Many writers begin their books with a character or setting in mind—but not first-time author St. John Karp, whose debut received a starred review from Kirkus earlier this year.

“I like to start with a really insane title, then think of what that story could be about,” Karp says. His debut, Radium Baby, certainly has such a title—and a story that Kirkus called a “devilishly rich, satisfying scientific confection.”

In the tradition of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Karp’s darkly comic YA novel chronicles a boy’s efforts to find himself and improve his lot in life. The titular baby refers to the lost child of Alexander and Valerie Pepperpot (“the most famous scientists in the world”), who was sent to an orphanage after the Pepperpots’ fascination with radium led to their untimely demises.

In 1927, when the U.S. government teams up with a floundering radio executive to sponsor a contest and find the Radium Baby—with the inheritance of the Pepperpot estate on the line—Karp’s protagonist, Sam Ticky, is one of three 13-year-olds, all born on the same day, who come forward to claim the title. Their quest takes the youngsters around the world as they compete in a series of increasingly strange challenges to prove who among them is the rightful heir to the Pepperpot legacy.

Karp says he set his novel in the 1920s since it was “when everything interesting was happening: jazz, Prohibition, radium cures, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.” But his story draws as much from his own wild imagination: Radium Baby is as fantastic as it is historical, equal parts magic and science, and with plenty of humor as well. “Karp’s madcap imagination keeps readers hungering for the final outcome, and his prose sparkles with his flair for the absurd,” the Kirkus reviewer wrote.

“I think [the humor] serves to make the book more readable, while also setting off the darker elements. You get more of a contrast when something serious or dark happens—it seems more deadly somehow if you’re laughing at the same time. Everyone loves the Joker in The Dark Knight because he’s both funny and very sinister.”

Radium Baby isn’t lacking in its “darker elements,” but its sense of the absurd provides a good counterpoint to Sam’s moving, sometimes-perilous journey toward finding out the truth about his identity—a balance especially important in YA fiction.

On his decision to self-publish, Karp says: “I had been shopping around for agents and kept being told, ‘This is really excellent writing, but we can’t sell it to this age group.’ And I thought, well, I can.”

Since the book’s Roaring ’20s–themed launch party, Karp has participated in a few independent publishers’ events to promote the book, most recently the San Francisco Zine Fest. Although the San Francisco–based Australian transplant “pays the bills” as a computer programmer, he’s already at work on a new novel he says will be “another humorous book—half murder mystery, half Western and some gore as well,” influenced by British-made Western films of the 1960s.

Although he doesn’t have plans to return to the world of Radium Baby just yet, he says, “If people were knocking down my door for a sequel, I have a good idea.”

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