Dana Schwartz Initially Didn’t Mean to Write Sequel Immortality: A Love StoryPhoto: Sela Shiloni Books Features Dana Schwartz
Dana Schwartz does it all. Or, at least, it often seems like she does. A journalist, TV and film writer, and podcast host (NB: if you haven’t listened to Noble Blood, please fix your life), she’s also now a best-selling YA author thanks to her Anatomy Duology, whose second installment, Immortality: A Love Story hit shelves in February.
The first book in the series, titled Anatomy: A Love Story, is set in 1800s Scotland and follows the story of Hazel Sinnet, the daughter of a minor Scottish lord who wants nothing so much as to become a surgeon and who enlists the help of a handsome young resurrection man (essentially, a grave robber) to acquire dead bodies to learn on. Sequel Immortality sees her summoned to London to treat a gravely ill Princess Charlotte of Wales. Throughout both books, there are murders, romance, various famous figures from history (some of whom have acquired the ability to live forever), and a young woman who refuses to let anyone else write her story.
Following the release of Immortality: A Love Story, we got the chance to chat with Schwartz about the sequel she didn’t initially plan to write, the real history of female medical students in early 19th century England, what makes a good love triangle, and a whole lot more.
Paste Magazine: Tell me about where the idea for the Anatomy series came from. What made you want to tell Hazel’s story?
Dana Schwartz: I’ve always loved history and it was years ago that I visited Edinburgh for the first time. It is an incredible city. And that’s sort of where I first learned about the dawn of surgery in the late 18th hundreds and the sort of macabre underbelly of history that exists in Edinburgh. And I’ve been fascinated by that ever since. It’s always been in the back of my mind. And eventually I think just being a writer, sometimes ideas stay in your mind and then sometimes they pop into focus. And I was on a plane from New York to Los Angeles and didn’t buy plane wifi on principle ’cause I thought I was going to get work done. And instead I just sort of saw these characters fully formed.
I thought of a young woman who’s a lady who wants to sort of escape from her life and a resurrection man and how their paths might cross. And then it was just filling in the puzzle pieces, wanting to explore all of these different elements about society, wanting to talk about themes of… the way the romantic movement was happening at this time, and also scientific advances were happening so fast, wanting to pull all of that in. And at the heart of it, I also just wanted to really write the story that I would’ve wanted to read as a sort of macabre, spooky, pop-punk-listening teenager.
Paste: What would you call the genre of this series? It’s historical fiction but also a sort of magical, alternate history at the same time. Resurrection men were a big deal in Edinburgh in the 19th century. Stealing bodies for medical students was a thing that happened. The real Princess Charlotte was beloved and did die young. But then you put this spin on it where it starts from a realistic place but moves into a fantasy place.
Schwartz: I think that’s it exactly…I would say it’s historical fiction with a slight twist. I kind of wanted to use Frankenstein rules, where I wanted it to be real, and then I’m going to ask the audience, the readers to make one buy. One buy. One piece of technology that’s going to exist in the book that doesn’t exist in real life. So I try to keep it very grounded. And then there’s one almost fantastical element, but even that fantastical element, in the world of the book, it’s science, not magic.
This is a period in history where they are coming up with technological marvels at a speed that would’ve been impossible to predict. If you could’ve explained antibiotics to someone in the early 1800s, they would’ve thought that was magic. So in Frankenstein, there’s the technology to bring a body back to life. And this is obviously a different technology that exists in both Anatomy and Immortality.
If you’ve read Frankenstein, what I do really appreciate about it is Mary Shelley, really “yada yadas” the science. And, look, if it’s good enough for Mary Shelley, it’s more than good enough for me. This isn’t a book about how to create immortality. It’s a book about dealing with medical hubris and finding your place in the world.
Paste: You seem to do a million things at once—I’m also a big fan of your Noble Blood podcast as well. Did working on a history podcast help you write a historical YA book?
Schwartz: It absolutely did help. I mean, there are a lot of characters in Immortality that I’ve covered in my podcast. They’re just historical figures that I sort of fell in love with while I was researching and writing the podcast and then wanted to spend more time with in a fictional way. And…
Paste: Can I tell you that I love that you have Lord Byron living forever? That just gives me such joy.
Schwartz: He would do so well in Brooklyn in 2023. Truly, it was just so much fun to play with that and it definitely made it easier.
I also think studying and writing about history is the best reminder that people have just always been people, even several hundred years ago. They’re not fundamentally different than us. They have petty resentments and they’re hungry and crabby and horny and jealous and it all fed each other. I think being a writer, the worst thing you can do is close yourself off from other things that you’re interested in because it just makes everything richer.
