Sunday, April 14, 2024

Q&A with Mindy Nichols Wendell


Mindy Nichols Wendell is the author of the new middle grade novel Light and Air. She taught writing and pedagogy at SUNY Fredonia, and she lives in Western New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Light and Air, and how did you create your character Halle?


A: Light and Air was inspired by the ruins of a real-life tuberculosis sanatorium not far from my home. A detour took me past the crumbling red brick buildings of the J. N. Adam Memorial Hospital for Tuberculosis in Perrysburg, New York, one day long ago.


I didn’t know what it was at the time, but once I found out, I couldn’t get the place and the stories it held out of my mind. The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to know.


As for Halle, I think she started off being combination of the girl I was, the girl I wished I was, and the girl I imagined my mother once was. But as I wrote, she just became herself—a character I fell in love with and missed spending time with when I finished writing the book.


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I did a lot of my research at the little historical museum in Perrysburg. They have a tabletop model of the sanatorium, as well as many artifacts and photos.


They also have copies of Grit-Grin magazine, a publication written by patients at J. N. Adam that had all kinds of details that helped me understand what life was like at the sanatorium in the 1930s.


The curator of the museum told me stories and pointed me to many helpful resources: a video about the sanatorium, a book of beautiful yet haunting photos of J. N. Adam, and a woman who had been a patient and employee at the hospital in the 1940s.


All of these bits and pieces helped me imagine my way into that secluded world.


Of course, I also did a lot of reading about tuberculosis to get the medical facts straight and about the sanatorium movement in the United States and in Europe to understand the sunlight and fresh air treatment.

I was surprised by a lot of things I learned about the J. N. Adam Hospital: its self-sufficiency, the on-site zoo that housed an elephant and a lion, the set of musical furniture that played when you sat down on it, and the outdoor school.


In terms of tuberculosis, I was surprised by the many ways it changed daily life: shorter skirts for women; shorter beards (or no beards) for men; porches on houses; rooftop playgrounds in cities; and the start of disposable, single-use items like Dixie cups and Kleenex.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about tuberculosis?


A: Tuberculosis is a tricky disease. Some people who breathe in TB bacteria don’t develop active cases of tuberculosis. The bacteria can live in their bodies without making them sick. This is called latent TB. These people have no symptoms and are not contagious.


With latent TB, you might never get sick. Or you might develop an active case years later.


But then there are other people who breathe in the TB bacteria and develop active cases of tuberculosis within weeks. They become very ill with a bad cough, fever, chills, weakness, and fatigue. People who have active cases of TB are contagious and can spread the bacteria to others.


For the longest time, people didn’t know tuberculosis was caused by bacteria. They didn’t understand how it was spread or how to treat it. They thought it was hereditary because it seemed to run in families.


But really, family members were just spreading it to each other. They tried everything from magic potions and incantations to bloodletting to try to cure it.


Sanatoriums with their treatment of good food, complete rest, sunlight, and fresh air ended up being the best chance people had before antibiotics and other drugs to treat TB were discovered in the 1940s.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Via unflinching depictions of tragedy and strife, richly rendered period detail, and emotionally honest interpretations of parent-child relationships, Wendell builds satisfying suspense as Halle breaks facility rules to help her mother recover and struggles to win her father’s affection.” What do you think of that description?


A: It’s flattering for sure, but I definitely wasn’t thinking about all that as I was writing. I was just trying to tell a good story that was faithful to the facts but also filled with hope.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a couple of irons in the fire: I’m at work on a companion novel to Light and Air that takes place about 35 years later.


I’m also working on another idea that is still so young and fragile that I can’t really describe it yet except to say it’s also historical fiction—set in the early 1900s.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Two things:


First, we’ve done such a good job of fighting tuberculosis with antibiotics and other drugs that most people don’t think too much about it these days.


But the threat of TB is not gone. In fact, experts are worried about a rise they are seeing in cases of drug-resistant TB. World Tuberculosis Day is March 24.


Second, my debut novel came out three months after my 63rd birthday, so it’s never too late for dreams to come true!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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