far. Her 2010 book entitled “Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout” received a nomination for the 2011 National Book Award. In “Radioactive,” Redniss writes about the love and science the Curies shared. She also won the 2016 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for her 2015 book, “Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future.” In “Thunder & Lightning,” Redniss conveys sensations and emotions while discussing weather and climate change. In 2006 Redniss also wrote “Century Girl,” which she describes as following the “social, cultural and critical movements of the American 20th century unfolding through the vantage point of one woman’s life.” The New York Times nominated Redniss for the Pulitzer Prize in recognition of her stunning additions to their newspaper.
A Guggenheim Fellow, a Genius Grant recipient from the MacArthur Foundation and a professor at Parsons the New School for Design, Redniss has gained success on multiple platforms and has touched the hearts of many through her individualistic approach to connecting art with word.
Q: For those who know nothing about visual nonfiction, what would you want them to know?
A: Visual nonfiction is storytelling. It’s funny how used to visual storytelling we are. We watch television, we see movies, we watch animation. These are familiar to us, and we take for granted the combination of words and images in media. But, suddenly, when it comes to books, we have an artificial separation between words and images. For us, images and books are largely relegated to children’s and art books. I think images can be as they are in all this other media: objective ways of communicating information and emotion. For me, it just makes sense to take advantage of the combination of words and images to tell stories.
Q: What are the overarching messages that you are trying to relay in your pieces?
A: There isn’t one overarching message. Each book is quite different from one another. My first book is a biography of a woman who lived until 106 years old, and the idea was to showcase her exceptional life … She gave me access to all of her extensive archives, these primary sources, that I could rely on to build these photo collages or to write the text of the book. When I finish a project, there’s a missing ingredient, something the previous party [project] doesn’t have that becomes the motivation for the next project. So when I finish a book, I go in a different direction based on that missing ingredient.
Q: What inspired you to go down the road you are on today?
A: I didn’t set out in any kind of premeditated way to do this work. It evolved pretty organically. I always drew on location and collected stories. My grandparents were really good story tellers and I had this impulse to record things. It just made sense to me to incorporate all the things I love into my work. And things keep evolving too. Every work I do is a departure from the work I’ve done, to a degree. It’s a continuum, but I want to keep pushing things and letting things develop in ways that surprise me.
Q: Would you ever consider writing visual fiction (as opposed to visual nonfiction)?
A: I think about it. I wouldn’t rule it out. I am drawn to real stories because I am just curious … My work is a great vehicle for educating myself and for traveling and meeting other people who I wouldn’t have crossed paths with otherwise. It made sense to tell real stories, but with that said, who knows? I don’t close down any doors.
Q: When you have a new idea for a piece, how do you approach translating it from your mind to a piece of paper?
A: I start by doing research on a bunch of different levels. Traveling and recording are my primary ways of understanding the territories I am exploring. I don’t want to take anyone else’s interpretation. That’s my first and most important step. Then I continue to supplement with further research. I am always hoping that I will be lead down paths that I would have never imagined when I started the project. To this point, I’ve always found that to be true: when reporting, it’s nearly inevitable to learn things you never could have conceived before.”
Q: How do you overcome any writer’s block or lack of inspiration?
A: Just keep going! If I am working on one chapter and things aren’t going well, I switch to another chapter. I also change up the piece of the puzzle that I am working on in the moment and by looking at it in a slightly different direction, the ideas will get jogged into place. I am also willing to scrap things if they are not working. I try not to hang onto things; if it’s not working, maybe it’s got to go. I don’t want to lock myself in.
Q: What has been the most fulfilling moment of your career thus far?
A: There are different kinds of fulfilling moments. There are fulfilling moments of the process itself, of connecting with the people I meet along the way, of engaging with readers. It is all very satisfying to see someone respond to your work in a meaningful way. There are many different points that get you through the long process of writing a book.
Q: How has being a Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of a MacArthur Grant changed your career? Your stories?
A: Recognition is really nice, I can’t deny it. I didn’t anticipate these things and I am so grateful for them. They didn’t change my work, but they gave me a boost of confidence. In certain ways, they allow you to work and scale back on any day job you’ve been supplementing. They are permission to pursue your interests. I feel freer to do anything … and that feels great.”
Q: Who is your role model?
A: I can’t pick one person, as there are different people who inspire me in different ways. There are people whose artwork I admire, whose writing I admire, whose lives I admire. I am drawn to people who I admire to write about.
Q: What is your next step?
A: I am working on a book right now that I am about two years into. I expect it to take [about] another year to finish, and after that, I really don’t know. I have a lot of ideas, but I don’t want to commit to anything just yet. It’s funny because on one hand I am like, “The world is my oyster!” But on the other hand I love the combination of word, text, and image in a book. I think a book is the perfect technology. I think it is a beautiful object. I have nothing against digital technology, but I think there is something about a book, paper and that hand-bound, sewn book. So who knows!
Q: What do you have to say to any inspired writers or artists of today?
A: Pursue your curiosities. Educate yourself. A common phrase that gets repeated is, “write what you know,” but I think if you are curious about something you don’t know and you go and educate yourself about that and really immerse yourself to know it, you can write about it too. Think of your work as a long process. Keep writing, keep talking to people. Travel. Expose yourself to things that are unfamiliar and educate yourself about them.
Lauren Cueto | firstname.lastname@example.org .