Coming of Age with Ami McKay

Ami McKay hit the mark with her first full-length narrative The Birth House; the touching tale of a Nova Scotia Midwife resonated with readers and critics alike, earning the Scots Bay scribe numerous awards, nominations and a lengthy stay atop bestseller lists. All of the accolades did nothing to slow her down, with the author penning Jerome for a local theatre company just two years later. Her long awaited follow-up novel is The Virgin Cure, the story on a young girl coming of age amongst the tenement buildings of New York City in the late 1800s. Recently AE spoke with McKay about the new book.

AE: What inspired you to tell this story?
AM: While digging around the roots of my family tree, I uncovered the story of my great-great grandmother's life. Not only was she a female physician in the late 1800's, but she was also one of the first women to practice medicine in New York City. Her medical studies and her work were carried out through the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, and her patients were primarily immigrants who were living in the tenements and on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In my research, I found many parallels between her work and that of the medical workers and social activists who are working with girls and women in third world countries today, including their shared struggle to educate young women and girls about the myth of the virgin cure (the belief that a man can be cured of disease by having relations with a virgin.) When I thought of the fragility of these girls' lives, both past and present, I knew it was a story I wanted to tell.

AE: How long did it take from start to finish?
AM: Four years.

AE: Where did the character of Moth come from?
AM: Early on, I made an attempt at writing the novel from Dr. Sadie's (a character based on my great-great grandmother) perspective, but I found her voice wasn't quite working. When I'd sit down at my desk each day, it was the world of the girls Sadie was trying to help that I wanted to stay in and explore. As much as the doctor was a part of their lives, she wasn't with them 24/7, and there were moments I felt I was missing because I was only seeing things through her eyes. Moth, a twelve-year-old girl on the streets, started taking over greater and greater portions of the narrative, until I finally decided to just give the story over to her. I like to think that it's probably how the real Dr. Sadie would have wanted the story to be told - through the voice of the girls she worked so hard to help.

AE: Where did the character of Dr. Sadie arise from?
AM: She's an attempt to bring my great-great grandmother to life on the page.

AE: Why the decision to set the work in New York, and in that era?
AM: Again, the real Dr. Sadie's history dictated the setting and the period. And, there were many aspects of the post-Civil War era that I found compelling - the enormous divide between the haves and have-nots, the abandonment of the poor by society as a whole, the way that girls were treated as a "throw-away" commodity, the struggles women faced when they wished to step outside of their prescribed place in the world.

AE: What were some of the challenges involved with writing the story?
AM: One of the biggest challenges for me was in realizing that there were no easy solutions to the problems Moth would face in the story. There were 30,000 children under the age of fifteen living on the streets of New York in 1871. As much I longed to write of some miraculous event that would save them all, I knew it wouldn't be fair to the past or right for the story. The issues raised in the book are also far murkier than I'd first anticipated. I often found myself wondering, "what is freedom?" "what's the definition of a good life?"

AE: What were the rewards?
AM: This may sound strange (since novels are primarily written alone,) but I discovered the importance of listening. I found that writing The Virgin Cure required a great deal of silence to get to the heart of the story. There were many times when I could have steamed ahead with what I thought should come next, but by sitting alone and letting the story linger, I came upon unexpected turns that were often better. 

AE: How did you feel once you were done?
AM: Elated, lonely, and relieved.

AE: How much pressure, if any, did you feel to meet or exceed the success of The Birth House?
AM: It wasn't so much the success of The Birth House that cast a shadow on my attempt to write something new, as it was my desire to not disappoint readers. I've had many wonderful conversations and exchanges with people about my first novel and I've appreciated every one of them. It was difficult to begin writing The Virgin Cure, but once I got into the thick of it I couldn't stop. On a personal note, I lost both of my parents during the time I was writing The Virgin Cure, so the book became an escape for me. I could leave the noise of the present behind and travel with Moth for a while - it was balm for my soul.

AE: How have you grown as a writer since The Birth House and Jerome?
AM: Every story is an adventure, an opportunity to fly for a bit on new narrative and in a different world. The idea of starting again used to frighten me. Now it excites me.

AE: What kind of feedback have you received from those who have read the new book?
AM: The word from first readers has been positive so far, which makes letting it go - out into the world - much easier. I'm grateful for every reader as there are so many books in the world, enough for many lifetimes. To know that people have picked up the book and read every word amazes me. I don't think I'll ever get over it.

AE: What's next for you?
AM: Another novel, The Witches of New York. It's too soon to say anything more about it, so stay tuned.

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