Paste: Your books are honest about that, I think. It actually includes the fact that real life was kind of dirty and there were gross diseases and poor people’s lives weren’t exactly picturesque. Gay people and people of color existed. Was something that felt particularly important to you to include or were you just trying to represent what real life probably looked like?
Schwartz: A bit of both. I think sometimes people think that things are quote-unquote “going woke” when it’s just an accurate reflection of how things actually work. I think people who haven’t studied history but maybe have seen posters for a Jane Austen movie think that they’re experts on history. And so I don’t think I wanted to make a statement, nor am I the person to do that even if someone did want to make a statement. I just wanted to make this world feel real and rich and lifted and as accurate as I could have crafted it. If someone thinks that there weren’t gay people in the past or that it’s like, “Oh, it’s woke, you portrayed him as gay.” It’s like read one history book, my friend.
Paste: Just bros being bros!
Schwartz: Female best friends who’ve spent their life as roommates and wrote letters to each other and never married.
Paste: Did you always know you were going to write a sequel to Anatomy?
Schwartz: No. I really thought Anatomy was going to be a stand-alone novel.
Paste: I will tell you, I love the ambiguity of the ending.
Schwartz: Yeah. Truly, I thought the ending in my mind was always going to be sort of bittersweet and ambiguous and that would just be it. But then I just got very, very excited by the idea of another chapter.
And the way I sort of see Immortality…I’m like, look, if Anatomy worked for you and you want it to end there, that’s great. This is a new adventure and it’s a new step in the story. This is just a new adventure that this person is having. And I just had so much fun with these characters that I wanted to give them a new adventure. But no, I wasn’t one of those authors who’s like this series arc requires multiple books to tell it. I wanted each book to be full arcs.
Paste: I liked the way that you could read the end of Anatomy going either way, that Hazel and Jack would eventually find their way back to each other or that she would go on and continue doing her own life. And I feel like you get a little bit of both those options in Immortality which also an unexpected kind of love triangle whose third wheel I sort of really loved.
Schwartz: I love Simon. Personally, look, if Dana was making the choice, Dana would go Team Simon.
Paste: So would Lacy, honestly. I’m like, oh no, he’s nerdy.
Schwartz: He’s nerdy! So it’s like Jack and Hazel are kind of opposites. She’s logical and he’s more emotional, and he’s more impulsive and she’s more pragmatic. And she and Simon are really kind of peas in a pod.
I thought it would be fun to sort of challenge that dynamic and say, what would it be like if she met someone like him? I love Simon. A fun love triangle to me is one that actually feels like a choice, but then some character has to say “All right, what am I actually feeling in my heart?”
Paste: I want to believe that there were lots of women historically like Hazel who were out there trying to succeed in the medical profession and were just as good as men. Were there? (I figured you would know.)
Schwartz: That’s another thing. There’s reviewers who are like, “Oh, Hazel’s such a Mary Sue. No women would be surgeons in this time.” And it’s like actually… Hazel was inspired by a military surgeon who went by James Barry, who studied, who got their medical degree at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, and lived their life as a man even though they were born a woman named Margaret Anne.
And so this is kind of a tricky situation because the vocabulary for trans people didn’t quite exist at the time, and we don’t know how they would’ve identified as an individual, but we know that someone who was born a woman created an identity in which they were a man so that they could enroll in medical school and become a surgeon. And that happened… I mean it actually happened before, I mean concurrently, but slightly before. They would’ve been about 10 years older than Hazel. So these are things that are happening.
People are studying, women are studying medicine all over Western Europe and the world. And also I think that people fundamentally dismiss the fact that women were the ones who helped other women give birth for centuries. And it wasn’t until the 18th century that the male obstetrician sort of stepped in, but I think it’s a very narrow perspective of history to pretend that there weren’t always women interested and passionate about healing and medicine.
You almost need to be willfully narrow in your curiosity or learning about history to think that these women didn’t exist. It’s almost a product of 19th-century storytelling that exalted these mayo medical geniuses in every other story.
Paste: Well, now that I know that you sort of accidentally wrote Immortality, do you think you might accidentally write some more in this universe?
Schwartz: I don’t know! I don’t have plans to. I wouldn’t want to write a book unless I had a really good idea that I thought I had to write and made their story move forward in a way that was interesting to me.
I would never want to write a book just to write a book. Because writing a book is hard, but never say never. No plans yet. But who knows?
Paste: What is the one thing you hope people take away from reading this series?
Schwartz: Oh, that’s a really good question. And I haven’t thought of it. Let’s say, to question their perceptions about the world and about themselves, like the assumptions that we make about the world and ourselves.
Both Anatomy: A Love Story and Immortality: A Love Story are available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.