The Curious Mind of a Scientist: Melodie Winawer


P.S.A I know it’s been a while, folks. But bear with me for just a few more days. Today, Melodie Winawer shares her inspiration for her debut novel, The Scribe of Siena. I absolutely loved this novel and reading about what inspired her to write this book only takes it a bit further. You can read my 5-star review here. 


My ideas for writing creep up on me—sometimes I wonder whether they come from me at all. When I started Scribe I hadn’t even been planning to write a novel. That isn’t entirely true—I’d been thinking about writing a novel for more than thirty years. What made me decide to write this novel at that particular moment? We’d just sold our house and bought a new house but it needed renovations so we moved into my mom’s apartment with our three kids. I was between books—not reading anything, and missing the feeling of being in an absorbing story, at the same time as being in a limbo of life stages too, between homes. During those few strange months where I was longing to be absorbed in a deep, compelling imaginary world, it came to me that I wanted to MAKE my own story, not READ one. So that’s what I did.

There were actually two inspirations at the heart of The Scribe of Siena. One was the history—or mystery— of Siena’s exceptional devastation and failure to recover from the Plague of 1348. The other beginning was more personal.

In addition to being a writer, I’m a neuroscientist and neurologist. The way I do scientific research goes something like this: I come up with a question I don’t know the answer to. If I don’t find an answer in easily accessible sources, I look harder. If I still don’t know the answer, I ask colleagues with special expertise. If no one knows the answer, or even better, if I find disagreement or controversy, that’s when I know I’ve found my next research project. That happened with The Scribe of Siena. The minute I started thinking and reading about Siena, I encountered an unanswered question. I learned that Siena had fared particularly badly in the great Plague of the 1340s—worse than many other Tuscan cities, Florence in particular. And I realized that 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. To make things more interesting, Florence was Siena’s arch-enemy for centuries, and in the 1340s a plot backed by Florentine nobles to overthrow Siena’s government had been attempted but failed.   Together, these details gave me that hair-raising moment, the moment I know so well from science.   I’d found my unanswered question—and that became the heart of the story. Or at least one of the hearts.

When I was in medical school, I helped take care of a 32-year-old neurologist who came for treatment of a breast lump. Medical students usually have more time to listen to patients than full-fledged doctors, and we talked for hours. Her breast biopsy was benign, but a colonoscopy showed a mass that was likely colon cancer. She was terrified and I was terrified for her. I was scheduled to assist in the operating room the next day, but I was not ready. I was afraid I couldn’t marshal the appropriate remove to allow my hands to do what they needed to do in the O.R. I’d grown too close.

I had to figure out how to get control of this empathy, rein it in enough so I could give my patient, who had begun to feel like my friend, the support she needed, without losing myself. For my new friend, the outcome was good; the cancer was removed. But that experience left me more aware of the danger, the far edge of empathy, uncontrolled. How far could it go–the ability to feel what someone else is feeling? Could it extend to the written word, or even to words written hundreds of years ago? Or 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. I set the book in Siena because I love the city and its history, and could imagine spending years thinking and writing about it. Siena is simultaneously modern and medieval, a city where the past and present coexist. So it became the perfect place for me to set this story of a woman who, at first against her will, and then by desire, loses her place in time.


Thank you so much, Melodie. I’m especially delighted to learn about Melodie’s seemingly enhanced empathic ability and where it came from. In my experience, a genuinely sympathetic doctor is one that I’ll always come back to. And I suppose being too involved in your patient’s well-being is one of the hazards of the job. That’s one of the things I loved about Beatrice. Besides the fact that she’s eternally curious, resourceful, and tenacious. 

Your love for the city of Siena shone through with every careful description of the medieval culture, food, and the overall mise en scène captured in your novel. Definitely on the ever-growing bucket list!

FIND MELODIE HERE:

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