Sarah Penner on empowering women, exploring betrayal, and going from day job to dream job
It’s every writer’s dream: quietly writing a novel during your day job, sending it off to some agents and then—boom—before you know it, you’re on the New York Times Best Sellers list and everyone is talking about your book.
Not too long ago, she was waking up at 5 a.m. each morning, lighting a candle, and getting to work on a witchy novel centered around a female apothecary who helps other women rid their lives of the men who have betrayed them. Now she’s a full-time writer who is thrilled that she can share her imagination with the world.
Scary Mommy sat down with Penner recently to talk about it all: what it feels like to write a best-selling novel, how to write characters that women really connect to, and what she’s reading now.
Q: Tell us about your journey to becoming a novelist.
A: I’m a relatively new writer and this is my debut. It has so exceeded my expectations. I think there’re a lot of authors out there who say it took four or five or six books before they really kind of broke into the industry.
I wrote one manuscript about five or six years ago, that was never agented, never published. I was just learning how to tell a story and how to structure a book with that one. But the fact that The Lost Apothecary, which was the second novel-length project I ever worked on, just somehow struck a chord with everyone, starting with agents, the first person on your team that you need to secure. And then once we took the manuscript on submission with publishers there’s just been so much backing. And this is still new to me. I just feel so grateful and so lucky.
Q: How did you get started?
I don’t have a writing background. I graduated from the University of Kansas in 2008 with a finance degree. So very much numbers based, analytical logic, like all left brain activities. And that said, I had as a child, always really liked to write. I had this idea that someday I wanted to write a book.
I really liked journaling as a child, as a child. I liked dabbling in poetry through high school. After I had worked in finance for a few years, I just felt like something was kind of missing. And I think a lot of us go through that at different points in our lives. We feel like we need fulfillment somewhere else. And so I revisited the right side of my brain and decided to take an online writing course.
Six years ago and I started with a non-fiction class, and it really started to develop that accountability and the discipline that I needed to be writing regularly. I quickly then segued into several fiction classes. After that I decided I was going to write a book. That was the first book that I mentioned that was never agented. And so I got some feedback on that first manuscript from agents, and I took that feedback into consideration, and then I started The Lost Apothecary.
People always want to know: what was the difference? What did the trick the second time around? And I tell them that in my first manuscript, the women in the story did not have agency. Things kept happening to them and they were responding to that, but they weren’t the heroes of their own story. They weren’t driving forward and pursuing their own destiny.
So when I set out to write The Lost Apothecary, I had that top of mind. I knew that I wanted to approach the story from a woman’s empowerment perspective. I thought, what could be more empowering and in control of your own destiny, then brewing poisons to kill the people in your life that have hurt you or upset you?
I worked on the book for 14 months on my own. Then I went out and I queried 12 agents and five of them offered to sign to sign me, which is a wonderful result because the first time around I’d been rejected by 130 agents. Then we sold it overnight to Park Row Books, which is an imprint of Harper Collins.
Book clubs have gone crazy for it. There’s a number of subscription book boxes that paired it with beautiful candles and just fun artifacts and little vials. Then it debuted at number seven on the New York Times Bestseller list, which was just like every author spends their whole life dreaming of that.
I still sometimes pinch myself. Two months ago in March, I resigned from my day job, after 13 years in corporate finance. So I don’t take my writing for granted. I take it very seriously every day because it’s my job now.
Q: I love the idea of taking the criticism that your characters don’t have agency and instead of quitting, being like, Oh, I’ll show you agency. My next character is going to be a serial killer. I think that one of the things that has struck our audience is how the different characters in the book empower each other throughout the book and give each other agency even across 200 years.
A: If we think about women’s rights today—which have come such a long way—we are so much further beyond where they were 200 years ago. So in many ways, my story, which is dual timeline, serves as a compare and contrast. So, for instance, obviously Caroline would not purposely poison someone in the present day like Nella would in the past because we have the science and the toxicology to detect that. That’s an instant murder charge.
But if we look at a way that they’re the same, both Caroline and the women in the historical narrative have undergone betrayal. We see that they’re hurting and that is something that will never change 200 years from now, or a thousand years from now. That’s what makes us humans. And so long as humans exist, that will exist.
Nella sets out to empower and help these women who 200 years ago had fewer options than we do now. Now you see a lot of women who are dissatisfied or hurt just decide to leave their marriages and put food on their own table. You just couldn’t do that 200 years ago. All of their property belonged to their husbands.
