One of my favorite things about doing the WomensHistoryReads series is the opportunity to connect personally for the first time with writers whose work I admire. Every connection starts somewhere — and so often, with a book!
When I first decided to write a historical novel set in an insane asylum, I of course checked out books that shared that setting, and one of the most well-read and beloved of those is Ellen Marie Wiseman’s What She Left Behind. I was riveted by its twists and turns. Several years later, this series gave me the chance to reach out to Ellen for a Q&Q&Q&A, and I’m sure you’ll love reading her thoughts here as much as I did.
Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.
Ellen: My mother and grandmother were the inspiration behind my first novel, THE PLUM TREE, which was the book that got me into this crazy author gig. The seeds for my debut were planted in my childhood, during numerous trips to visit my family in Germany. My mother came to America alone by ship when she was twenty to marry an American soldier she met while working at the PX outside her village, so I grew up listening to her stories about living in poverty in Germany during WWII.
I can’t describe what it felt like to go inside the root-cellar turned bomb-shelter where my mother hid as a child, along with her mother and siblings and as many other villagers as they could fit inside, everyone sitting on benches and mattresses, terrified and hungry, sometimes for days and nights on end. I was awed by my mother’s tales about food shortages and ration lines, the time she had to jump in a ditch with my grandmother to avoid being strafed by Allied planes, and how she and her brothers developed earaches from the constant wail of the air raid siren. My grandmother hid her illegal short-band radio so she could listen to foreign broadcasts instead of the Nazi controlled radio — a crime punishable by death. She also risked her life under the cover of night to put food out on the streets for the Jewish prisoners being marched by her house on their way to work at the air base, even though she could barely feed her own children. My grandfather was drafted, captured on the Russian front, and sent to a POW camp in Siberia. He eventually escaped and made his way back home, but my grandmother didn’t know if he was dead or alive for two years until he showed up on her doorstep one day. While he was gone, she mended military uniforms to survive.
Those stories percolated in my head for years, until one day I realized I needed to write about what it was like for the average German family during WWII while still being sensitive to what the Nazis did to the Jewish people. I also wanted to give a voice to the wives and mothers who were trying to keep their children alive on the German home front while the men were off fighting.
Greer: How would you describe what you write?
Ellen: I write about women dealing with tough issues—WWII, the Holocaust, insane asylums, child labor, animal abuse, how we treat those considered “different”—while trying to show another perspective by using historical events we often didn’t learn about in school, at the same time offering hope that humans have the opportunity to grow and change, and the strength to survive almost anything.
Greer: What’s your next book about and when will we see it?
Ellen: My next book is set in the slums of Philadelphia during the Spanish Flu of 1918, the worst pandemic the world has ever known. The story follows a young immigrant whose mother dies during the epidemic, leaving her to care for her twin baby brothers until her father returns from the war. Eventually she’s forced to search the quarantined city for food and leaves her brothers sleeping in a bedroom cubby, with bottles, blankets, and promises to return as soon as possible. But when she comes back, they’re gone.
The manuscript is currently in my editor’s hands, so I’m not sure of the title (although I have one in mind) or the release date. Hopefully it will be out by the end of the year!
Greer: Sounds amazing! Can’t wait to read it.
Ellen: A question for you: While writing my second book, WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND, which is set at Willard State Lunatic Asylum, I found the research into the early treatment of mental patients shocking, yet fascinating. What I want to know is, what was the most surprising thing you learned during your research for WOMAN 99? (which I’m really looking forward to by the way!)
Greer: Thanks! I’m sure my research experience was similar to yours in many ways. Some of the treatment of those institutionalized for mental illness was just appalling, and the doctors, each well-intentioned or utter quacks, attempted all sorts of “cures” that we now know fly in the face of science. Water cures, rest cures, benches, pulling teeth — they’d just throw whatever they could at the problem. If anything, I found myself surprised when I came across treatments that do now make sense given what we know. Some asylums offered fresh air in a beautiful setting, light work, regular exercise, and removal from the everyday environment. Which sounds like the kind of yoga retreat modern people would pay a lot of money for! So one really has to look at particular institutions and not paint them all with the same brush. I invented Goldengrove Asylum so I could combine strengths and weaknesses of different institutions to tell the story I wanted to tell.
For more on Ellen and her books: