The Past is Still With Us: Melodie Winawer Q&A

Newly widowed Helen Adler is hobbled by grief and just slogging through the days so when her young son Alexander suggests a trip to Greece, she thinks that may be just what the two of them need.  As they make their way through the unfamiliar and beguiling streets of Mystras, they meet Elias, a tour guide and man of many secrets, some of which have their origin in an ancient past.  So begins Melodie Winawer’s second novel, Anticipation (Gallery, $16.99). Winawer talks with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about weaving together the seemingly disparate strands of her life into one highly original and engaging story. 

YZM: Your first novel dealt with time travel; this one has a character who has lived for hundreds of years. Both are unconventional treatments of time—care to say more? 

MW: I love writing historical fiction, but I never seem to be able to be satisfied when my stories restrict themselves to one period—it feels limiting. I have always been fascinated with the past. As a child I devoured the “If You” series, with titles like: “If You Lived at the Time of the American Revolution and If You Lived in the Days of the Knights.” What I liked best about those books was not just the details of the past, it was superimposing my modern New York City kid experience on life in another place and time. The juxtaposition fascinated me then, and it still does. The connections between times fuel my fiction. When I traveled to Greece in 2015, specifically to see Mystras (the subject of my book) it was just after Greece voted against austerity measures from the Eurozone.  At the same time, I was reading about the Fourth Crusade, and Western Europe’s role in pillaging and destroying Constantinople, the capital of the Greek Byzantine empire. The parallels between Greece’s modern economic tragedy, told to me by Greek friends struggling to survive, and the centuries’ old history of occupation and misunderstanding of Greece by the West made a huge impression on me. 

The past is still with us—it’s not a dusty collection of facts, but a living and breathing force. History teaches us who we are now.  And Greece’s current joy and tragedy are wrapped up in the history of the Byzantine empire. When I decided to tell the story of Mystras, which became the capital of Greek Byzantium after the fall of Constantinople, I knew I had to tell not only the story of 800 years of the city’s existence, but of the connection between then and now. I wanted to do it through the eyes of one person who embodied the city, who lived all its triumphs and its tragedies. Since people aren’t supposed to live for 800 years, I had to bend time. (You’ll have to read ANTICIPATION to see how, though!) That’s the long answer…but the short answer is that for me, non- linear timelines are more fun!

YZM: Greece—you write about it with such intimacy and passion.  Have you spent a lot of time there? Tell us about your research process. 

MW: I’ve spent so much time in Greece…but not enough. In part, I travel to learn from experts and gain access to local resources, but that’s a small part of how travel influences my storytelling. When I am in a place I want to write about, I am absorbing—not so much the facts—but the feelings. Feelings of what it’s like to live there. The looming presence of the mountains, the dry heat, the crystal blue Aegean.The way the landscape shapes the emotional world. The unending genuine hospitality, the pure joy in the small moments of daily life, the food, the deep green color of freshly pressed olive oil from a family-owned farm, and the pride of the owner who puts it down on the table with fresh hot bread for you to taste. The spiritual undercurrent, the way religion intertwines itself into daily life. The traditions that are passed from one generation to the next, the national consciousness, the shared myths and truths. The way older Greeks in Rhodes, an island just 20 kilometers from the Turkish coastline, still call Istanbul Constantinople. The way a black-frocked Byzantine priest helps push a car out of a ditch during a tiny village festival honoring the Virgin Mary. The way everyone gives you everything they have even when they have nothing. The way the shower always floods the bathroom, the way you aren’t supposed to flush your toilet paper. The lilting music of the language, the affectionate terms parents use for their kids. My son and I use them now—he calls me Mitéra, and I call him To Paidí Mou–my little one, even though he is now taller than I am! I love Greece and I feel a deep connection to people there. It sustains me, and I am grateful.

YZM: What about the Jewish presence in Greece, both today and in the past? 

MW: For a while I was seriously considering including aspects of Jewish life in Byzantine and modern Greece in the book. The protagonist of my first novel was Catholic, and I knew that one of ANTICIPATION’s main characters, Helen, was Jewish—she informed me of that early on (my characters tend to do that—they have minds of their own).  Several years ago I visited the oldest synagogue in Crete, Etz Hayyim, which has been home to the Sephardic Jewish community in Crete for 2000 years.  Current members of that synagogue escaped as children during the German occupation of Crete in the Second World War and survived to be part of the congregation. I spent a fascinating afternoon talking to the docent there, touring the mikvah and seeing the bimah where Greek Jews have worshipped for centuries, and my three children talked about returning for their for their b’nai mitzvot someday. I even learned the location of the Jewish quarter in Mystras in preparation for weaving that element into the story. But in the end, the necessary force of editing won out—it was one of those facts I wanted to put in but that wouldn’t contribute to the narrative. That’s the main danger for a historical novelist: making sure you aren’t dropping facts into your book and forcing them to stay just because you learned them and find them interesting. I cut a lot; the story of Jews in Mystras and Greece is one of the things I cut. Maybe I’ll devote another book to that topic instead!

YZM: Let’s talk about mourning, since that’s a theme that’s woven in throughout—can you speak to that?  

MW: Oh, yes. It’s true of my first book too— in THE SCRIBE OF SIENA loss is an essential part of the story, and creates momentum for change.  I think that is a fundamental theme in my work, something I’m constantly interested in. I don’t consider my own life tragic, but I’ve lost many people I love. Though those losses are terrible, I also understand them to be moments of transformation.  Losses open doors as well as close them, and make new lives possible.  Hope for the new allows us to adapt to the inevitable and unbearable. In ANTICIPATION, Elias, the protagonist whose life spans time, has an existence shaped by recurrent loss. When I first imagined the story, I had the sense of grief that accompanied him through the centuries. I also saw the hope in his suffering, the way his knowledge of loss would allow him to see loss in someone else who might be grieving too. In shared grief and understanding those who mourn may find relief, and even joy.

YZM: You wear several hats: physician, scientist, novelist.  What kind of interplay do these three roles have in your life? 

MW: I wear another hat too—parent. At their worst, all these responsibilities interfere with each other terribly—mostly because there isn’t enough time in the day for any of them, and I am constantly frustrated by that. I also find they are in conflict because the rhythms of each of those parts of me are so extraordinarily different. Switching gears from the face-to-face high intensity, interactive, deeply empathetic rhythm of medicine to the introspective, absorptive and analytical quality of science, then shifting into the creative isolated free fall of fiction—it’s kind of impossible. And add parenting into the mix and it’s a recipe for yelling more than I’d like…unfortunately! However, the combination is also fun, because my days have so many different parts to them and each one is a relief from the others.  I’m not sure I could really do just one job. They also intersect in positive ways. My scientific research involves finding unanswered questions and controversies and mysteries, then reading as much as I can to learn facts, then constructing a project to fill in the gaps in what is known. This is a process very much like that of writing historical fiction.  Unlike medicine and science though, in fiction I get to make things up to fill those gaps. That’s the ultimate antidote to my fact-based medical scientist existence.

Medicine has also provided me with a lot of inspiration for my fiction—in particular the experience of caring deeply for someone whose suffering I try to alleviate—and I am grateful to have been able to both help and learn from my patients. ANTICIPATION in particular reveals what I have learned from taking care of families with heritable diseases, and from studying the genetics of neurological disease. I’m a doctor, scientist, parent, and lover of history, and all those parts of me made it into ANTICIPATION. It might seem like a challenging combination (and maybe it is), but that’s my life!