Welcome back to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, a recurring series here on Tor.com featuring some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, artists, and others!
Today we’re joined by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, the award-winning writer of Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam and popular touring poet and spoken word performer. She lives in Austin, Texas.
Her second nonfiction book is a mesmerizing biography of the brilliant and eccentric medical innovator who revolutionized American surgery and founded the country’s most famous museum of medical oddities. Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, will be released by Gotham Books in Fall 2014.
Please relate one fact about yourself that has never appeared anywhere else in print or on the Internet.
In one of my best-known pieces, I recounted, with cringing awkwardness, how I once was mistaken for a busboy all night at my office’s holiday party, because I was (unintentionally) wearing the same all black uniform as they were. At the end of the piece, I talk about how, while waiting in line for the restroom, I was asked if I was there to clean it (oof!). However, what I didn’t share was my reaction to the question. I really had to go to the bathroom, so I told the woman that yes, I was there to clean it, just so I could have access to the bathroom early. However, as I was washing up, I felt bad that the next patron would come in and see no cleaning had been done, and might complain to the management. I didn’t want some unknown employee to get in trouble, so ended up cleaning the bathroom. Thankfully, it needed nothing more than a tidying up.
Describe your favorite place to read or write.
I love writing in my office, surrounded by all my books. My favorite place to read is on public transit. Reading a book on a plane, subways or bus seems like the best possible way to spend that time, and if you are reading from an actual book (and not a e-reader) you have the bonus of being a great living advertisement for the books you love. I lived in New York City for fourteen years, and it is still an enduring dream to see someone reading one of my books on the subway! If any of you reading this ever see someone reading one of my books on the NYC subway, please tweet the pic at me! I would die a happy lady.
Do you have a favorite word or phrase?
I love the story behind why “The United States of America” is considered a singular noun, instead of the plural it really should be. Prior to The Civil War, it was a plural, and a proper sentence beginning would be “The United States of America ARE” instead of “IS.” But President Lincoln made the choice to begin to refer to the United States as one singular entity—to affirm the existence of the one united nation for which he had waged such a bloody war to preserve. When the North won The Civil War, the language followed the victors, and our country has been considered a singular noun ever since. I love that story—a neat twist about how powerful language can be in affecting change.
Strangest thing you’ve learned while researching a book?
While researching my latest nonfiction book, Dr Mütter’s Marvels, I came across the story of “Phossy Jaw,” a medical condition that largely affected the young girls who worked in matchstick factories. In order to produce matchsticks at the pace demanded by their employer, the girls would often lick their fingers, as it helped in manipulating the small pieces of wood for effective dipping in the phosphorus compounds which made matchsticks so flammable. However, the girls were unaware that they were ingesting dangerous amounts of a truly toxic chemical. The girls would soon begin exhibiting symptoms: tender gums, toothaches, swollen tissue. It would escalate to open wounds in the cheek and on to large abscesses. In the final (and horrifying) states of the disease, these poor young girls would have enormous, weeping wounds on their cheeks, exposing not only their teeth but their jawbones as well. And to make matter even more horror film-ish, because of the chemicals they had ingested, the exposed bones would glow in the dark. After reading about that, I washed my hands for about 25 minute straight. Ack. Gah.
If you could design a line of clothing/accessories based on your favorite fictional character, what would it look like?
My answer is actually a twist on the question: in the novel, Ready Player One, the badass gunter Art3mis starts a clothing label called Art3Miss, which was a “wildly successful clothing line for full-figure female avatars.” I would like to be able to purchase all my clothes from that clothing line, please.
Heroes vs. Villains—which are more fun to write?
The person who could be considered the “villain” of Dr Mütter’s Marvels was a real life doctor and professor named Charles D. Meigs. He was one of the most prominent and important obstetricians in the United States during his lifetime, but, by modern standards, his opinion of—and treatment of—women was appalling. For instance, he taught his students that women’s skulls were too small for intellect, but “just the right size for love.” Needless to say, I absolutely loved researching and writing about him, because for every awful thing he did or said, I had the challenge of communicating to my readers why this behavior was not only acceptable, but seen as ideal. It was a fun challenge to normalize to my readers actions which would likely be revolting to them. Additionally, it was fun to imagine how angry Meigs might be getting in the afterlife right now that a woman—about whom he wrote “Do you think that a woman could have developed, in the tender soil of her intellect, the strong idea of a Hamlet, or a Macbeth? No.”—was the one who would be telling his story to the world.
What is your ideal pet (real or fictional)?
I share my house with two rescued miniature dachshunds: one manic shorthair named “Alvy Singer” and one depressive wire-haired “Max Bialystock.” They are pretty much the perfect pets for me. I’ve always wanted to rescue dachshunds because they seem to be my spirit animals as they are hard-working dogs who seem unaware of how absolutely ridiculous they look most of the time.