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Sara Donati–a self-proclaimed ‘long-winded’ storyteller talks about her lushly researched new novel, WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS, how she was going to be a nurse, how writing is painful, but she’s obsessed, and so much more

By Leslie Lindsay 

From the international bestselling author of THE GILDED HOUR, this epic historical fiction about two female doctors set in NYC 1880s will enthrall and capture your heart. 
From 1998 to 2011, Sara Donati changed the landscape of historical fiction when she brought readers to the Wilderness series, introducing six historical novels following the Bonner family through upstate New York.

Now, WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS (Berkley, September 10 2019) is a glorious, sweeping sequel to her THE GILDED HOUR (2016) and I immensely enjoyed this historical fiction.

In this tale, obstetrician Dr. Sophie Savard returns home to the achingly familiar rhythms of Manhattan in the spring of 1884 to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. With the help of her cousin, dear friend, and fellow physician, Dr. Anna Savard, she plans to continue her work with women who come from the darker side of life.

But there have been a rash of murders–specifically–women who have been ripped open with curious wounds to the uterus. Clearly, the person responsible has some medical knowledge? But who? And why?

The world of 1880s NYC is so vivid in WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS, and Donati is a beautiful, talented, and highly observant writer; these pages absolutely came to life with her ease of dialogue, knowledge and expertise of historical settings, medical procedures and terminology, and more; the reading of THERE THE LIGHT ENTERS is very cinematic; I was entralled. There’s even a cameo of the Dakota apartment building during its construction, which I so enjoyed. Punctuated throughout the narrative are maps, letters, newspaper articles, medical notes, more, which helps break it up..

“Lushly written…Exemplary historical fiction, boasting a heroine with a real and tangible presence.”

Kirkus Reviews

Keep in mind this is a large book–easily two to three times your ‘average’ novel.There are many characters and plot lines to keep track of, from orphaned Italian immigrant children to the murder cases, the medical student’s journey, Dr. Sophie Savard’s grief, her mission to help those less fortunate, a legal case, and so much more.

Love, love the medical piece to WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS, and it’s almost a relief to see such bright, enterprising women in fiction, especially given the historical time period. 

Please join me in welcoming the lovely Sara Donati to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Sara, it’s a pleasure. I always like to start by asking about inspiration, but with WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS, I think it’s safe to say the inspiration was that this is a sequel. Can you tell us how you made the decision to continue Drs. Savard’s stories? Is it usually clear early on that you’re working with a series?

Sara Donati:

First, let me thank you for this wonderful and generous review. It means a great deal to any historical novelist when thoughtful readers take note of the research that goes into making a time and place come back to life.

Now to the question: I am a long-winded storyteller.  Every novel I’ve written (and there are now eleven of them) has felt incomplete to me, even the stand-alone contemporary novels. I suppose that once a character comes to life it’s difficult to file them away and expect them to be content in a drawer.

However, the Wilderness series does end with a series of newspaper stories and obituaries about all the main characters over a twenty year period, which some readers loved; other readers were horrified. I wrote the epilogue that way because I knew I wouldn’t write more in that series and I wanted some closure for the characters I had been communicating with for more than ten years.  They seem to be willing to take their rest, now. All except Curiosity, who still pops up on occasion to lecture me.

books file on shelf

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

So…in terms of series, One doesn’t have to read THE GILDED HOUR [the prelude to this book] before WHERE THE LIGHT ENTER. I didn’t–and still found my reading experience wholly consuming. You do a wonderful job of catching up new readers without overwhelming. What helps you do this?

Sara Donati:

I believe it’s my obsession with contemporary newspaper articles and ads. To get my mind in the right place I have to reconstruct the setting, and I do that in large part by wallowing in words and images of the period.  If I need to know what green beans cost in Manhattan or Chicago in 1884, I can find that out; if the knowledge is accessible, I can’t ignore it.

All this material I use to fortify the story. I layer in personal correspondence, newspaper articles and opinion pieces, advertisements (all written by me, but modeled very closely on documented materials).  The challenge with WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS was to catch up the reader who wasn’t familiar with the complex plot of the  first novel in the series, and so I did that by reconstructing the murder-file, the documents that were produced in the course of the investigations of the (fictional) murders that took place in THE GILDED HOUR.  I am fascinated by these kind of details, both police procedural and medical, but I did worry that the average reader might be put off. Good to know that you were not.

[Read an excerpt of one such ‘newspaper’ article from WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS].

girl holding mug of coffee above opened book on brown wooden table

Photo by fotografierende on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Can you give us a glimpse into your process? How do you keep all of the plot lines straight? Are you an obsessive first-drafter? Do you like the story to flow organically?

