Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Interview with Barbara Barnett, author of The Apothecary's Curse

Please welcome Barbara Barnett to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Apothecary's Curse is published on October 11th by Pyr. Please join The Qwillery in wishing Barbara a Happy Publication Day!

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

Barbara:  Thank you! I started writing when I was about ten years old. My mom loved writing poems, so I sort took up the pen and started writing. Hers rhymed, mine never did.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Barbara:  I was absolutely a pantser until this novel. I would get an idea and just start writing, knowing more or less what I wanted to explore. With this novel, I outlined the entire book before I started writing. I plunked the outline for each chapter just below the chapter heading in the manuscript to guide me through each chapter. But as I wrote, the story (and characters) sort of took over, as they are wont to do. And the final book is quite different than where it began. But all through the writing process, I kept going back to that outline every time I got stuck, and whether or not I adhered to it, it always reminded me of where I was going, if not how I was going to get there!

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Barbara:  The discipline of doing it every day, no matter how blocked I am, no matter how tired I am. I’m not one of those writers who sets a 2,000 word goal for every day (although I did with Apothecary) unless I’m on deadline. So, yeah, discipline is the most challenging thing. After that, probably leaving favorite, but unnecessary, scenes on the cutting room floor (as it were). The old “Killing your darlings” adage. It’s painful, and I never completely delete them, preferring, instead to keep them for the future (and another book).

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

Barbara:  My writing has always been fueled by a lifelong curiosity about the world. I look at the stars and wonder about them; I hear the call of a bird and I have to know what kind it is. I think (I hope) my characters reflect that in one way or another. In Apothecary, Gaelan Erceldoune, who is more than four centuries old is still in awe of the stars and planets. There’s a scene in which he picks up a rock on the beach. He doesn’t simply look at it; he wonders what’s inside. Is it a geode? What kind? That’s my own curiosity talking—I’d do exactly the same thing!

TQYou've worked as a microbiologist and have a degree in Biology/Chemistry. How did this influence (or not) The Apothecary's Curse?

Barbara:  My undergraduate education and work in Biology and Chemistry influenced me quite a bit in writing The Apothecary’s Curse. The scientific core of the story also relies on our modern understanding of genetics and medicine, but also on our human propensity to label as magic or miracle things we do not yet understand. Is it magic or is it science? That is the question. And it’s a question that comes up several times in the novel. Again, my grounding in the sciences helped me both read technical papers on the relevant medical and biological principles and translate them into a fantasy story.

TQDescribe The Apothecary's Curse in 140 characters or less.

Barbara:  Between magic and science, history and mythology lies The Apothecary’s Curse-a tale of free, unintended consequences, and, ultimately, love.

TQTell us something about The Apothecary's Curse that is not found in the book description.

Barbara:  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) plays a small but significant role in the story. And his fingerprints are everywhere!

TQWhat inspired you to write The Apothecary's Curse? What appeals to you about writing Fantasy (Urban and Historical)?

Barbara:  I’ve always been drawn to the ballads and legends of the British Isles, especially the supernatural ballads of fairy queens and elfin knights. The ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, who was, according to the legend, kidnapped by the Queen of Elfland and returned seven years later with the gift of prophecy and more, has always intrigued me. So I asked the question: “What if Thomas returned with something more than the gift of prophecy? What if he returned to Scotland with a mysterious, ancient book of healing? And what if that book, generations later was accidentally misused?” The answer to that question is the central story of The Apothecary’s Curse.

I love writing historical fantasy because it allows me to take real history (accurately told) and ask interesting “what ifs.” My favorite fantasy stories are always grounded in reality and history, science and the possible (no matter how improbable).

TQWhat sort of research did you do for The Apothecary's Curse?

Barbara:  So much research!! To make the science work, I read extensively about the 2009 Nobel prize-winning work in genetics. I researched both Celtic and Greek mythology and a bit of astronomy to create some of the backstory for Gaelan. I also researched the history British medicine, especially as it relates to the practice of “gentlemen” physicians and apothecaries in Victorian England—especially to understand how Gaelan would be a qualified medical practitioner and to underpin the tension between Simon Bell and Gaelan in the Victorian sections of the novel. I researched the settings as well: from the Borders region of Scotland to Smithfield Market of 19th Century London to my own backyard of Chicago’s north shore. I also read a lot of history of the era surrounding Gaelan’s early life in late 16th Century Scotland under James VI. Oh! And lots and lots about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle way beyond his writing of the Holmes canon! That scratches the surface. In other words, a lot of research went into creating The Apothecary’s Curse and its world.

TQIn The Apothecary's Curse who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Barbara:  I think the easiest character for me was Gaelan. But he was also the hardest. Easy because I understood him—not because I am an immortal (!), but because he shares my curiosity about the world and everything in it. Also easy, because I gravitate toward melancholy, brooding heroes, so I adored writing the enigmatic, sometimes-misunderstood Gaelan Erceldoune. He (and Simon) were also difficult technically. They both exist both in the Victorian part of the story and the present-day story. I had to be constantly vigilant in the modern story about keeping their diction (especially in dialogue) 21st Century while keeping them in character.

So, that’s a bit of a cheat for an answer, so I’ll say that Anne Shawe was the hardest of my main characters to write. I wanted to avoid having her be too much “me”—a slightly naïve, enthusiastic, eager scientist. I also needed to make sure the incredible, but right-in-front-of-her-eyes nature of her situation didn’t make her come off as either too gullible or skeptical beyond belief (like Scully often was in The X-Files in the later years).

TQWhy have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in The Apothecary's Curse?

