To wrap up the Timeless Tour, I have the opportunity to do one final Q&A with the author of Scribe of Siena, as well as a giveaway for her novel! Continue reading to learn more.
1.You blend science and history so seamlessly throughout the novel, what first drew you to write a historical fiction novel instead of something more neuroscience-based?
In scientific research, my job is to explore the uncertain systematically, and be true to fact, or to experimental results. If I’m writing science, I have to be accurate, and include only what I know to be true, or risk losing my job. But if I’m writing fiction…well then, if the facts are missing, I can make things up. That invention is the absolute opposite, and antidote, to my relentlessly fact-based scientific work. I do quite enough neuroscience already—historical fiction is a delicious escape from medicine and science.
2. What was the hardest obstacle you had to overcome when writing The Scribe of Siena?
Time—that is, lack of time. In addition to my research and patient care, I run two courses at Columbia University Medical School, I have three school-age children, and I commute three hours a day. Sometimes when I was writing The Scribe of Siena the commute was all the time I had—when I could get a seat. I thanked the Metropolitan Transit Authority in my acknowledgments because I wrote so much of the book on the NYC subway. I’d often look up as the doors closed on my stop at 168th street…I’d been so lost in the 14th century I’d failed to realize I was supposed to get off my 21st-century train.
Here’s an example of my last two weeks, just to illustrate the problem: I finish work early Friday to go to Saratoga where two of my three children are competing in a two-day chess tournament. But when I pick up the third child from school she’s been having hours of abdominal pain. We end up in the Emergency Room. X-Rays, exams, doctors. Three hours later pain is gone, she’s fine (whew) and goes to her planned sleepover happily. We head to Saratoga late. Spend the next two days alternating between the triumphs of hard fought endgame wins and the despair of accidentally lost queens. Meanwhile, my unreasonably high aspirations to get work done between rounds are not achieved. I’d brought a contacts spreadsheet for The Scribe of Siena—Hey, my first novel is coming out in two months—TWO MONTHS! I’ll send out an email announcement! I’ll have eight hours free—that should be plenty, right? Well, not exactly. I manage to get from the Zs to the Ws, working in reverse alphabetical order. I also eat a lot of Pop chips and Girl Scout Cookies while pacing between tense matches. Saturday night we all crash into bed. Then—despair—DAYLIGHT SAVINGS! Waking up is torture. Three more matches, four more hours of driving, back home late Sunday night. Monday morning up before dawn, staggering with fatigue (did I mention daylight savings?) to get 11 year old out the door for school. I spend the day seeing neurological patients in a nursing home, culminating in counselling a family about their 30 year old family member who is in a persistent vegetative state. Meanwhile, my third grant in five months to the National Institutes of Health has to be turned in this week, but I discover a collaborator’s subcontract was sent to the wrong department and has to be rerouted (they hope in time). Try not to panic. But WOW—I’m about to publish my first novel! That night I try to figure out how to set up my Goodreads Author page. I do, sort of. Well, not really. The next day I’m training a new research coordinator—prior employee quit because she was too overwhelmed. She’s overwhelmed?
All three kids are having trouble falling asleep on time. I give one a massage and warm milk, one a lie-down huggy, one a bedtime read-aloud. Finish bedtime at 11 pm…in time to … work? I’m invited to give Grand Rounds in Philadelphia at the end of March—An honor! Start to make slides. I’m sleeping 5 hours a night at best, so of course I get sick: nasty coughing fits, lose my voice. Days later sound no better, see transplant patients wearing a mask just in case I’m still infectious. Somehow remember to schedule meeting to put together fall neuroscience course; contact 12 potential faculty members. Only two answer me.
But—my first novel is coming out in two months! This is so exciting! Finalize contract with web designer for author website (Oh My God I have an AUTHOR WEBSITE??? That is so cool). Then I re-submit a paper I’ve been trying to get published for four years, after two rejections, four requests for revisions from three journals, with three different biostatisticians. I publish my author Facebook page in the middle of the night.
