'The Lost Apothecary' Brews a Secret Sisterhood of Revenge

Sarah Penner intoxicates with her debut novel about a mysterious apothecary who supports oppressed women of 18th-century London through sinister means.

Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.

Kat Johnson: Hello. I'm Audible Editor Kat Johnson, and I'm talking today with Sarah Penner, whose new novel, The Lost Apothecary, is a twisty and empowering work of historical fiction about an 18th-century apothecary shop that dispenses poison to women who've been wronged by men, and a contemporary woman who discovers its secrets. Welcome, Sarah. And first, can I just say, you had me at this incredible premise.

Sarah Penner: Thank you so much, Kat. It's so exciting to be here talking to you today, and thank you for your compliment on the premise. When I set out to write this book I really wanted to develop something original, and I couldn't think of any books out on the market that were about poisonous apothecaries in 18th-century London. That was really the first seed of the idea, and I stuck with it from there.

KJ: That's the real crime! I feel like your novel is in this juicy Venn diagram of murder mystery and women's empowerment.

SP: A lot of people have said, "What genre would you consider the book?" And I think on its surface, and when you find it in a bookstore, it's probably going to be under historical fiction. But there are so many other elements to consider. So, there's magical realism. A lot of people have said it reads like a thriller or a mystery. Of course, there's elements of women's fiction as well. There's a lot of places it could sit in a bookstore. But that was part of the fun of it, and I kind of think of it like one of the tinctures that the apothecary pulls together. It's just a combination of all sorts of cool things.

KJ: It's very compulsive. I want to try to stay away from any kind of spoiler territory here because it does have that thriller element to it. But tell me a little bit about how The Lost Apothecary came to be.

SP: The seed of the idea was an apothecary, and I knew it was going to be a woman. But when envisioning her in this hidden shop at the base of a dark alleyway in London, I knew there was something about her that was going to be sinister, and maybe a morally gray character. Naturally, if you have an apothecary who's, there's something sinister about her, that probably means that not everything lining the shelves in her shop is good, and not everything is medicinal, and so that led me quickly down the path of poison.

"It's almost like a film, just without the picture. That's how good of a job they do."

I began researching poisoning deaths in 18th- and 19th-century London and found that not only was there a wealth of research and information available, but there was also just a lot of fascinating information about the different chemicals and poisons themselves, and how they impact the body from a physiological standpoint. How they can be best disguised in food. There were so many unique things, and I thought this is just a story begging to be told. I can't believe that this story hasn't been told before, and so I really went with that. I loved reading about all of the different poisons.

There's a lot of even herbs and natural remedies that are benign on the surface, but in great quantities they are poisonous. A perfect example is nicotine. We all know what that is. However, there have been many reports of field-workers working in tobacco fields, and they've died from the skin contact that they've had to these enormous amounts of nicotine. It was that type of thing that I was learning as I researched this book: that in great quantities almost anything can be poisonous. So I had a lot of fun exploring that throughout the story.

KJ: You could have started your own secret murder pharmacy, or you could have written a book. I'm so glad that you chose the latter path.

SP: That's right. My husband is still eating the food that I put in front of him every so often. He's not scared of me yet.

KJ: Not yet. We'll see how far we get in this quarantine. No, I'm just kidding. You talked about a lot of the real-life history behind this story. It is fascinating because there are so many interesting cases of women and poison being linked together. Are there some real-life cases that inspired you?

SP: I've gotten the question from so many early readers about Aqua Tofana, which is kind of this perfume that, I believe her name was Giulia Tofana, and she lived and worked in Italy I want to say in the 17th century. I might have gotten some of those facts wrong because I didn't actually research her as part of this book. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I didn't even learn about her until after I had submitted this book, and the reason why is because in my research I was very focused on the UK and the poisoning deaths that happened in London and on the outskirts of London. And I really didn't expand that into continental Europe. It's been so interesting, all of these readers saying that my book is intriguing to them because they have heard of the perfume poison Aqua Tofana. So, it's been interesting.

