Saturday, December 31, 2022

Top 10 Posts of 2022: #1


Counting down the top 10 most-viewed posts of's #1, a Q&A with Ellen Marie Wiseman first posted on Aug. 6, 2020.
Ellen Marie Wiseman is the author of the new novel The Orphan Collector, which centers on the 1918 flu pandemic. Her other books include The Life She Was Given and The Plum Tree. She lives on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of The Orphan Collector says, "Wiseman’s depiction of the horrifying spread of the Spanish flu is eerily reminiscent of the present day and resonates with realistic depictions of suffering, particularly among the poorer immigrant population." What is it like to have a book about the 1918 pandemic be published during today's pandemic?

A: It certainly is surreal! A number of people have asked if I have psychic powers because I finished The Orphan Collector in January 2019. But I can guarantee you, I don’t! When I turned the manuscript in to my editor, I never imagined we would be living through something so similar.

I thought the issues of immigration and our treatment of immigrant families would be the most talked about aspect of the book because of the character Bernice, who thinks she can turn immigrant children into what she feels are “true" Americans.

And honestly, after the virus started, I worried that people wouldn’t want to read about a pandemic while living through one. But thankfully I've discovered the opposite to be true—early readers say they found comfort and hope while reading the book, which makes me relieved and happy.

People also have a lot of questions about the Spanish flu and how it relates to what’s happening today, which is something I addressed in a piece for Vanity Fair called “What 1918’s “Forgotten Pandemic” Can Teach Us About today.” Here’s the link if anyone is interested in reading it.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Orphan Collector, and for your character Pia?

A: In between novels, I love to ask my readers for ideas for my next project. Of course they’re always happy to help and you’d be amazed by some of the fascinating stories they share!

After I finished my fourth novel, The Life She Was Given, a retired nurse asked if I’d ever heard of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and the brave nurses who risked their lives by visiting homes during that frightening time. I had to admit I hadn’t heard of the Spanish flu, but upon doing a little research I soon discovered I wasn’t the only one—1918 is called the year of forgotten death for a reason.

I also learned that Philadelphia was the hardest-hit city in the U.S. and the visiting nurses sometimes entered houses where all members of a family were dead, or both parents were dead and the children were starving. It didn’t take much digging to realize it was another little-known historical subject I wanted to explore.

Around the same time, a friend told me that her son-in-law and his twin brother had been found in a closet as infants, and the main plot point quickly came together in my mind.

As far as how I came up with Pia, I knew she had to be young enough that taking care of her baby brothers after her mother died would present a real problem.

I also made her a German immigrant living in the Philadelphia tenements because the immigrants and poor were effected by the Spanish flu at higher rate than those with living in other sections of the city. And because of the anti-German sentiment at the time due to the war, people blamed the German-Americans for the flu. It was a lot for Pia to deal with!

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and what especially surprised you in the course of your research?

A: Before I started writing, I read several books on the subject, including The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry. I also visited The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia website quite often, which was an invaluable resource.

Then I started writing and researching simultaneously, both for historical details to help make the story more authentic, and for facts and figures that needed verification. 

A lot of things surprised me during my research but probably the most startling fact was that the Spanish influenza infected one-third of the planet’s population and killed approximately 50 million people. Some estimates say it killed twice that many.

I was also shocked by how quickly victims died, especially during the second wave. They would be fine one minute and incapacitated and delirious the next.

Another subject I found extremely interesting were the medicines people used during that time, some of which were downright dangerous. Along with tying garlic around their necks, eating extra onions, and sucking on sugar cubes soaked in kerosene, they took formaldehyde tablets, morphine, laudanum, and chloride of lime.

They even gave whiskey and Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to babies and children, despite the fact that it contained morphine, alcohol, and ammonia. The American Medical Association called the syrup a “baby killer” in 1911, but it wasn’t removed from the market until 1930. I often wonder if any of our current medicines or medical practices will be considered dangerous or barbaric in the future. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story, especially given the Covid pandemic?

A: I hope readers will be drawn to Pia’s resiliency, courage, and determination in the face of impossible odds, even when shame and fear threaten to swallow her whole. I hope it will help them keep the faith that Covid will either end or be controlled someday. I also hope Bernice’s story will remind us that empathy for others, no matter their race, nationality, or religion, is always the right choice.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My sixth book is partly set in Willowbrook State School, an institution for children with intellectual disabilities on Staten Island. Geraldo Rivera did a report on the school in the early ‘70s to expose the horrible conditions. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m incredibly grateful to you for having me, and for readers who decide to pick up The Orphan Collector. I can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks!

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

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