Melodie Winawer: Author & physician-scientist/Associate Professor of Neurology, Columbia University

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Melodie Winawer is a physician-scientist and Associate Professor of Neurology at Columbia University. A graduate of Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University with degrees in biological psychology, medicine, and epidemiology, she has published over fifty nonfiction articles and book chapters. She is fluent in Spanish and French, literate in Latin, and has a passable knowledge of Italian. Dr. Winawer lives with her spouse and their three young children in Brooklyn, New York. The Scribe of Siena is her first novel.

What do I do best?

I make unexpected connections. This finds its way into all the parts of my work (and there are a lot of parts!). I’m a neurologist, neuroscientist, neuroscience educator, novelist and mom of three. I like to build bridges--professionally, academically, and in the realm of creativity. In science I’ve made a career out of multidisciplinary collaborative projects that integrate people from different fields who would never cross paths, and if they did manage to connect, would usually not understand each other.  Right now I lead a scientific project that puts together neuropathologists, geneticists, neurologists who specialize in epilepsy, and neurosurgeons.  In my fiction I do the same. My recently published novel, The Scribe of Siena, definitely crosses multiple genres. It’s reasonable to call it historical fiction, because it is about medieval Italy, but it also plays with time, delves into an unsolved mystery about the Plague, and connects people across centuries. The novel I’m writing now crosses lines too-- it’s historical fiction about late Byzantine Greece, but  this story also plays with  the non-linearity of time, integrates neurological disease into a historical plot,  and is about connections between people that defy the limits of country and century.

What makes me the best version of myself?

I love what I do.  People often ask me how I possibly manage to do everything.  First, I’ll confess that there are many times—in fact, multiple times a day!—in which I feel like it’s actually impossible and I should just give up. But I don’t!  And my enthusiasm keeps me going even when it seems impossible. I love research science because it makes my mind work hard to solve problems that could profoundly affect human health.  I love patient care because it is a privilege to connect so deeply with people who are suffering and help them figure out what is wrong and manage their illnesses.  I love medical education because it’s exhilarating to figure out how to get students excited about what they are learning, and to watch the light turn on when they understand something they didn’t know before. I love writing because it is a free flight into the unknown—a breathless, amazing escape from the necessarily regimented requirements of medicine and science.  And…I love being a mom because…ah, well that’s impossible to describe.

What are my aspirations?

Business first: I want to keep writing novels and never stop.  I hope that fiction keeps moving through me and onto the page—it’s a privilege and a profound pleasure to have that gift of storytelling in  my life.

Also: I want my research to make a difference in the treatment of people with epilepsy.

In the personal realm, I want to continue to find great joy in all that I do, and hope to be able to share that joy with others.

My Biggest Success?

Publishing my first novel.  All my scientific successes have been deeply satisfying, and I’m proud of the grants I’ve been awarded and the papers I’ve published. But there is something special about being able to send a story I invented, one so close to my heart, out into the world so others can read it.

My Most Challenging Moment?

I’ve lost three pregnancies—one quite late, at 12 weeks.  All those losses happened after the birth of our first child, and before the births of our second and third, who are twins.  It was so hard to keep going, to continue to trust my body and the possibility that some day all this despair would lead to new life—and it did!  I think very few women talk about pregnancy loss, and the secrecy and feeling of having something terribly wrong that you cannot discuss and that dominates your life is so hard. I try to talk about it when I can so others will share too, and maybe we’ll all feel less alone. Plus my story has a very happy ending.

My Motto?

Nothing you learn is ever wasted.

My Favorite People/Role Models?

Personal: My mom.  She has incredible non-stop energy and enthusiasm.  She is an intellectual, an athlete, and a loving mother. She’s a trial lawyer with her own firm, a ferocious tennis player, and an avid, skilled gardener who makes the world more beautiful with her efforts. She loves to play games, is a great cook, reads voraciously, and is a scintillating conversationalist. Oh and she’s beautiful, funny, and kind.  If I am half as successful as she is, I’m happy!

Business:  I can’t name one single person. I gain so much strength and support from all my writer friends and colleagues who are always trying to keep going despite the challenges they face, and always work to help one another.

My Favorite Places/Destinations?

I fall in love with the place I’m writing about in my fiction. Right now that place is Greece.  Mystras in particular, an incredibly atmospheric city that was built more than 700 years ago and is now nearly all in ruins, but with streets, parts of buildings,  and churches still standing—it even houses a working monastery. You can walk around the town that once held more than 20,000 people, and feel like you have stepped back into the past. It’s the subject of my current novel-in-progress, and has a tumultuous, exciting history as the capital of the late Byzantine Empire after the fall of Constantinople. I also love Greece for its breathtaking physical beauty—the crazy blue green crystal clear water, peacocks roaming free on uninhabited islands, hills of white houses rising from the water’s edge.  The food is fantastic (and my kids eat it, a big plus!). But the most wonderful thing about Greece is the people. They’re so welcoming, it feels like coming home.  A Greek friend I work with in New York once said that if you end up visiting a small town during a wedding, you’ll probably end up as an invited guest. (He has!)

My Favorite Products/Objects?

My cello—I am lucky to have a lovely old instrument to play. It’s amazing to me that one object can be the source of so much pleasure—and require so much hard work!

Here’s a slightly more lighthearted answer: my mattress. This sounds totally ridiculous, but it’s true. I was on a cruise ship years ago, and my daily back pain disappeared—the bed was the most comfortable I’d ever slept in in my entire life. I managed to get a faded Xeroxed slip of paper from the concierge detailing the mattress specs and how to find it—and I promptly went home and bought mine. Matermoll Dreamy—in case you are wondering. I recommend it to patients with back pain now all the time. I hope it changes their lives for the better—it did mine!

My Current Passions?

Ashtanga yoga—that’s an 18 year passion. I practice 6 days a week and have for almost two decades.  It keeps me sane.

Cooking--I considered cooking as a career because growing up I loved it so much, and I still do. I got my first subscription to Gourmet Magazine as a child, and started hosting dinner parties with my mom when I was 8 or 9 years old. I still love to cook, and particularly like to invent new recipes, inspired by ingredients I find around me—in greenmarkets, local Brooklyn groceries.  But I came to realize that I’d rather cook for friends and family and share food with them than cook professionally.

My children—now 10, 10 and 12 years old. They are always so interesting, honestly, even when they are annoying, which I admit they can be.  And the love I have for my kids is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

And finally…writing—obviously!