In Say Anarcha (Holt, June), Hallman resurrects the story of Anarcha, an enslaved woman who was subjected to dozens of experimental surgeries by “the father of modern gynecology,” J. Marion Sims.

How did you become interested in Anarcha’s story?

I was working on something completely different, and I stumbled across the term vesicovaginal fistula. I looked it up, and very quickly wound up backtracking from the contemporary African fistula crisis to what happened in Alabama with Sims and Anarcha. I realized there had not been a concerted effort to find Anarcha or any of the young, enslaved women who were part of those early experiments, and then I made that first discovery, of the 1828 Wescott plantation materials that contain her name. That was the first time anybody had seen anything about Anarcha that didn’t come from Sims.

You categorize Say Anarcha as a work of “speculative nonfiction.” What does that mean?

I think the first thing to recognize is that it’s the nature of history and biography that its protocols, its requirements for citation and sourcing and primary documents, necessarily favor the well-heeled, those who have the leisure to leave behind the kind of record that we now say constitutes history. Anarcha was likely illiterate, so what you really needed was a different kind of history. I found models in archaeology and astronomy, where part of the job is to translate hard science into something that speaks to the cosmological curiosities we all have about other places in other times. Anarcha’s part of the story is executed in that kind of spirit. I had a kind of a scaffold of primary sources, facts about Anarcha’s life, but I could make that more present and human by drawing other details into that narrative. I did that not by inventing anything, but by going to the Federal Writers Project slave narratives. There were 55 of those books published in the 1930s and in the ’70s, and I read them all. It was one of the most profound reading experiences of my life.

Readers may be surprised to learn that the call for ethical standards in medicine was not without controversy. Why was this the case?

Even today, we have the idea that surgeons or doctors can have a kind of God complex. What you discover when you look back into the old documents is that was literally what they were saying. It wasn’t a metaphor. They were literally saying that doctors are God’s most perfect instrument on Earth. It was just believed that doctors knew best. And they had this unwavering faith in the idea that experimentation on people, either willing or not, was going lead to progress that would be good for everybody. It was a protofascist concept that eventually gave us the Nazi experiments. It’s not like the Nazis invented that; it was coming out of a preexisting idea from the deep past.