At one point in our interview, Dana Schwartz points to a particular line on one of her shelves.
“This whole shelf is made up of corpses and the dawn of surgery,” Schwartz says from his Los Angeles home, a mischievous cadence in his voice. “There are books in there with really horrible illustrations.”
She continues to call these books, and the additional research she did for her recently published novel “Anatomy: A Love Story,” a “fun giveaway” that, as gruesome as some of the details may have been, the helped give him the confidence to write the novel.
“The more I researched, the more I realized what I was learning was a gift, because everything I was learning was fascinating and compelling — things I wanted to put in the book,” Schwartz says.
Yes, “Anatomy” is many things: a gothic romance set in 19th-century Edinburgh, Scotland, with understated feminist themes in the vein of Brontë and Shelley. It’s also a young adult (YA) mystery novel that sparked a bidding war between publishers and was picked up for Reese Witherspoon’s book club. And it’s also a deep dive into classism and the wealth gaps of the early 1800s.
But what makes “Anatomy” such a consummate book for our current moment is its emphasis on science and deductive reasoning in an age when so many people seem happy to ignore the facts out of fear or politics. At times, it works almost like a detective story, with its main protagonist, a young woman named Hazel, using logic to achieve her dream of becoming a surgeon in an era when women weren’t allowed.
“She’s a scientist at heart,” says Schwartz. “She’s someone who is good at analyzing data and drawing conclusions, and I think she’s very pragmatic.”
And of course the gory, bloody, gruesome depictions of grave robbing and surgical procedures, using descriptions such as “ripped out a molar with a sickening crack” and “shot at some of the veins that still bleed”, will be probably cringe-inducing for many readers. Still, they’re necessary to understand how science was changing at that time and why Hazel desperately wants to be a part of this awakening.
“I always knew I didn’t want to be afraid of the more gruesome parts of surgery,” says Schwartz. “It was very important to me to make sure everyone knew this wasn’t just a romanticized take on the past. People always say “I want to live in the good old days” and I always say “Uh, no, you don’t”. It was horrible.’ ”
Then there is this subtitle: “A love story”. Readers might think they’re in for some kind of steamy, pre-Victorian romance novel. And yes, there is a romantic subplot between Hazel and Jack, a “resurrection man” (a rather poetic descriptor for someone who dug up fresh corpses from cemeteries to sell to hospitals and doctors for dissection) . Given Hazel’s well-to-do upbringing and Jack’s poor background, the story contains all the elements of a forbidden romance, but Schwartz argues that the real “love story” is much more “unspecific”.
“Hazel falls in love with more than just one person,” says Schwartz. “It’s a love story between a girl and the rest of the world.”
And while Schwartz says she’s reluctant to use the word “historical fiction,” because readers might see it as “stuffy” and “boring,” she weaves seamlessly into descriptions of class and social status in Edinburgh of the 1800s. Both by Hazel and, more explicitly, by Jack, Schwartz says there are contemporary issues that the reader will recognize.
“The main mystery I wanted to unravel and untangle is who is forgotten in society and for what purpose,” says Schwartz. “Obviously today there is a huge wealth gap that continues to grow, but in the 1800s the aristocracy made that wealth gap explicit. There was a social and cultural line, so I wanted explore in a way that doesn’t necessarily qualify the characters as heroes or villains.
Schwartz has explored these types of issues before. As well as being an accomplished culture and entertainment journalist, she’s also the host of “Noble Blood,” a podcast launched in 2019 that explores the often brutal reigns of some of history’s most notorious monarchies.
“I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of narrative story for the show,” says Schwartz. “So I felt a lot more confident in the 19th century voice than I otherwise would have.”
It’s always easy to see his razor-sharp wit, as evidenced by his often hilarious Twitter posts, as well as on the “Anatomy” pages. She brings a sly sense of humor to an otherwise serious novel filled with gruesome elements to such an extent that the reader might find themselves laughing out loud seconds after reading the innards of a corpse.
“I kind of started my career writing sarcastic things on the internet, and I was kind of drawn to being funny, but it was also liberating for me to write a really serious novel” , says Schwartz. “I wouldn’t have wanted to write a novel that wasn’t funny or didn’t have funny lines, but at the same time I wanted to put my bleeding heart on the page.”
Just as “Anatomy” shot to No. 1 on the best-selling fiction charts, Schwartz says she’s already working on a sequel to the novel. She’s not sure if she sees “Anatomy” as an ongoing novel series, but seems open to the idea.
“I want to take every story as it comes, and I wouldn’t want to write a book if I wasn’t really excited about the story,” says Schwartz. “But right now I have an idea for a sequel that I really want to tell and I think it’s going to be really fun. I thought it was going to be unique, but when I reached the end, and I sat down with that for a few months, I thought there was something else here.
Mysterious Galaxy presents Dana Schwartz
When: 7 p.m. Monday (in-person event)
Or: Mysterious Galaxy, 3555 Rosecrans St., #107, Midway District
Tickets: To free
In line: mystgalaxy.com
Combs is a freelance writer.