Sara Donati:

Some novelists plot down to the smallest detail, but I can’t do that. I start with an image or scene that has sparked my imagination, and once I have that down in fairly solid form, the story will start to unfold. I usually have a good idea of a couple of major plot turns, but I don’t know how I’ll reach those points. It almost never happens that I have to go back and insert a scene or chapter. I do edit as I go along– compulsively, repeatedly — but I don’t jump ahead or back and start restructuring.

Leslie Lindsay:

I’m a former R.N. and so I loved the medical connections in WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS. Not only did you have to research the historical context, but there’s the whole world of women in in medicine in the 1880s, not to mention the medical jargon, procedures, etc. What resources did you find particularly helpful as you wrote? Do you prefer to research as you write or beforehand?

Sara Donati:

I admit that I love the research.  Whole medical journals and texts and case histories are available online for the time period I write about, and I can get lost in that stuff very happily, for days.  I’ve studied the lives of a number of female physicians of the period, reading biographies, autobiographies, their publications and reviews, and where available, personal correspondence.  This is not just for medicine. For any study of a historical period, for example an academic reconstruction of the War of 1812, I pay special attention to the footnotes. I have rescued whole characters out of single footnotes.

It was my intention to go to nursing school when I graduated from high school, but happenstance sent me in a different direction.  And still, I’ve never lost my interest, and I’ve taken college and technical college classes in things like anatomy and medical coding, where I learned a great deal about disease and injury.  I do consult medical professionals on occasion to make sure I haven’t got the wrong end of a particular stick — and probably I do get things wrong now and then despite my best efforts.

black coffee in mug near rolled paper and hardbound book

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I’m an architecture buff, too and was delighted to come across a section of WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS in which you take readers to the construction site of the Dakota. What more can you tell us about the building?

Sara Donati:

Yikes. Big question.  In my resources about the Dakota I have a wide variety of books (by historians, sociology  and architecture scholars), articles and advertisements from the 1880s. The scholarship of historians was extremely helpful, for example Alpern’s The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building, which is overflowing with photos, floor plans and technical details.  There are some great photos during the construction to be found online, just fyi.

Here’s an odd fact: At first the Dakota had a full service dining room, as a hotel will have a restaurant. It was meant to provide tenants with everything they might possibly need, including meals.


Leslie Lindsay:

What does a perfect writing day look like to you?

Sara Donati:

I am sorry to say that I don’t know.  In my experience, writing is painful and it only gets more difficult as you go along.  There have been periods when I wrote more smoothly, but there is no way to bring on such a state. I just have to ride the wave when it graces me with its presence. Orwell was very vocal (and on-point) about this:

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” 

Leslie Lindsay:

I should mention that you are a native of Chicago but currently reside in Puget Sound. I’m not native, but I’ve been in Chicago for twelve years. Do you think place shapes writing?

Sara Donati:

Place certainly shapes experience, and experience shapes storytelling. I left Chicago for good in 1983 and I still miss it every day.  I absolutely love reading novels set in Chicago. Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, for example, delighted me for the geographic details (and for the incredibly powerful story).

Leslie Lindsay:

Sara, it’s been so enlightening. Thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I forgot to ask that you’d like to share?

Sara Donati:

Yes, please visit the website for this series, or visit my Facebook author page. There’s a discussion group that might work for you.


[This image designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow me on Instagram for more like this].

For more information, to connect with Sara Donati via social media, or to purchase a copy of WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS, please see: 

Order Links: 

7244_donati_saraABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rosina Lippi is a former academic and tenured university professor. Since 2000 she spends her time haunting the intersection where history and storytelling meet, wallowing in 19th century newspapers, magazines, street maps, and  academic historical research. And she never gets bored with any of it.

Under the pen name Sara Donati she is the author of the Wilderness series, six historical novels that follow the fortunes of the Bonner family  in the vast forests in upstate New York, from about 1792-1825.  Her newest novel about the Bonner family is The Gilded Hour. The new series  jumps ahead past the destruction of the Civil War  to follow Nathaniel and Elizabeth’s granddaughters into the twentieth century.

Under her own name Rosina writes contemporary novels (and academic work, for example here). The majority of her book reviews can be found at Goodreads; you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter (@akaSaraDonati). She lives on Puget Sound with her husband, daughter, a Havanese pupper called Jimmy Dean, and Bella, a rambunctious cat. Sara lives with Rosina and her family, but refuses to answer the phone, do windows or make herself useful in any way at all.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:



#historicalfiction #medicalfiction #womeninmedicine #obstetrics #historicalthriller #murder

[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley/PRH and used with permission. Image of The Dakota c. 189o retrieved from Wikipedia on 9.7.19. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Please follow me on Instagram]. 

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