Melodie Winawer, MD is a physician, scientist, teacher, wife, mother, and now published novelist. Her debut novel, The Scribe of Siena, comes out on Tuesday. So, besides necessary book promotion (like agreeing to this interview), how is she spending the last pre-release days? Reveling in her success? Relaxing with friends? Well, sort of, if relaxing with friends includes making clarée in the traditional manner of medieval Italy. Oh, and let’s not forget about a full clinical load of neurology patients, anxiously awaiting word on an NIH grant application to fund research on the genetics of epilepsy, and planning a Mother’s Day celebration for her own proud mom. Whew! Humbled yet?
A full life doesn’t begin to describe Dr. Winawer’s. And this week she tops it off with the publication of her first novel, a five-year plus labor of love. Enamored with history since childhood, four-year-old Melodie shocked her Jewish parents by announcing her intent to become a nun. “The impulse to the contemplative life wasn’t about religion though, it was something else.” She imagined a life of quiet solitude, illuminating medieval manuscripts – which, by the way, is not reading by flashlight under the covers, nor doodling in the margins, but decorating a hand-written manuscript with miniature illustrations using radiant colors and real gold and silver. Not exactly where she ended up.
She’s come to realize part of her fascination with the past is the pace of medieval life. Modern conveniences, while eliminating time-consuming tasks, also eliminated some of the pleasures of everyday life – of spending time working with and for the ones we love. Immersing herself in the world of fourteenth century Siena, she has spent days preparing and serving historically accurate meals, making almond milk from scratch, squeezing grapes by hand, and steeping wine in spices that make me grateful for Wikipedia (galangal, anyone? – good thing she lives in New York with specialty groceries…and has Amazon Prime).
Multi-lingual and a voracious reader of historical fiction (including eight (VIII) retellings of the Arthurian legend and Mary Renault’s complete works), Melodie came upon the mysterious decline of Siena after the Plague of 1348, while nearby Florence recovered, and flourished. “A trip to modern day Siena, with the same population since the 1300s, and where residents still engage in medieval rituals with great seriousness, is like a kind of time travel.”
And what does a good scientist do with a mystery? “I try to look up the answer. If I don’t find an answer, I look harder, I ask colleagues with expertise. If no one knows the answer, or better, if there is disagreement, or even controversy about the answer, that’s when I know I’ve found my next research project.” In science, the next step is to design and conduct a study, and publish the results. In fiction, Melodie revels in the freedom to create characters and situations true to history, but from her imagination. She hopes to transport her readers to that time through a complex story that includes world-building, engaging characters, and a compelling plot.
And her imagination takes the reader on an immersive trip through Siena of today and six centuries ago. The Scribe of Siena is the story of Beatrice Trovato, an unusually empathetic neurosurgeon (more unrealistic than time travel to an anesthesiologist – just kidding). As her work begins to suffer from this overpowering connection to her patients, her beloved brother passes away unexpectedly, and she travels to his home in Siena to settle his estate. There, she becomes engrossed in his incomplete research on a 650-year-old conspiracy to destroy the city. The journal of Gabriele Accorsi, the man at the heart of the plot, transports her to the year 1347, just before the Black Plague. She falls in love with both the time and the man as they attempt to save the city. Despite its inconveniences and dangers, Beatrice is captivated by the surprising sweetness of medieval life and, reminiscent of Diana Gabaldon’s Claire Randall, Beatrice must decide in which century she belongs.
“The Scribe of Siena is the captivating story of a brilliant woman’s passionate but dangerous affair with a time and place, testing the strength of fate and the bonds of love.”
Her advice to aspiring writers? “Write what you love, or what you must write. Ignore whether it’s what people will want to read.” She also shared advice from her 9-year-old daughter, and aspiring author: “You can only write the way you write.” Learn from other writers, study their craft, but write your own words, in your own style.
What is she reading now? Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome, by Crystal King – about the man who inspired the world’s oldest cookbook and the ambition that led to his destruction. And The Gods Who Walk Among Us, by Max Eastern – “a witty, quirky, noir mystery set in New York City.”
I look forward to reading “The Scribe of Siena,” but since I prefer to read an author’s works in order, I have to get through her 28 scientific publications and numerous book chapters first.