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Believe it or not, one of my inspirations for The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady was Nancy Drew. As a child, I read all the Nancy Drew books. Even then, I knew they weren't well written (my parents were both English teachers), but I didn't care. I loved the notion that mysteries are everywhere we turn and the way Nancy moved so easily through the world, fitting in as well in Hong Kong, France, and Hawaii as she did in her hometown of River Heights. In each new story, she revealed surprising talents -- often a helpful skill she'd already conveniently mastered (sailing) or a latent ability that took only a few lessons to master (bareback trick riding) -- and didn't hesitate to assume a new identity when she needed to blend in among strangers to obtain crucial information.
As I grew older, my tastes became more literary. I came to appreciate the gray areas in life and gravitated toward books that addressed the big questions: love, death, forgiveness. But when I began to write fiction, Nancy Drew kept working her way back into my consciousness. It didn't hurt, of course, that by then I had two daughters who also loved her.
At the heart of The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady is an actual experiment done during the Cold War on 800 pregnant women at a low-income clinic in Nashville. These unsuspecting subjects were given a "health drink" laced with radiation at their first OB appointment; many later developed cancer, as did their children. How, I wondered as I read about these experiments, did those doctors and scientists live with themselves? And how did the women ever get over such a hideous experience? I began to plan a novel that explored these questions.
Because I have a daughter with Asperger's syndrome, I also wanted to write about a contemporary family dealing with autism. So, in a classic novelist's move, I decided to marry the off-kilter family to the radiation experiment, tucking the latter into the grandfather's backstory. The two elements seemed to be meshing as I wrote my first draft, but when I finished I knew something was missing.
An editor friend who read the manuscript suggested I "find a new plot." This struck me as absurdly unhelpful, but it got me thinking. I needed the past to come into the present. Once I created the character of Marylou Ahearn, aka Nancy Armstrong (from the movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) aka the Radioactive Lady, it did.
In the novel, Marylou underwent the radiation experiment in Memphis in 1953, which caused the death of her daughter at age 10. In 2006, googling the name of the doctor who ran the clinic, Marylou discovers Dr. Wilson Spriggs's current whereabouts in Tallahassee, Florida. She decides to move into his neighborhood, go undercover as Nancy Armstrong -- and get even with him.
Marylou, whose neighbors believe she's simply a sweet old Baptist lady who has retired to Tallahassee, is smart and observant and quick to pick up clues. Trying to insinuate herself into Dr. Spriggs's family, she studies each member closely, learns their secrets, and strategizes how best to extract useful information. Brazenly playing a different role with each person, she reveals her true identity to no one. Sound familiar?
Of course, Marylou is 77, not 18. She lacks Nancy Drew's unlimited time and money and physical prowess and famous lawyer father to rescue her from danger. Marylou suffers from regret, self-doubt, and indecision. Unlike Nancy, she's been married and divorced and has had to endure not just the loss of her only child but also the terrible injustice of having been tricked into drinking a radioactive cocktail. She doesn't stumble upon random mysteries to solve; she has a single, dark goal.
And the subjects of Marylou's investigation are not dopey misguided connivers like the villain Mr. Basswood in The Whispering Statue, who never figures out who Debbie Lynbrook is until after he's caught, whereupon he screams, "You were wearing a wig that half-covered your face! You're Nancy Drew, not Debbie Lynbrook!" No, as Marylou gets to know Dr. Spriggs and his family, she realizes they're complicated, appealing, damaged, brave, and as desperate for love and companionship as she is.
Maybe Marylou Ahearn is what Nancy might've been if she'd ever grown up and burst the bubble of her charmed life. Or maybe Marylou is Nancy Drew combined with my funny Southern mother. Either way, Nancy's spirit resides in Marylou. And thank God for that, because Marylou saved my novel and made it so much more fun for me to write -- and, I hope, for you to read.