Check out this short interview with Steve M Gnatz, author of The Wisdom of the Flock. There’s also a link to the book trailer and a giveaway!
What is true and what is fictional in The Wisdom of the Flock?
I tried to be as historically accurate as possible in writing The Wisdom of the Flock. As you can imagine, there is a lot more information preserved in the historical record about some of the characters, for example Benjamin Franklin or Marie Antoinette, than for other people like Marianne Davies. However, on any actual date cited in the chapter of the book, the main event took place. Specific examples include the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the first manned balloon flight, or (mild spoiler alert) the death of DeGebelin.
Was it easier to write about some characters than others?
Writing about characters where there is an extensive historical record can be both a blessing and a curse. In the case of Ben Franklin, of course a lot is known, and his letters have all been well preserved. I drew on these resources extensively. However, people also have developed a stereotype of Franklin that doesn’t fit well with my version of him as a virile ladies’ man. Nonetheless, some historians (particularly Claude-Anne Lopez) have made the case that he was just that. For someone like Marianne Davies – about whom very little is known, it was easier. And while historians have asked why Franklin might have been inclined to invent the glass armonica specifically for her, the historical record is not forthcoming – so that allowed me the freedom to make up a lot about their relationship. Of course, I had to have Ben and Marianne “burn” their letters to each other – so that they would no longer exist in reality!
Why do you think it is that we stereotype historical figures?
I believe that the short answer is that the filter of the passage of time tends to “simplify” all characters. Certain pieces of information, recorded during their lifetime and later, get repeated and amplified, while the details and complexities of their life become lost or obscured. Franklin becomes the “corpulent, gouty, wise founding father” rather than the complex man who could be narcissistic and at times downright mean to his family. Ben spent most of his adult life living separately from his wife Deborah and was even absent when she died. Still, we gloss over these details in favor of the positive aspects of his life – and he did accomplish some amazing things! Also, in the case of a historical character like Marie Antoinette – who only ended up being vilified at the end of her life for political reasons leading up to the revolution in France – we tend to have our perceptions altered by “propaganda” such as the commonly held belief that she said “Let them eat cake” – which, of course, she didn’t. I wrote an entire post on my own blog about this issue that I would refer you to if you are interested in learning more. stevegnatz.com/blog
What do you think Mesmer’s treatments really were?
In the mid-1800’s Mesmer’s treatments were rediscovered as hypnotism. We still don’t know exactly how hypnotism works – but it probably involves a disconnection between the conscious and subconscious mind. Think of the way that you often feel relaxed and secure when doing things “automatically” – relying on your subconscious mind to act. Although when you become conscious that you have just driven all the way home without thinking about it, it can be disconcerting. But it is that cortical “thinking” about things that makes us anxious. The subconscious realm just exists. I took this concept a bit farther in the book and theorized that our subconscious minds are all connected – which I believe that they are. This is the concept described as the “collective unconscious” of Carl Jung.
What does the subconscious mind have to do with healing?
Modern medicine has discovered many wonderful cures for human ailments, but I believe that one of the most underappreciated aspects of medicine is the power of a health care provider’s assurance that we will be OK. As a physician, I always tried to use this power in a constructive way. You probably know of the so-called “placebo effect”. You may understand this to carry a negative connotation, in that someone might feel better after taking a “sugar pill” or using some snake oil potion. But I believe that the concept goes beyond that. As Marianne says in the book: “When my doctor prescribes something for me and tells me that it will help, I feel better even before the treatment has had time to work.” The subconscious understanding that one will heal is at least half the battle in sickness. Being able to form a vision of oneself as healthy once again becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Such is the power of the subconscious mind in healing.
About the Author
Steve Gnatz is a writer, physician, bicyclist, photographer, traveler, and aspiring ukulele player. The son of a history professor and a nurse, it seems that both medicine and history are in his blood. Writing historical fiction came naturally. An undergraduate degree in biology was complemented by a minor in classics. After completing medical school, he embarked on an academic medical career specializing in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. There was little time for writing during those years, other than research papers and a technical primer on electromyography. Now retired from the practice of medicine, he devotes himself to the craft of fiction. The history of science is of particular interest, but also the dynamics of human relationships. People want to be good scientists, but sometimes human nature gets in the way. That makes for interesting stories. When not writing or traveling, he enjoys restoring Italian racing bicycles at home in Chicago with his wife and daughters.
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