Creator and host of the popular Noble Blood podcast, chronicling the lives and low points of historical royals, journalist and author Dana Schwartz has lent her pen to a variety of publications, from the Washington Post to Marie Claire. Anatomy: A Love Story is her fourth novel and second work of YA fiction. The story delves into the life of 17-year-old Hazel in 19th-century Edinburgh, on a quest to become a surgeon—aided by Jack, a teen Resurrection Man, or procurer of bodies. Schwartz spoke with PW about the research and writing process of her first historical novel, and the allure of the Gothic era.
Compared to your experience creating podcasts and nonfiction, how does the process differ for YA and for a historical novel as opposed to a contemporary?
I would say the main difference, obviously, is just length—living with these characters for two years, as opposed to two weeks. When I write an episode of Noble Blood, I’m doing a lot of research and writing quickly. I record the story, then I’m moving on to the next one. For Anatomy, I really wanted a story and characters that sustained my interest, and hopefully a reader’s interest, over an entire novel. I would also say, because this is a historical novel, but one that takes place in a slightly imaginary world, I had to restrain my inner perfectionist. With Noble Blood, I’m incredibly careful to make sure I get every detail correct. For Anatomy, whenever I made changes that differed from actual history, I needed to remind myself that this is fiction. Once I got the hang of that, it was very freeing.
Can you talk a bit about your research process for Anatomy?
I’m an obsessive researcher. It’s what brought me to Noble Blood and why I was so excited to dive into the world of 19th-century surgery. I started with books that are just about the dawn of surgery. I read The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris, which was incredibly helpful, and Dr. Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, just to get an idea of what it would have been like to be a surgeon in that time period, even though their experiences aren’t exactly parallel to Hazel’s. I was also lucky enough to write this novel while I had a fellowship at the actual Hawthorn Inn Castle, outside of Edinburgh. A lot of my research was just going into Edinburgh proper and spending a lot of time there, trying to get a feel for the city.
Many of the things in the book are stranger than fiction. A real historical fact [is that] body snatching was a common practice in Edinburgh. Another actual common practice, which inspired some of the book’s later plot, is that wealthy people would pay to have teeth ripped out of other people’s mouths and inserted into their own. That was a real practice.
One of the reasons I love history so much is you learn about these things that actually happened. They’re so strange and foreign, but somehow you can understand what the equivalent is today. In many ways, people justify things. Years from now, people will look back at things happening today and wonder how we did them.
What bits of history did you find that didn’t make it into the book?
A lot of the history of anesthesia, which I think is fascinating. It’s a little anachronistic in the timeline of the book, in that I have a character, Dr. Beecham, invent his version a little bit before historically real anesthesia. When it began to catch on, it was originally called the “Yankee dodge” because it started in America. That's a real piece of history I had to heartbreakingly replace with my version.
What about the early 19th century called to you?
I just find it a fascinating period. I imagine a gritty, dirty world, in the physical level of disease and a lack of sanitation. But at the same time, that’s juxtaposed with an intellectual evolution. That was most exciting to me; there was this revolution happening in philosophy and science and literature in a time that would’ve been very unpleasant to live in. The reason I actually chose to set the book in 1817 was because it was the year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I think, for obvious reasons, it was a huge influence on my book.
What was it like to write these characters, particularly Hazel and Jack and their unique circumstances?
One thing I set out to do when I started writing the novel was not fall into the trap I find in a lot of historical fiction of writing fully modern characters who just happened to be alive in the 19th century. I wanted Hazel to feel like she would’ve been alive in 1817, and that means some views on marriage or her past that don’t feel like a 2021 girl boss. There were extraordinary women throughout history, and I think there’s an interesting challenge with Hazel. A lot of her confidence in thinking “why not me,” thinking that being a woman isn’t going to hold her back also comes from a place of privilege. She’s someone who’s incredibly wealthy and has lived in a bubble her entire life. It’s a bubble where she’s had personal tragedy, but there’s a safety net because she’s related to nobility and she’s wealthy. I think meeting Jack puts a lot of the gritty reality of Edinburgh into focus for her.
I wanted to ground these characters in the experiences they would’ve had. I had a lot of fun writing Jack because he’s someone who, even though I tried to paint him as a bit of a bad boy in Edinburgh, I also tried to feed in that he’s someone who grew up in the theater. That’s just a personal Easter egg—I’m a huge theater nerd. I think there’s a certain dorky sweetness to Jack, even though he spends most of his time in graveyards. The fact that he spends a lot of his days and nights in a theater, I think, also affect his ideas of romance and love. That was also part of what I loved about getting to write this book; I had so much fun spending time in an old Scottish theater and then in a castle, and then in graveyards. They were exactly the places that I wanted to spend my time during lockdown.
Given you’ve written contemporary YA and humor nonfiction, where did the desire to move into Gothic themes come from? What felt different?
My goal was to write exactly the sort of book that I would’ve loved to read when I was in high school, when I naturally gravitated things that were darker and moodier. I was listening to My Chemical Romance and theater cast recordings. I liked the dramatic; I had a sort of a flare for the dark and macabre. I think a lot of young people do. People, especially when they’re teenagers, are learning about how dark the world can be for the first time. Sometimes they’re strangely attracted to that. It’s always been an aesthetic and a period I’ve loved. Frankenstein has been my favorite book for almost my entire life.
I think with my humor writing, I’m writing very much as Dana Schwartz. With this book, I tried really hard to get into the mindset of Hazel, someone who would’ve been alive in the 19th century. She’s funny, but in a different way. My humor is very Seinfeld sitcom, 30 Rock—the things that I grew up loving. I wanted to make reading Anatomy: A Love Story feel like disappearing into a world that doesn’t exist anymore.
In what ways are you finding the past influencing or intersecting with the present?
Obviously, I began this book a year before I ever heard of Covid, and pandemics were a common, frequent occurrence in 19th-century Europe. It was always just a part of the plot of the book. I couldn’t quite believe how prescient it became.
The class struggle I write about is more relevant—as relevant today as it was in the 19th century. Even though the class system was more articulated back then, people would talk about it more, in more explicit ways. We still live in a class system in which people benefit from privileges and other people are pushed to the margins of society. The question of people who think some other people are disposable is going to be one that humanity reckons with for a long time. That’s hopefully a question people realize isn’t just a problem from the past—it’s something we continue to deal with.
Can you talk about some of your upcoming projects?
I’m writing a nonfiction book of essays exploring our relationship to royalty, a parallel project to Noble Blood. I’m also writing a sequel to Anatomy for publication next year—if you can imagine! Anatomy ends on a little bit of a cliffhanger, so I’m excited to wrap up the story and tell the readers where it goes next.
Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz. Wednesday, $18.99 Jan. 18 ISBN 978-1-250-77415-6