Q and A

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Not at all! I’ve always adored reading but I didn’t start to write until eleven years ago. I wanted to write something I would want to read. Now I can’t imagine why I didn’t begin earlier. Of course it may have been something to do with bringing up five children and having a full-time business …

How did you come up with the idea for The Apothecary’s Daughter?

Unusually for me, it started with a setting, not a character. The previous six (unpublished) books I’d written were contemporary but I fancied an attempt at an historical novel, as I liked reading them. I decided to research the seventeenth century and read the diary of Samuel Pepys because original sources are a wonderful way to understand a period in history. Then I found a map of London from before the Great Fire of 1666 and imagined myself walking along the streets and alleyways, coloured by Pepys’s descriptions. After that I bought a second hand copy of Nicholas Culpeper’s Herbal (I love second hand bookshops – they are always full of treasures!) and decided that my heroine would be an apothecary.

What is it about the Restoration period that attracted you as a writer?

Firstly, it’s a period of history that isn’t overworked in literature. I didn’t want to compete with authors such as Philippa Gregory who has the Tudor period covered or Elizabeth Chadwick’s fantastic medieval novels or Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances. Oliver Cromwell looked so dour and I didn’t fancy his warts but Charles II had a devil-may-care gleam in his eyes and seemed to be having such fun with his mistresses. The Restoration period was bursting with events: fires, plagues, scientific discoveries and political intrigue, all waiting for me to discover.

How does it feel to have your debut novel published?

Amazing! I still have to pinch myself. I didn’t start writing with any idea of being published but more for the mental exercise, much as some people do crosswords or Sodoku. Over time, as friends enjoyed my stories, I began to wonder if I might try to have a novel published and started to look for an agent. It took eleven years and a great deal of hard work in polishing the craft of writing to realise the dream.

What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?

Never give up, write every day and learn to accept constructive criticism!

Where do your characters come from and how do they evolve?

All the characters are a little bit of me, even the villains! I try to see the world through my characters’ eyes and imagine how they would react in certain situations, drawing on my own experiences. I’ve never lived through plagues and fires but I have feared for my children’s safety and happiness, suffered pain and loss and been ecstatically happy. I apply these emotions to my characters to make them come alive. Names are important, too. I always choose these early on and have mental conversations with my characters about how they might feel about certain situations. It generally takes me about three chapters to really come to know the characters and then I go back and re-write in the light of what I’ve discovered.

Did writing The Apothecary’s Daughter throw up any surprises for you?

Not while I was writing it, except on those odd occasions when my subconscious took a hold and a character veered off in an unexpected direction or I used words I didn’t know I knew. The strangest experience was reading the novel as a published book. I knew the manuscript so well but had always read it on screen before. Once the book was in my hands it didn’t seem to belong to me anymore. It was a relief to read it as if someone else had written it and find I enjoyed it. I had written the kind of book I liked to read, which was what started me writing in the first place.

Do you have a favourite character in The Apothecary’s Daughter?

Well, I’m still deeply in love with my hero, Doctor William Ambrose. He’s dark and brooding but once you look past his austere manner, he’s kind with a wicked sense of humour. Arabella, however, is my favourite character. She’s beautiful, totally self-centred and utterly ruthless. Perhaps she shows my dark side in that she behaves in ways my conscience would never allow. I forgive her some of her selfishness because she genuinely loves her children and as a young and penniless widow she does what she has to do in order to provide for them.

Will you continue the story in another novel?

Yes! I’m very excited that I have just finished the final draft of the sequel, The Painter’s Apprentice, which will be published in the summer of 2012.

Who would you cast in a film/TV adaption of The Apothecary’s Daughter?

I really, really want to see The Apothecary’s Daughter as a film. All the time I was writing it I had a mental TV screen running in the back of my mind. If something wasn’t working I’d rewind and play it again until it looked right and then I could write the next chapter. I imagined shafts of light penetrating small windows and illuminating shadowy rooms. I could hear horses clattering across the cobbles and the hoarse shouts of street vendors outside. The opening of the novel, where Doctor Ambrose picks his way through the snowy, debris-ridden street on his way to the apothecary shop is a strong visual image for me. Strangely, I find it difficult to cast the characters. Perhaps this is because I know their faces so well it’s hard to imagine them looking different from my imaginings. After considerable thought I’ve come up with the following:

  • Susannah        Kelly Reilly (Above Suspicion) or Carey Mulligan
  • William           Richard Armitage (Spooks) – no contest!
  • Henry             Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) or Damian Lewis
  • Arabella          Gillian Anderson
  • Aunt Agnes     Dame Maggie Smith or Phyllida Law
  • Cornelius        Ralph Fiennes
  • Peg                Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) or Ramona Marquez (Outnumbered)
  • Emmanuel      Adrian Lester (Hustle) or Noel Clarke (Kidulthood)
  • Jennet           Pam Ferris

What do you enjoy reading?

Naturally I like historical novels, especially Tracy Chevalier, Sarah Waters and Philippa Gregory. On a light, more contemporary note it has to be Katie Fforde and I’ve loved all Victoria Clayton’s work. Mavis Cheek’s irreverent sense of humour makes me laugh. I like psychological thrillers by authors such as Sophie Hannah and Nicci French. Then, on the non-fiction front, I read cookery and travel books and whatever subject I’m currently researching; at the moment that’s The Phoenix (The Men who Made Modern London), by Leo Hollis. I love to dip into The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations when I need inspiration.

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