Today Lynn Cullen joins me to talk about her new novel, The Woman with the Cure. The cover of this book intrigued me, and then the synopsis. I could not wait to read it and cannot wait to have Lynn tell you more!
Tell us more about The Woman with the Cure.
Thank you for asking me! THE WOMAN WITH THE CURE is about Dr. Dorothy Horstmann’s determined quest to stop the polio pandemic roiling midcentury America and the world. Surprisingly enough, our own COVID-19 pandemic didn’t prompt me to write this book about another one. Although scientists announced to the World Health Organization on December 31, 2019, that a novel coronavirus was wreaking havoc in Wuhan, China, I had no idea of that when I first laid hands on the keyboard to begin my book that very day. I’d been thinking for years about writing a story about the cutthroat race between Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin to find a polio vaccine but couldn’t get started. I wanted to tell the story from a woman’s point of view, and I couldn’t find my heroine. Women in science in the 1950s are truly hidden figures.
But once I found Dorothy Horstmann, she nearly wrote the book herself. Born in 1911 to poor German immigrants who worked in a bar, Dorothy should have never amounted to anything. She had to supplement the family pot by giving piano lessons as a teenager—at sixteen. She had her own listing in the U.S. Census as a music teacher. She earned a degree in English literature and then went on to medical school at a time when few women did, especially not poor ones. Vanderbilt University Hospital only accepted her as a resident when the chief thought that the D.M. Horstmann, on a stellar resume, was a man. (Years later, it delighted her to describe how the dean went “nearly apoplectic” when Dorothy Millicent Horstmann walked in the door.)
She had to talk her way into a fellowship at Yale when her interviewer reported that he’d had a bad experience with the one female he’d hired, and he was never hiring one again. Desperate for the job, she asked him if he’d hold one man’s mistakes against every other man who came after him for the next fifty years. Begrudgingly, he hired her. She stayed at Yale the rest of her life, for many years as a member of the Yale Polio Studio Unit, the flying epidemiology squad sent to outbreaks across the world. She became the first woman given a full professorship in the medical school—although that elevation only came after she was nominated for a Nobel Prize. Clearly, this was a woman who needed writing about!
You based The Woman with the Cure on a true story. How did you come across the story of a U.S. female doctor who helped in the fight against polio?
The kernel for what would become THE WOMAN WITH THE CURE came to me back in 2015 while on my Friday walks with Albert Sabin biographer Karen Torghele, who was then working as an oral historian for the Centers for Disease Control. It was Karen, with her eye-popping tales about the heroics and foibles of health pioneers, who whetted my interest in the race for the polio vaccine.
It would be four years until the writing commenced, though, and another good portion of a year after that for the story to take off. I wanted to tell the story from a woman’s point of view, and I couldn’t find my heroine. Although many women made crucial advances in the drive to beat polio—actually, a woman, Isabel Morgan, created the first modern polio vaccine, Salk only modified it—I had to root them out. Dorothy started as a minor character, but she kept stealing the scenes. It seems she really wanted this book to be written.
Did you have to do a lot of research before crafting this novel?
Historical novels notoriously require mountains of research, and this one was no different. There was the usual reading of every book on the subject that I could get my hands on, and then the combing through of the endnotes and reading suggestions in them for further leads. I consumed a lot of online literature. The English painter, Alastair Adams, hired by Yale to posthumously paint Dorothy’s portrait, supplied me with a batch of photos from which Dorothy’s warm and wonderful personality shone. I gathered personal recollections from those who’d met Dorothy and some of the other characters and information from censuses and city directories. I learned all that I could about polio patient care and patients’ experiences.
Usually, I travel to the site of every scene in my books to add authenticity, but during the time of COVID, that wasn’t possible. I got around this by choosing to write the vast majority of scenes in places that I’ve already been. For example, I found that Dorothy spent time in Denmark, which was handy since I’d been there in the spring of 2019. And fortunately, she grew up, was educated, and worked at times in San Francisco, and I’ve been there a bit, too. She had meetings at the Waldorf in New York, where I stayed each year when I worked on a scholarly journal for Emory University. I’m lucky to live not far from Warm Springs, Georgia, and I drew from my many previous visits to the original polio rehabilitation facilities and museum with its treasure trove of polio treatment lore.
And then…I had to learn all about the science behind the vaccine. Which leads me to the next question.
What was the most challenging part of crafting this novel?
By far, the toughest part of writing this book was getting the science right. Although I read much and epidemiologist friends helped to explain how the poliovirus science worked, getting it straight often hurt my head. I had to be familiar enough with the concepts to be able to whittle them down to their essentials so that the technical stuff wouldn’t bog down the story. My goal was for readers to learn just enough about the poliovirus to cheer on Dorothy in her discovery—and for them to enjoy the storytelling.
Who was your favorite character to write?
Dorothy! That’s how she went from being a bit player to the star. One of my favorite riffs with her was her reaction to people commenting on her height. She was 6’1” at a time when the average height of men was 5’6, so she stood out. From having a daughter of a similar height, I’m familiar with the odd things that pop out of people’s mouths upon seeing an especially tall person. “You’re tall” is the classic. It was fun to have Dorothy mildly respond to their blurts.
Did you always want to write historical novels?
Oh, yes. I love history, and I love reading and writing fiction. I’m living my dream.
Walk us through your day when writing. Do you write at a certain time of day?
Now that my kids are out of the house and writing is my only job, I tend to write much of the day. Funny, I was just as productive when I had to squeeze it into a couple of hours between working and kids. Maybe it’s because some combination of my seven grandkids drops by on many days, filling the gaps—I never discourage them. I feel ridiculously lucky to be able to sit under my writing tree for much of the year and watch the birds and work. My best writing comes in the late morning through the afternoon; I warm up for a few hours first by reading the previous day’s work.
What is your favorite part about being an author?
I’m gloriously happy writing and revising. Creating a world on paper is such a great escape and good emotional and psychological therapy, too. But I’m bowled over when I hear from readers at book clubs or who’ve reached out on social media. Connecting with readers is the most astonishing, rewarding part of my job.
What do you hope readers take away from The Woman with the Cure?
In the book, Dorothy realizes “the most powerful things in the world are invisible, like viruses, like antibodies, like love.” That’s the book in a nutshell.
Before I let you go, tell us where readers can find you on social media.
On Facebook, I’m LynnCullenAuthor. My Instagram page is lynncullenauthor. Or you can reach me through my website, lynncullen.com. Any way you choose, I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you, Carly Rae and readers, for your time today and for your interest in my books.
Thank You Lynn! Bookish Besties drop a comment below and let me know your favorite part of today’s interview!