Q: A ton of historical research must have gone into this book. And it feels like London is really at the heart of it all. What’s your relationship with London and how did you go about researching the historical aspects?
A: I mentioned that I was in finance for 13 years, and I was so fortunate that for the first half of that tenure, I worked for a company that had an office near Ludgate Hill, which is where most of the book takes place. They sent me over to London a number of times, and I became really familiar with the city in my twenties and loved it from truly the moment I landed at Heathrow on my first trip. I almost felt this electric energy in my body. Like if there were past lives, I’ve lived there in a past life. And I still feel that way when I go to London.
You can be walking down a very modern main street and look off to either side and there’re these teeny narrow alleys that are cobblestoned and dark, and they just lead back behind these buildings and into these really interesting streets, many of which have been there for hundreds of years. That’s so intriguing to me because I love the idea of buried secrets and things that we can find if we just do a little bit of digging. It’s my favorite city in the world.
Q: You mentioned this earlier and it’s so true that people gravitate to this book. What do you think pulls people in?
A: The word apothecary is very alluring and there are really no books out there in commercial historical fiction about apothecaries. And I think we’re going to start to see them now because I readers have liked it so much. And I think people like that idea of this hidden shop—many women of all ages like this idea of magic and witchiness. Like, maybe if we have the right tea at night or we buy the right crystal necklace, we can control or fix things that are beyond natural laws.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about the reader response that you’ve had from the book?
A: I’ve had everything from the whimsical to the very moving. Every day I get half a dozen messages where people are like, I just finished it. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. I love it. But I’ve gotten several you know, like this woman at a bookstore said she thinks her husband might be having an emotional affair and she really didn’t want to deal with these suspicions until reading the book. And she’s now deciding that she’s going to take action.
I had a woman messaged me on Goodreads that was terribly sad—she miscarried while reading the book and said that it gave her a sense of hope and she kept reading.
That’s probably the most heart-wrenching message that I’ve received.
Q: Do you want to talk about how in the world you wrote a book while you had a full-time job, and what your schedule is looking like these days now that you’re a full-time writer?
A: I’m a morning person and 75% of The Lost Apothecary was drafted between the hours of five and eight in the morning. I love waking up early. I light a candle. I put on noise canceling headphones, and I have a couple of essential oils I’ll put on my wrists.
Now that I’m not working, I don’t wake up quite as early. Instead of five, it’s more like six or 6:30 a.m. And I’m so fortunate that I’m writing most productivity right now. It’s a pace that I’ve never had this in my life. That’s really exciting for me, because career authors need to be able to turn over a book—ideally your publisher would want it every year.
Q: Any sneak peek or hint at what you’re working on now?
A: I can tell you that I love atmosphere historical settings in London, which is probably clear. So I’m writing about a different era in London, and it’s not dual timeline. It of course features brave, rebellious women with agency.
I mentioned magical realism earlier, and that falls under a sub-genre known as speculative fiction. Like I alluded to earlier where the reader and the characters are asking what’s real and what’s not—and I don’t want to say what it is because I’m just keeping it secret for now, but there’s a speculative element to the story that I think readers will love.
And then of course, lastly, I love cliff hangers and I love twists. So the book is full of twists that I think the readers, hopefully, won’t see coming.
Q: Let’s just talk about what you like to read and what you’re reading now. What’s really caught your attention?
I have kind of eclectic tastes, and it’s gotten even more eclectic since I started writing and want to support other authors. That said, I started writing because I loved historical fiction and that’s still my favorite genre to read. What I finished last month that I’ve told everybody to read is The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. It’s about three female code breakers during World War II.
I also I watched the Hemingway documentary on PBS and it, like, changed my life. And so now I’m reading all these books about his wives. I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain—I shouldn’t even say I read it. I devoured it. And I loved every line of that book. I’ve decided it’s in my top 10 books ever.
Now I’m reading Love and Ruin, which is about Hemingway’s third wife, and it’s also by Paula McLain.
One of my favorite authors of all time is Wilkie Collins. He’s he lived in the late 1800s and he was a mystery author. He wrote The Moonstone and The Woman in White. So if anyone’s a fan of really like dense long kind of heavier mysteries, I would highly recommend him.
I’m a big fan of Fiona Davis and Kristin Harmel. Some of the more well-known historical fiction writers. But I would say historical fiction and mystery are my two favorites. I do also like thrillers. Lisa Unger, Mary Kubica, Harlan Coben—I like those as well for quicker reads.