Q: Could you talk about how this book started – what gave you the idea for it?
A: My grandpa grew up in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Manhattan and I was interested in learning more about his childhood so I went to the Center for Jewish History in New York to look at the orphanage’s archives. That’s where I read about a group of children who’d had X-ray treatments at another orphanage from a female doctor. I was really intrigued by this and I began to imagine a situation in which one of the children who’d had these treatments could confront the doctor who had experimented on her.
Q: What was the most surprising thing that came out of the research for Orphan #8 – what was it that you hadn’t expected?
A: The fact that so many women were involved in medical research on children. Dr. Alfred Hess worked with two different women in his research on scurvy and pertussis at the Hebrew Infant Asylum, and the doctor who actually gave the X-ray treatments I read about was named Elsie Fox, a 1911 graduate of Cornell Medical College. Dr. Fox went on to run a school for training X-ray technicians in the Bronx and she was a member of the New York Academy of Medicine.
From “Q and A with author John Searles”
Q: The term “orphanage” seems quaint now; indeed, most of today’s “orphans” are placed in foster homes, with the goal being family reunification. What is your opinion of how contemporary social service agencies handle children who have no parents or whose parents are unwilling or unable to care for them, compared with the institutional care provided 100 years ago?
A: In the novel, Rachel considers this very question. Even during the years in which Orphan #8 is set, the large institutional orphanages were falling out of fashion as foster care and group homes were on the rise. The philosophy behind the huge orphanages was that children of poor immigrants were probably better off away from their parents and relatives (if they had them) because the institution could provide a clean, healthy environment that promoted Americanization. In many ways, the actual Hebrew Orphan Asylum really saved my family. It gave my grandpa and his brothers a stable, predictable home and because my great-grandma worked there, it kept my family together. I’m not sure what alternative my great-grandma had at that time.
Q: For you, what is the line between fact and fiction? How much liberty do you think a writer of historical fiction can take with historical fact?
A: Orphan #8 is inspired by true events, but it is not a true story. I made up every character, the settings, the situations, all the dialogue (except for some of the things Dr. Hess says). Even the characters based on my family members are fictional creations. Yes, I incorporated a lot of research, and the main situation of a female orphanage doctor giving X-ray treatments to eight children did happen—but this novel is absolutely fiction. I include as much fact as possible, however, because I want readers to have an authentic experience. The great thing about historical fiction is that it’s not a dissertation. I can take liberties. I can invent some things. I’m not sure what it’s like for the reader, but I suspect some things that seem very factual I actually made up!
From interview with book blog “Books on the Table”
Q: 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.
A: 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 Present 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.
From interview with book blogger Leslie Lindsay
Q: Do you feel the need to define yourself as either a historical fiction or LGBTQ writer? How has your identity influenced your writing?
A: I am a historical fiction writer whose characters are gay or lesbian. It’s what I wanted to read growing up, it’s what I want to read today, and it’s my project as a writer to situate queer people in the historical past because it is true and because we are underrepresented. I don’t think a writer needs to identify as LGBTQ to write convincing queer characters, and I don’t think queer writers should feel compelled to focus on queer characters in their writing, but for me, my writing and my identity do intersect.
From interview with AWP LGBTQ Writers Caucus
Video interview with Jeff Wood, owner of independent bookstore Whistlestop Bookshop, where Kim discusses her research and writing process for Orphan #8