Coincidence? I think not.
After you've finished writing a novel, there comes a moment when you decide to pack up the notebooks, index cards, and sticky notes you've scattered through your life for the past few years and bid them a fond farewell. It's a bittersweet process to be sure, but it's also a time of excitement, because (if you're lucky) there's a new idea sitting in the back of your head waiting to find its way to the page. Before I put it all away, there's a story I'd like to share, a story about the importance of accepting what comes your way and then choosing to dig a bit deeper.
My journey to writing The Virgin Cure began with the simple, personal act of tracing my family history. Even as a child, I'd been curious about what was lurking between the roots of my family tree and would often beg my parents and grandparents to tell me everything they knew about my relatives, people I affectionately called "the dearly."
The life of my great-great grandmother, Dr. Sarah Fonda Mackintosh had always been of interest to me and it was her story that led me visit dusty archives and search out census records in hopes of learning more about her past. There was no trace of her left in my family's personal papers - no journals, no letters, no tin types - just a painting of her with her daughter and one document mentioning a scrapbook she'd kept (that I assume had been lost long ago.) I hoped that the historical record had kept better track of her than the dearly had.
One clue led to another and I soon uncovered an amazing tale. "Dr. Sadie" had studied with the famous Blackwell sisters, Elizabeth and Emily - both women doctors ahead of their time. After reading an article in the Journal of the Medical Society of New Jersey where she was featured, I contacted the author to see if she might be willing to share her notes with me. The article had been well-written, but it hadn't given me what I'd been hoping for, the intimate details of Sadie's daily life as a female physician in the Lower East Side of New York.
After a brief conversation, the medical historian agreed to send me what was left of the notes she'd taken for the article. She'd recently moved house and she guessed they were still in a box in her basement. "I'll send them to you when I can, but I can't promise there will be anything of interest."
The envelope arrived about a month later with a copy of the article, a few notes regarding key dates in Sadie's life, a photograph of her tombstone, and a smaller envelope from a photoshop. Somewhat disappointed in the contents of the package, I opened the second envelope to see what, if anything was inside it. There was a copy of an old photograph, a picture of a young woman in a dress from the late 1800?s. Sadly, I knew by the style of the dress and the age of the woman that it couldn't be Sadie. I looked at the photoshop envelope again and found that it had a contact number on it, the area code 9-0-2 (Nova Scotia,) the prefix, Halifax. What did this photograph have to do with my family? I didn't have any relatives in Halifax.
I called the number (of course.)
The woman who answered listened patiently while I told her the story of my search and what had led me to call her.
"I think there's been a mix-up" she said.
"What sort of mix-up?" I asked.
She explained to me that the woman in the photograph was her relative, Florence, a great-great aunt who had attended the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children a few years after Sadie had been there. The medical historian who had written the article about Sadie had also written about her relative as well.
"Oh," I said, thinking that our conversation was probably over.
"I have a collection of her letters," the woman said. "I'd say there are about a hundred of them, written during the time she was in medical school. Would you like to see them?"
I spent an entire afternoon poring over those letters, finally finding a window into my great-great grandmother's past. I learned of the struggles these women went through to be accepted in the medical profession, the helplessness they felt when losing a patient, the heartbreak that came when a patient couldn't take their medicine because the label read, "take with food" and they had no food to eat. Those thoughts, penned by a young woman's hand so long ago were exactly what I needed to read. They let me know I was only at the beginning of a story I had to tell.
Can you tell us how you became a writer?
It started with a "Thank-You" note.
All through high school, university, and grad school I wrote in secret, keeping thoughts, ideas, short stories and dreadful poetry in notebooks under by bed. My New Year's resolution for the year 2000 (after much prodding from my husband) was to start putting my writing out into the world. So, I declared 2000 to be "the year of sending thank-you notes to people I didn't know." My first letter led to a guest appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show (and that was just January!) After that whirlwind experience, I kept writing, freelance documentaries for CBC radio, a short story here and there, and eventually my first novel. I still commit random acts of writing thank-you notes from time to time
just to keep the karma flowing.
What inspired you to write this particular novel? Is there a story about the writing of this book that begs to be told?
I've always loved digging into my family history to uncover stories from the past. While researching my mother's side of the family tree, I discovered that my great-great grandmother had been a female physician in New York City during the 19th century. Her work as a doctor in the tenements and on the streets of the Lower East Side inspired me to write The Virgin Cure.
What is it that you're exploring in The Virgin Cure?
The title comes from a terrible myth that was prevalent in many places during the 19th century - the notion that a man could be cured of disease (syphilis was incurable at the time) by having sexual relations with a virgin. In researching the history of the myth, I found that it's still alive today (surrounding AIDS rather than syphilis) and has led to devastating consequences in various parts of the world. In tracing the life of a young girl at risk in a historical setting I hoped to better understand how such a terrible thing could still be happening in the present. Why are young girls considered a commodity? What happens in a culture to allow this?
Who is your favourite character in the novel, and why?
I adore Moth. My first draft of the novel was in third person, but the more I wrote about Moth, the more she pushed her way to the front of my writing, her voice nagging in my head saying, "get out of the way and let me tell the tale." Once I started writing from her point of view, everything made sense. I couldn't wait to get back to my desk each day to see where she would take me.
Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of The Virgin Cure?
At the opening of chapter one, Moth is twelve-years-old. For those who have come from a sheltered, loving upbringing, the things that happen to her might seem unimaginable. One question I'd encourage book clubs to consider is, "what were you doing the summer you turned twelve?" It can be surprising and enlightening to consider what we did or didn't know about life at that age. (My sister is seven years older than me, so she'd filled me in on quite a lot by the time I was twelve.)
Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your work?
I'll always remember my interview with CBC radio's Shelagh Rogers after The Birth House was published. We met at the studios in Halifax and I was such a fan that I presented her with a vintage teacup and saucer as a small gift. She put me at ease in an instant and it truly felt like I was having a conversation with a friend. (She even got me to talk about the history of the vibrator on national radio. Now there's a conversation!)
Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
Sarah Weinman maintained a wonderful blog called Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. In a review of The Birth House she wrote, "Can we call Ami McKay the current-day heir to Lucy Maud Montgomery? The issues McKay tackles are far darker and more sinister than Montgomery ever allowed herself to explore in plain terms." I was incredibly flattered to have been compared to LMM, of course, but more importantly Sarah's words led me to consider the question, "what don't I allow myself to explore in my writing?" I keep that question on a card above my desk knowing that the answer to it is often where I need to go next in my work.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
While writing The Virgin Cure I re-read several Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton novels I'd read when I was in my early teens. It was amazing to see how much of their work had stayed with me over the years and how their words had influenced the story I wanted to tell.
If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
I think I'd enjoy being a vocal coach. Before I moved to Nova Scotia, I taught music at a high school in Chicago. The part of the job I loved best was working one on one with students in the voice studio. "Finding voice" has been essential part of my life both as a musician and as a writer. There's something quite magical in helping someone else find theirs.
If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
I can't think of a book I'd like to have written word for word, but the premise of Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is absolutely brilliant and I wish I'd thought of it first.