By Roz DeKett
If she hadn’t stumbled on a handwritten note in the minutes of a long-forgotten committee meeting, Kim van Alkemade might not have given us her powerful debut novel.
Orphan #8, inspired by life in an orphanage for Jewish children in 1920s New York, is historical fiction solidly grounded in fact; such orphanages were testing grounds for medical experiments. The committee meeting note that Kim found as she was delving into her family history was a spark that lit a fire.
The note, from May 16, 1920, recorded the approval for wigs for eight children who had alopecia, caused by repeated x-rays at the Home for Hebrew Infants.
“I think, like most people, I didn’t really know anything about it,” Kim says. “Then the particular thing with the x-ray treatments; I had no idea. So that’s why it caught my attention.”
The note was the seed for the story that became Orphan #8.
Making the leap from fact to fiction
Kim’s research took her into the disturbing world of medical experimentation on orphans in the first decades of the 20th century. Her book intersperses the early life of Rachel, the Orphan #8 of the title, with Rachel’s life as an adult in the 1950s.
As the 1950s Rachel learns the real meaning behind the many x-ray “treatments” she received as a child from a woman doctor at the orphanage—the reason that as an adult, she still wears a wig to cover her baldness—Kim takes the reader on a journey that masterfully walks the fine line between fact and fiction.
Kim’s research, and her own family history (her grandfather was in such an orphanage after his father abandoned the family; his mother, Kim’s great-grandmother, worked there) could have supported a strong non-fiction account. But that committee meeting note opened a different door.
“I think the first things that came to me were two big contrasts,” Kim says.
“The contrast between the woman doctor and the children, and then, I loved the contrast between one of these children and another child at the orphanage. She had beautiful hair, and she never got her hair cut. That was a true story my great-grandma told me, so I knew that had really happened.”
Kim began to imagine the girl without hair as a character, and she ended up being Rachel.
“Those contrasts seemed so dramatic that I really wanted to do it as fiction so I could develop those dramatic tensions and not feel so constrained by one person’s true, particular story,” Kim says. “So that’s when I went from non-fiction to fiction.”
Although Kim’s great-grandfather vanished, as does the character on which he’s based, he didn’t kill anyone. And although Orphan #8’s Dr. Mildred Solomon is also modeled on an actual doctor who conducted medical experiments on orphans, Kim says that for fiction it’s sometimes better to take “bad” notes. When you’re not bogged down by facts, you have more freedom as a writer.
“With fiction, you can heighten the drama,” Kim says. “When you’re reading fiction you’re looking for a different sort of experience. You’re looking for a more aesthetic and emotional experience, something that takes you on more of a journey.
“I enjoy, in historical fiction, being able to turn up the drama and the conflict. That was really fun.”
Finding the right structure to tell the story
With its complex themes and characters, Orphan #8’s structure (alternating by chapter between the 1920s in third person and the 1950s in first person) presented a challenge.
“That took a number of attempts,” Kim says. “I put it together and took it apart about three times, where I was going back and forth between the chapters. Then I took them apart and worked on just the back story chapters and then just the 1950s chapters.
“And then I put them back together again. And then I took them apart again.” She laughs.
While figuring out how to structure her novel, Kim was reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and Bel Canto.
“I wanted to refresh myself on how she had managed the structure of the plot,” Kim says. “In State of Wonder, it’s fairly chronological but then at the end, everything happens, and in Bel Canto she has fantastic control over the third person.”
“It was after reading those that I decided to make longer chapters that were maybe broken up a little bit within the chapter, so that we’d stay with each time period for a nice while. So, that aspect of it, I’m really happy with how it turned out. It was really hard, and I had to try it a number of times to make it work.”
After four years of work, Kim’s manuscript felt complete at 95,000 words and she began to query. A year of that without a bite from an agent or a publisher; then she attended the New York Pitch Conference. More rewriting—and finally, a home for Orphan #8 with William Morrow.
Bringing fictional characters to life
Rachel’s brother Sam is as complex as she is. It seemed to me that an author could easily have taken a more stereotypical “big brother looking after little sister” approach with him, but instead, Kim built him as a conflicted person, just as interesting and affected by events as Rachel herself.
“I thought a lot about how that experience would have changed him,” Kim says. “Especially if, as such a young boy, he felt responsible but was unable to ever exercise that responsibility, and that it could make you angry and sort of tired of that expectation.”
Here too, Kim was able to draw on the experience of her family members. Her grandfather, Victor Berger, spent much of his childhood in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum after his father abandoned the family. In his seventies, he finally talked to Kim about his early life.
“When he finally told me about how his father ran away, he was still angry,” Kim says. “He wasn’t angry at the orphanage, but when he told me about how his father left, he was angry. And the feeling that that kind of anger could stick with you for your whole life and would need to be expressed somehow helped me think about that character, Sam.”
Through Kim’s many drafts, writing and rewriting, she continued to think about and explore her characters, gradually working her way into “getting more in depth, more internal.”
“I had to work my way up to that,” Kim says. “So, my early drafts were much more cinematic. You could see what was happening, all sorts of descriptions, that felt strong for me at the beginning.
“But what were they feeling, what were they thinking? That was something I had to work my way up to as I wrote the characters and got to know them better. Like for Sam, I didn’t understand him as well in the first couple of drafts. Mildred Solomon was the last character I came to understand and to develop.”
Keeping track of the twists and turns
Kim says she starts with plot but character and situation aren’t far behind. She doesn’t use a formal outline; she plasters her wall with Post-it® notes to keep track of chapters, main scenes, the timeline, and where things go when she moves them around.
“The plot gives me something to hang on to, because when you’re writing and you’re spending all morning on one or two pages, it’s really easy to get lost and just spin out of control,” she says.
“So having a sense of the main plot points and where the story is going helps me know where I am in this big mess of a novel.”
After William Morrow bought the book, and Kim made further changes on the suggestion of her editor, Tessa Woodward, whom she met at the New York Pitch Conference.
“She was able to pinpoint a couple of structural problems,” Kim says. “There were a couple of under-developed characters and over-developed moments, so when I went back into the rewrite, it became a lot better than it was.
“Her notes to me are usually very brief, but they’re exactly what I need to go ahead and make things better.”
The next book
Kim is now working on another novel, also historical fiction and set in New York in the 1920s. So she’s back to researching as well as writing. And as for other historical novelists, the challenge is finding the right balance between the facts and the story she wants to tell.
“You get overwhelmed with the facts, and you feel really responsible for the facts,” Kim says. “So when I need a little corrective, I read Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow. That book is still so fresh and so great, so that’s my tonic.
“I read that every couple of years, and it reminds me, you can do whatever you want.”
© Roz DeKett
About the Author
Kim van Alkemade was born in New York. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in literary journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, So to Speak, and CutBank. She teaches writing at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Orphan #8, published by William Morrow in August 2015, is her first novel.