Myla Goldberg brings the past to life in a remarkable second novel
Myla Goldberg's debut novel, Bee Season (2000), was a word-of-mouth hit that garnered the kind of critical praise not usually bestowed on first-time novelists. Her quirky and intimate look at the life of a nine-year-old spelling bee champ climbed the bestseller list and was a finalist for several literary awards. Readers eager for a follow-up finally get their wish this month with Wickett's Remedy, Goldberg's fictional account of the 1918 flu epidemic. Clearly imagined and lovingly told, Wickett's Remedy tells an epic story the way it was lived, through the voices that laughed, cried and echo still.
Young and unaccountably brave, Lydia Kilkenny sells men's shirts in a Boston department store. There, she meets the painfully shy, well-to-do Henry Wickett, who woos her with flowery love letters and Friday lunches. Their marriage inspires Henry to quit medical school and create Wickett's Remedy, a patent medicine sold by mail order. But a ruthless business partner steals the remedy, just as "Wilson's War" and the flu epidemic steal Lydia's hopes. As the flu's grip on the city—and the nation—tightens, she signs on as nurse in a study of how the flu is transmitted, and begins to discover that the things we are meant to do are often the very things that make no sense to those around us. BookPage recently talked to Goldberg about this remarkable novel.
BookPage: How did you become interested in the 1918 flu epidemic?
Myla Goldberg: About five years ago, I came across a newspaper article that listed the five most deadly plagues of all time and the 1918 flu epidemic was one of them. I consider myself an amateur disease nerd and I'd never heard of the 1918 flu, which meant that I immediately had to learn everything about it that I could.
BP: The margin notes, which are the whisperings of the dead, highlight the flaws and lapses of memory. What inspired those voices?
MG: One of my all-time favorite books is Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov, which is a novel essentially written in annotations. I knew that I wanted to write a book in which the text misbehaved in some way, and when I realized that I was writing a book about the unreliability of memory it occurred to me that marginal voices were a great way to approach this idea.
BP: You started this book before Bee Season (soon to be a film starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche) was published. How did the success of Bee Season influence your work on Wickett's Remedy?
MG: Bee Season's success didn't particularly influence me, partly because Wickett's was already underway when Bee Season started doing so well, but mostly because the expectations I have for myself and the pressures I place on myself have always been so extreme that nothing the outside world serves up can possibly compete.
BP: Lydia seems driven to do the unexpected, in a time and place when good girls from good, close families didn't do that. What sparks that desire?
MG: Good girls from good, close families still don't do that. Lydia is driven to do the unexpected for the same reasons someone would be now—by her innate ambition, motivation and especially her curiosity, qualities fairly rare in any age.
BP: The right details transport the reader, just as the pneumatic tubes in Gilchrist's department store magically carried the customers' change to the waiting shop girls. How do you find the key details that bring a long-gone place to life?
MG: I love research. I read all sorts of books about the flu and about the period. The details I chose to use in the book were the ones that painted pictures in my head when I first came across them.
BP: You've written about a Jewish family in the 1980s and an Irish-Catholic girl in South Boston early in the past century. What time and place beckon next?
MG: I'd like to try my hand at the present day, for a change. Writing about the present is a scarier prospect for me then writing about a period that has already passed because your entire readership is made up of experts who will know immediately if something rings false.
Leslie Budewitz lives in Montana and is a legal consultant for writers.
Author photo by Jason Little.