Amazing news: I got a starred Publishers Weekly review, YAY! Try to show review to kids at dinner but fail for innumerable reasons and there are beans all over the floor afterwards. Write article on medieval Italian cooking as pitch to food editors of newspaper. Schedule six book talks in two states. Great news: I find out the grant I submitted last November got a fundable score! But…the project start date is in the same month my novel comes out. How interesting.
In the evening burn two pots in a row making popcorn for my kids; end up standing on a chair disabling the smoke alarm. Next morning an “earlier incident” on the B train turns my commute into a two-hour underground odyssey. See eight hours of patients without a break, starting late, ending later. Muffin for dinner at 11 pm. The next day I finish and submit grant during blizzard while my 9-year old twins argue about who has to practice piano first. Finalize author business card design after three hours of agonizing about whether I should have my photo on the back—what do I know, physician scientists don’t do that. Take my publicist’s excellent advice to leave photo as is. That paper I submitted? It’s accepted for publication! Unbelievable!— the first draft was in 2013. Get invitation to participate in S & S Timeless Tour—can I do it? What an opportunity! Author Q and A due in a week…yes? of course yes!
3. Just for fun, who would you cast as the leading characters, Beatrice and Gabriele?
I don’t know many actors. I grew up without television (perhaps why I read and write so much now? Thanks Mom!) and still watch very little. I see movies from time to time but many are for the under-12 crowd, and at least half are animated—there are not many Beatrice models to choose from in Lego Batman, for example.
However… for Gabriele I thought of Raoul Bova, an Italian actor who has that long-limbed grace, greying hair, and deep but inscrutable look about him. You get the feeling that he could be warm, if you got lucky enough to have him warm to you…but that wouldn’t happen easily. Plus he’s actually Italian…
Beatrice…I really don’t know. In a way I think she’d have to be an unknown, since she as a character is so totally unconcerned about image that to have someone gorgeously famous would be strange. Emily Blunt’s intelligence and unselfconscious beauty appeal to me.
I hope I get to the point when this will be a real decision! Suggestions welcome…
4. Beatrice accepts the thought of time travel very quickly at the beginning of the novel, unlike most historical time travelling novels where the main character dwells on it, or can’t believe it. Why did you make this decision? Was it to move the storyline along faster to the meat of the plot?
I didn’t “make this decision” for an external, overt reason. I didn’t plan to move things along or have a writerly purpose of any kind. Beatrice’s reactions come from who she is. She adjusts fast because she has to, because the evidence points that way, because there is no other direction to go in.
In the first few months of writing The Scribe of Siena, I had an idea about getting two characters to become interested in each other romantically. It was so patently obvious to them that this would never happen, I felt like they were laughing at me. That was the last time I tried to make my characters do anything. When I first started working with my wonderful agent Marly Rusoff, she asked me to go back to the manuscript and write a bit more of Beatrice’s reaction to a very powerful, emotional, moment. I got inside Beatrice again—this was lovely because I missed Beatrice, and missed being in her head—and I wrote what she would do, what she would think, what she would say. That’s the sort of magical thing about fiction, the thing I find so exhilarating. As a novelist you sort of make people—but really, they are who they are and you just watch them, and then write down what they do and say.
5. Beatrice is a neurosurgeon, a field you are quite familiar with, and Gabriele is an artist. Was there much research needed to capture the essence of Gabriele as a character, or did you have a muse to draw inspiration from?
The seed for Gabriele’s character started from Guy Donahaye, my Ashtanga yoga teacher and mentor of 15 years. Guy doesn’t look anything like Gabriele—he has almost no hair, has brown eyes, and isn’t particularly tall. He isn’t Italian, and he’s not an artist either, though he is a writer. What he does share with Gabriele is something more subtle: you never know what he’s thinking. And you want to know what he’s thinking, particularly about you, but you just can’t tell. That opacity, plus his remarkable ability to be quiet, made us–all his students–talk more than we should have, at the beginning. Then it helped us be quiet too. As I got to know Guy better, we talked instead of just me talking. It took a long time though—that’s how it would be if you were getting to know Gabriele, I think. Slow.
