Connie Hertzberg Mayo’s new book The Sharp Edge of Mercy was published on May 6, 2022. Mayo came to Massachusetts to get a Literature degree from Tufts University and never left. She first learned about Thompson Island shortly after graduation and immediately knew it was a great setting for a work of fiction, but it took twenty years and the rise of the internet to make her feel like she could start researching and writing. She works as a Systems Analyst and lives in southern Massachusetts with her husband, two children, two cats and her heirloom tomato garden.
Synopsis of The Sharp Edge of Mercy from the publisher:
New York City, 1890: Lillian Dolan is optimistic about her new job at the New York Cancer Hospital after dreaming for years of becoming a nurse. But she struggles to fit in, and her only friend at the hospital is Jupiter, a Black man who runs the crematorium. When the confident Dr. Bauer arrives as the new surgeon and takes a shine to Lillian, she is thrilled to be noticed.
Lillian has been warned not to get too close to the patients, but Mrs. Sokolova draws her in, and Lillian wins praise from the nurses for making progress with a difficult patient. But when Mrs. Sokolova’s situation becomes dire, she puts Lillian in an impossible situation – all while Lillian slowly loses control of her relationship with Dr. Bauer, which has taken a turn she did not foresee or want. Her decision to help her patient throws her life into chaos, and Jupiter may be the only person who can help her with an impossible choice: capitulate to Dr. Bauer’s demands or face possible arrest.
Connie answers some questions that I posed to her about The Sharp Edge of Mercy:
1. What inspired you to start writing The Sharp Edge of Mercy?
After my first novel The Island of Worthy Boys was published, I knew I wanted to write another book set at the turn of the century, and I also wanted to write a story involving medical ethics. I was listening to a podcast called 99 Percent Invisible which is all about design, and this episode focused on the unique architectural design of the New York Cancer Hospital which opened in the 1880s. I figured that there would be a wealth of ethical issues in the treatment of cancer when there were so few tools available – even radiation treatment was years away. I also knew I could easily write about the issue of consent. Doctors were seen as somewhat godlike back then, and as a patient you didn’t get much say in what they did, if they even bothered to explain it to you.
2. Can you share something with me about your book that is not in the blurb?
Because blurbs are short, they always leave out elements of the story, so I love this question. My main character Lillian has a cousin with whom she is very close, and throughout the book he is struggling with the fact that he is gay. Lillian’s growth in the story is learning that there is not just one right answer to every question, and part of that is learning about her cousin and then learning to accept him as he is.
3. What do you hope your readers take away from your book?
I like writing – and reading – historical fiction that has characters dealing with issues that we are still dealing with today. Certainly the #MeToo story in this book with young nurse Lillian and arrogant Dr. Bauer is currently relevant, although I started writing this book before that hashtag had even been created. The issues of end-of-life care, racial and LGTBQ discrimination, the challenges of caring for disabled dependents – I don’t think we have resolved any of these. So I hope that readers feel that this story is very current even though it is set in 1890.
4. What is the most difficult part about writing for you?
Editing – the major surgery variety. When I write a paragraph, it’s in my head before I start typing it out, and I feel like it has a certain flow – its weight, its balance. Once I have finished a paragraph, I usually feel like it has the right number of sentences, accomplished the right number of objectives, moves on to the next paragraph at the right time. Then, if for whatever reason I need to add something in or take something out, it feels like pulling on the thread of a sweater that will make the whole thing unravel! My publisher asked me to add one additional sentence to a particular paragraph in The Sharp Edge of Mercy with more description about Grand Central Terminal as my characters walked by it, and I just could not do it! (Sorry, Naomi!)
5. What was your favorite part and least favorite part of the publishing journey?
Least favorite is easy for me to answer: wanting to do events and being asked how many people you can guarantee to bring in. I hate begging people to leave their warm comfy homes to come to my events, but even worse is that I can’t guarantee what other people will end up doing even if they say they will come. My favorite part is being the guest author at neighborhood book groups. People are so nice and they give me wine! But more than that, I love to see in this age of social media and streaming shows, people are still reading books and getting together in person to talk about them.
6. What are you reading now and what have you read recently that you loved?
I’m currently reading Small World by Jonathan Evison and it’s great. The book is very ambitious with its large number of characters, dual timelines and multiple American cities, but he completely pulls it off. Other books I’ve read recently and loved include The Lincoln Highway. Amor Towles is a master at creating characters that you just can’t get enough of. And Circe by Madeline Miller was really original. I guess I would call all three of these books ambitious in their scope – I have enormous respect for the authors.
Order The Sharp Edge of Mercy from Bookshop.org.