Virtual Memories Show 336:
Dawn Raffel

“I think Couney understood that no one else was going to save these children if he didn’t.”

Baby incubators and boardwalk sideshows: not exactly a natural fit nowadays, but once upon a time, the best way to save premature babies in America was to bring them to Dr. Couney’s “INCUBATOR BABIES” exhibits in Coney Island, Atlantic City and other midways. Dawn Raffel untangled his story and tells the stories of the children he saved in her wonderful book, The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies (Blue Rider Press, out now in paperback). We get into the mysteries of Dr. Couney’s past, Dawn’s fascinations with Coney Island and with interwar America, the flaws in social care in the first half of 20th century America, the offline research that fueled the book, her relationship with some Couney’s surviving babies (now in their 80s and 90s), the obstetrics field’s resistance to Couney’s work, the missing ledger that would have disclosed the fates of many of the babies Dr. Couney treated, and whether she would’ve brought a premature baby to Dr. Couney. We also get into Dawn’s writing life, the outsized influence of her 13-year-old discovery of War & Peace, her predilection for short chapters, how Topsy the Elephant really died, and plenty more! (BONUS: I prattle on for a few minutes about my first half-marathon) Give it a listen! And go buy The Strange Case of Dr. Couney!

“The ethical questions about who gets to live are as relevant now as they were in Dr. Couney’s time.”

“Couney came to the US for the Omaha World’s Fair and was seized with the desire to relocate: Why? Once you’ve seen Omaha you can never return to Paris? There had to be something more.”

“I keep some bad drafts around as a reminder: ‘This was a mess but eventually it worked out!'”

“When you’re writing about the past, you’re writing about a country you can’t visit.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Dawn Raffel‘s most recent book, The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies, was chosen as one of NPR’s best books of 2018 and awarded a 2019 Christopher Award for books that affirm the highest values of the human spirit. Previous books include a memoir, The Secret Life of Objects; a novel, Carrying the Body; and two story collections, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In The Year Of The Long Division.

Her writing has been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, BOMB, New Philosopher, The San Francisco Chronicle, Conjunctions, Black Book, Open City, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Arts & Letters, The Quarterly, NOON, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies.

She was a fiction editor for many years, helped launch O, The Oprah Magazine, where she served as Executive Articles Editor for seven years, and subsequently held senior-level “at-large” positions at More magazine and Reader’s Digest. In addition, she served as the Center for Fiction’s web editor.

She currently works as an independent editor for individuals and creative organizations, specializing in memoir, short stories, and narrative nonfiction. She teaches at Columbia University, the Center for Fiction, and Summer Literary Seminars.

Pierre would like you to know he is not named after Bezukhov in War & Peace.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Dawn’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Nice photo of Ms. Raffel by Clair Holt. Double-selfie by me; it’s on my instagram.

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