Sarah Penner Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Sarah Penner

Sarah Penner

An interview with Sarah Penner

Sarah Penner discusses how she found inspiration for her debut novel, The Lost Apothecary while mudlarking on the shores of the River Thames.

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. 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, and even animal bones.

As readers learn from Bachelor Alf early in The Lost Apothecary, mudlarking has been around for hundreds of years. Victorian children used to scrounge around in the mud looking for items to sell for money to support their families. Today, mudlarking 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—the inspiration for The Lost Apothecary.

The word apothecary is evocative, drawing forth visions of a candlelit storefront with sash windows, its walls lined with mortar bowls and 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. When describing Nella's hidden shop, I did my best to capture this allure. Indeed, many contemporary retail shops are doing the same, and it seems most cities now have some sort of "apothecary" shop selling cosmetics or natural remedies.

Researching the many herbal and homespun remedies for this story was a time-consuming, albeit entertaining, task. I spent many hours in the British Library reviewing old manuscripts and druggist diaries; I reviewed digitized pharmacopoeias; 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 (including many household plants, and eucalyptus oil, if ingested) and I was fascinated while reading about the clever, if ineffective, remedies used by the predecessors of modern-day pharmacists.

I believe it's entirely possible, if not probable, that an apothecary shop like Nella's existed prior to the nineteenth century. Until the mid-1800s, death examiners were unable to detect the presence of poison when performing autopsies, and thus poisoning homicides are rarely mentioned in bills of mortality prior to this time. And yet, historical records tell us that toxic compounds like arsenic, nux vomica, mercury and opium were readily available at stores throughout the eighteenth century and, in some cases, used around the house (e.g. rodent poison). The hurdle would not be acquiring the toxin, but in cleverly disguising it so the recipient would remain blissfully unaware of what the poisoner intended. This is when a customer might have sought out an apothecary shop like Nella's: she was, after all, a master of disguise.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by Sarah Penner at BookBrowse
The Lost Apothecary jacket
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Readalikes

All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Sarah Penner but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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  • Helen Dunmore

    Helen Dunmore

    Helen Dunmore was born in Yorkshire, England in 1952. In a career spanning three decades she published fifteen novels, three short story collections, prize-winning children's fiction and twelve collections of poetry. Her... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Lost Apothecary

    Try:
    Birdcage Walk
    by Helen Dunmore

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    Anna Freeman

    Anna Freeman is the author of The Fair Fight. She supported herself during the writing of this book by bartending at the Hatchet Inn in Bristol, the very pub where this female pugilism took root over two hundred years ago. ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Lost Apothecary

    Try:
    The Fair Fight
    by Anna Freeman

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