Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Author Interview & Giveaway: Adrienne McDonnell

I am pleased to welcome author Adrienne McDonnell to Always With a Book. Her book, The Doctor and the Diva, is now available in paperback with a gorgeous new cover. Be sure to enter the giveaway at the end of this - two copies are available!

The story begins in 1903, in Boston.  A young, Harvard-educated obstetrician who is a rising star in his profession becomes dangerously attracted to a patient—a lovely opera singer.  She turns to the doctor for help in conceiving a child.  The doctor becomes so drawn to her that he takes a great moral risk—a secret he can share with no one.

The novel is based on ancestors, and hundreds of pages of family letters.  Who were those ancestors?

The married couple in the novel, Erika von Kessler and her husband Peter, were inspired by my son’s paternal ancestors—his great-great grandparents.  They lived in Boston at the beginning of the twentieth century, and they were an extraordinary pair.  Even by modern standards, they dared to live in bold, highly adventurous ways. 

What moved you to write about them?
I can remember the moment I first heard about the great-great grandmother, the woman whom I call “Erika” in the novel.  I was nineteen years old, living in Santa Barbara.  A friend had gone away for the weekend, and she’d loaned me her beachfront apartment.  It was around midnight, and I was lying there in the arms of a young man I barely knew.  He later became my husband, but at that moment we were just beginning to know one another.  He talked about his grandfather, who had recently died.  Suddenly he said, “When my grandfather was a little boy, his mother deserted him and her husband and moved to Italy to develop her career as an opera singer.
The idea of a privileged woman in early twentieth century Boston who abandoned her husband and small child for the sake of her art … the thought of it amazed me.  Then I couldn’t decide: did I admire her and want to applaud her courage?  Or was it heartbreaking that she’d deserted her little boy?  The tension of all those conflicting feelings drew my imagination to her.

How did you manage to learn more about her life?
Early in our marriage, my husband and I moved to Boston.  Every day on my way to work, I walked through the Back Bay neighborhood where these ancestors had once lived.  Erika’s childhood home stood on Commonwealth Avenue.   Her father was a famous physician, and they lived in a rather grand house with two archways. 
When I went up to the front entrance and cupped my hands against the glass pane to peer inside, I saw that much remained the same as it had been in the late nineteenth century.  The wide staircase was still paneled in black walnut, and I imagined her fiancĂ© Peter mounting the steps, and her voice echoing down to him while she sang from the parlor upstairs.

Why did their story seem so haunting to you?
When I stood across the street from “Erika’s” house, I could almost see a young girl’s face—her face—staring back at me from an oval window on the third story.  I had a strange sense of god-like omniscience, because I knew things about her life that she couldn’t foresee—how her husband would one day be forced to divorce her and take custody of their small son; how she would sing in I Puritani from Montepulciano, Italy; how her little boy would write her letters that were never delivered to her.

The novel draws upon hundreds of pages of family letters.  Where did you find those letters?
After my husband and I had lived in Boston for nine years, we decided to move back to the West Coast.  We drove cross-country and stopped at his aunt’s ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  Like me, she had a passion for genealogy.  From the moment you stepped into her house, you felt the presence of the ancestors….  Huge family portraits stared down at you from her living room walls.  She had a little gallery of framed butterflies -- a dozen exquisite butterflies that her grandfather “Peter” had meticulously painted with hair-thin brushes. 

“Where are the letters I’ve heard so much about?”  I asked her.  The aunt brought out hundreds of pages of correspondence.  Reading them just amazed me.  I realized that these ancestors had led far bigger lives than I’d imagined.  Their voices could be heard in those pages.  There was so much detail and adventure—nights spent exploring winding streets in Tangier, or visits to a coconut plantation in the Caribbean where the guests told ghost stories after dinner…. 

What did you enjoy most about writing THE DOCTOR AND THE DIVA?
Apart from the joy of composing the fictionalized story, I loved doing the research.  It was deeply pleasurable to steep myself in another era, and revel in all those exotic lands described in century-old family letters. 

Learning about the history of medicine and the working life of a 1903 obstetrician like Dr. Ravell—that was also fascinating.  And the music!  I cannot tell you how it nourished my soul and my senses, to listen to the gorgeous arias that Erika sang.  Had it not been for my son’s ancestor, I might have missed out on a whole domain of thrilling and lovely music.

How long did it take you to write THE DOCTOR AND THE DIVA?
About six years.  I wrote a first draft of the novel in the mid-1980s, but the result was lifeless and stale.  I packed up those pages and stored them in a box for twenty years. 

Then, after a couple of decades passed, I envisioned an entirely new way to frame the novel.  This time I would begin Erika’s story not through her own perspective, but instead through the eyes of the young doctor who was becoming obsessed with her, a man who would take a terrible risk and jeopardize his career because of her.

How did you research the novel, and balance factual information with storytelling?
First, I read the family letters with great scrutiny, always on the lookout for material that might be transformed into a scene.  I imagined the exotic locales as stage sets where dramas might unfold.

Like any good student, I brought home musty books and old recordings from University and public libraries, and while I pulled out my pen and took careful notes, my conscious and unconscious mind were both at work.  I was constantly on the hunt for just the right, historically apt detail.  For example, when Erika is confined to her bed during childbirth, Doctor Ravell puts a ball of cotton soaked in chloroform into a tumbler, and he tells Erika to place the glass over her nose.  After she breathes its vapors, the tumbler slides from her hand and rolls along the carpeted floor.  That’s all you need to evoke pain relief during childbirth in 1904—one detail like that, just a whiff.
On a deeper, thematic level, what is THE DOCTOR AND THE DIVA about?

The themes are too many to count, but I will say this.  Several characters in the novel commit unthinkable acts.  I’ve always been interested in the challenge of seeing a character’s situation with empathy, so that even the most shocking choice or appalling actions might become understandable. 

Giveaway Rules:
I have two copies of the paperback version of The Doctor and the Diva for readers of this blog open to US and Canada readers only.

  • For ONE entry enter your name and email on the form below.
  • For TWO entries follow my blog. If you already are following me through Google Friend Connect thank you for following my blog. Just let me know in form by answering the optional question three.
  • For THREE entries post about this giveaway to spread the word. Be sure to share the link of your post in optional question four on the form.

Giveaway will end on December 13th, 2011 at midnight.
I will draw two winners using Random.org on December 14th, 2011
To be entered no entries by comments.



  1. Thanks for hosting this great giveaway, Kristin. What an interesting premise for a book--and this is a very good interview!

  2. @Suko Thanks Suko...I had read the book when it first came out and found it fascinating.

  3. thanks for the giveaway, sounds like a great read!

  4. I've heard this is a great book! Thanks so much for the interview & giveaway!


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