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“There is very little self-pity among polio patients,” says Susan Richards Shreve. “Most of them are looking forward to rejoining the regular world.” The George Mason University English professor and former president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation should know—she spent two of her preteen years from 1950 to 1952 at Warm Springs, Ga., the haven for polio patients made famous by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In Warm Springs, her memoir about the experience, Shreve intersperses carefully reconstructed and strikingly detailed memories—the color of the ribbon in her mother’s hair, the game her younger brother played the day she was dropped off at Warm Springs—with descriptions of events such as her protective relationship with the deaf daughter of a black cleaning lady whom she had been chastised for playing with, her first love, and the experience of living away from her family during those formative years. Having written 13 novels and 30 children’s books, Shreve found departing from fiction to be difficult. So she used a novelist’s trick: Start with the conclusion in mind.
“I knew I wanted to start with the end,” Shreve says. “Then I went to the beginning; I simply wrote this book the way I remembered.” The memoir begins with the event that brought her stay at Warm Springs to an abrupt end: racing fellow patient Joey Buckley down a hill in her wheelchair. Buckley was ejected from his wheelchair when he reached the hill’s nadir; Shreve was blamed for the accident and expelled. She returned to D.C., where her parents enrolled her in John Eaton Elementary School, but she never found out what had happened to Buckley. “There were just too many unanswered questions,” she says. “And, you know, I’m 68. This is the time to find out.”
Though it usually takes Shreve two years or so to finish a novel, she completed Warm Springs in only four months. The Cleveland Park resident describes the writing process as a “blue heat” that swept her up in memory. She took advantage of her consortium privileges and worked on the book in the American University library. Reading books about the era, such as David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story, helped, but the bulk of the work was simply remembering. “I sat there for eight hours a day and got into this state of mind,” Shreve says. “[T]he memories would flow back.”
Having spent so much time intensely looking back over her past, Shreve says she’s ready to start looking forward again. The author currently has a new children’s book and a new novel in the works. She doesn’t, however, have any plans to write another memoir. By the time Warm Springs was finished, all of her questions had been answered—including the fate of her one-time racing partner. Some time after she and her husband toured Warm Springs following the completion of her book, Shreve was contacted by Buckley—who, while taking the same tour, had heard about how Shreve had been asking about their racing hill. Shreve immediately booked a flight to visit him at his home near Nashville, Tenn. “It was a great experience,” she says of being reunited with Buckley. “I thought he’d be mad at me.”
Shreve discusses and signs copies of her work at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 24, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, free, (202) 364-1919; 7 p.m. Thursday, June 28, at Olsson’s Books & Records, 2111 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, free, (703) 525-4227.