Interview with Melodie Winawer, Author of The Scribe of Siena

Today we’re chatting with Melodie Winawer, author of the historical fiction novel, The Scribe of Siena.

Please describe what the story is about.

The Scribe of Siena connects the past and present through the story of Beatrice, a 21st century New York neurosurgeon. When her brother dies and leaves her his house in Siena, she puts her career on hold. Traveling to Italy, she discovers her brother’s unfinished research on a nearly 700-year old conspiracy. She also uncovers the writings of 14th-century fresco painter Gabriele Accorsi, and finds her own face in a painting attributed to the artist. As past and present blur together, Beatrice is thrown back in time to medieval Italy, shortly before the Plague hits, and in the midst of the conspiracy her brother had discovered. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll leave it at that!

Share a teaser sentence or two from your novel.

“I had often imagined that at some point in my life I would lose someone I loved, and I had. But I had never considered the possibility that I would lose my place in time.” 

What do you want people to know about your book?

I wanted my book to recreate medieval Italian life in such a vivid and intimate way that I (and my readers!) would not only be able to imagine the past, but walk right into it, as if it existed right now, with the door always open, next to our modern world. Writing the book became a vehicle for my own time travel.

What did you learn about yourself while writing this novel?

Writing this book was like driving in a snowstorm in the dark, with a rudimentary map and a lot of luck. Often I couldn’t see where I was going; I felt like I was travelling blind, and frequently I had no idea what would happen next. But when I sat down to write, the story would unfold in front of me, sometimes slowly and sometimes at top speed. I learned to trust that free fall of fiction, and even when it felt frightening, it was exhilarating, too.

What was your timeline from drafting to publication?

Seven years…wow, that is a long time. My kids were 5, 2, and 2 years old when I started; now they are 9, 9, and almost 12. The Scribe of Siena is my fourth baby.

What is your favorite part of writing (drafting characters, making up scenes, plotting, developing emotional turning points, etc). Why?

I don’t think I can separate my writing into parts like that—it’s not really how I work. I love it when I get so lost in the story—the forward momentum and internal hum–that I lose track of the outside world. I often write on the subway though and have missed my stop several times—not ideal!

Briefly, where did the idea for your book come from?

I’m a neuroscientist and neurologist as well as a novelist. When I find an unanswered question in science, I create a research project to answer it systematically, carefully adhering to facts. When I find an unanswered question in fiction—I get to make up the answer! I learned that Siena had fared particularly badly in the great Plague of the 1340s—worse than many Tuscan cities, including Florence, Siena’s medieval arch-enemy. And a single clear answer didn’t exist to explain Siena’s decline during and after the Plague, a decline that eventually led to Siena’s loss of independence and subservience to Florentine rule under the Medici regime decades later. That unanswered question became the historical focus of the story.

Since I’m a doctor, I was also inspired by my firsthand experience of a physician’s empathy— experiencing a patient’s fear of illness, anguish, and in the best situations, relief. I know empathy can be a power for healing, but my work tests the boundaries between myself and those whose suffering I experience. I need to keep enough distance to do my job well, without losing myself in the process. I wondered how far it could go–that ability to feel what someone else is feeling. Could it extend to the written word, or even to words written hundreds of years ago? Could it, for example, blur the boundaries not only between self and other, but between two times?

My experience of a physician’s empathy, and its dangers, led me to create my protagonist Beatrice. For Beatrice, a neurosurgeon who enjoys the great privilege of working inside patients’ brains with her hands, empathy—and its consequences—come unbidden, and unravel her orderly life.

When do you do your best thinking about your work in progress?

While I’m doing yoga. I’ve done ashtanga yoga almost every day for 17 years and I usually practice alone. I get so many ideas when I’m on the mat and my body is busy with something else so my mind can range free—not just for fiction but for my scientific research too. I learned how to rehearse the ideas in my mind so I wouldn’t have to stop and write them down.

Share something people may be surprised to know about you?

I can barely drive a car at all. I know how—but I’ve done it at most 25 times. I blame it on growing up in Manhattan, but it makes me feel a little bit medieval, too…

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

My daughter Chiara gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten—I was reading Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori. I put it down suddenly and said “I wish I could write like that!” Chiara, then 8 years old, came over and put her hand on my arm. “Mama,” she said, “you can only write the way you write.” So true and so wise.

What’s next?

I’m working on a novel set in late Byzantine Greece. It centers in the now-abandoned city of Mystras, in the southern Peloponnese. The city is mostly in ruins, but many buildings are 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 as the center of the late Byzantine Empire after the fall of Constantinople, with moments of great triumph and also great despair. The new book, like the Scribe of Siena, connects the past and the present, though in a different way.

The Scribe of Siena is full of fantastic food descriptions that sound quite authentic. Where did you get the recipes? Have you cooked the dishes in your book?

The recipes come from The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy by Françoise Sabban, Odile Redon, and Silvano Serventi, and many of the historically accurate recipes described there found their way into the book. I’ve made all of them, plus plenty of others I didn’t write about. Poratta bianca, a greenish-white leek soup dusted with cardamom and nutmeg, is the first dish that welcomes my protagonist to medieval life. I’ve made pumpkin and farmer cheese tart in a flaky pate brisée crust, and a startlingly memorable lasagne fermentatam, springy hand rolled squares of fresh pasta made from a yeasted dough layered with parmesan and spices. I learned the recipes well enough to make their flavors and execution convincing in the pages I was writing.  But more than that, cooking and eating medieval Italian cuisine gave me a connection to the past–an emotional, visceral connection that transcended what I read and went straight to the heart, soul, and belly of the era I not only tried to portray in writing, but actually longed to inhabit. Just like Beatrice.

“Winawer’s debut is a detailed historical novel, a multifaceted mystery, and a moving tale of improbable love…Winawer has created a prodigious, vibrant tale of past and present that transports readers and fills in the historical gaps. This is a marvelous work of research and invention.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

 

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