Monday, February 27, 2023

Lynn Cullen Interview - The Woman With the Cure

Photo Credit: Parker Clayton Smith

Lynn Cullen grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is the bestselling author of The Sisters of Summit Avenue, Twain’s End, and Mrs. Poe, which was named an NPR 2013 Great Read and an Indie Next List selection. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, their dog, and two unscrupulous cats.


Greatest thing you learned at school.
How to make kids laugh.

When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
When I was nine years old, my aunt took me, along with my brother and her own daughter, on a daytrip to the Ohio countryside where she was born. A mother of five and a busy world-renowned composer of choral music, she had never singled me out before. In fact, I would never go on a trip with her again. But that summer day I was curious to see where Aunt Ruth and my mother and their family grew up. And so I slid into the backseat, bound for Eden, Ohio, as it was so picturesquely named.

I was enthralled. The white clapboard family farmhouse, built in the 1800s, had the privilege of overlooking the dirt road that divided Ohio and Indiana. A kid could throw an acorn from the front porch in Ohio and hit Indiana. Corn fields, with tasseled stalks higher than I was tall, stretched in all directions. Cows slept under a dusty oak tree (which made me think of my mother, who told me of making the mistake of riding their Bessie when she was little.)

A stroll down the rutted road to the paved crossroad took us to their redbrick, one-room schoolhouse. Through its cob-webbed windows, I saw old iron and wood desks stacked up to the crumbling plaster of the ceiling. As we walked back to the car, grasshoppers sprang from the fields and latched onto our arms with their prickly legs. Otherwise, it was just us and the corn and the cows. I felt as if I had gone back in time.

We drove the back roads to return to Fort Wayne, hitting the Dairy Queen for a Mr. Misty, what I thought then was the highlight of the trip. But Aunt Ruth didn’t take me home. She took me to her house, sat me down, and handed me a sheet of paper.

Write about what you saw, she said. At first I was surprised, then annoyed. I’d had my Mr. Misty; I was ready to get back to my usual neighborhood street kickball game. But one didn’t say no to Aunt Ruth. Forced to write or miss the game, I wrote about being a girl from rural 1920s Ohio, putting in all the sights and sounds that I’d experienced that day. After a few minutes, I forgot about kickball. I forgot about everything but writing. It didn’t hurt that when I was done, Aunt Ruth praised my work to the skies. But it would be decades before I realized the significance of that trip. It was the true beginning of my vocation for writing historical novels.

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book and why? And what is your favorite book outside of your genre?
THE STORY OF FERDINAND, beloved since childhood, is still my favorite. I love Ferdinand’s gentle ways, and how his mother lets him be who he has to be. It’s funny— the bull-fight scouts think Ferdinand is the fiercest bull of all when actually he’s just reacting to a bee sting—and scary—our flower-loving hero is jabbed in the bull-ring as he is taunted to fight—but goodness prevails. It’s perfection in less than a hundred words.

Can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about THE WOMAN WITH THE CURE?
Before COVID-19, there was poliomyelitis. For nearly 40 summers, parents had to impose their own shutdowns when polio broke out in their towns. Children were kept from others, away from pools, playgrounds and theaters. And isolation and fear of contagion were just the half of it. During the last decade of the polio pandemic, tens of thousands of children and young adults were paralyzed each summer. Thousands died. But today, unless you were one of the millions to get a polio vaccine in a sugar-cube at school — and those of us who got them do distinctly remember — or had a family member with polio, the disease tends to mean little. One of the reasons I wrote “The Woman with the Cure” was to understand how those in mid-century America responded on a day-to-day level to this existential threat. The odd thing is, I wondered about this before COVID fell upon us. It felt strange to write about a pandemic while living through one, but also comforting. If they could get through their pandemic, we could, too.

What inspired you to write THE WOMAN WITH THE CURE?
About ten years ago, my Friday walking partner, Karen Torghele, was recording oral histories of medical pioneers for the CDC. Her stories about pioneering disease detectives fascinated me, but when she talked about the competition between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin to develop the first polio vaccine, my author alarm went off. I knew I had to write about the race for the vaccine. But just as surely, I knew I wanted to write about the race for the polio vaccine from a woman’s point of view.

I was sure that women had to be involved in the race. Even though popular culture led one to believe that women were busy baking and wiping bottoms—and they might be doing that, too, among a myriad of other things—some were also quietly and determinedly making contributions in the sciences. But it wasn’t easy finding Dorothy Horstmann. Even though her discovery broke the back of polio, enabling teams of scientists to develop safe and effective vaccines, you won’t find her name in many accounts. I aim to fix that.

  • 1. Dorothy Horstmann, the hero of THE WOMAN WITH THE CURE, was the daughter of poor German immigrants—her father worked in a bar—yet got into medical school at a time when few women, let alone poor ones, were accepted.
  • 2. Dorothy was admitted into the residency program at Vanderbilt because the director thought D.M. Horstmann was a man.
  • 3. The reader will learn the art of hygge, (pronounced “hooga”), the Danish way of being cozy.
  • 4. I lost count of the number of drafts it took to write the book.
  • 5. When it was announced that a safe and effective polio vaccine had been found, people went crazy with joy. Church bells rang, cars honked, businesses soaped thank-you’s on their windows.
  • 6. In the famous photo, “The Kiss,” in which a sailor kisses a nurse on V-E Day in Times Square, in real-life, the nurse did not know the sailor who bent her over for the huge smooch. She was not amused.
  • 7. An Australian nurse, Sister Kenny, totally upended polio treatment with her method of applying hot-packs to paralyzed limbs. Before that, patients were subject to the barbaric practice of having their screaming limbs splinted or even put in whole-body casts.
  • 8. Although Sister Kenny’s method was widely adopted across the United States, she was driven out within a few years and died penniless in Australia.
  • 9. A woman, Isabel Morgan, was the first to develop a vaccine in the race to stop polio. She dropped out when she thought her vaccine would be tested on children before it was ready.
  • 10. Some of the scenes in the book were inspired by photos and articles in old issues of Life and Time magazines. Looking through these issues, I was further inspired by the advertisements in them, like the one for air-conditioning that featured a woman frozen in a block of ice as she brushed her hair.
What is the first job you have had?
I sold men’s jeans in a hip store that featured a waterbed. My boss was forever trying to get me on it.

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of heartbreak or never knowing true love?
Ever the optimist, I’d go for true love, and would tell myself that somehow my heart was not going to get broken.

What is one unique thing are you afraid of?
Time. I fear that I’m not able to properly savor the goodness that can be found in simple everyday things like being with my kids or playing with my dog or cat. Time propels us past the wonders that are all around us. A conscious effect is needed to battle it.

What is your most memorable travel experience?
When I was researching a scene in MRS. POE, I was allowed to climb the winding stone steps into the 150+ year old belltower and then stick my head out one of the windows in the clock face to look out over Wall Street, far below. I also got to ring the bells and was nearly swept off my feet, Quasimodo-style.

She gave up everything— and changed the world.

A riveting novel based on the true story of the woman who stopped a pandemic, from the bestselling author of Mrs. Poe.

In 1940s and ’50s America, polio is as dreaded as the atomic bomb. No one’s life is untouched by this disease that kills or paralyzes its victims, particularly children. Outbreaks of the virus across the country regularly put American cities in lockdown. Some of the world’s best minds are engaged in the race to find a vaccine. The man who succeeds will be a god.

But Dorothy Horstmann is not focused on beating her colleagues to the vaccine. She just wants the world to have a cure. Applying the same determination that lifted her from a humble background as the daughter of immigrants, to becoming a doctor –often the only woman in the room--she hunts down the monster where it lurks: in the blood.

This discovery of hers, and an error by a competitor, catapults her closest colleague to a lead in the race. When his chance to win comes on a worldwide scale, she is asked to sink or validate his vaccine—and to decide what is forgivable, and how much should be sacrificed, in pursuit of the cure.

You can purchase The Woman With the Cure at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you LYNN CULLEN for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of The Woman With the Cure by Lynn Cullen.