Interview With an Author: Sarah Penner

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Susan Penner and her first novel, The Lost Apothecary
Author Susan Penner and her first novel, The Lost Apothecary. Photo credit: Laura Foote

Sarah Penner works full-time in finance and is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida with their miniature dachshund, Zoe. The Lost Apothecary is her first novel and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Lost Apothecary?

When the idea for The Lost Apothecary first came to me, I envisioned a woman—an apothecary—working from a hidden shop in a dark London alleyway. But I knew I wanted there to be something sinister about her, and this quickly led me down the path of poison. I clung to this initial vision throughout the writing of the book. The word apothecary is evocative, drawing forth visions of a candlelit storefront with sash windows, its walls lined with mortar bowls, pestles, and countless glass bottles. There is something beguiling, even enchanting, about what might lie within those bottles: potions that bewitch us, cure us, kill us. I aimed to develop this enchantment within the story, to really make the reader feel like he or she had stepped into the old apothecary shop.

Are Nella, Eliza, Caroline, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Many have asked if Nella was inspired by Giulia Tofana, the 17th-century Italian poisoner. In fact, Nella was not inspired by this real-life woman, and I didn’t even learn about Giulia Tofana until well after the book had sold to my publisher. When drafting the book, I had devoted my research to British poisoning cases, so somehow Giulia Tofana escaped my explorations. Given that she disguised poisons just like the apothecary in my book, it’s really quite ironic!

Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

In an earlier draft of the book, my present-day character goes on a quirky tour of London in which the tour guide explains old mysteries and rumors about the city. During this tour, the guide also mentions the rumored apothecary murders from two hundred years ago, and this information allows my present-day character to continue her search of the apothecary.

Alas…both my agent and editor felt the information revealed during the tour scene was too coincidental, and no matter how much I dug in my heels, they advised we needed to pull the tour scene and re-strategize. I’m still a bit bummed about it, as I’ve been on such tours myself in London and have fond memories! Perhaps it’s a scene for another story, someday…

Have you ever visited London? The British Library? Do you have a favorite place in the city?

I’ve visited London many times! Researching the many herbal and homespun remedies for this story was a time-consuming, albeit entertaining, task. I spent time in the British Library, reviewing old manuscripts and druggist diaries; I reviewed digitized pharmacopeias, and I studied extensively some well-known poisoning cases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was surprised by the number of plants and herbs that are highly toxic, and I was fascinated while reading about the clever, if ineffective, remedies used by the predecessors of modern-day pharmacists.

My favorite place in the city is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub dating back to the 1600s. Dickens and Tennyson used to write there! When you walk inside, you can’t help but feel as though you’ve stepped back in time.

Have you ever been mudlarking? If so, did you find anything interesting? If not, is it something you want to try?

Mudlarking means playfully hunting the riverbed for old or valuable artifacts, and the present-day narrative of my story begins with a woman who goes mudlarking along the River Thames in central London. Mudlarking has been around for hundreds of years. Victorian children used to scrounge around in the mud looking for items to sell. Today, mudlarking isn’t meant to support the livelihood of a family, but instead represents a pastime for locals and tourists alike.

I went myself in the summer of 2019, wearing old tennis shoes and blue latex gloves. In my backpack was a small card—my temporary license from the Port of London Authority (PLA), granting me access to go mudlarking on the river’s foreshore. Over the course of several days, I went down to the river three separate times, finding an assortment of pottery, clay pipes, metal pins, even animal bones.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (non-fiction is my guilty pleasure) and an ARC of Shoulder Season by Christina Clancy.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I love both contemporary and historical mysteries. Some of my favorite contemporary authors are Stuart Turton (his debut, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is a genre-shifter in my opinion) as well as anything by Lucy Foley or Lisa Unger. Historical favorites include classics like Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, and Caleb Carr’s The Alienest.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

It’s so important to find your community early in the writing process—long before you’re agented and published! These fellow writers will be the ones to lift you up when you’re discouraged (rejection is inevitable in publishing) and cheer you on when you succeed (if you’re persistent, success is ALSO inevitable!) To find fellow writers, consider virtual or in-person conferences; local workshopping groups; Facebook groups for writers in your genre; or try hashtags on Twitter like #writingcommunity and #5amwritersclub.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I loved the Sweet Valley High books! I remember making a big chart on a piece of paper with the titles of the books I’d read in the series, and the ones I planned to read next. A predecessor of Goodreads, you could say. The chart was colorful with lots of doodles and character names. I’d love to have it now, for posterity’s sake!

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a recent one that I’ve been suggesting to everyone. Also, Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker (nonfiction) and for writers, Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper. I finished it last month and it’s one of my all-time favorite reads. Perfect for true crime/narrative nonfiction lovers. Heavy, thorough investigation. I could not put it down.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I love being outside and being active. I’m also a morning person! So, my perfect day would be a 6 a.m. wakeup, coffee on the patio with my husband, a challenging mountain hike during the morning, an afternoon nap with my dog, dinner with friends, then spending the evening curled up with a good historical novel set in old London. I’d be in bed by 9 p.m., hah!

What are you working on now?

I can’t share details but I will say this: I’m naturally drawn to writing atmospheric historical settings, twisty plots with cliffhangers, and rebellious female characters. These are the things people have loved about The Lost Apothecary, and I can promise readers will find these elements in my future projects, too!

Book cover for The Lost Apothecary
The Lost Apothecary
Penner, Sarah