Throughout England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the largest population of accused poisoners consisted of mothers, wives, and female servants,” Sarah Penner writes in the historical note at the end of her debut novel, The Lost Apothecary (Park Row, Mar. 2021). From factual elements like these and a wild, awe-inspiring imagination, she’s crafted a wickedly wonderful time-traveling historical of female power.
Nella Clavinger owns an apothecary shop in 1791 London where she dispenses potions and cures—and also lethal poisons to women aiming to rid themselves of the problematic men in their lives. Clever 12-year-old Eliza Fanning stirs the pot (and the plot). Meanwhile, in present-day London, Caroline Parcewell finds an old apothecary vial while mud larking (salvaging in the mud for treasure) near the Thames. When she researches its origins, she discovers that it could be a clue to solving the centuries-old apothecary murders.
During many visits to London, Penner fell in love with the architecture and twisty alleyways. “About five years ago,” she tells me, “I was with my husband in a pub and we found out that it had been a brothel, which made me start thinking about the hidden stories in these old buildings.” She spent time in the British Library with documents from the 18th century and “became obsessed.”
Penner works full-time in finance and hopes to live in Europe someday. The odds are good: born and raised in Kansas, she and her husband Marc joked about leaving (after too many beers, she says) and then did it. “We quit two good jobs, sold a beautiful house, and just packed up and moved to St. Petersburg, Florida.”
The Lost Apothecary is Penner’s debut novel, but it’s not the first one she’s written. Her first historical novel was rejected by 130 agents. Her women characters were vulnerable, she realized, and when she decided to write Apothecary in 2018, she wanted “women with agency front and center.”
After Penner finished Apothecary in 2019, she went to a workshop in Tampa, Fla., to pitch agents. When two of them were interested, she decided to send query letters to her top 10 agents. “In 20 minutes I got my first request to see the full manuscript,” she says. Ultimately, there were five offers.
Stefanie Lieberman at Janklow & Nesbit found Penner’s query letter and 10 pages in the slush pile. “I immediately wanted to read more,” Lieberman says. “There was a real energy in the story, and as soon as I finished reading, I got back to Sarah to set up a call. It was a beauty contest with several other agents interested.”
Facing the choices made Penner “physically ill for a couple of days,” she says, but “I went with Stefanie for many reasons: her great track record, her top-notch agency, and her doing the kind of book I had written.”
Lieberman signed Penner in June 2019 and felt lucky to get her. “Sarah is a rare breed of historical writer,” she says, “deeply feminist without being anachronistic. She’s so talented at creating atmosphere and setting, and her message is powerful and believable.”
Three or four “grueling passes” later, according to Penner, Apothecary was finished in November 2019. Lieberman called Penner the day before she sent it out to tell her the market was weird, that she had just been to Frankfurt and historical fiction was not high on publishers’ lists. “Stefanie told me I should keep my expectations low,” Penner says, “so I decided to settle down and expect a long process.” But within 24 hours of Lieberman’s wide submission of the manuscript, Natalie Hallak, an assistant editor at Park Row Books, made a preempt offer.
“Stefanie called me on a Tuesday afternoon to say she had a book for me,” Hallak says. “She described it as a secret poisoner. It was a high-concept premise that grabbed my attention right away. I was up until two a.m. reading, completely hooked by the voice. You can’t edit voice; it‘s a special something.” Hallak calls the pairing of plot and voice “wildly addictive” and the ending a “jaw-dropping twist.” She pulled in two other editors who felt the same way. Also, there was an instant connection when Hallak spoke to Penner on the phone. “She liked our vision for the book,” Hallak says.
The deal memo was signed in November for one book, world rights, mid-six figures. Within days, Park Row had sold Apothecary in 11 territories (it’s now up to 12). “This is my most exciting acquisition,” Hallak says. “It’s a breakout recipe, tapping into something I haven’t seen in fiction: isolated women navigating a world stacked against them and combating this through relationships with other women, a reaction against the patriarchy. We’ve made it a lead title for 2021.”
Hallak and Penner worked on revisions and “Sarah hit it out of the park,” Hallak says.
Penner compares rewriting to “running in circles with a moving goalpost. Stefanie had me add a character and plot, and Natalie had me remove it! But I realized this was what I signed on for and I needed patience. Natalie was helpful with the theme of Nella keeping a record of the women who came for poison as a desire to memorialize them. So often what women do is not acknowledged.”
“Beneath the ink strokes of my register hid betrayal, anguish... and dark secrets,” Penner writes in the opening chapter. “Secrets about the vigorous young man who suffered an ailing heart on the eve of his wedding, or how it came to pass that a healthy new father fell victim to a sudden fever.... These were not weak hearts and fevers at all, but thornapple juice and nightshade slipped into wines and pies by cunning women whose names now stained my register.”
All to say: watch it, boys.
Correction: This story initially misspelled the first names of agent Stefanie Lieberman and of Penner's husband, Marc.