Discover, Guest Posts

Potions That Bewitch Us, Cure Us, Kill Us: Five Questions for Sarah Penner, Author of The Lost Apothecary — Our March Discover Pick

An avenging woman in the guise of a quiet apothecary takes center stage in this propulsive historical fiction debut. In 18th-century London, women come to Nella when they need to take action against the abusive men in their life. Fast forward 200 years and a modern woman’s search for meaning, becomes irrevocably tied with this past. With immersive storytelling, a dark, gothic atmosphere, and unforgettable characters, this is a subversive read you won’t want to miss and, our latest Discover Pick of the Month. We had the pleasure of asking Penner five questions on everything from the inspiration behind this vibrant debut, Mudlarking, to what she’s reading and recommending right now. 

The Lost Apothecary

The Lost Apothecary

Hardcover $23.49 $27.99

The Lost Apothecary

Sarah Penner

In Stock Online

Hardcover $23.49 $27.99

A forgotten history, a legacy of poison, vengeance, and unforgettable women taking control of their destiny — this slow-burn thriller packs quite a punch. Where did you start? How did you approach your research when writing this book?  
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.
Researching the many herbal and homespun remedies for this story was a time-consuming, albeit entertaining, task. I spent time in the British Library, sifting through 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.
The gritty back-alley streets, the smell of the River Thames! Your vivid, atmospheric descriptions invite readers to fully immerse themselves in 18th-century London. What was the most interesting fact from this time and place that you stumbled upon?   
This is part of the fun of writing historical fiction: as authors, we delve deep into the research, then we get to paint a picture for the reader that highlights the most fascinating, atmospheric elements of our research.
One of the more interesting (and serendipitous!) discoveries I made occurred early in my research. Today, forensic toxicology is advanced, and coroners can quickly detect poisons in human tissue during an autopsy. But this science didn’t exist until the mid-1800s, approximately fifty years after my book takes place. So, the 1790s was a perfect time for an apothecary like the one in my story to run a hidden shop; she could “get away with murder,” so to speak, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even five decades later.
Have you ever been Mudlarking?  
Yes! In the summer of 2019, I found myself along the banks of the River Thames in London, wearing old tennis shoes and blue latex gloves. I was mudlarking, which means playfully hunting the riverbed for old or valuable artifacts. In my backpack was a small card — my temporary license from the Port of London Authority, 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.
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 first learned about mudlarking years ago, while reading London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures by Ted Sandling. In the book, he shares striking images of interesting things he’s found near the River Thames. It is here that I first spotted a fragment of a mid-seventeenth century delftware apothecary jar, and the inspiration for The Lost Apothecary was born.
Much of this story centers around women supporting women, protecting each other, ensuring their survival — a theme that resonates today as much as it did 200 years ago. Why do you believe it is so important to share these stories?   
It’s no secret that women have been excluded from much of history: amid accounts of wars and political movements, it’s rare to find the names of women in history textbooks. Unless a woman was of renowned bloodline, chances are she was overlooked — or outright excluded — from the history books.
The apothecary in my story understands this, and she pities the lowborn or middle-sort women she meets every day. Thus, she has a very important rule: the name of every woman who steps into her shop must be recorded in the apothecary’s register. She says, “For many of these women, this may be the only place their names are recorded. The only place they will be remembered. There are few places for a woman to leave an indelible mark … But this register preserves them — their names, their memories, their worth.”
Today, society gives more attention to the players driving forward change — women included. But I think it’s still important for us to ask the question: who are we excluding from history books, and why? Have we given credit to the women at the forefront of change, as well as the ones working magic behind the scenes?
We must ask: Who are you reading and recommending right now?  
I’m all about supporting fellow debuts, so here are two can’t-miss debut novels, both of which came out earlier this year: The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson, which is an exploration of race and class set against the backdrop of Obama’s 2008 election; and Waiting for the Night Song by Julie Carrick Dalton, a climate-fiction story centered around childhood secrets.

A forgotten history, a legacy of poison, vengeance, and unforgettable women taking control of their destiny — this slow-burn thriller packs quite a punch. Where did you start? How did you approach your research when writing this book?  
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.
Researching the many herbal and homespun remedies for this story was a time-consuming, albeit entertaining, task. I spent time in the British Library, sifting through 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.
The gritty back-alley streets, the smell of the River Thames! Your vivid, atmospheric descriptions invite readers to fully immerse themselves in 18th-century London. What was the most interesting fact from this time and place that you stumbled upon?   
This is part of the fun of writing historical fiction: as authors, we delve deep into the research, then we get to paint a picture for the reader that highlights the most fascinating, atmospheric elements of our research.
One of the more interesting (and serendipitous!) discoveries I made occurred early in my research. Today, forensic toxicology is advanced, and coroners can quickly detect poisons in human tissue during an autopsy. But this science didn’t exist until the mid-1800s, approximately fifty years after my book takes place. So, the 1790s was a perfect time for an apothecary like the one in my story to run a hidden shop; she could “get away with murder,” so to speak, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even five decades later.
Have you ever been Mudlarking?  
Yes! In the summer of 2019, I found myself along the banks of the River Thames in London, wearing old tennis shoes and blue latex gloves. I was mudlarking, which means playfully hunting the riverbed for old or valuable artifacts. In my backpack was a small card — my temporary license from the Port of London Authority, 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.
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 first learned about mudlarking years ago, while reading London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures by Ted Sandling. In the book, he shares striking images of interesting things he’s found near the River Thames. It is here that I first spotted a fragment of a mid-seventeenth century delftware apothecary jar, and the inspiration for The Lost Apothecary was born.
Much of this story centers around women supporting women, protecting each other, ensuring their survival — a theme that resonates today as much as it did 200 years ago. Why do you believe it is so important to share these stories?   
It’s no secret that women have been excluded from much of history: amid accounts of wars and political movements, it’s rare to find the names of women in history textbooks. Unless a woman was of renowned bloodline, chances are she was overlooked — or outright excluded — from the history books.
The apothecary in my story understands this, and she pities the lowborn or middle-sort women she meets every day. Thus, she has a very important rule: the name of every woman who steps into her shop must be recorded in the apothecary’s register. She says, “For many of these women, this may be the only place their names are recorded. The only place they will be remembered. There are few places for a woman to leave an indelible mark … But this register preserves them — their names, their memories, their worth.”
Today, society gives more attention to the players driving forward change — women included. But I think it’s still important for us to ask the question: who are we excluding from history books, and why? Have we given credit to the women at the forefront of change, as well as the ones working magic behind the scenes?
We must ask: Who are you reading and recommending right now?  
I’m all about supporting fellow debuts, so here are two can’t-miss debut novels, both of which came out earlier this year: The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson, which is an exploration of race and class set against the backdrop of Obama’s 2008 election; and Waiting for the Night Song by Julie Carrick Dalton, a climate-fiction story centered around childhood secrets.