Barbara:  The Apothecary’s Curse definitely touches on social issues, especially the question of what happens when our knowledge and technology outstrip our wisdom to use it. I think that theme filter through all the characters both in the modern and Victorian stories. Each of the characters in The Apothecary’s Curse encounters dilemma in different ways during the course of the story. I think that that all good fiction should say something. Maybe the something is subtle and indirect; maybe it’s overt.

TQWhich question about The Apothecary's Curse do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

Barbara:  Where did you come up with the names “Gaelan Erceldoune” and “Simon Bell” (the two protagonists)?

Both of their names were chosen with a lot of thought. Both of their names speak to their families’ histories and then some (especially Gaelan). I took the name Gaelan from the ancient Roman-Empire physician-philosopher Galen of Pergamon. He was one of antiquity’s most influential men of science, especially in anatomy, physiology, pathology, and pharmacology. Gaelan’s last name Erceldoune connects him with his ancestor Thomas the Rhymer, whose full name was Lord Thomas Learmont de Ercildoune. The place Ercildoune (or as I spell it Erceldoune) is now the town of Earlston in the Borders region of Scotland.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Apothecary's Curse.

“He ignored the derision in Bell’s tone, sweeping past him as he brushed his shirtsleeve across the cover; a swirl of dust erupted between them. Then with a rag pulled from his trouser pocket, Gaelan burnished the cover with meticulous, minute strokes, revealing the engraved image of an intricate tree. Emerging from deep within the leather, its bare branches entwined and diverged into snakes, each consuming its own tail—an ouroboros. The snakes merged, transforming once again into an elaborate border of interconnected and twisted helices. Gaelan beheld the marvelous engraving, considering the complexity of its design.

The hawthorn: sigil of balance between life and death. A reminder that all medicines were a paradox, curative or poisonous and, as Gaelan well knew, too often producing unexpected consequences. And then there were the ouroboroses—they were alchemy’s symbol for the circularity of life: life from life, life from death, from death to living in an eternal chain. For what was the true nature of medicine’s practice? To lift the dying, to forestall death’s knock at the door, and recommence life. But Gaelan knew, more than most, that the ouroboros also signified life eternal . . . immortality, alchemy’s eternal quest.”

TQWhat's next?

Barbara:  Right now, I’m working on a second novel that takes us more deeply into Gaelan’s history. I also continue to contribute to Blogcritics Magazine, where I serve as executive editor and publisher.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

The Apothecary's Curse
Pyr, October 11, 2016
Trade Paperback and eBook, 340 pages

In Victorian London, the fates of physician Simon Bell and apothecary Gaelan Erceldoune entwine when Simon gives his wife an elixir created by Gaelan from an ancient manuscript. Meant to cure her cancer, it kills her. Suicidal, Simon swallows the remainder—only to find he cannot die. Five years later, hearing rumors of a Bedlam inmate with regenerative powers like his own, Simon is shocked to discover it’s Gaelan. The two men conceal their immortality, but the only hope of reversing their condition rests with Gaelan’s missing manuscript.

When modern-day pharmaceutical company Genomics unearths diaries describing the torture of Bedlam inmates, the company’s scientists suspect a link between Gaelan and an unnamed inmate. Gaelan and Genomics geneticist Anne Shawe are powerfully drawn to each other, and her family connection to his manuscript leads to a stunning revelation. Will it bring ruin or redemption?

Qwill's Thoughts

The Apothecary's Curse starts in Victorian London and introduces us to the main protagonists - Dr. Simon Bell and Gaelen Erceldoune.

In the novel Dr. Simon Bell is a member of the famous Bell family of doctors and brother to Dr. James Bell. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based some of Sherlock Holmes on the real Dr. James Bell.) Simon Bell is a well known doctor in his own right in the novel. He is deeply in love with his wife, Sophie, and would do anything to save her from the cancer that is killing her.

Gaelen Erceldoune is a well-known apothecary. He has set up his business in a poor section of London and does his best to help the people of his neighborhood. He has an immense collection of books on the healing arts and science. Gaelen also is in possession of a manuscript that has been passed down in his family. It contains many cures not available to the 'modern' medicine of the Victorian era. The manuscript's history is absolutely fascinating and becomes even more so in the latter sections of the novel.

Simon's and Gaelen's lives become inextricably linked when Gaelen, who has withdrawn from aiding doctors due to certain events in his life, agrees to help Simon and give him a cure for his wife. Things go wrong with the cure, though who is to blame is never 100% clear to either man, and Sophie dies. Simon becomes despondent and in a desperate attempt to end his own life and reunite with his wife takes the rest of the cure. He doesn't die... he is granted immortality. Gaelen loses his manuscript due to events beyond his control. He is wrongly accused of crimes and life becomes a hell for him.

The novel details the lives of the two men in both the Victorian and modern era. Simon has been keeping on eye on Gaelen over the years partially out of friendship and partially out of a desire to help Gaelen find his missing manuscript. Simon wants to die and only the manuscript holds the key to reversing his immortality. Events conspire against Gaelen and his miraculous abilities to heal become known. Enter both Anne Shawe, a geneticist, and an unethical pharmaceutical company that wants Gaelen for his unique physiology. Things come quickly to a head after Gaelen is exposed. The game is afoot!

The Apothecary's Curse is beautifully researched and there is a real sense of history and wonder throughout. Bell and Erceldoune are an odd couple linked in immortality and the things they have lost throughout the years. Both men are well-developed and their lives in both the modern and Victorian eras detailed. Barnett has created a captivating combination of Historical and Urban Fantasy, of science and the supernatural, and of loss and love in The Apothecary's Curse.

About Barbara

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics Magazineand 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.

Website  ~  Twitter @B_Barnett  ~  Facebook


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