Ami McKay publishes her long-anticipated second book
McKay’s latest bestselling novel, “The Virgin Cure,” has also received critical acclaim. The novel introduces readers to Moth — a young girl sold as a servant to a wealthy woman by her poverty-stricken family and forced to fend for herself on the streets of 19th century New York City. McKay drew inspiration for the novel from her family history: her great-great-grandmother was a pioneer in women’s medicine in the time and place of the novel’s setting, and worked to help many girls like Moth.
McKay spoke to the Calgary Journal about “The Virgin Cure” and how she found literary inspiration in her family history.
Editor’s note: some answers have been edited for length.
Where did the character of Moth come from?
It all started with me exploring my family history and deciding to base the character of Dr. Sadie on my great-great-grandmother. I had tried to write from her point of view only, but it wasn’t working. I couldn’t capture it enough to carry the weight of the whole story. But as I found out more about her and the work she had done with these young women, I started writing about her relationships with them. One character kept stealing scenes. That was Moth. She jumped out of the narrative that I was already writing and said ‘pay attention to me.’
I was putting together other pieces of case histories of the time and found it was very common for poor families to sell their children or try to get them placed as servants in wealthy homes. I wanted to explore that, and what it would mean to her.
Your first book received a lot of attention. How different of a process was it to write your second novel?
There was so much freedom with “The Birth House” that when I was writing it, I didn’t even know that I was writing a novel. And when I came to terms with that, I kept thinking ‘who is going to publish a story about a midwife in Nova Scotia in World War I?’ I really was just writing it for myself.
When so many readers kept embracing it and talking about it and passing it from hand to hand, I almost didn’t believe it. A writer can’t really ask for anything more than that. It was very gratifying, and I love my readers. With this book though, I had to clear my head of all that. Otherwise I (would) put a lot of pressure on myself because I didn’t want to disappoint my readers.
“The Virgin Cure” has a different setting and tackles different ideas. Some of the issues were tougher for me to write about. I started wondering if they would be tougher for the reader as well, and if they would feel a connection to the characters. But ultimately, I had to write the book that I wanted to read. You hope that your readers will respond to it. So far, it seems they are embracing Moth as much as they did Dora in “The Birth House.” It’s hard for a novelist to finish that first novel and say goodbye to those characters knowing you have to find a new character for the next book. When Moth presented herself and I realized she was who this book would be about, I knew I had something. And then I couldn’t wait to get back to the desk every day.
What did you know about your great-great-grandmother before you wrote this book? What did you find about her during your research?
I knew some (things) about her from my grandmother and my mother. I had always been told that she was a lady doctor. When I was younger, that just flew by my awareness because there were female doctors in my community while I was growing up. I didn’t think anything of it, or what the implications were. But when I was looking for something to write about for a second novel, I learned a bit about women in medicine at that time and how difficult it had been for them. That was when those two worlds collided.
She treated women and children at an infirmary on the Lower East Side, but a lot of her work was also done on the streets. It was referred to as street medicine and the female doctors went out to tenements and street corners trying to help people. I found out that there were 30,000 kids under the age of 15 living on the streets at that time. Many were girls and most of the work that they could get was in prostitution.
How rare were female doctors in her time?
She was a rebel. Her family actually had fairly high social standing. From everything that I have read about the history of the time, I am sure it was just assumed that she would marry someone of high social stature and become a wife and member of high society and that would be enough for her. But for some reason, and nobody in my family history knows why, she said no to all that.
Two sisters, Emily and Mary Blackwell, opened their own medical college for women. My great-great-grandmother was in the first class. There were only nine women in (total). It was considered socially unacceptable for women to be doctors. If you had medical knowledge, then all your femininity went away and you were considered a freak.
What is next for you in terms of writing?
When I finished “The Virgin Cure,” I knew that I was done with that part of the story. But I felt I had done so much research — and that my head was still in New York City— that there would be another New York novel. It will be called “The Witches of New York.”