Short and Sweet: Sofi Papamarko + Radium Girl

May 10, 2022

Writer Sofi Papamarko says the "immediacy and instant gratification of short stories" is what draws her to the form. We learn more about her collection  Radium Girl (Wolsak & Wynn) and read some of the title story for Short and Sweet.

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May is Short Story Month, and this year All Lit Up celebrates this under-appreciated form with Short and Sweet, a little series featuring 12 short story collections and their authors, who share brief thoughts on the short form.

 

A (short) interview with Sofi Papamarko, author of Radium Girl

All Lit Up: Describe your collection,  Radium Girl, in under 100 words.

Sofi Papamarko: Outcasts and weirdos and freaks, oh my! (And you will fall in love with all of them.)

 

ALU: What do you love about the short story form?

SP: As a writer, I love that I don't have to commit to a character or situation for more than twenty pages or so before starting something new. As a reader, I love that I can experience a beginning, a middle, and an end in one sitting. I don't have to remember character names or incidents from previous chapters. The immediacy and instant gratification of short stories is very appealing to me – especially as a new-ish mom with serious pandemic brain.

 

ALU: Who is your fave short story author?

SP: George Saunders is the greatest. But in keeping with All Lit Up's mandate of boosting Canadian fiction, the best short story collection I've read this year is David Huebert's Chemical Valley. It's extremely dark and oddly beautiful and it left me breathless. I read it months ago and I can't stop thinking about it.

 

An excerpt from "Radium Girl"

On her wedding day, Imogen glowed.

We had given her the idea just a few days before. She didn’t need much in the way of convincing.

“Oh! Wouldn’t it be funny, though?”

“Togged to the bricks and then some, Moggy!”

We descended upon the bride’s house on Clinton Street early that morning, a small giggling army brandishing paintbrushes and adhesive and Undark. Olive got to work on Imogen’s pale hands, painting delicate bangles around her slender wrists after finishing her nails. I was in charge of her feet, gently massaging her heels with DuBarry special skin cream like she was the Queen of Sheba before painting her toenails with the radioluminescent paint. I asked our blushing girl if she wanted me to paint bangles on her ankles as well, but Olive shushed me.

“We don’t want her looking cheap for her new husband, Elda,” she said.

The jewellery came next. Carmela had the steadiest hand of all of us, so she was tasked with painting each delicate pearl of the green glowing necklace. It was amazing to watch Carmela work. She was as precise as a machine. Twirl, tongue, dab. Twirl, tongue, dab. She even painted Imogen’s teeth afterwards so they’d glow in the dark.

“Charlie will never forget his wedding night,” Carmela said and we all laughed. Who needs a boring old toothpaste smile when you can have Undark?

Shine, little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Shine, little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer!
Lead us lest too far we wander.
Love’s sweet voice is calling yonder!

We sprinkled loose paint powder over the bride’s freshly set pincurls like a blessing. Then, we turned out the lights and pulled the curtains tight to get the full effect.

Imogen looked like a fairy queen. She looked like an angel.

Shine, little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Shine, little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Light the path below, above,
And lead us on to love.

The stars in the sky paled in comparison to our girl and the hours fell away like brittle October leaves.

“I got blisters on my blisters!”

“Let’s dance ’til our feet bleed!”

“Let’s dance ’til our bones turn to dust!”

It had been a wonderful night.

The bride was simply luminous. Everyone said so.

*

Manufacturers have been quick to recognize the value of Undark. They apply it to the dials of watches and clocks, to electric push buttons, to the buckles of bedroom slippers, to house numbers, flashlights, compasses, gasoline gauges, autometers and many other articles which you frequently wish to see in the dark.

We’re the dial painter girls. Everyone knows us. Frankly, we’re hard to miss.

They call us the ghost girls. After the sun sets, we light the way. Walking home, taking the train, always in pairs or packs. We glow like fireflies, the dust from the radium paint luminescent on our white collared smocks after a full day’s work of painting watch dials. Sometimes we sneak up on our husbands and our beaus and our mothers and our fathers and say, “Boo!” We laugh in their faces before offering sweet apologetic kisses. Then we wash up and chop vegetables for supper.

The next time you fumble for a lighting switch, bark your shins on furniture, wonder vainly what time it is because of the dark – remember Undark. It shines in the dark.

It shines in the dark and so do we. Whenever I slip into bed next to my sister in our quiet, darkened room, my fingertips and lips glow green. No matter how much I wash or scrub, it’s always there. It’s just like in the summertime when we were children and used to eat mulberries by the dozen straight from the bush. It stained our mouths and fingers a dark purple and if it got on our clothes, our mothers got sore at us. It’s a lot like that – only the radium paint doesn’t wash off quite so easily.

Does Undark really contain radium? Most assuredly. It is radium, combined in exactly the proper manner with zinc sulphide, which gives Undark its ability to shine continuously in the dark.

I’ve had to stop hanging my work smock on the back of our bedroom door. I’ve been tucking it into a dresser ever since Allegra complained that the unwavering glow keeps her up at night.

It’s a kind of magic, if you really think about it. A kind of sorcery.

And it’s all ours.

 

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A photo of Radium Girl author Sofi Papamarko. She wears an embroidered dress and smiles at the camera.

Sofi Papamarko is a former regular columnist for the Toronto Star, Sun Media Newspapers and Metro Canada. She's also written for the Globe & Mail, Chatelaine, Flare, CBC, Reader's Digest, Salon, Exclaim! and many other publications, both living and dead. Her short stories have appeared in Taddle Creek, Maisonneuve, Room and the Toronto Star. She lives in Toronto with her partner and his son.

 

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Don't touch that dial: you can catch up with our short story month series Short and Sweet right here. And follow along on social with #ALUShortandSweet.


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