This week’s blog is an interview with Kate Szegda, author of the award-winning, middle-grade novel, Pharmacy Girl. Written before the current COVID pandemic, Pharmacy Girl is a story of hope during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918.
What was your inspiration for writing Pharmacy Girl?
The primary inspiration was my mother’s stories about having the flu when she was four years old. She and Aunt Juanita and Cousin Gen came down with Spanish influenza at the same time and were “nursed together in the front bedroom over the family drug store.” I wondered how the family survived without losing anyone. Spanish influenza became a story I just had to tell.
How were you able to research your family to write the book?
Family stories were the starting point in gathering information and ideas. My family is big on family history. My mother, Aunt Juanita, and my brother were the mainstay of stories, and our collection of family photographs inspired details, narrative, and setting. My grandfather loved taking pictures, so I had a wealth of photos to draw on. Many of my grandfather’s photos, thanks to my Aunt Juanita, appeared in a local history book, Images of America: Highland Park, NJ. That book was a great inspiration.
What was a story you learned about in your research of your family that interested you or surprised you?
There are several worth mentioning. My brother told me the story about how our mother (Tiny) actually waved the revolver around the store. That was a big surprise. And he told me how our grandfather was dragged behind the fire truck when he couldn’t get his footing on the back. One other surprise was discovering a small ad placed by my grandparents in the New Brunswick paper, The Daily Home News, telling folks in Highland Park they could leave sheets and pillowcases at the drug store for the Red Cross linen drive.
How did you research the historical aspect of Spanish influenza?
For starters, in addition to what my mother and aunt told me about their recollections of Spanish influenza, I used two anchor books: Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic and Barry’s The Great Influenza to frame my basic understanding of the pandemic and to provide some of the details that make the story come to life. I relied on the New Brunswick paper, The Daily Home News, and The New York Times for a timeline of events and more everyday details about the war and the epidemic. While I was researching, The Daily Home News was not digitized, and I made frequent trips to the New Brunswick (NJ) Free Public Library to view their microfiche collection. The third significant source of information I gathered from primary sources gleaned mostly from eBay. I have a wonderful collection of cookbooks, government publications, period medical books and histories, girls’ fiction of the day, and even a 1911 Thesaurus that I still use regularly. eBay also offered some charming ephemera including paper dolls from the day. Paper dolls were a regular feature in women’s magazines, and I was lucky to win a two-page, bride and groom set from September 1918 McCall’s. During my COVID baking frenzy, I made brownies from the 1917 Fanny Farmer Boston School of Cooking Cookbook. The brownies used very little flour and were delicious.
What are some things you learned about the Spanish flu that really stuck out to you?
Three facts about Spanish influenza that struck me were 1) how quickly people died, 2) how most victims were young and healthy adults—the least likely to die, and 3) the sheer enormity of the pandemic.
Spanish influenza could kill in days. A person could become ill in the morning and be gone the next day. Usually, epidemics affect the very young, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions. Spanish influenza struck hard at healthy 20 to 40-year-olds, turning what would normally be a U curve into a W. And finally, the incredible numbers of people affected were mind boggling. Experts estimate some 50 to 200 million people worldwide may have died from Spanish influenza. These numbers are so hard to fathom. I think more concrete examples tell the story better, e.g., there were not enough coffins and gravediggers couldn’t keep up.
In ten months, September 1918 to June 1919, ¼ of Americans got the disease. Census figures for 1918 estimate the US population at 103M. (This number does not include people overseas because of the war.) Using the 103M number, upwards of 25M Americans were infected. Of those, 675,000 died. Compare that to COVID’s 4.9M cases and 161K deaths in the US. (CDC, August 9, 2020)
One final fact that made an impression: President Wilson came down with the flu during the Paris peace talks in 1919. Would the Treaty of Versailles ~ and 20th century history ~ have been different if he had been well?
What similarities have you seen with COVID and the Spanish flu?
Both are “novel” viruses, meaning we have no immunity and we have no vaccine (yet). For now, we can only treat symptoms and do what we can to control spreading the disease through social distancing, hand washing, and wearing masks. Although, I thought it was interesting that in 1918 we also had to tell people not to spit or share common drinking cups.
Like today, schools and social gathering places closed including soda fountains, saloons, and even churches.
People relied on the media (newspapers only in 1918) and government printed materials for information.
And like today, there was the danger of overwhelming hospitals. As in 1918, the medical communities established temporary hospitals to treat the overflow of flu patients.
What about some of the differences between then and now?
Although schools, restaurants/bars, and churches were closed during the height of the pandemic in 1918, people did not stay home from work as a preventive measure because there was a war going on. So economically, the country did not shut down.
In 1918, we did not have ventilators. We did not have antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections like bacterial pneumonia. We did not have anti-viral medications. Viruses were not known per se because we did not have the microscopes with enough power to see them. Scientists did think there was an agent smaller than bacteria, which they called an “unfilterable bacteria.” Researchers did develop a “vaccine,” but it was ineffective because it targeted Pfeiffer’s bacillus, a bacterium that was found in many victims but was not the root cause of influenza.
We had no TV, radio, cell phones, or social media. And there was a shortage of doctors and nurses because of the war.
Tell us how COVID has affected your life as an author.
Because of COVID, in-person events like book fairs, school visits, and award ceremonies stopped, but I’ve been able to increase my online presence through a YouTube interview and a local podcast. YouTube interview with Eileen Sanchez. Podcast with Christopher McLean, May 23, 2020, #13 A Time When podcast.
I did consider videotaping myself reading Pharmacy Girl aloud to post on my website and actually made several videos. But logistics of managing large video files overwhelmed me, and I stopped. Awkwardly, because of COVID, interest in the Spanish influenza pandemic and pandemics, in general, may be driving sales. I’m a little uncomfortable about that, but if Pharmacy Girl can help readers weather this pandemic, then the book is a success.
Things that I’ve done not related to COVID
COVID or not, writing and marketing jobs still go on; although I admit, there was a spell early on that working on the next book was not happening. Now I am re-energized and working on research for the sequel. I did do a lot of reading and wrote four reviews for Amazon and Goodreads during COVID. One book, Breathe, by Sara Fujimura is a young adult novel about Spanish influenza in Philadelphia. Another timely book was Freedom Lessons, by Eileen Sanchez. It is a fictionalized account of a Jersey girl and her experiences as a new teacher during court-ordered integration in Louisiana in 1969.
During COVID I had the good fortune of winning local and national awards for Pharmacy Girl. The book took First Place for Children’s Fiction in the 2020 Delaware Press Association’s Communications Contest. PG then went on to win second place in the 2020 National Association of Press Women’s Communications Contest. This led to another round of press releases that have been fruitful and updating my cover copy and front matter. I also made time to explore marketing opportunities like BookBub and Booksey and revamped my Amazon advertising. The new ad and increasing dollars spent has paid off.
Tell us about the sequel.
Set in 1919, the sequel will have Billy inviting Josie to a cotillion at his military school. What kind of trouble can they get into at a dance?
Link to webpage: Kate Szegda Author
Link to Amazon: Amazon
If you wish to purchase Pharmacy Girl locally (DE), here is the link to the Hockessin Book Shelf: https://bookshop.org/shop/hockessinbookshelf
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