Today I would like to welcome Ami McKay, author of The Virgin Cure, released in February 2012 by Hachette. I reviewed The Virgin Cure yesterday, read my 4 star review here.
Q. Welcome to The Australian Bookshelf, Ami! The Virgin Cure is set in the late 1800’s in New York, what fascinates you about this era?
A. Initially, I was simply interested in learning more about the lives of women and girls during that era. I had assumed that we’d come a long way in terms of social justice and gender equality, but the more I learned about life in late 1800’s New York, the more I discovered that the era holds many similarities to life today. Newspapers of all shapes, sizes and opinions were constantly rolling off the presses and made available to the masses. There was signage and advertising everywhere, on every available surface. The amount of information a person was met with just by walking down the street, wasn’t unlike the wave of information we’re met with today when we log on to the internet. It was a time of great technological and industrial change, and the gap between the rich and the poor was growing greater by the minute. Children grew up fast and girls often felt that the only way to empower themselves was to use their sexuality to move up on the social (and economic) ladder. To forget the ills of the world, people frequented dime museums and sideshows to see human oddities and bizarre stage acts. Now we sit at home and watch TLC. In ways large and small, history truly does repeat itself.
Q. For people who are yet to read your book, what is the myth of The Virgin Cure?
A. The title comes from a terrible myth that was prevalent in many places during the nineteenth 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.
Q. The premise of The Virgin Cure and the character of Dr Sadie were inspired by your family history research. At what moment did you decide that her story had to be told?
A. 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 (the real-life Dr. Sadie) had been a female physician in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century. When I found that she’d worked as a doctor in the tenements and had practised street medicine administering care to the children who lived on the streets of the Lower East Side, I knew I had something more than just a bit of family lore on my hands. What initially began as an effort to find out more about Sadie suddenly became a full-on chase to gather up enough material to write a novel.
Q. The protagonist, Moth is a twelve year old girl who lives in poverty. What helped you to get into the mindset of this young girl and tell her story?
A. Originally I thought that the narrative voice of The Virgin Cure would be Sadie’s, but as I searched for the best way to write the story, I discovered that it wasn’t to be found in her voice after all. I spent hours walking the streets and sidewalks that had once been travelled by my great-great-grandmother in her work as a medical student and physician. As I walked, I tried to conjure up the memory of her life and the women and children she had served. On Second Avenue, I stared at the place where the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children once stood. I went to Pear Tree Corner to see where Peter Stuyvesant’s great pear tree had lived for over two hundred years. I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and looked into small, dark rooms of the past. In my steps, on those streets that day, I found my answer. I found the voice I’d been waiting for, the voice of a twelve-year-old street girl named Moth.
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. It was almost as if she’d landed in my imagination, fully formed. I couldn’t wait to get back to my desk each day to see where she would take me.
Q. If there was one message you would like readers to take away after reading your book what would it be?
A. Although The Virgin Cure is set in Victorian New York; the issues that sit at the heart of the novel are things we still struggle with in the present. Moth could just as easily be a girl I saw standing on a street corner last week, or the at-risk teen who just ran away from home.
The biggest lesson I learned while writing the novel is that things aren’t always as they might seem at first glance. It’s important to take a second and third look, so we can see people for who they are. Everyone, no matter how young, has a story to tell.
Q. Your dream of becoming a writer came with many interruptions- study, work and family, but in the year 2000 you started to take steps to get your work out into the world. It was also the year you chose to write thank you notes to people you didn’t know. Tell us more about that and how you landed an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show?!
A. All through high school, university and grad school I wrote in secret, keeping all of my thoughts, ideas, short stories (and dreadful poetry) in notebooks under my 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 don’t know.” My first thank you note was to Oprah and it led to a guest appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show (yes, I did things backwards…I was on Oprah before my first novel was published!) 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.
Q. What’s next for Ami McKay?
A. I’m currently working on another novel, The Witches of New York. It’s set about ten years after The Virgin Cure, and yes, Moth will be making an appearance.
Big hellos from Nova Scotia and thanks so much for your wonderful questions!
Thanks Ami, I’m thrilled to hear there will be a sequel!
Synopsis: “I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.” So begins The Virgin Cure, a novel set in the tenements of lower Manhattan in the year 1871. As a young child, Moth’s father smiled, tipped his hat and walked away from her forever. The summer she turned twelve, her mother sold her as a servant to a wealthy woman, with no intention of ever seeing her again. These betrayals lead Moth to the wild, murky world of the Bowery, filled with house-thieves, pickpockets, beggars, sideshow freaks and prostitutes, where eventually she meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as “The Infant School.” Miss Everett caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for companions who are “willing and clean,” and the most desirable of them all are young virgins like Moth. Through the friendship of Dr. Sadie, a female physician, Moth learns to question and observe the world around her, where her new friends are falling prey to the myth of the “virgin cure”–that deflowering a “fresh maid” can heal the incurable and tainted. She knows the law will not protect her, that polite society ignores her, and still she dreams of answering to no one but herself. There’s a high price for such independence, though, and no one knows that better than a girl from Chrystie Street. http://www.amimckay.com/
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