Death of an Alchemist Makes for Fascinating Brew
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Mary Lawrence
Columnist Anna Roins
The Death of an Alchemist is Book Two in the Bianca Goddard Mysteries series. It follows The Alchemists Daughter (Kensington, 28 April 2015), but stands alone with a story that compels us to read more. These stories have been 20 years in the making
Death of an Alchemist
by Mary Lawrence
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Bianca is the daughter of the disgraced former court alchemist implicated in a plot to kill King Henry VIII. She combines herbal knowledge with the lore of alchemy to make malodorous brews to heal the poor out of the slums of mid-16th century London – a demographic underexposed next to the courtly Tudors. She wants to find a cure for the ‘sweating sickness’ and seeks help from an elderly alchemist, Ferris Stannum, who has just discovered the elixir of immortality. Stannum seeks to confirm his recipe with a colleague in Cairo, but the next day, Bianca finds him dead and his journal is missing. The local law enforcement, a thorn in Bianca’s side, pronounces the death as natural, but Bianca’s not so sure. Her curiosity intensifies when his landlady and then his daughter are also found dead. Meanwhile, the notebook reappears at her home and she is later attacked.
Lawrence excels at exploring themes—parent-child conflict, dreams of eternal life, and the limitations of medicine—that have period and present-day resonance.
“Once I signed on with a new agent it sold to the second publisher who looked at it.“
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Lawrence, thank you for your time today. Death of an Alchemist is Book Two (out of three) in the Bianca Goddard Mysteries, a wonderful new series set in the final reign of King Henry VIII. There are not many books written about the England Tudor period – and the start of the British Empire – told from the point of view of an ‘ordinary person,’ Bianca Goddard. She is a product of both her parents: her father, a known alchemist who was caught in a plot to assassinate the king; and her mother, a white witch. As you have said, ‘’Bianca is where those two worlds meet.’’ Did you plan out the storyline of each book before you began to write them?
LAWRENCE: Book 1, The Alchemist’s Daughter, came at the end of twenty years of rejections. It was my first attempt at writing a mystery and I wrote it as a stand-alone. Once I signed on with a new agent it sold to the second publisher who looked at it. Suddenly, there was interest in a three book deal. I scrambled to come up with two more story pitches. (I think they just wanted to see if I had any more ideas).
Thankfully, Kensington has been good about letting me change my mind and I pursued story lines that interested me. Each book is an experiment. I’m testing the waters to see how far I can push the genre. I start with a general sense of what I want to achieve and while I’m writing the novel themes come forward and I build on them. But yes, my editor requires that I give him an “A to Z” of a story. How does it begin and how do we get to the end? I have to admit outlines help me stay focused. Death of an Alchemist took about two weeks of plotting the basic actions of the story. Book 3, Death at St. Vedast was more problematic–the research didn’t easily mesh with my concept. The plot required a lot of research and thought; I probably could have spent a year just reading source material.
In regards to the direction of the series, I have an overarching idea for the direction I want it to go, but the specifics are still lurking in the fog. I depend on the ‘actual sitting down and writing’ to show me the way.
AUTHORLINK: As you said earlier, twenty years ago you came up with the idea for this novel, but we understand it was more a coming of age story then. An agent signed you up, but unfortunately the manuscript never sold. Years later, you entered a new manuscript in the RWA’s Golden Heart Contest in 2010 on a whim and made the finals. That year, you were also a finalist in the Gotham Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest. This spurred you on to rethink your original story about alchemy and you decided to try to write it as a mystery instead. Do you think being a successful author is in equal parts about tenacity, good writing, and current trends? Or is one more important than the other?
|“I do believe writers have to be tenacious to the point of being pathological. Rejection and criticism is assured . . .”|
LAWRENCE: Certainly the longer you write the better you become and your chances to get a publishing contract increase. It took years for me to learn how to craft a novel. There is a reason Aristotle’s three act structure works. It creates a satisfying read and keeps a story focused. I’m not clever enough to reinvent that structure, so I work within that convention and now I know where I can take chances.
I do believe writers have to be tenacious to the point of being pathological. Rejection and criticism is assured and you have to just get over yourself. Publishing is an unpredictable business with no guarantee you’ll be published and no guarantee that you’ll keep being published. You can be gifted with a wonderful imagination but if you can’t translate that onto paper into a living world that works on several levels you won’t get very far.
I suppose writing to trends might benefit you if you are fast to capitalize on them. But I still believe you must follow what interests you, otherwise you are destined to become frustrated. Trends are live bell curves, they grow, they peak, then fade.
AUTHORLINK: Great advice, thank you. It states on your website that, ‘’Alchemy has evolved over several centuries and across three continents. It is a culturally and philosophically diverse study encompassing chemical, religious, mathematical, and mystical ideas.’’ Alchemists believed one must have the right destiny to succeed, and failure was a fault of personal character. Tell us a bit more about this and the ‘philosopher’s stone.’
