I am delighted to welcome one of my Touchstone Books sisters, Melodie Winawer, to the Deb Ball. We both have books set in Italy and have a curiosity and love for cooking history. Her novel, THE SCRIBE OF SIENA, is her first, but what a fantastic first it is! I loved this time-travel, medieval Italian tale with its trifecta of love, science and art, combining together for some fantastic historical fiction. Set in medieval Italy, a time traveler from NYC discovers a plot to destroy Siena, but along the way she falls in love with an artist, Gabriele.
About the book:
Accomplished neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato knows that her empathy for her patients is starting to impede her work. So when her brother passes away, she welcomes the unexpected trip to the Tuscan city of Siena to resolve his estate, even as she wrestles with grief. But as she delves deeper into her brother’s affairs, she discovers intrigue she never imagined—a 700-year-old conspiracy to decimate the city.
After uncovering the journal and paintings of Gabriele Accorsi, the 14th century artist at the heart of the plot, Beatrice finds a startling image of her own face and is suddenly transported to the year 1347. She awakens in a Siena unfamiliar to her, one that will soon be hit by the Plague.
Yet when Beatrice meets Accorsi, something unexpected happens: she falls in love—not only with Gabriele, but also with the beauty and cadence of medieval life. As the Plague and the ruthless hands behind its trajectory threaten not only her survival but also Siena’s very existence, Beatrice must decide in which century she belongs.
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Now, on to the interview!
Which talent do you wish you had?
This is embarrassing but…driving. I’ve driven at most 25 times. I grew up in Manhattan, which explains things somewhat—owning a car in Manhattan is about as useful for transportation as removing one of your legs. I have a driver’s license but I almost never use it. Recently I thought I’d try to practice, but we have a minivan and three kids. I’ve never driven a minivan and is it really the right time to learn when three of the most precious people in your life are in the back of the car? My nine-year-old daughter actually scolded me for even considering it…not that I needed her to tell me that but it gives you an idea of what she’s like. We are all in her thrall.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Write for the joy of it, not to please some imagined audience, or market. Don’t worry if people say, “no one is buying [ insert your genre here]”, or “no first novelist should write a book over 400 pages”, for example (both of those things were said to me, and I ignored them). You should write your story because you love it or must write it. There’s no point otherwise.
What’s your next big thing? (new book, new project, etc.)
Because I have more than one job/profession/(life!) can I talk about TWO next big things?
On the science front, I’m starting a new project that explores a novel idea connecting seizures and brain tumors. Most people wouldn’t be surprised to find out that brain tumors cause people to have seizures. But what about the reverse? What if seizures stimulate existing brain tumors to grow? This is totally unknown, but if it turns out to be true, then it would change the way people with brain tumors are treated—prevention of seizures would be crucial in people with brain tumors, even if they have never had a seizure before. (This doesn’t mean that people with epilepsy should be worried about getting brain tumors though—there is no evidence for that!) Currently, there is no consensus on that aspect of treatment. I am planning a research study now to look at that question. One of the things I love about being a scientist is that I am constantly on a vertical learning curve, having to think about, read about and do things I’ve never done before. This project is like that.
In my fiction universe, 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, and you can walk through it, into the churches and crumbling houses. Mystras has a 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…but in a different way. I can’t tell you how yet!
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
In medical school I took a summer off to do research in the department of Otolaryngology—ear nose and throat medicine. It seemed interesting in theory, trying to figure out how to plan surgeries for cochlear implant, in which a device is implanted in the inner ear that can help deaf people hear. Sounds great, but my job was to look at hundreds of MRIs and measure the distance in millimeters between a small black circle (the carotid artery in cross section) and a small black oval (part of the cochlea) over and over and over again. It was outrageously dull. Fortunately, that experience didn’t make me give up research entirely.
Has anyone ever thought a character you wrote was based on them?
No, but my brother Paul thought a character in The Scribe of Siena was based on our mother! The character, Umiltà, is a tiny, intense, and extremely talkative nun who always gets her way. She’s a force of nature, tough but loving, and fabulously effective–a great ally. My mom is a trial lawyer with her own firm, a fabulous conversationalist, and a single mom who has always been her kids’ champion. Her power far exceeds her physical size, and obstacles tend to disappear when she gets involved. Paul and I are lucky—she’s great mother to have! (So nice to be writing this tribute right after Mother’s Day.) Umiltà ends up acting as a mother figure for Beatrice, my protagonist, who is not only an orphan, but stranded in time with no family at all. The funny thing is, although I didn’t base Umiltà on my mother on purpose, I can see why my brother thought I had. Maybe without knowing it, I did!
THANK YOU for joining us, Melodie! It was a pleasure to have you on the Debutante Ball.
Melodie Winawer is a physician-scientist and Associate Professor of Neurology at Columbia University. A graduate of Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University with degrees in biological psychology, medicine, and epidemiology, she has published over fifty nonfiction articles and book chapters. She is fluent in Spanish and French, literate in Latin, and has a passable knowledge of Italian. Dr. Winawer lives with her spouse and their three young children in Brooklyn, New York. The Scribe of Siena is her first novel.