My characters don’t start with something concrete and obvious, like their professions. I am not, nor do I have any experience with being, a British bookstore owner, a medieval baker, an orphaned maidservant, or a merchant banker. I do a great deal of research to capture details—of medieval fresco painting for example. But my characters don’t grow out of research. Who they are comes first. The details follow as I need them. The beginning can be something small—for example, a single sentence my mother’s first mentor said to her fifty years ago gave rise to an entire person—Linney. My brother is not a medievalist, but I did study calligraphy when I was a kid. I am not Catholic, and not Italian American. But…I did grow up going to the Cloisters. Little facts slip in.
6. If you could invite 4 historical figures from history to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
The historical figures I’ve always been intrigued by might not be the best dinner guests. The first two that come to mind are Constantine and Alexander the Great. They got to the top of my list early, when I first started reading historical fiction. I was nine years old and travelling through Italy with my grandmother. She’d just finished a historical novel about Constantine and I had nothing to read so she handed it to me—I spent the rest of our vacation buried in that book. I wish I could find it again, but can’t even remember the title. That was the start of my love for historical fiction. I moved on to falling in love with Alexander the Great after reading Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault. His singular vision, his deep friendships, his hungry intellect, his lack of conformity all captivated me.
Who else? Two of my favorite authors when I was a teenager, both recently deceased: Rumer Godden and Dorothy Sayers. I would have loved to tell Rumer Godden how I spent years collecting all her books I could find, in the days when you had to get local bookstores to do searches that took months. Rumer Godden wrote a book about Alexander the Great actually, and reading it it intensified my fascination with him. My kids are starting to read her books now, and I’m revisiting the pleasure I have in her writing. Sayers’ Gaudy Night was my favorite book in high school, where I studied Latin and ancient Greek. Gaudy Night is a mystery, but also a love story set in Oxford and its most outrageously romantic moment is a conversation written in Latin. That made my nerdy high school self-swoon with pleasure.
7. And lastly, can we expect another novel from you in the future? Perhaps a continuation of Beatrice’s story?
I initially wanted to write more about Beatrice—the desire to stay with her and the other characters who had come to life in The Scribe of Siena was overwhelmingly strong–but the need to leave them and move on was stronger. I felt like I had to travel to get to my next book, leave the place and the people I knew behind. It felt very sad to me at the time—sad, but necessary. However, the story that turned into The Scribe of Siena was supposed to go to 1355, a critical point in Siena’s history—but I’d just spent 780 pages of a first draft getting from 1347 to 1349 and had to stop there. Maybe someday I’ll go back to that story.
Now I have a whole new set of characters to learn about and a new place to inhabit with my fiction, and I’m happy to be there. I’m working on a novel set in late Byzantine Greece. It centers in the abandoned city of Mystras, in the Southern Peloponnese, which is mostly in ruins, but still standing. I have walked through its streets, into the churches and crumbling houses, and it’s even more magical than it sounds. It has a mysterious, tumultuous history, with moments of great triumph, as the center of the late Byzantine Empire after the fall of Constantinople, and also great despair. The new book, like Scribe, also bends the shape of time, and connects the past and the present.
Thank you so much to Melodie Winawer for an amazing Q&A, and a special thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing the books for the giveaway.
For the giveaway, I have 3 copies of Scribe of Siena to win. 2 copies will be given away on this blog, and one copy will be given away on my Instagram @thedarlingsdiary.
To be eligible for entry, there are 2 rules that you must follow:
- Leave a comment below stating your favourite decade that you wish you could travel to.
- Must be Canadian (sorry to the international readers, I am hoping to do another giveaway that is open internationally)
And that’s it! The giveaway will be open for one week, so you have until May 9th to enter.
May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor!