Mark Twain once said that, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” But I’d love to know what he’d think of Brooke Bolander’s new novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing (paperback, Kindle), a story that — as she reveals in the following interview — mixes two true but unconnected events into a new fiction.
What is The Only Harmless Great Thing about?
An alternate history, historical event remix combining the story of the Radium Girls — young women hired by several different factories in the early part of the twentieth century to paint watch dials with radium-laced dye, and who subsequently succumbed to radiation poisoning as a result of deliberate negligence by their employers — with the life and public execution by electricity of an abused circus elephant named Topsy, one of the first deaths ever recorded on film. The book follows several alternate timelines, skipping variously from past to present to future, with occasional dips into poetry and the language of myth. It’s about the stories we tell and how they shape the world, for good or for ill. It’s also about anger and solidarity, what happens when rage from different quarters is allowed to combine and how the resulting chain reaction can change the course of history.
Where did the idea for The Only Harmless Great Thing come from, and how different is the finished novella from that initial idea?
In 2014, a thousand years and a million lifetimes ago, an author friend on Twitter — the lovely and talented Helena Bell — asked whether she should write about “feathers, dead elephants, or radium poisoning,” and my brain, odd machine that it is, went from there. The image of the factory girls delicately dabbing away at watch dials got conflated in my head with the recent practice of teaching elephants to “paint” art for tourist dollars, and historical context filled in the gaps.
The final inciting pieces of the puzzle came from a really excellent book on the history of uranium by Tom Zoellner, Uranium: War, Energy, And The Rock That Shaped The World, and a short film on a very peculiar theory concerning the efforts to try and leave a warning message for future generations at nuclear waste sites. No joke, it involved genetically engineering cats to change color when in proximity to radiation, then building a cultural mythos around these color-changing felines that would ward people off.
After that it was just a matter of writing it all down and hoping for the best.
You kind of already answered this, but why did you decide to make The Only Harmless Great Thing about an elephant as opposed to a giraffe or a lion or a muskrat?
Humans have a long and sordid history of using and abusing elephants, cumulating with the filmed electrocution of Topsy in 1903. So far as I know, the history of exploitation concerning giraffes and muskrats is a slightly shorter subject. The list of publicly executed muskrats is, I’m gratified to report, vanishingly small.
Are there any writers, or specific books, that you feel had a big influence on The Only Harmless Great Thing, but are not big influences on your writing as a whole?
The aforementioned Tom Zoellner’s Uranium: War, Energy, And The Rock That Shaped The World was unexpectedly one of the major catalysts for finally rolling the book into a cohesive shape, as was The Making Of The Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. I enjoy a lot of nonfiction and historical writing, but I don’t think I was expecting to be so taken in by the history of uranium and the nuclear program, respectively. It became a minor obsession for a while.
What about non-literary influences? Are there any movies, TV shows, or video games you think had a big impact on The Only Harmless Great Thing?
Not any in particular, or at least not any that don’t influence all of my work in one form or the other. Folk tales, Mad Max: Fury Road, the songs of Neko Case, epic poetry, Team ICO’s beautiful games [Ico, Shadow Of The Colossus, The Last Guardian] and their “design by subtraction” ethos, the 1992 Sega Genesis game Ecco The Dolphin — take your pick. The work of Richard Adams, for making the inner lives of animals as alien as I sensed they needed to be, the fiction of Cat Valente for letting me know that form and structure could be twisted inside-out as much as I wanted to twist to glorious effect, and the novels and comics of Neil Gaiman, who taught me long, long ago that history is nothing more and nothing less than stories intertwined.
A lot of books that I’ve written about lately have not been one-off stories, but are instead part of a larger series. What is The Only Harmless Great Thing?
It is very much a stand-alone book. It tells the stories it wants to tell, kicks a hole in the amplifier, and jets. Stories should only be as long as they need or want to be.
So has there been any interest in making a movie, TV show, or video game of The Only Harmless Great Thing?
No, and that’s fine. I find the recent push to make all texts into movie franchises or television series a bit misguided at best and crass at worst. This isn’t to say that adaptations can’t be great. Lonesome Dove was changed from a 400-page novel to a six-hour miniseries and it’s phenomenal, a classic. Last year’s Arrival managed to take a Ted Chiang short story [“Story Of Your Life” from the collection Stories Of Your Life] and mold it into an equally beautiful two-hour film. I just think it’s important to choose wisely, as the Grail Knight once said.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying I think The Only Harmless Great Thing is what it is, and that it would take an incredibly talented someone to adapt it into any other shape. It would have to be experimental animation or something. Maybe a concept album? A stage play? I’ve written other things far better suited to adaptation.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Only Harmless Great Thing, what would you suggest they read next and why?
The nonfiction essay collection Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello, for its stunning understanding of the bittersweet gulf between how we as humans perceive animals personally and culturally and how they truly are. The Radium Girls: The Dark Story Of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, for a more in-depth look at just how horrible the true story of these workers is, how they were used and deceived and how terrible unchecked capitalism can be. Uranium: War, Energy, And The Rock That Shaped The World by Tom Zoellner, for somehow making the history of uranium a gripping read. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, because it’s great and of a similar nature, if many, many times less angry. And Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” [from her short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters] simply because.