Q&A With Kate Moore
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Q&A With Kate Moore
This week I have the pleasure of doing this Q&A with New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Kate Moore. Kate is the author of the historical narrative non-fiction books The Radium Girls & The Woman They Could Not Silence. Kate has also written the Sunday Times Bestselling books Felix The Railway Cat & Felix Full Steam Ahead!
Q: Kate, would you like to talk about your recent releases The Woman They Could Not Silence & The Radium Girls and what made you want to write the topics for both books?
A: Thank you for asking me to do this Q&A! The Radium Girls came first and was my first historical book. It tells the true story of the American women from the First World War and Roaring Twenties who were poisoned by the radium paint they worked with and courageously fought for justice. It was a total passion project for me from start to finish (and in fact, there is no finish, as I’m still lucky enough to get to talk about them every week!).
I first discovered the girls’ incredible true story through directing a play about them. As I wanted my theatrical production to be as authentic as possible, I conducted lots of research into the real women we were depicting on stage – and I was shocked to discover that no book existed that told their stories. As the radium girls have left an extraordinary legacy in law and science, there were books that explored that, but the book I wanted to read about them – a book that walked in step with these young women, from the teenage high of securing a job in the seemingly glamorous studios to the horror of their poisoning to the altruistic desire to fight for justice against all odds – well, that book didn’t exist. By this time, because of the play, these women had become really important to me and I felt they truly deserved a book that celebrated their triumphs and mourned their tragedies, and that told their true story in their own words wherever possible. In the end, I thought, if no one else has done it, why don’t I? It led me on an extraordinary journey, literally following in the women’s footsteps, meeting their families, reading their words in diaries, letters, court testimonies and interviews, and stitching those personal accounts into dramatic, novelistic prose that became the book – one that hopefully reads like a novel, but which is throughout a non-fiction account based on fact.
To my eternal surprise and gratitude, the book became a New York Times bestseller and I seemingly had a career on my hands writing historical books. (This was a genuine shock to me. As your intro above suggests, my work up to that point had been varied to say the least, as I wrote gift books, humor books, crime books and cat books, and I also worked as a ghostwriter for people with incredible life stories.)
My second historical book, The Woman They Could Not Silence, had its genesis in the #MeToo movement of 2017. What struck me about that galvanizing time was not that women were speaking out, but that – at last – we were being listened to and believed. It got me thinking: why had it taken so very long for that to happen? How had women been silenced and discredited in the past? One answer: through the false claim we were crazy. I became fascinated by this pernicious concept, still so prevalent today, that whenever women use our voices or express themselves in a way that breaks social norms, we are called crazy and our mental health is wielded as a weapon against us. I decided that that was what I wanted to write about next – but because I am above all else a storyteller, what I needed was to find one woman’s story to write about. Ultimately, I was looking for a true story about a sane woman in history, who had been called mad when she wasn’t, simply for speaking up. And because I wanted my book to have an inspiring ending, I was looking for a woman who had somehow defeated that false narrative and prevailed against the patriarchy.
I didn’t even know if that woman might actually exist, but I started searching for her. I fell down a rabbit warren of internet searches about women and madness. And on 15 January 2018, four pages into a University of Wisconsin essay that I’d randomly found online about “Lunacy in the 19th Century”, I found her. My new heroine.
Her name was Elizabeth Packard.
She was incredible. And her story had everything – courtroom drama, the gothic horror of nineteenth-century insane asylums, shocking medical history, dramatic twists and turns, and above all else an inspiring heroine fighting against this injustice that still resonates today. And the best gift of all: Elizabeth was a writer – or, at least, she became one. On 18 June 1860, she was committed by her husband to an insane asylum…just because she disagreed with him. That was legal back then, when wives were legally seen as the property of their husbands (rather than sentient beings with legal rights of their own). Committed to the torturous asylum, Elizabeth’s only way out was to conform to the social norms of her day and become an obedient wife rather than an inconvenient woman. She refused. And somehow, through this crucible of suffering, when both law and so-called medical “science” were against her, Elizabeth actually became stronger than ever. “The worst that my enemies can do, they have done,” she wrote in the secret books and journals she kept while incarcerated – imprisoned in body, but never in mind. “I am now free to be true and honest. No opposition can overcome me.” The book tells the story of how this housewife from Illinois ultimately went on to become a kick-ass activist, who successfully fought for the rights of women and the mentally ill.
Q: Are you working on your next historical novel or is it another Felix The Cat Novel?
A: I am working on my next historical book right now. (Sadly, despite several requests for it, there are currently no plans for a third Felix book.) The topic is still under wraps as I’m the kind of writer who needs to sort of marinate with my subject before revealing it to the world, but I’m really excited about it and the research is going well so far. It’s going to take me years to go through all the material I have, let alone write it, so it’s very much a “watch this space” answer right now. I really hope those readers who have enjoyed my other books will stick with me and find the new book worth the wait…whenever it eventually lands!
Q: What is the research process like when writing a historical novel?
A: Because I write non-fiction, not fiction, it’s very detailed indeed. I don’t make anything up. Everything – from what the weather was like to what the people were wearing to descriptions of the settings they’re in – has to be thoroughly researched and documented.
I think every writer’s process is different. Mine is to research everything first, before I write a word. Research can be with historical newspapers, court records, medical records, letters, diaries, memoirs, official documents etc., etc. This list, really, is endless! My process is that every source is given its own unique reference code. I create a chronological timeline for the events I’m writing about, and anything interesting from my sources (a quote, a fact, a date, a description) goes into that chronological timeline, with its unique reference code alongside the item, so that, if I need to, I can find it later within seconds.
Once I’ve plotted all the interesting bits from my sources (this is the biggest part of the process for me in writing a book, and can take years), I read through it all again, sometimes a couple of times. Those timelines themselves will be hundreds of thousands of words long; for The Woman They Could Not Silence, I ended up with four separate timeline files, because my computer kept crashing with fewer.
Once I’ve reread them, I create a blueprint for writing the book, which is almost a paragraph by paragraph guide, so I know exactly where in the book I’m writing about what, and have a sense of how the narrative unfolds. This is where I can start to have fun from a storytelling perspective, plotting cliffhanger chapter endings, building in twists and reveals that the reader doesn’t see coming, and so on. The blueprint also tells me where I can find that thing I want to write about in chapter 2, paragraph 2 in my timeline. The blueprint is a really helpful guide, but it’s not set in stone – I can deviate from it while writing, e.g. if a chapter feels like it’s becoming too long or if I feel I’ve got too many characters with stories in the narrative and one has to wait a bit longer than planned to be introduced.
Once the blueprint is finished, I am ready to write. I do so really quickly because of all the prep I’ve done beforehand, and my first draft is usually ready in a matter of months or even weeks. Then the editing starts! Both my historical books were about 60,000 words too long on first draft and had to be pruned back. From memory, even my Felix books were about 10,000 words longer than had been commissioned, but on those occasions my editor let me keep them 😊
Thank you so much again for asking me to do this Q&A. I hope your readers might enjoy my books if they decide to pick them up! If they’re interested to know more, they can visit www.kate-moore.com, where they can also subscribe to my occasional author newsletter, if they wish to do so. Thanks again!