But to answer your question, the apothecary in my novel was not based off of any single real-life character. She was more so a representation of the mystery that I was finding as I looked at 18th-century bills of mortality, where poison is really just kind of a footnote in those records.…

KJ: And your love of history comes through so well in the book, especially in the character of Caroline. You're an American—I'd love to hear how you brought London to life, in the present day and in the 18th century. Did you travel there a lot? What kind of research did you do to get that right?

SP: Yes. There's so much of me in Caroline, and I think a lot of my readers who are friends and family probably chuckled as they were reading parts of the story knowing who I am and the experiences I've had. I did have the opportunity to travel to London many times. I work in finance full time, and so that has sent me a number of places. I've been very fortunate, and I distinctly remember the first time I landed in London—this was many years ago—I felt just this inherent connection to the city. I loved walking through the old buildings and the old alleyways, and we just don't have a lot of that in the United States. It was very romantic to me, I guess you could say, which I'm sure that a lot of people in London would roll their eyes at it. But I'm a very classic anglophile. I love everything related to Britain.

I also had the opportunity to go mudlarking, which is what Caroline does at the very beginning of the story, and that was a wonderful experience, because not only was it fun to go mudlarking, and I highly recommend that anyone does it, but it also allowed me to incorporate some sensory detail into the story, so I was able to really hear the sounds that Caroline would have heard when she was stepping down the concrete steps into the river. And I was able to, kind of, feel the water on my fingers as I was lifting up cool objects. So really just incorporate a lot of those visceral sensory details.

For anyone who doesn't know what mudlarking is, because I'm learning a lot of people don't know what it is, it essentially means scrounging around in a body of water, or the River Thames in this instance, looking for interesting or valuable artifacts. There are all sorts of cool things in the river. I didn't find any Roman coins or anything super valuable when I went on my own, but I did find some interesting pottery and clay pipes and pens and different things.

KJ: I was going to ask you all about mudlarking, but you told me all about it. I'm embarrassed to say I'm one of the people that didn't know what it was and now I do, and now I want to do it.

SP: If anything, I hope that this book teaches readers a few new things, and I hope that mudlarking is one of those things. There have been so many people who've said, "When lockdowns are over I'm going to get my permit, and I'm going mudlarking when I visit London."

KJ: The story is told from three different perspectives. There's Nella and Eliza in the 18th century and then Caroline in present day. How did you come up with these great characters, and why did you want to tell it from three perspectives?

SP: I knew I wanted the story to be dual timeline because it was going to be a present-day character uncovering this mystery from 200 years earlier, so I knew I needed Caroline in the present day. Of course, I needed Nella in her apothecary shop in the historical timeline because I knew readers would want to see the poisons and see her at work. And then Eliza, the 12-year-old customer who arrives at Nella's shop very early in the book, she and last addition for me when I was drafting the story. The reason she came about, and I don't want to give away any spoilers, but I wanted the reader to see one of the customers walking out of the shop with this lovely disguised poison that she has just purchased. And I wanted the reader to get to see what happens next.

If we had the insight into the poisoner herself, making these tinctures and potions, I wanted the reader to literally follow the customer and see what happens now that that poison is in the hand of someone who wants to use it for sinister reasons, and so that was why I created Eliza. But then once I began fleshing her out, I realized she's so much fun. She's very spunky, she's very stubborn, and everyone who's read the book has said that she's their favorite character throughout the story, just because she's kind of a breath of fresh air. There are parts of the story that are heavy, and although it's a fast-paced story and it's not super heavy, it is a story about poison, and so a lot people have said Eliza was just kind of fun and lighthearted for them to follow throughout her journey.

KJ: I totally agree with that. I almost get Claudia from Interview With a Vampire vibes. I love that you have the precocious 12-year-old in this story, especially as she's on the verge of becoming a woman and learning these things about the world. It's the perfect POV and really smart. In the audiobook, the characters are performed by three different narrators for each voice: Lorna Bennett, Lauren Anthony, and Lauren Irwin. Did you have some involvement in the casting or direction? And what do you think about their performances?

SP: Yes, I did. So, this is my debut novel, this is the first time I'm going through this whole experience, and I had no idea how it works in terms of producing, recording an audiobook. I thought that Harper Collins would just kind of do the whole thing. And then one day in my email, my editor sent a link with about 20 to 25 different voice actresses [for] performing the three different points of view of the story. So we had some actresses that were kind of gruff and a little bit raspy, and they provided samples on Nella. Then you had your young, sort of American woman that, of course, we ended up choosing Lauren Anthony for that. And then several younger British actresses to perform Eliza. My editor said let's rank these and then we will send that along to the team who's doing the audio production.

"If there's one theme that I want readers to take away when they turn the last page, it's this idea of women setting out to help and support other women."

I had the opportunity to listen to all of them. I enlisted some family and friends as well, and took everyone's opinion into account for who they felt most accurately represented the character in the story, and really the voice and emotion I wanted them to portray. I was thrilled after submitting those rankings that the team granted the first choice on all three. I knew they would do a good job, but I didn't realize how truly outstanding the quality of the production would be. When the audiobook hit NetGalley and was made available to early reviewers, I immediately started getting feedback saying these three voice actresses knocked it out of the park. It really is an experience. It's almost like a film, just without the picture. That's how good of a job they do. I could not be more thrilled with how things turned out.

KJ: I agree with you, they do a great job. I know you said you didn't know much about the process, but the story and the way it's told really lends itself to audio. I think those three different points of view, it's so compulsive, and so it's very exciting for us to be able to hear it as well. Back to the characters. It's so interesting to me because this premise is so shocking, and you mentioned the apothecary being sort of this sinister figure. But I find these women are not particularly malevolent. They're pretty relatable, and they're working in this society that doesn't give them many options against the oppression and violence of men in their lives. Did you want to upend expectations of what a feminist revenge tale can be?

SP: It's so funny you ask that because when I drafted the story and when we sold it to Park Row Books, and before my editor had really dug her hands into the manuscript, I was focused mostly on Nella's motivation. And to your point about her not being a bad person, I did want to show the reader why she was grieving and why she was vengeful and why she had this poison shop in the beginning. But this is where the beauty of an editor comes into play—and why it's so valuable and important for us as authors to have great teams behind us—is my editor was the one who really said, "Sarah, what I want more of is the women who are coming in as customers of the shop. Show me what experiences they've had that are making them walk through the door because they want to seek vengeance."…

KJ: Right. Well, kudos to your editor. But it's also I think really inherent in the story that's you're telling here, because I feel like we hear so much about dead girls and mysteries going the other way. And to flip the script… You know, we're often told that women can't have these emotions of anger and violence and rage. To see it portrayed in such a realistic way is really refreshing.

SP: I agree with all of that. I think that women have always struggled with feeling less avenues of control or less power, and 200 years ago that was certainly more evident than it is today. But I think that even now we still feel like we're fighting against these chains, and we're fighting against unfairness, and so although Nella sells poisons and we don't do that today, it's a fictional story. What she is doing that we still do today is she's lifting other women up and she's giving them support and camaraderie and friendship, and all of those are applicable today. It may not be that we're selling our friends poison to slip to their husbands, but we're still offering an ear and a shoulder and support.…

I think this concept of banding together, that's exactly what the book is about. If there's one theme that I want readers to take away when they turn the last page, it's this idea of women setting out to help and support other women.

KJ: I want to talk a little bit about the writing process, because this is a debut novel, which I cannot believe. I also can't believe that you did this while having a full-time job. I'm quite sure there's people reading or listening to this that would love to do what you did. Can you share some of your writing process?

SP: Sure. As I mentioned I work in finance, and I've actually worked in corporate America for almost 13 years now. I graduated from the University of Kansas with a finance degree. And I have always loved my day job. However, it was about five or six years ago that I just felt like something was missing, and did some soul searching and realized that every day from 8 to 5 I was using my left brain, which is very logic oriented, analytical, numbers, and data. And yet I'm actually a very creative person. I've always liked crafts. So whether it's knitting or cross stitch, I'm not very good at art in general, but I enjoy it and that's what matters, because that's all creativity is, just having fun. It doesn't matter whether it's good or not.

