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For readers who suspect there’s nothing new under the sun, Shena McAuliffe‘s debut novel The Good Echo, winner of Black Lawrence Press’s Big Moose Prize, is here to surprise and delight. The novel tells the story of a path-breaking early twentieth-century dentist named Clifford Bell, who travels the world studying dental care and nutrition, and testing out his sometimes controversial theories. What’s more, the lyrical novel is narrated in part by the ghost of Dr. Bell’s son, who has died as a result of a root canal—performed by his father—gone wrong. It’s a complicated and beautifully-written narrative. And along the way readers learn fascinating tidbits about an eclectic compendium of topics, including but not limited to: Cleveland, selkies, the 1930s, and the history of dental care.

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From Dr. Bell’s notebooks full of dental facts and “facts,” to his wife’s recounting of their international travels, every page of this novel is at once utterly transporting and clearly well-researched. McAuliffe turned to JSTOR for research help. We asked her all about her process.

Amy Shearn: This book is narrated largely by a ghost. On the first page, you have that stunning line, “Death has made a storyteller of me.” What made you decide to have a ghost narrate the book?

Shena McAuliffe: I delight in the circuitous paths of imagination and association, and I particularly enjoy nonfiction that reveals these paths. When I was first writing The Good Echo, I thought I was writing a sort of hybrid book that would alternate between chapters of historical fiction and chapters in the form of essays sparked by the central narrative. I wanted to transparently reveal these paths and questions by using a contemporary narrator who would disrupt the more traditional narrative (sort of in the manner of “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter of Moby Dick).

Soon enough, I abandoned this strategy, finding it too complicated, too disruptive. I think it was in this change of course that Benjamin’s voice began to surface. He’s a child-ghost, and some of the sections that he narrates are very much spoken from a child’s sensibility, but being dead also provides him with a sort of omniscient vision of the world, of the past and the future; he’s somewhat free of the cultural paradigms and blind spots that limit his parents, who are, after all, living products of their time and place in the world. Still, Benjamin’s voice emerged late, after I had finished the first complete draft. After so much wrangling, his voice came to me sort of like a song that I could not help but hear. I began vigorous revision. I cannot imagine the book without his voice now.

I loved all the details and notes about dentistry throughout the book. Why did you decide to write about an early twentieth-century dentist? Did you know a lot about dentistry and its history before you started writing?

I didn’t really know anything about the history of dentistry when I began writing, and I still know very little about it, really. The dentist in my novel is inspired by an actual historical dentist, Weston Price, who was the founder and chairman of what was then the National Dental Association. I discovered him in the pages of Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma because he had progressive ideas about nutrition—namely that whole food local diets are good for us. I was interested in him because in the midst of his progressive ideas were dangerous ideas (based on eugenics).

I had been writing historical short stories about scientists and artists whose ideas were progressive for their time, but are now regarded as absurd or as pseudoscientific, and Price fit the bill for such a character. Like all of us, his vision was limited by lack of knowledge and his own cultural paradigms. When I read about the tragic death of his son, which some sources attributed to an infected root canal, I knew I had to write about him because I saw his ambition as driven by grief. I had never written a novel; I didn’t fully recognize the heaps of research the book would require.  

What was the most interesting/horrifying/upsetting thing you learned about dentistry in writing this book?

Teeth are a portal to plenty of disturbing information. When I first learned about teratomas—cysts that can be located anywhere in the body including in the brain and contain teeth and hair—I was haunted by it for weeks. Although these cysts are usually harmless, and can go undetected for a person’s entire life, there’s something about the thought of a little nest of teeth hiding out in my brain that is horrifying. I also read that one in every 2000 children is born with natal teeth—loose, wiggly little nubs that can pose a choking hazard because they often fall out. And then I read that George Washington’s dentures were likely constructed from teeth pulled from the mouths of slaves, and that sometimes enslaved people chose to sell their teeth because it was one of the only ways they could make money, and because having holes where their teeth used to be could reduce their overall value, making them a less desirable commodity, giving that person the tiniest bit of progress toward the ability to purchase their own freedom.

Okay, yes, that’s disturbing. There’s a character in The Good Echo who is convinced her mother is secretly a selkie, a story element I loved. How did selkies make their way into this book?

The act of storytelling is central to The Good Echo. On the first page, Ben states that death has made a storyteller of him, but it is also his particular parents who have made him a storyteller by telling him stories. His mother Frances is both a storyteller and a story collector, so stories are a big part of how he understands himself and the world. It is Frances who narrates the selkie story. She’s a pretty serious person as an adult, but in her childhood she and her sister shared an imaginative world and the selkie story is from a time when magical transformations seemed possible. In the selkie chapter, Frances remembers viewing her own parents through the lens of an Irish tale.

I was so intrigued and perplexed by the cover of the book, until I got to the section in which a connection is drawn between deciduous leaves and deciduous (what most of us call “baby”) teeth.

