'Wickett's Remedy' Rooted in Drama of Flu Epidemic

Myla Goldberg, author of the best-selling novel Bee Season, talks to host Melissa Block about her new book, Wickett's Remedy. It's set in Boston in 1918, at the outset of the flu epidemic that would kill more than 20 million people around the world in two years.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Myla Goldberg had a best-seller with her first novel, "Bee Season," a dark story about Jewish mysticism, family madness and an unlikely spelling bee prodigy. Her new novel, "Wickett's Remedy," turns back to the year 1918. The book is set in Boston at the outset of the flu epidemic that would kill more than 20 million people around the world in just two years. The main character is Lydia Kilkenny, an Irish-American shop girl who becomes a volunteer nurse. Then she's sent to Gallups Island in Boston Harbor to help with experimental flu tests on naval prisoners. Myla Goldberg did a lot of historical research trying to learn as much as she could about those experiments.

Ms. MYLA GOLDBERG (Author, "Wickett's Remedy"): I was in the New York Public Library and I had totally exhausted their computer resources, and I'd totally, like, gone through their catalogs and found nothing. And then a reference librarian pointed me to this wall that had bound books of all the card catalogs that had once been in the card catalog file that was now extinct. I mean, no one has card catalog files anymore; it's all very sad.

But in this book, I found one single card in the card catalog, and it said, `1918, Naval prison, Massachusetts.' It was just this cipher of a card, and I thought, `Oh, my gosh, this might be it. This might be my link.' And when I got the papers that it corresponded to, it was a manila sheath tied up in twine. And I untied the twine and discovered a stack of newspapers that had been written by and for naval prison inmates in 1918. And so I basically right then had been granted, like, a person-to-person interview with the very people I had been trying to track down for weeks and weeks and weeks.

And so that was my experience researching this book. It was filled with these, like, wonderful moments where the world just kind of patted me on the back and says, `Yeah, you're doing the right thing. Keep going, keep going.'

BLOCK: Hmm. These experiments are trying to trace how the flu epidemic is being spread, and it's just horrifying to read about what they're doing to these people.

Ms. GOLDBERG: Yeah. All the tests that happened in the book are the literal tests that were performed on these people. And, yeah, it was horrifying, but at the same time, strange because these men were told what they were getting into, and they said, `OK, let's do it. Let's go.' And what I learned is just that these were men who had--they didn't want to be in prison; they wanted to be out fighting the great cause. And this presented them an opportunity to kind of fight for their country, and so that's why they were there. They were trying to show, `Look, we're patriots, too. Yes, we love our country, too. Here, kill us,' basically. I mean, people were dying in droves of this thing, and they knew that, and they said, `No, we're going to do this.'

BLOCK: You describe how the flu epidemic spreads through Boston and how the city becomes transformed. There are wreaths on door after door, and stores are closed. And you have the heroine, Lydia Kilkenny, go to Carney Hospital in Boston, to the clinic there. And as she gets there, the streets are clogged with ambulances and cabs and the patients can't even be driven up to the entrance. I wonder if you could read from this section, where she's describing the scope of this epidemic at the clinic there.

Ms. GOLDBERG: Sure. (Reading) `The morbid scene on the street had failed to prepare Lydia for the clinic's transformation. A day seemed somehow both too long and too short a period to have passed since she had carried Brian(ph) through the same door. The ill could not be contained by the clinic's benches. People covered every available space; some sitting, others lying on the floor or propped up against the wall. Open windows and camphor failed to mask the stink of sickness, a moist mucosal smell that hung, dank and bitter, over everything. Lydia realized with a shock that she was surrounded by people her age. The usual victims of Southeast flus and fevers, the very young and the very old, were absent. In their place were young men and women in numbers one would expect to see at a dance, only in placement of movement, there was stillness.'

BLOCK: You use a device in this book which is a layer, in a sense, of commentary on the narrative as it's unfolding. There are corrective notes that you've added along the side of the page.

Ms. GOLDBERG: Yeah.

BLOCK: Who are these voices?

Ms. GOLDBERG: These are the voices of the dead, each of whom has their own particular opinion about what actually happened on the particular events that are being described. You know, Lydia has her own perspective of things, but for everything that she thinks, you're going to have a bunch of other different opinions and varying opinions of the people who might have been around or thought they were around or think they remember being around. And so down the side of the page, as the story proceeds, you're going to have some of these people chiming in to say, `Oh, no, no, it wasn't like that. It was actually like this.'

And I guess that was born for me of what first drew me to write this story, is the fact that I didn't know about this flu. And, you know, the public, it seemed, not to really remember this flu made me really start thinking about memory and its fallibility, both on an individual and a collective level. And having these voices come in to challenge what a reader would otherwise just take as, like, you know, golden bits, you know, things that they could just assume were true from the story, was a really excellent way, I thought, to really bring home to the reader that memory is just not to be trusted.

BLOCK: There's one--one of these notes is actually from Douglas Fairbanks, correcting Lydia about the movie she's just seen with him in it.

Ms. GOLDBERG: Right. Right.

BLOCK: And there's one from one of her neighbors. Lydia's called her Mrs. Lieben(ph), and the note says, `Mrs. Liebnets(ph) wonders if Mrs. Wickett never knew her proper name or if she forgot.'

Ms. GOLDBERG: Yeah, yeah. We've got a couple offended souls in the void.

BLOCK: You know, I have to tell you when I started reading the book, I found these really annoying, and they grew on me. By the end of the book, I was really drawn to them and almost reading them ahead of the text.

Ms. GOLDBERG: Oh, that's so good to hear. Yeah, I've heard a range--people, it's a challenge. I mean, people, you get used to reading--reading is such a personal experience, and you open this book and you want to feel comfortable in it. You want to know how it's going to go. And then you have these extra texts that are sort of poking at you from the side saying, `Hey, hey, look over here. Look over here.' And it can be really annoying because, no, you want to be reading this story and you want to be absorbed in it.

And so I've had people just wonder, `How am I supposed to read this?' But I knew I had to do it. I was so enchanted with this idea of having, like, these extra texts sort of challenge memory and sort of twist this story in its own different way, partly inspired by "Pale Fire," which is one of my very favorite books, by Vladimir Nabokov, in which you open the book and it looks like it's an epic poem with annotations, and then you realize that the novel lies in the annotations. And I just thought that was amazing, so I, of course, had to try to copy it.

BLOCK: Myla Goldberg, thanks so much. It's great to talk to you.

Ms. GOLDBERG: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Myla Goldberg's new book is titled "Wickett's Remedy."

And, Myla, I wanted to ask you, too, there--you have a song named after you called "Song for Myla Goldberg" by The Decemberists.

Ms. GOLDBERG: Yeah. It's a kind of funny story. I had never heard The Decemberists, and I got an e-mail from someone saying that, `Hey, this band wrote a song about you.' And I was like, `Oh, come on, they did not.' And I went to the record store, and I looked up The Decemberists, and, sure enough, there was the album, and it had, you know, the song on it. So I bought it and took it home, stuck it in my CD player, and there was this really charming, little song, and, yeah, it was about me.

(Soundbite of "Song for Myla Goldberg")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Myla Goldberg sets a steady hand upon her brow. Myla Goldberg hangs a crooked foot all upside down. It comes around, it comes around, it comes around, it comes around. It comes around, it comes around, it comes around, it comes around. Pretty hands do pretty things when pretty times arise. Seraphim...

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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