I’m really excited about today’s interview. I read Barbara Barnett’s The Apothecary’s Curse last month and I loved it. (Look for a review of the book tomorrow!) So I was happy to be able to ask Barbara some questions about her debut novel. I got to ask her about alchemy, research and her love of everything Holmes. I hope you enjoy Barbara’s answers and check out The Apothecary’s Curse.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Barbara Barnett?
Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you and your readers!!
How to describe myself is always the hardest question for me. Most of the time, the left side of my brain controls my inner geek, perpetually curious (sometimes too curious) about everything to do with the universe and how it works while the right side of my brain controls my inner romantic, smitten with classic literature’s tortured, tormented heroes. The battle for dominance has led to a rather eclectic education and career.
In my non-writing life, I’m a professional singer and educator. I’m married to the most indulgent and supportive husband on the planet. We have two great children and one very elderly Dutch Mini rabbit.
How would you introduce people to Simon Bell and Gaelen Erceldoune?
Simon Bell is a late Regency/early Victorian gentleman physician born to a family renown for its brilliant men of medicine. He is a cousin of Joseph Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s medical mentor—and model for the creation of Sherlock Holmes. But Simon is confronted with a desperate situation. His wife has cancer of the breast, and of all people he has treated, he can do absolutely nothing to save his wife. So against all advice, he turns to a reclusive, enigmatic apothecary—Gaelan Erceldoune. The results are (to say the least) life-changing.
Gaelan Erceldoune is a brilliant and skilled medical practitioner. When Simon first meets him, Gaelan is established in Smithfield Market in London as an apothecary. It is there he provides medicines and treatment to the needy citizenry of the impoverished community—a place where few gentleman-physicians would likely dirty their hands. Gaelan Erceldoune harbors several great secrets, however, one of which might be the cure for Simon’s wife.
Readers will know very early on that both Simon and Gaelan are both immortal. But the story of how and why would spoil more of the novel than I’m willing to tell ☺.
What drew you to writing about alchemy and its connection to the healing arts?
I have a background in chemistry, so I’ve always been intrigued by chemical reactions—and their magic (since my first chemistry set when I was 10!). As a student I synthesized aspirin in the lab (it’s a simple undergrad organic chemistry experiment), so the connection between chemistry and healing is always there in the back of my mind.
As I was researching the novel, I came across the work of Paracelsus, a sixteenth century scientist-physician—and an alchemist. He is credited with introducing into the practice of medicine opium and mercury.
Paracelsus wanted to separate himself from the alchemists who aspired to turn lead to gold or to discover the secret to immortality, and instead, use alchemy’s secrets to heal people from the horrible diseases of the time. He was a true medical visionary, and I wanted to connect him in a very concrete way to Gaelan. I think Gaelan would consider himself a disciple of Paracelsus and note that he and Gaelan’s grandfather were correspondents. In The Apothecary’s Curse, Gaelan quotes Paracelsus quite a bit.
There is a lot of science and mythology in The Apothecary’s Curse. Did you have to do a lot of research to get this right?
The simple answer is: YES!
I really wanted to get the science absolutely believable, and ground whatever “magic” exists in the novel’s world in some measure (albeit miniscule) of possibility (no matter how improbable). My process really was organic. I would get an idea about the science, and go research it. Every time, the research led me down new and interesting pathways for the novel.
For the mythology, I started with the fairy folk, which led me to the Celtic goddess of healing Airmid and her people, the Tuatha de Dannan. I came across her while researching something in the plot that happens to Gaelan, and her tale so completely fit the story, I had to weave it into the fabric of the novel.
To research immortality, I read everything I could on elixirs of life and the holy grail of the immortality quest. None of it satisfied me. Then I read a scientific paper on the Nobel Prize-winning work on the immortal jellyfish, and I found my connection and a way into exploring immortality from a modern scientific perspective, and from there back to the mythology!
You included some cameos by famous authors and people in The Apothecary’s Curse. Which one was your favourite? Was there someone you would have loved to include, but couldn’t manage to fit in?
Without a doubt, my favorite cameo is by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His fingerprints are all over the novel. The ghost of Paracelsus hovers here and there as well (at least his words). Sir Isaac Newton is briefly mentioned in the novel as a colleague of Gaelan’s (Sir Isaac was not only a visionary scientist but an apothecary like Gaelan). I note their friendship, but it would have been fun to explore that more. I would have loved to include more of Joseph Bell, but there was no way to do it, given the way the timeline of the story works. Perhaps Harry Houdini, since Gaelan is in America during Houdini’s time (and the famous magician also a friend of Conan Doyle’s). Who knows, Houdini might yet turn up in Gaelan’s story ;)
I absolutely loved the ending. Without giving away spoilers, did you ever consider ending it the other way?
Thank you! And yes! The ending was something I grappled with for weeks. Too sweet? Too ambiguous? Too jarring? I went back and forth quite a bit with it. In the end (as it were), I’m happy with the final chapter.
Going by your previously published non-fiction book Chasing Zebras, The Apothecary’s Curse and the topics of some of your speaking engagements, you seem to have an affinity with Holmesian heroes. What attracts you to this archetype?
Sherlock Holmes intrigues me more for what he doesn’t express than for what he does. What lurks beneath that rational, cool, unemotional surface? I sense Holmes’s restlessness of spirit. That’s what really gets to me. What happens when you peel away that exterior? That’s also, incidentally, what drew me to the character of Gregory House. I loved the character study of a brilliant man deeply troubled, who feels more keenly than he’d ever admit. Whose mind is always miles ahead of his contemporaries and too restless for his own good.
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
Right now I’m preparing for two talks I’m giving at this year’s MENSA’s HalloWEEM convention. Although I’m not a member of MENSA, it will be my fourth appearance at the annual convention. I’ll be speaking about the paradox of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—how the man who created the most logical, rational fictional character of all time could, until his dying day, believe in the existence of fairies! I’ll also be devoting one of my lectures to discussing The Apothecary’s Curse. I’m in discussions about another couple conventions as well. I go the big San Diego Comic Con each year as an entertainment journalist to interview the casts of all the hit genre television fare, but I’d love to go as a panelist in 2017.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
I’m passionate about politics and music (I’m a professional singer in my other life!).
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
I’m way far behind on my reading these days. Currently, I’m reading a newly released anthology of short stories depicting the end of the world called Grave Predictions. It includes the work of several generations of legendary SFF writers: Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Greg Bear and many more. (I admit it; I’m a sucker for good, well crafted disaster fiction).
I love Michael Chabon, so I’m looking forward to his forthcoming Moonglow. As an astronomy buff, I’ve put Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott on my reading list as well. I think deGrasse Tyson is this generation’s Carl Sagan, making the cosmos accessible to everyone.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
I should know better (I was a library intern when I was in high school), but my system is to rely on entropy and a good memory. I have several thousand books shelved on two floors in several bookcases! When I have time to redo the shelves every couple of years, I try to shelve by genre, and then alphabetically. Alas, the system usually works for a few months until it all falls apart.
Bio: Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics Magazine and the author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D. Barbara has won several awards for her writing, spanning from technical writing achievement to her writing on spirituality and religion. Barbara has a degree from the University of Illinois in biology/chemistry and has worked as a microbiologist. She is the current president of the Midwest Writers Association.