Well hello everyone, long time no write! I’m here today to share an interview I did with author Connie Hertzberg Mayo about her latest novel The Sharp Edge of Mercy coming out May 6, 2022. I received the book as part of a sponsorship but I think we all know by now that all opinions are mine and mine alone seeing as I never stop sharing them! I read the book in a day (!!) and neglected many responsibilities to do so because I kept on wanting to see what happened next. I was very excited to get an opportunity to hear more about the process of writing historical fiction like this because it’s one of my favorite genres.
Set in the 1890s, The Sharp Edge of Mercy follows Lillian Dolan and her journey pursue her dream career of nursing, while being a single lady and taking care of her sister who was left permanently disabled as a result of scarlet fever. She gets a job as a nursing assistant at the New York Cancer Hospital and is jarred by what she sees between nursing staff, patient care, and interactions with certain scumbag doctors (no spoilers though because they’re all men of questionable value). Outside of her job there are family issues and personal issues that make is hard for a player out there just trying to live her best life and pull her and her sister ahead.
New York Cancer Hospital is the old name for what we now know as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Founded in 1884 it was the only hospital in the country at that time to focus solely on providing care for cancer patients and the first portion, finished in 1887, was a ladies only joint on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Treatment was mostly palliative in nature, but when they went for surgeries they were radical and large and potentially life altering. New York Cancer Center was touted as being innovative not just for pushing boundaries of what kind of care could be offered to cancer patients, but also in terms of building design and cleanliness standards. One of the things mentioned in the book (that I immediately looked up) was the idea of circular wards to avoid corners where germs could gather. I legitimately have no idea if this is accurate theory but what a vibe.
Not to be that girl but the character of New York City is as much a part of the book as any of the human characters. We’re in post-Civil War New York City where Tammany Hall has power and a lot of it. To put it into perspective, the five boroughs don’t exist yet when this book takes place. Deadass! Steamships and intranational railroads are increasingly making New York City an immigrant, industrialization and tourism center. The first nightclubs opened in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s and were the talk of the town. They included everything from illegal gambling and fistfights, to vaudeville acts and places for social activism. This is relevant, I promise.
So now we know what the book is about, and where we are in history (more or less). Let’s talk to Connie, shall we? I sent her the interview questions because I didn’t trust myself to not monopolize half her day, and here is a lightly edited version of what we talked about.
Natalia Santana-Pollard (NSP): We always like starting our interviews with these questions – but what does feminism mean to you?
Connie Hertzberg Mayo (CHM): My brand of feminism is all about my mother. She was a shy, bookish person, but she went back for her PhD in Anatomy when I was 13 years old, in the 1970s. My dad’s life didn’t change at all – dinner was still on the table at 6pm every night, because my sister and I learned how to cook dinner to fill in when she had afternoon classes. So you could look at this as a sexist situation, because my dad, the only male in the house did not have to flex. But I see it as a feminist triumph, because my mom achieved her goal within the context of her era. Even though it’s important for some women to be out there with megaphones, I think there is also a place for the quiet determination variety, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
NSP: I was trying to describe the book to a friend of mine and found myself at a loss for words. How would you summarize the book? How did you pitch this to your publishers?
CHM: It took some work to boil it down, because the book ended up dealing with so many themes, but I describe it as a story about a young nursing assistant in 1890 at the New York Cancer Hospital who encounters serious issues of medical ethics while fending off the unwanted attentions of an arrogant surgeon.
NSP: Why this time period? What did you feel it could say that a book set in modern times couldn’t?
CHM: Given the state of cancer treatment at the turn of the century, there was a lot to talk about related to end-of-life care. And other issues too, such as consent to procedures. I see some similarities between my book and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Even though we are better at curing cancer and better at informing patients about what they should know, we still have a way to go. So I think the medical issues in The Sharp Edge of Mercy will resonate with readers today.
NSP: The focus on cancer treatments was an interesting premise, what drove you to focus on that?
CHM: I didn’t set out to write about cancer per se. I wanted a setting that seemed like it would be fertile ground to talk about any sort of medical ethics. When I heard that this hospital was the first cancer-only hospital in the country, years before radiation therapy and chemotherapy were available, I knew it would be a great setting for that.
NSP: How did you approach research for this book? Specifically the differences between the medical history portion and the interpersonal relationships portrayed in the book?
CHM: My original plan was just to write about the medical history portion. And I thought, well, I have to have an arrogant male surgeon because it just would have been unrealistic without one! But Dr. Bauer was not supposed to be such a main character. However, I started writing this book in 2017, which was the year that the hashtag #MeToo was coined based on the Harvey Weinstein accusations. Then all these stories started coming out in the news, and as they did, Dr. Bauer started to take up more and more real estate in my book. I was at the peak of writing the book during the Kavanaugh hearings, and by then #MeToo theme had equal footing to the medical piece. It’s like the book took control based on current events.
NSP Correction: #MeToo was coined in 2006 by Tarana Burke who was a survivor and activist and created #metoo to give other survivors of sexual assault the knowledge that they weren’t alone. The hashtag went viral in 2017 when the Harvey Weinstein accusations came to a head (even though people had been talking about it for a while, see: Courtney Love in 2005) and actress Alyssa Milano suggested its use on Twitter.
NSP: You gave Lillian a sister that was disabled as a result of scarlatina, which I took to mean Scarlet Fever, what was the impetus behind that character choice?
CHM: I am fascinated by how people cared for people with disabilities in past eras. In my first book, The Island of Worthy Boys, I wanted to have a very minor character with OCD, but I realized it would distract from the story, so instead he just doesn’t talk. I published a short story in Calyx magazine about a mother who was accused of being a “Refrigerator Mother” in the 1950s, which was the theory of why children “turned” autistic. I think some people think of these disabilities as a modern thing, but of course there must have been people like this for a long time. And it must have been so much harder to care for them a hundred or more years ago.
NSP: Lillian did not have the *easiest* of relationships with her mother – without any spoilers – what brought that about? When you started writing, did you know what was coming?
CHM: Before I even settled on the New York Cancer Hospital as a setting, I remember telling my husband about my idea for that piece of the story line while we were having lunch at a Panera – what the mother does and why she does it, and how her daughter judges her for it – and he said, you have to write that! So that was the actually the piece I knew about first.
NSP: What books would you recommend for readers interested in learning more about this time in history? The entire time I read it, I kept on thinking about The Emperor of Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
CHM: I loved that book! I would also recommend Being Mortal or anything written by my hero and fellow Bostonian Dr. Atul Gawande. To learn about surgery at the turn of the century, check out Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted by Gerald Imber. Dr. Bauer is loosely based on Dr. Halstead, although my Dr. Bauer is not an opium and heroin addict. But when it comes to the arrogance, same energy. And for another fascinating read, there is Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 by George Chauncey. You can learn about the wild, cross-dressing gay scene down on the Bowery at the turn of the century where the party never stopped.
NSP: What are you reading right now? Our readathon is coming up on April 22nd and we’re always looking for additional recommendations!
CHM: I just finished Our Woman In Moscow by Beatriz Williams and it was so gripping – I think it’s a great time to learn more about the history of the KGB. I also recently read Small World by Jonathan Evison, which was incredibly ambitious in its cast of characters – really well done.