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Write On, Wednesday: Kim van Alkemade on the truth behind the fiction of ORPHAN #8

By Leslie Lindsay 

A stunning debut novel of historical fiction set in the forgotten world of New York City’s Jewish orphanages.  In 1919, four-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz is placed in the Hebrew Infant Home where Dr. Mildred Solomon is conducting medical research on the children. Dr. Solomon subjects Rachel to an experimental course of X-ray treatments that establish the doctor’s reputation while risking the little girl’s health.

ORPHAN #8 (William Morrow & Co.) is a deeply moving and deeply personal historical account about the human capacity to harm and to love. I am honored to welcome the lovely Kimberly van Alkemade to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Thanks for being here today, Kim. I am so honored to have you. I’m always so eager to know exactly what sparks an author to delve into the depths of their novels. I understand that some of your interest in the Hebrew Infant Home originated when you began researching your own family history. Can you speak to that, please?

Kim van Alkemade:  Yes, my grandfather grew up in the real Hebrew Orphan Asylum, and it was while I was researching my family history at the Center for Jewish History in New York that I came across the information about the X-ray treatments that had been done to a group of eight children at a different orphanage. The Hebrew Infant Home is my fictional creation inspired by two Jewish orphanages from the 1920s.

L.L.: And so some of the characters from ORPHAN #8 were actually some of your relatives? How was that, fictionalizing your family? I’m always so intrigued as a reader teasing out what might be real and what might be the product of the author’s imagination. How did you decide what true elements to incorporate, and which to let your fiction brain take over?   

Kim van Alkemade:  My great-grandmother Fannie Berger really did work at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. She’s the one whose husband “absconded” as they used to say, leaving her no choice but to take her sons to the orphanage. Other incidents came from my family history, too, such as using Leadville, Colorado as a location because that’s where my real great-grandfather went after he ran off, and it was possible he had tuberculosis so that’s how I came to incorporate Denver and the Jewish tuberculosis hospital there. But in the end, the story has to work, so I had to let go of my allegiance to family history sometimes.

xrayroomL.L.: I found the experiments particularly shocking, given the time-frame, the fact that through much of this story, the world is at war with Germany, and Nazis are conducting their own sinister experiments. In fact, Rachel brings that up to Dr. Solomon, who fervently declines any correlation. Can you speak to that, please?

Kim van Alkemade:  I realized it was impossible to look back on medical research in the 1920s and not see it through the lens of the Holocaust. But for the doctors doing medical research at that time, their intentions and motivations were obviously completely different. I really liked letting Dr. Solomon and Rachel wrangle over this issue. The problem with conflating any kind of medical research like the experiments I depict in the book with Nazi concentration camps is that it blinds us to the fact that here in American similar research continued after World War II, and that we need to remain vigilant against disenfranchised populations being used in this way.

L.L.: Now it’s 1954, and Rachel is a nurse in the hospice wing of the Old Hebrews Home when elderly Dr. Solomon becomes her patient. Realizing the power she holds over the helpless doctor, Rachel embarks on a dangerous experiment of her own design. Was this your goal as a writer all along, to have Rachel make an ethical decision based on her years of unjust, or did it just kind of unfold that way?

Kim van Alkemade: No, I was writing towards this ending the entire time, but the first four drafts just didn’t quite get me where I needed to be. I wanted Rachel to have to make this choice, and to seriously consider both courses of action. I wanted her to know how it felt when the tables were turned. I’m really interested in that emotional state when a person feels so righteously angry and justified but they are not getting the recognition they feel they deserve, how debilitating that emotional state can be.

[Click here to preview the opening chapter of Orphan #8.

L.L.: As I’m reading, I can’t help but think of the PBS/BBC show, “Call the Midwife.” What books, movies, shows inspired your time-period and medical research, which is all done very well, by the way.

Kim van Alkemade: I love “Call the Midwife” and I can see that connection. I’ve been watching “The Knick” on Cinemax which is set in 1910 in New York at a hospital where doctors are very experimental (and addicted to cocaine, but that’s another story). For the medical research, I read as much as I could in the time period. For example, I read Alfred Hess’s 1921 book Scurvy: Past and Preset and I have a copy of the 1920 nursing manual Rachel uses in the book. I often order used old books so I can see how things were written about at the time.  dormitory

L.L.: I’m always curious about what authors believe happen to their characters at the end of the story. Readers sometimes have a different interpretation. If there were an epilogue to ORPHAN #8, what do suppose would come of your characters (without giving away too much)?

Kim van Alkemade: That I really can’t say. My step-dad believes Rachel will have her operation and be cured, but I honestly don’t know. Actually, I do have a draft of a book I’m writing in which Dr. Feldman and his nurse are characters, so I know what happens to them! But I think it’s important to let the story be over where it ends so readers can have their own ideas.

L.L.: Can we ask what else you are working on? More historical fiction, perhaps?

Kim van Alkemade: Yes, more historical fiction, also 1920s New York, and the orphanage is in it but in a completely different way. That’s about all I can say right now!

L.L.: What is obsessing you and why?

Kim van Alkemade: Whatever I am researching obsesses me, so right now that’s the book I’m working on. For example, I have a character who takes the 3rd Avenue Elevated train to work, so I went to the Transit Museum last time I was in the city and got a book about the 3rd Ave El so I’d know where it stopped and what it was like. If anything, I hebreworphanasylumhave to reel in the research or I’d never get to the writing.

L.L. Is there anything I should have asked, but didn’t?

Kim van Alkemade:  Many people ask how long it took me to write Orphan #8 and the answer is about five years—more if you count from when I started researching the orphanages, but five years of actually working on writing and revising and rewriting.

L.L. Thanks so much for being with us, Kim! And congrats on this stunning examination of orphan life.

Kim van Alkemade:  Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book.

Kim van AlkemadeKim van Alkemade is the author of the historical fiction novel Orphan #8 (William Morrow August 4, 2015). Her creative nonfiction essays have appeared in literary journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, CutBank, and So To Speak. Born in New York, NY, she earned a BA in English and History from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.She is a Professor in the English Department at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania where she teaches writing. She lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

She spent eight years researching and writing Orphan #8. It all began with her interest in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, the institution in which her grandfather, Victor Berger, and his brothers, Charlie and Seymour, grew up. Her great ­grandmother, Fannie Berger, worked at the orphanage, first as a domestic and later as a counselor. Many of the characters and events in Orphan #8 were inspired by her family history.

For more information, or to follow, please see: 

[All images courtesy of author/publicist or from the author’s website, retrieved 8/20/15. Special thanks to K. Steinberg at HarperCollins] 

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