Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Q&A with Ellen Marie Wiseman




Ellen Marie Wiseman is the author of the new novel The Lost Girls of Willowbrook. It focuses on the Willowbrook State School in New York, and the horrifying and inhumane conditions that existed in the institution before its closure in the 1980s. Wiseman's other novels include The Orphan Collector. She lives on the shores of Lake Ontario.


Q: You’ve said, “I was first drawn to Willowbrook by the rumors and urban legends surrounding it, some of which turned out to be true and made it into the story in ways that even surprised me.” How did you create your character Sage?


A: I created Sage, who is mistakenly locked up in Willowbrook when she goes there to search for her missing twin, because I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of someone who didn’t belong in the institution. I believe it’s a more intimate perspective than from someone on the outside looking in.


Q: How did you research the novel, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?


A: The research for this novel was utterly heartbreaking, but the more I learned about the institution itself, the more I realized that “life” inside was far more complex than I imagined. And the more my sympathy for those who lived and worked there grew.

Out of public sight and completely closed off, it provided the ideal breeding ground for human abuse and became an underground city with its own hierarchy and society, where employees could buy and sell everything from drugs to jewelry to meat.


I think the most surprising thing was that it also became a hideout for researchers to carry out controversial medical experiments; all of which were funded by the Defense Department.


Q: What did you see as the right blend between history and fiction as you worked on the book?


A: Oh, that’s a hard one! Let me just say that while I certainly wanted to shine a light on the tragedy of Willowbrook, I also hoped to entertain readers and keep them turning the pages. To try to accomplish that, I mainly used historical facts to help move the story along instead of writing huge information dumps.


Q: What do you see as the legacy of the Willowbrook tragedy? 


A: What happened there should serve as a reminder to us all that we need to be more protective of the most vulnerable among us, and that every human being has the right to learn and grow, and above all, to be treated with kindness, respect, and empathy.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I’m working on a novel centered on eugenics in America, which had a more profound effect on our lives than most people realize.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes, I’m grateful to you for having me! And I hope The Lost Girls of Willowbrook inspires readers with Sage’s ability to turn heartbreak into a force for good and entertains them with her determination in the face of danger.


But most importantly, I hope they’re troubled by the cruel reality of Willowbrook and institutions of its sort. I hope readers will be stirred by how people lived, worked, suffered, and eventually triumphed with the closure of Willowbrook.


If anyone would like to share their thoughts on my work, they can find me here:








--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ellen Marie Wiseman.

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