The Daily Heller: Lauren Redniss Plants a Time Capsule

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Lauren Redniss makes visual essays that defy my categorizations. She is a journalist, archivist, diarist, folklorist, historian, and I can go on … and on. Her books resonate and inspire through an adept combination of word and picture, fact and interpretation. In Thunder & Lightning, Redniss reveals how weather shapes our world and daily lives, from the past epochal floods to current climate changes. She was nominated for the National Book Award for her enticing biography Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love And Fallout, which explores their discovery that forever altered our world.

For New York TimesOp-Art” pieces, she has combined oral history and on-location drawing to comment and report on news in nontraditional journalistic ways. Redniss’ signature fluid drawing is crammed with handwritten narratives—snippets of compelling dialog and narration—into tight tableaux.

In her new, premiere children’s book, Time Capsule, she captures a sense of wonder. Her goal is to inspire kids to preserve the present for the future through a time-honored medium. I asked Redniss to tell me how the book developed, what secrets it tells and what mysteries emerge.

This is the first children’s book that you have done in a rich career packed with visual essay books. Why go the kid’s route?
Like you say, my previous books have been visual nonfiction for adults. I like to dig into a topic and spend a few years reporting and writing. But since having kids of my own, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about children’s books. I’m interested in the way that the best children’s books engage two audiences at once—the child and the parent. A good children’s book should offer layers of meaning to both. I’m interested in books that are capacious enough to continue to be interesting on repeated readings. I like that challenge. That said, I’m not abandoning my other work! Different ideas make sense explored in different formats.

What inspired you to select the time capsule theme? Is the reason anything to do with our current impermanence and flux owing to COVID and politics?
Early in the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, I was working on another project and stumbled on a reference to something called the “Crypt of Civilization.” What?! I wanted to know more. It turns out the Crypt of Civilization is a large, empty swimming pool in Atlanta, GA. Starting in 1936, it was filled with thousands of objects meant to represent modern life. Today it’s sealed with a steel door and scheduled for opening on May 28, 8113. 8113! The Crypt inspired another project—the project for which the term “time capsule” was coined. The Westinghouse corporation heard about the Crypt and decided to create something similar for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. At first, Westinghouse considered calling their version a “time bomb,” but someone, maybe someone watching what was going on in Europe, changed the name to time capsule. In any case, by this point, I had fallen down a rabbit hole researching time capsules and time capsule–like phenomena—everything from the city of Pompeii encased in ash to the Voyager Golden Records, LPs that were launched into space by NASA in the 1970s, made to be discovered by aliens.

The way COVID had altered how we normally track time was also on my mind. Months were blurring together. People had fled offices and classrooms overnight, and these places had become inadvertent time capsules. Then, during the uprisings for racial justice triggered by the murder of George Floyd, people started pulling down Confederate monuments. Marble statues were toppled in Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia. In the wreckage, time capsules often turned up. These tended to be copper boxes filled with decomposing relics—Confederate coins, bullets, buttons, newspapers—that had been tucked inside the base of statue after statue. (At the time, since the term time capsule didn’t exist yet, these would have been called memory chests or century boxes.) The thing that fascinated me was that by placing these boxes inside a stone monument, their builders seemed to already be envisioning their monument as a ruin. The boxes could only be discovered with the monument destroyed.

At first I thought I would turn my research into an article. But one afternoon during quarantine when it felt impossible to concentrate, I sat down and wrote the text of the children’s book. The book’s narrative is very simple: A child finds an empty jar and places a series of objects inside of it. The questions about how history gets written are suggested, not explicit. Some of my research made it into a long-ish author’s note at the end of the book, and some of it I may still turn into another kind of project.

What made you decide which objects to include in your capsule?
One of the defining characteristics of time capsules is that they preserve everyday objects rather than rare or precious things that you might find in a museum. The value of the objects is personal and idiosyncratic, not market-driven or determined by “experts.” In my book, the objects that the child puts into her time capsule are these kinds of things—things from her daily life, so they evoke the texture of that daily life. A ticket for a visit to the aquarium. A set of dice.

I wanted each object to be something familiar to a wide audience of children, and I wanted each object to suggest possible backstories. For instance, in the book, the child places a “ring her grandmother gave her” into her time capsule. In the image, we see framed photos of a woman playing baseball in a kind of 1930s-style baseball uniform. We get to imagine the life of this woman, and we get to wonder who she became later, as a mother and then a grandmother. We imagine the moment she gave the ring to the child, what that ring may have meant to her, what she hoped it would mean to her grandchild.

In the book, most of what the child puts into her time capsule is regular objects—an acorn, a lost tooth—but she also includes a couple of abstract ideas: a dream, a nightmare. The most common usage of the phrase “time capsule” is as a metaphor—we refer to anything that feels frozen in the past as a time capsule. There’s a poetry to the idea of time capsules that I wanted to evoke.

I think you’ve achieved that goal. What, if any, is the item you would most like to remember?
I’ve always been a little obsessed with slowing time down. A lot of my work involves collecting oral histories, trying to record people’s stories so they don’t slip away. If I were making a time capsule, I would include a voice recording of my family. When I listen to my boys talk, I often want to freeze the moment—to capture the sound of their voices and the particular quality of their thinking at this moment in their lives. These are things I’d like to hang onto.