TWO NEW BOOKS OUT IN 2022
I’ve got two new non-fiction books out in 2022. Doctor Ice Pick (published May 31) tells the story of Dr. Walter Freeman, America’s most prolific lobotomist, and his state-sponsored campaign to empty West Virginia’s psychiatric hospitals by performing lobotomies on a mass scale.
Curse of Riches (out later in 2022) reveals the epic true story of the Wendels, one of Gilded Age New York’s wealthiest and most dysfunctional families. Theirs is a tale of secrets and lies, lunacy trials, fear and forbidden love affairs, and a spoiled little dog called Tobey.
See Books for more info.
2020 BBC RADIO DOCUMENTARY
I am recording a radio documentary for the BBC on the history of lobotomy which will draw extensively on archive and original interviews. This is part of an ongoing series of projects related to the treatment and history of mental illness around the globe.
2019 Krakow UNESCO City of Literature International Residency
I’ve been invited to spend two weeks living in the gorgeous 16th century Rennaissance Palace Villa Decius in Kraków, Poland, where I’ll be working on my new book.
2019 Dora Maar Fellowship
I’m delighted and honored to have been selected for a 2019 Dora Maar Fellowship. I’ll be spending the summer at the beautiful La Maison Dora Maar in Ménerbes in the south of France, working on my next book.
2018/19 Virginia Humanities Fellow
I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been selected as a Virginia Humanities Fellow for 2018/19. I’ll be based in Charlottesville, VA while researching a project about the history of mental illness which is a subject I’ve long wanted to write about.
International Journalism Festival in Perugia
I’ve been invited to speak at the 2017 International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. It’s a fantastic event with an outstanding line-up of speakers, discussing the most pressing issues facing journalists today. I’m talking about fake news in an historical context in Fake News — It’s Nothing New, at the Palazzo Sorbello, Thursday 6 April, 2017. I’m also discussing the future of journalism on a panel with writer Stephan Talty and Amazon Kindle Italy’s Giulia Poli, Saturday 8 April, 2017, Sala delle Colonne, Palazzo Graziana.
Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship 2016/17
I’m delighted to say that I’ve won a 2016/17 Robert Louis Stevenson Writing Fellowship. It allows me a month in Grez-sur-Loing, France which Stevenson first visited in 1875, and where he met his future wife Fanny Osbourne. This is an incredible opportunity to work uninterrupted on my new non-fiction book, for which I’m enormously grateful.
The Fellowship was initiated in 1994 by Franki Fewkes, a Scottish RLS enthusiast, and is supported by Creative Scotland and Scottish Book Trust. Congratulations to the other 2016 RLS Fellows Lucy Ribchester, Rachel McCrum and Stewart Sanderson.
BBC Radio Documentary
In March 2016 I recorded interviews in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for Life Under Glass, a BBC Radio 4 documentary about Martin Couney, the “incubator doctor,” who exhibited premature babies at Coney Island, NY; Atlantic City, NJ; and at amusement parks and World’s Fairs across America and in Europe, Mexico and South America from the late 1890s until the 1940s.
Couney ran his facilities like miniature hospital wards and employed a large team of physicians, nurses and wet nurses who lived on-site. He charged the public 25 cents to see the babies in their incubators and their struggle between life and death.
When Couney started out, American hospitals were ambivalent over whether premature babies should be saved and suspicious of incubator technology, so Couney ran his facility as a medical outsider.
He claimed to have saved 6,500 babies during his long career, with a survival rate of 85%. His techniques were advanced for the time, though some of his methods were unconventional.
Far from being embraced as a hero, he was accused of exploiting the babies. However, he didn’t take a penny for their care. Instead he used the entrance fees to pay for the incubators, the wet nurses’ milk, the medical supplies and the nurses’ and doctors’ wages.
You can hear me talk to some of Martin Couney’s former incubator “babies,” who are now in their seventies, eighties and nineties, on Life Under Glass, a documentary on BBC Radio 4, click here.
The documentary was also broadcast on the BBC World Service and NPR on August 17, 2016.
Gillian Reynolds, Radio Critic
25 May 2016
Life Under Glass (Radio 4, yesterday) was another surprise. This feature by Claire Prentice was about a real American doctor of medicine, Martin Couney, who in the Twenties discovered a way of keeping premature babies alive in incubators. Fellow medics would accept neither his theory nor its practice. So he made it into a sideshow at fairs, Coney Island and the like. People who couldn’t afford hospitals brought him their tiny two-pound babies and he exhibited them while undertaking their welfare to the highest levels of hygiene and nurture. It was a business for him, people queuing up and paying to see the lines of incubators and their little inhabitants, but it was also a practical, humane demonstration of neo-natal science at work. Some of those babies, now old women, were on this gem of a programme, testimony to the salient fact that the future is often all around us if we could but see it.
Past events include:
I’m excited to be taking part in the first ever READ Brooklyn: Authors Book Fair at the fabulous Brooklyn Museum on Saturday March 12, 2016 between 1pm and 5pm in the Martha A. and Robert S. Rubin Pavilion, on the 1st Floor. There are dozens of exciting fiction and non-fiction writers taking part, covering everything from science fiction and graphic novels to cookery. There will be readings, signings and a chance to talk to the authors. The event is free and open to the public. The book fair coincides with the final weekend of the museum’s big Coney Island exhibition, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008, which I’ve heard great things about and can’t wait to see for myself.
For more information visit:
BROOKLYN EAGLES LITERARY PRIZE
The Lost Tribe of Coney Island is one of three books shortlisted for the inaugural Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize (non-fiction). I’ll be reading along with the other two shortlisted authors at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch in the Dweck Centre, 10 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn on Tuesday, October 20, 7:30 pm. For more information, visit:
Tickets are still available for the Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize Ceremony on Friday, October 23, 8 pm in the Brooklyn Public Library’s Park Slope branch (431 6th Ave). It promises to be a fun evening with cocktails, DJs and dancing. For more information, visit:
Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library
I am appearing at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library, 455 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016 on Monday December 1, 2014 at 6.30pm where I’ll give an illustrated talk on The Lost Tribe of Coney Island. The event is hosted by Kevin Baker, the best-selling author of The Big Crowd and the “City of Fire” trilogy, “Dreamland,” “Strivers Row,” and “Paradise Alley.” The event will be followed by a Q&A session. All welcome.
Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library
I’m also talking about my book (and showing lots of pictures from it) at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, NY 11238, on Wednesday, December 10, 2014 at 7:00 pm. All welcome.
Coney Island Museum
I’m doing a reading, followed by a Q&A and signing, at the Coney Island Museum, 1208 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 11224, on Saturday, December 13, at 1pm. All welcome.