Black Lawrence Press let me take the lead on the cover, which was exciting, but it was also overwhelming for me because I am an indecisive person and I wanted to choose something wonderful. I went down many pathways in the decision process, many of which I’ve now forgotten, but early on I decided I didn’t want a tooth on the cover. Mostly, I think this decision was because I don’t fully understand how designers turn a single image or idea into a compelling cover, and because I couldn’t find an available tooth image that I liked. It was probably a failure of imagination. In the end, I sent a number of ideas to my editor, and she thought the leaf was the best of them. I think the natural world and its cycles of bloom and rot are as much at the center of The Good Echo as teeth. I hope the image of the leaf strikes a balance between the metaphors and the concrete world of the book.

It does! Speaking of the world of the book, how did you go about constructing your first draft? Did you research, then write? Write, then research? Do both simultaneously?

I did both simultaneously. I worked on the novel for years, but in 2014-15 I had a yearlong fellowship at Cornell College, and in that year I had longer chunks of time to work, which was wonderful. I was able to write new material in the morning, making note of questions and subjects I needed to learn more about as a wrote. When I ran out of steam on the new material, I’d shift into research mode which generated material for the next day’s writing.

What sources from JSTOR helped you research the book? How were they helpful?

I turned to JSTOR early in my writing process, looking for folklore about teeth and history of dentistry. One discovery was “The Worm in the Tooth,” published in Folklore in 1966, which served as my introduction to a widespread belief in the tooth worm that lives in the teeth and feeds on the gums, something like a worm within a peach. The article includes a poem about the worm that was discovered carved into Babylonian tablets, and this weird little poem even made it into the section of my book that is set in Egypt.  The tooth worm was probably the root of the tooth, and treatment sometimes involved having it surgically removed, though the article also describes smoking it out, or luring it out with henbane seeds.

For the chapters of the book set in Sudan, JSTOR led me to “Burial and Mortuary Rites of the Nuer,” published by E.E. Evans Pritchard, a British anthropologist who published multiple volumes about his time with the Nuer in the 1930s, the years when my characters would have been there. That article led me to Pritchard’s books, including The Nuer (1940) and Nuer Religion (1956). Pritchard’s writing was essential to me because I was seeking a 1930s white European lens on Nuer culture and daily life. In actuality, Pritchard was ahead of his time and eventually posited that ethnographers could not be objective in their observations and could not “enter the minds” of those whom they studied. These ideas are almost certainly more advanced than my characters’ would have been, but Pritchard’s writing helped me begin to imagine such an experience and presented a lot of information on Nuer life in the 30s as observed by a white European.

Were there any findings in the course of your research that really blew your mind?

Weston Price’s 1939 book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, one of my most important sources, details the case of a boy with what we now know as Down Syndrome. Price and his colleagues attempted to help the boy by repositioning bones in his mouth in an attempt to “stimulate his pituitary gland” and allow more oxygen through his mouth and nose. Although Price and his colleagues wanted to help the boy, the language with which Price describes the boy, and the ultimate failure of their attempt to help him (which seems to have significantly and negatively impacted his quality of life), was some of the most painful material I encountered while writing my novel. In a manner of speaking, the story of this boy blew my mind. “Broke my heart” is probably a more appropriate idiom.

On that note, novelists often note that background research can be a form of procrastination, or that researching leads them down rabbit holes. How did you avoid these common research pitfalls?

Truthfully, I can’t say I avoided the pitfalls of research; they’re real and enticing. It took me years to write The Good Echo. Perhaps if I were less prone to the delights of the rabbit warren I would have finished the book more quickly, though I suppose it would then be a very different book.

You teach writing. How do you find that teaching affects your writing, and vice versa? What’s your advice for young writers looking to write a deeply researched novel?

In the past few years I have taught at three different small liberal arts colleges. At each one I have been lucky to work with generous librarians and archivists who enjoy introducing students to the college archives. My students have discovered all kinds of poignant things: newspaper articles and handwritten letters about the college’s first interracial couple, the woolen bathing suit worn by a champion swimmer, haunting photographs of famine victims taken by student relief workers in Russia in 1921. It’s a rare experience these days to sift through such ephemera. Reading and online research are essential when writing a researched novel, and I’m so grateful for the ease and wealth of information available online, but I also encourage writers to contact a librarian or archivist and find out what sort of non-digitized primary source materials are available to them. There’s nothing quite like squinting to decipher the blue ink scrawled across the back of a photograph, or unearthing an ornate pair of cufflinks worn by someone who is all but forgotten who once walked the same pathways you now walk. Such hands-on discoveries can spark the imagination in thrilling ways, and from there, the wonderland awaits.

More novelist interviews:
Jesse Chaffee, on researching Florence in Ecstasy
Arif Anwar, on researching The Storm
Elise Hooper, on researching The Other Alcott

Rachel Kadish, on researching The Weight of Ink
Hala Alyan, on researching Salt Houses
Claire Cameron, on researching The Last Neanderthal

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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 65, No. 4 (OCTOBER 2010), pp. 584-586
Oxford University Press
African Affairs, Vol. 48, No. 190 (Jan., 1949), pp. 56-63
Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal African Society