I also have always liked words. When I was in high school I dabbled with poetry and journaling. I decided about five or six years ago, I'm going to try and write a book. And given that I have and had a full-time job, really the only way to do that was to wake up early. I've always been a morning person. I'm very high energy early in the morning. That's just kind of how I am. For the longest time I have been waking up at about 5 in the morning. And I get a cup of coffee and I write from about 5:30 to 8. So that's two and a half solid hours every day that it's quiet, no one else is awake, it's my time, there's no one texting me, there's no emails coming in, and it's a great time to just focus and utilize that right side of my brain, the creative, imaginative side. That is how I was able to write The Lost Apothecary while working a full-time job.

I still practice that today. Working on future projects I still get up early, and my body's used to it by now. I have so many people say, "How do you juggle everything?" And that's what I tell them. The truth is you have to wake up earlier. Or stay up later if you're a night owl.

KJ: Or stay up later. And I was going to ask, is your 18th-century poison research, is that your version of late-night doomscrolling, or when do you fit that in?

SP: You know, the way I wake up early is because I go to bed pretty early. Like between 9 and 10 every night. I try to read, relax, fun fiction before I go to bed. I don't do a whole lot of poison doomscrolling before bed. That would probably give me bad dreams.

KJ: Speaking of women helping other women, and your writing process, I happened to see on Twitter that you had an accountability partner for your writing, Nancy Johnson. Can you tell me about her?

SP: There's a trio of us actually. There's three of us. Nancy Johnson, she is the author of The Kindest Lie, and Julie Carrick Dalton, she is the author of Waiting for the Night Song, and that came out in January. The three of us met each other on this 2021 debut novelist group, which was actually just featured in Forbes. I wasn't one of the people that they interviewed, but the group as a whole, we’re very tight knit and we had this private Facebook group that we interact on every day. I met them through that group, and I basically just reached out, like maybe four or five months ago. I was approaching a big revision on a different project, and I said, "Does anybody want to just start an informal accountability thing?" And they both jumped at the chance.

They've known each other for many years. They're, like, best, best friends, so it was very nice of them to even let me into their little circle, but we've become very good friends. We chat every Sunday, and we just talk about what we're working on, what struggles we're facing, what accomplishments we've had. We share inside information about our own publishing experiences, and then, of course, like you said that you saw on Twitter, we support one another anytime news comes out or there's something exciting, we signal-boost each other on social media.

KJ: That's so cool. I love that. It sounds like their books might be also a fit for fans of The Lost Apothecary.

SP: Absolutely. Yes. And they, both of them together, they've made so many lists. They've been such buzzy titles. So, Waiting for the Night Song is kind of a new genre for me. They call it cli-fi, it's like climate fiction, with a murder mystery in there as well. And then The Kindest Lie is, kind of, the intersection of race and class in the Obama era. Very different books, but both I highly recommend.

KJ: Is there anything you're working on next that you can share with us?

SP: I do have a couple of projects that I am working on now. Don't want to give away too much, but I will say that I learned from The Lost Apothecary that I love mysteries, and I love complicated, twisty plots, and I love cliff-hangers. Finally, I love writing about brave, badly behaved women, and so I can assure you that my future projects are in the same vein as that. They meet all of that criteria. The other thing is that, and I'm not going to give away any spoilers, but there are elements at the end of The Lost Apothecary that could be developed into their own story as well. I've had so many people say they would love to see a follow-up to certain parts and characters at the end of the story. I feel in my heart like that is a future project for me. Maybe not the next one, but I feel like someday that will tap me on the shoulder and I'll revisit some of the things that were left behind at the end of The Lost Apothecary.

KJ: That is fantastic news. Thank you so much for joining us today. The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner is available on Audible.

Sarah Penner: Thank you.

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