1. Discuss the significance of the title. Does it give you any
insight into Beatrice’s priorities throughout the novel? How do you
think she would choose to identify herself?
2. On her first morning in 1347 Siena, Beatrice goes to the Santissima
Annunziata where she hears a prayer she remembers from Catholic school.
She says, “It was nice to hear the familiar words; that familiarity and
sense of belonging across centuries was one benefit of religion.” What
other benefits, if any, does religion offer the people of Medieval
3. Albizzi warns Iacopo that his knowledge places him in danger with the
Confraternity. What makes Albizzi issue this warning? What does Iacopo
know that places him in danger? Do you think that the members of the
Confraternity have used Iacopo for their own means? If so, how and why?
Why was Iacopo so willing to go along with the Confraternity’s scheme?
4. Giovanni de’ Medici’s absences “provided a certain relief” for his
wife, Immocolata. Why does Immocolata feel this way? Describe Giovanni.
Did you think he had any good in him as a husband or father? Explain
5. When Beatrice first sees Gabriele, she says that seeing him “as real
as my own solid self, unnerved me.” Why is seeing Gabriele unnerving for
Beatrice? What were your first impressions of Gabriele? Was he as you
had pictured him?
6. Beatrice says “oddly enough, I felt more at home in the scriptorium
of the Ospedale Della Scala than I had almost anywhere in the past
month, even in my own time.” Why do you think Beatrice is able to find
refuge in the scriptorium? Describe Beatrice’s duties as a scribe. What
benefits does working as a scribe afford her?
7. Discuss the epistolary elements of The Scribe of Siena. Were
you able to gain any additional insight into the characters through
their letters? If so, what were they? How did the letters help further
8. Describe Beatrice’s relationship with Gabriele. Did you think that
they were well suited for each other? In what ways? Gabriele asks
Beatrice, “What is a husband for, if not to comfort you.” What roles did
a spouse serve in Medieval Italy? Were there benefits to being married?
What were they?
9. In a letter, Ben jokes with Beatrice that “I try to get into people’s
heads too, but my subjects are already dead.” Are there any ways that
the work of a surgeon is similar to that of a historian? Describe them.
Does Beatrice’s background as a neurosurgeon help her as she
investigates the high levels of the Plague in Siena? Does her medical
background help in any other ways in Medieval Siena? What are they?
10. Were you surprised by Gabriele’s reaction when Beatrice shares the
truth about her origins with him? Why or why not? In her gratitude,
Beatrice tells him “the last thing I’d imagined in return was sympathy.”
Why does Gabriele correct her, telling her that he’s responding to her
disclosure with “empathy”? How have Gabriele’s actions demonstrated that
he is able to empathize with Beatrice? What effect has keeping her
origins hidden had on Beatrice?
11. Umilitá tells Beatrice, “The Pestilence has brought its share of
regretful behavior in its wake, but I would not have imagined it from
you.” Why does Umilitá believe that Beatrice has been callous toward
Gabriele. Do you agree? Why or why not?
12. When Beatrice is not able to open her mind to the perspective of
another, she “supposed it was safer to be free of it. If safety was my
goal.” What is Beatrice’s goal? Why might she miss her extreme sense of
empathy? Are there any benefits to having it? How does it help Beatrice
both as a surgeon and in Medieval Italy
13. Beatrice says, “I was beginning to realize that it was never quite
safe to make assumptions about Clara.” Do you agree? What were your
initial impressions of Clara? Did your opinion of her change? In what
ways and why? Beatrice posits that Clara has been able to survive so
long as an orphan because she has learned “to make her rescuers feel at
ease.”How is Clara able to make her rescuers feel comfortable? Clara has
also been able to survive by making herself indispensible. How has she
been able to accomplish this feat?
14. Compare and contrast Beatrice’s life in present day Italy and New
York with her life in Medieval Siena. What are the advantages to staying
in each time period for her? What would you choose and why? Were you
surprised that Beatrice made the choice she did?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Beatrice recounts how she and her brother would visit the Cloisters
on Sundays and how “the Unicorn Tapestries were always my favorite. This
is probably true of all kids who visit the Cloisters.” Visit the
Cloisters virtually and learn more about the Unicorn tapestries: http://metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/search-for-the-unicorn
Discuss them with your book club. Why do you think that Beatrice liked
the tapestries so much?
2. Beatrice says, “I’m cautious about who I get recommendations from,
but Nathaniel knows how to pick a book, at least for me.” Discuss how
you get book recommendations with your book club. Go through your last
few book club selections, taking the time to talk about whether or not
you would recommend them to others.
3. When Donata’s family gives Beatrice a Civetta scarf, she is overcome
with gratitude. Why is the scarf such a meaningful gift to Beatrice? Do
you own any objects that have particular significance to you? Tell your
book club about them.
4. The Bubonic Plague took a particularly heavy toll on the population
of Siena. To learn more about the Bubonic Plague and the effects it had
on Medieval society, visit: http://www.historytoday.com/ole-j-benedictow/black-death-greatest-catastrophe-ever
A Conversation With Melodie Winawer
Congratulations on publishing your first novel! What’s been the most
rewarding part of the experience of publishing The Scribe of Siena so
far? Was there anything that surprised you about publishing fiction?
The most remarkable thing about the publishing process is that the story
I’d been telling—first in my head, then on the page—left my head, and my
pages, and got into someone else’s head. Many other people’s heads!
Being read by someone other than my limited self is the magic that makes
my words take flight. The exhilaration of having someone gasp at a plot
revelation, or fall in love with a character who was born in my
imagination, or stay up all night reading words that kept me up all
night writing—that makes all the hard work worthwhile. Writing is an
unimaginable delight, but being read . . . well . . . being read is
You’ve written fifty nonfiction articles and book chapters throughout
your medical career. How was the experience of writing fiction
different? What made you decide to write a novel?
I have to say, I really love these questions. They all get right to the
heart of my experience, and it’s very satisfying to think about them and
arrive at the answers. Actually, as of a few months ago I’ve written
forty-eight (and I’m working on submitting number 49, which I’m
submitting for the FOURTH time—talk about never giving up!). There are
some definite similarities in the process and some drastic differences.
The similarities: I’m a research scientist (and a doctor). The way I do
scientific research goes something like this: I come up with a question
I don’t know the answer to. I try to look up the answer. If I don’t find
an answer, I look harder, and in more sources. If I still don’t know the
answer, I ask colleagues with expertise. If no one knows the answer, or
even better, if there is disagreement, or even controversy about the
answer, that’s when I know I’ve found my next research project. That
happened with The Scribe of Siena; the minute I started thinking and
reading about Siena as a foundation for a story, I started running up
against the question of why Siena fared so badly during the Plague. And
I didn’t find an answer—or I found conflicting answers. That became the
historical question at the center of my story. Now, in scientific
research, my job is to explore the uncertain systematically, and be
absolutely true to fact, or to experimental results. But in fiction . .
. uncertainty is a foundation for invention. That means I get to make
things up. And that is intensely pleasurable—the absolute antidote to my
satisfying but highly structured, scientific work, in which I never get
to make things up.
What made me decide to write a novel? I was in a funny time in my life.
We’d just sold our house, and bought a new house but it needed
renovations so we moved into my mom’s apartment—“we” meaning me, my
spouse, and our three kids. We lived with her for two months. Almost all
of our belongings went into storage, and I moved into my childhood
bedroom. During those two months my spouse, who is an ex-professional
violinist, was working on a Stravinsky trio four hours a night, and I
was left to my own devices. I was between books—not reading anything,
and missing the feeling of being in an absorbing story, at the same time
as being in a limbo of life stages too, between homes. I’d always
written—since childhood and through high school, college, and after
that—short stories and essays, and I’d even made notes for a novel when
I was fifteen before I realized I was too young to write it. During
those few strange months where I was longing to be absorbed in a story,
in a deep, compelling imaginary world, it came to me that I wanted to
MAKE my own story, not READ one. So that’s what I did.
As a debut novelist, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Is
there anything that you wish you had done differently in hindsight?
First: Write for the joy of it, not to please some imagined audience or
market. Don’t worry if people say “no one is buying historical fiction
[insert your genre here],” or “no first novelist should write a book
over 400 pages,” for example. Both those things were said to me, and I
ignored them. You should write your story because you love it or must
write it. There’s no point otherwise.
Second: Never give up. NEVER NEVER NEVER give up. The only thing that
will ensure your failure is if you stop trying.
What I wish I had done differently . . . at first I said—I’ll never
write a book blind like this again, without a clear plan and detailed
outline right at the beginning. But I’m not sure I really would have
done it differently. It was exhilarating, the free fall into fiction,
into a story that evolved as I wrote it. And to some extent, I don’t
think it is possible, at least not for me, to really plan fully before
writing. Most of what actually happens in my stories happens on the page
as I start to write, and even when I think I’m going to plan, the
outcome eludes me until that magic moment, and things surprise me that I
didn’t know might happen as the words start to appear in front of me.
That’s part of the mystery and pleasure of writing.
Can you tell us about your writing process? The Scribe of Siena is
intricately plotted, moving seamlessly between two time periods. Did you
know how Beatrice’s story would end when you began writing?
The quick answer is . . . no. And yes. I knew some things, but many
things were obscure to me. I liken it to driving in the dark, in a
snowstorm. You know where you are heading, and you can see a few feet in
front of you. But the road appears as you go, and sometimes you take a
wrong turn and end up somewhere you didn’t expect, or maybe it wasn’t a
wrong turn but you can’t tell until you go miles down that road. Some
scenes I wrote very early on, knowing they would be in the book, and
they stayed (like the scene where Gabriele and Beatrice hold hands for
the first time). Sometimes a character would show up and I would have no
idea why—like Bartolomeo. It was years before I fully knew why he was
there and what role he would play in Beatrice’s life. I knew they would
have a special connection, that he would be porous to her empathy, and
that she would help him with her entry into his mind. But I didn’t know
where it would lead. Some scenes I wrote early on never got into the
book at all. Some came, then left, then came back. They all give the
story depth, whether they are there or not—invisible layers that make it
richer even if they are not read.
In present day New York, Beatrice works as a neurosurgeon. In
addition to being a writer, you are an associate professor of neurology.
Are you similar to Beatrice in any other ways? If so, what are they?
This question gets at one central autobiographical issue—not just about
being a doctor and a writer at the same time but about the possibility
of being a doctor first, THEN leaving the doctor’s life and becoming a
writer. Beatrice leaves her medical life and moves toward writing.
People are always asking me whether I’m going to “quit my job and
write,” which doesn’t really make sense to me, since medicine and
science are fundamental to who I am and influence how I write fiction. I
have the privilege of being allowed into the most intimate and powerful
moments of my patients’ lives, and I also work at the edge of scientific
understanding on a daily basis. This is deeply rewarding. But writing
fiction exerts a powerful pull on me, and the pull is not always in the
same direction as the rest of my work. It’s a challenge, that balance,
that I can’t say I find easy! So there was a deep satisfaction in
allowing Beatrice to leave the medical world, to choose writing a
history instead of taking it. Ben articulates that for her, and it’s one
of the key lines in the book for me.
Other ways I’m like Beatrice? Oh, millions of ways! But here’s a funny
thing: Someone quite close to me once told me that Beatrice was funnier
than I am. How is that even possible? How unfair? She IS me! How can she
be funny if I’m not funny? I MADE her, for heaven’s sake! That is one of
the odd things about fiction. I’m not Giovanni either, but he must be in
there somewhere. . . .
As Beatrice settles into her life in Medieval Siena she grows to find
pleasure in “something intangible, a surprisingly pleasurable
medieval-ness.” From your writing, it’s clear that you also value the
“pleasurable medieval-ness” Beatrice describes. What attracted you to
this particular historical period?
I’ve been entranced with medieval life since I was a child. I read eight
different retellings of the Arthurian legend, and even played king
Arthur in my girl scout camp drama production. I remember getting a set
of calligraphy pens and bottles of ink and practicing forming the
medieval letters (not unlike Beatrice)—I fantasized for a while about a
life sitting in a quiet room illuminating manuscripts. Once, when I was
very young, younger than four, I told my parents I wanted to be a nun. I
remember that not going very well since I was growing up in not only a
relatively secular household but also a secular Jewish one. The impulse
to the contemplative life wasn’t religion though, it was something else.
When I was little I couldn’t articulate what it was I loved so much, but
now I’ve managed to get a firmer understanding of what I found so
compelling about the idea of living a medieval life.
Some of the attraction comes from any time far enough into the past not
to be modern. Modern life is fast. It prides itself on speed and
efficiency. Fast food, fast delivery, fast transmission of information.
This is all useful, but it is not pleasurable. When I was writing The
Scribe of Siena I studied historically accurate medieval Italian recipes
and held several dinners based on traditional dishes and menus—poratta,
lasana fermentatam, limonia of chicken, pumpkin tart . . . these are
even more delicious than they sound. I spent three days preparing for
the first meal I ever served: making almond milk from scratch to thicken
sauces, squeezing bunches of grapes with my hands to make pink garlic
sauce, steeping wine with galangal, cinnamon, ginger, and honey for the
hypocras. Three days of cooking and a six-hour, luxurious, slow dinner
for seventeen people, with music and flickering candles and the feeling
that the evening need never end. Three days to prepare a dinner--and I
was using an oven and electric equipment! I loved the slowness, the
physical immersion in the process of cooking for people I loved. This
encapsulated much of what I see as a major contrast between the medieval
past and our fast-moving, convenient present. Sometimes I feel that
there is hardly any time to taste what you are eating, let alone enjoy
it, or the people you are sharing a meal with.
The Scribe of Siena has been compared to Outlander and The
Time Traveler’s Wife. Were those works inspirational to you? Were
there other books that inspired you? Can you tell us about them?
Inspirational is an understatement! It is absolutely mind-boggling to be
compared to Diana Gabaldon and Audrey Niffenegger, both of whom I (and I
am certainly not alone in this) think of as luminaries of fiction,
particularly in the absorbing, believable, and emotionally gripping
portrayal of love across centuries, transcending the traditional shape
of time. I stayed up all night reading both Outlander and The Time
Traveller’s Wife, and I would be honored if The Scribe of Siena affects
readers even a fraction as much as those books affected me.
One of the most inspiring things about Outlander wasn’t the story
itself, it was Gabaldon’s trajectory—the way she started writing, the
way she continues to write, the way her life has evolved into that of a
celebrated novelist. She was a scientific writer who knew she wanted to
write a novel. She wrote without asking anyone how, because she had a
story she wanted to tell. She had a bunch of kids, no time, and another
job. She didn’t get an MFA, join a writer’s group, write essays about
point of view or narrative structure. She had no extra time but she used
the time she had. When I read why she chose historical fiction it was so
like what I had said that I laughed out loud. I knew how to do research
already so that’s what I did. If Gabaldon can do it, I can do it too, I
thought—with my scientific career, my medical life, my three kids. And I
did. I wrote on the subway during my ridiculously long commute. I wrote
after the kids were asleep, in the passenger seat of our minivan on the
way home from a trip upstate. I wrote whenever I could, hungry for every
moment I had. And when I couldn’t write, the story hummed in my head.
Do you have any favorite moments in The Scribe of Siena? What
I absolutely loved writing the wedding night scene—I really enjoyed the
combination of the tension of Gabriele and Beatrice’s challenging
conversation, the clash between their two worlds, and their desire for
I also loved writing chapter 9—Beatrice’s return to modern life, that
underlines her longing for the Medieval life she left behind. That was
probably my favorite to write. It was hard too, though, figuring out the
balance of the mystery and the emotion, and how to make her decision
I really like the scene in the elevator, when Beatrice dreams about
Gabriele, and reflects on how he becomes part of the objects around him,
how much he would like that. This comes from a real experience of my
childhood. My grandmother died when I was fifteen, and I missed her all
the time. We’d been very close, talked a lot, traveled together, went to
museums—she was an amateur late-life historian who loved art and must
have instilled a lot of that joy in me. After she died I had recurrent
dreams that would take place in the elevator of the apartment building
where I lived, and we would meet there. I’d update her about my life,
and I knew instinctively in those dreams that elevators were a place
between the world of the living and the non-living, where we could
connect and still share our thoughts. . . . It was strangely reassuring
at the time. I would say, if one of my children asked me now whether
that was magic, that the mind creates wonderful ways of solving problems
of emotional loss that are magical . . . it was certainly that for me.
Finally, there’s a paragraph that is easily missed but is one of my
favorites because, although it is ostensibly about Gabriele’s process of
painting, it actually describes my experience of writing.
“Do you know what you’re going to paint before you start?”
“I spend many days preparing studies before I approach the unpainted
wall, and outline my intended image in red-brown sinopia, well
before I begin to paint. But I can only plan so much. The full
execution eludes me until the moment I lay pigment on wet plaster,
feeling the brush move in my hand as if a force other than my own
propels it. That is the moment I live for, and that I cannot explain
. . .”
What would you like your readers who are interested in Medieval
Italy to take away from The Scribe of Siena?
I like historical fiction because I want to bring the past to life. I
don’t just want to write about history, to record what happened. I want
to give readers (and myself!) a way to sink into history—to be time
travelers, like Beatrice. I want my book to help people go to Medieval
Siena, not just read about Medieval Siena. I want my readers to feel
transported, to believe that it is possible to move from one time and
place to another, and even for just a moment, to believe that these
invented people are real, the way I did while writing it, and in some
ways still do. I want to provide a bridge into a living, breathing
past—a past that might even coexist simultaneously with the present.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
Yes, yes! Always—if not on paper then in my head. At the moment I’m
working on a novel set in late Byzantine Greece. If focuses on the now
abandoned city of Mystras, in the Southern Peloponnese, which is mostly
in ruins, but still standing. You can walk through its streets, into the
churches and crumbling houses, the great fortress on top of the hill at
the foot of the Taygetos mountain range—and of course I have walked
through it—it’s even more magical than it sounds. It has a mysterious,
tumultuous history, with moments of great triumph, as the center of the
late Byzantine empire after the fall of Constantinople, and also great
despair. I seem to keep coming back to this question of the shape of
time, and how the past and the present intersect—that plays a role in
the story I’m writing now too. But I can’t say more at the moment—it’s