LAWRENCE: Because alchemists were doomed to never create the ‘philosopher’s stone’ -the substance capable of transmuting base metal into gold and of granting immortality – they looked for an excuse to explain that failure. The 16th century mindset believed that matters of fate and destiny were determined by the stars. Alchemists believed their destiny was to create the elusive ‘philosopher’s stone’ because they had been given the divine desire to pursue it. But what prevented them from achieving their goal? Basically, a cyclotron.
But achieving perfection (i.e. the philosopher’s stone) goes hand-in-hand with Catholicism, the pervasive religion of the time. Through free will one can shape one’s life and you will attain ‘perfection’ when you direct your efforts, your spirituality, the journey of your soul, toward the divine. Anyone faced with constant failure ponders whether the fault lies in their own attitude. No one wants to admit they have invested so much of themselves into achieving failure, so if one can ‘change’ their character then they will be rewarded.
I can relate to their frustration in my journey to get published. In many ways the madness of an alchemist’s quest mirrors my own.
AUTHORLINK: That’s fascinating. Death of an Alchemist is set in London in 1543 and resonates with historical accuracy. You delve into the lives of the poor, working class instead of the people at court who are so often portrayed in books and films. The language you use (cucurbits, wherry, poniard) and the environment described, plunge the reader back in time. What did your research involve? Is the recipe for the ‘elixir of life’ based on one you discovered?
|“Alchemy combines so much that is spiritual, religious, mathematical, and chemical “|
LAWRENCE: I’ve been interested in Tudor history for over two decades. Originally, I wanted to read Shakespeare because I was woefully lacking in literature courses in college. It didn’t take long before I was hooked on the era. I have a couple of shelves devoted to reference books and historical fiction. The internet has been an amazing time-saver and resource. I use John Stow’s Survey of London and The A to Z of Elizabethan London of the ‘Agas’ woodcut map to plot my characters’ movements through the streets of London. I xeroxed off the ‘Agas’ pages, taped them together and hung it on a wall in my basement. Now the Map of Early Modern London is online with nifty overlays. I’m fearful if I go back to London anytime soon it’ll mess with the 16th century London I’ve created in my mind.
I also collect glossaries from reference material and years ago I found Thomas Dekker’s glossary which is a bawdy and insightful peek into the era. I sometimes read it for pleasure.
There’s been a lot of research done about alchemy recently, and I’ve consulted works by Lawrence Principe, E.J. Holmyard, and Charles Singer among others. The recipe for the elixir in Death of an Alchemist is a mishmash of Principe’s findings, Sir George Ripley’s Compound of Alchymy, and my own interpretation. One thing I’ve learned about alchemy; it is not a principled science. By necessity and sometimes, hubris, an alchemist kept his work secret thus creating a mysterious aura that often helped him acquire benefactors. Alchemy combines so much that is spiritual, religious, mathematical, and chemical that I believe no one will exactly pin it down or define it. My ‘version’ of alchemy and the recipe for the elixir of immortality in the Bianca Goddard Mysteries is my interpretation of the noble art. I don’t purport that it is correct by any means.
AUTHORLINK: It’s a great concept. Along with writing and farming, you worked as a cytologist for many years examining cellular abnormalities. Has your background in science informed your writing? Did you ever want to become a homeopathist, naturopath or herbologist, etc. at any time in your life?
LAWRENCE: Back in the early eighties, there was a squeeze on job opportunities so I chose a career where there was a shortage of workers. I opted for security and a dependable paycheck. The disease process has always interested me so cytology satisfied a certain curiosity. But the reality of sitting behind a microscope for hours, year after year became tedious. Eventually the only patient contact I had was the name on a requisition. I started making up stories about these folks and imagining the personality behind the name. Being cooped up in labs without windows got to me. Writing helped me escape the drudgery in my life. I was happier in my head.
Working inside made me long to be outdoors. My mother was a big gardener and dreamed to go back to a farm. I think a part of me wanted to get some acreage to fulfill her dream and honor her. Environmental issues have always been a big concern for me. I can’t save the world but I can take care of a small patch of it.
|“I never took any writing courses or joined a critique group. I just kept reading and analyzing the novels that I loved. “|
AUTHORLINK: That’s lovely, especially the nod to your mum. The first two books in your trilogy have balanced, tightly woven plots, with satisfying ends. Did you ever do any writing courses, or did you just keep on reading and writing over the last 20 years to hone your craft?
LAWRENCE: I never took any writing courses or joined a critique group. I just kept reading and analyzing the novels that I loved. It’s probably less likely to happen nowadays, but over the years I received helpful feedback from editors and agents. Honestly, my writing improved because of all the rejections I got. Finally, I decided I wanted feedback from readers, not editors so I entered contests sponsored by the Romance Writers of America. They have dozens of contests judged by readers and writers (some published, some not), who offer anonymous, unbiased critiques. Romance didn’t interest me, but the basic framework for good storytelling and novel writing is the same across every genre. I chucked the comments that were without merit and listened to the ones that I felt were valid.
When I decided to write a mystery I had no idea how to go about it. I sat down and thought about what I would want to read and thought about what kept me engaged as a reader. The majority of mysteries are told from one point of view, usually the main character’s. I complicate that approach by adding point of view shifts to various characters. It becomes a juggling act remembering who knows what and sometimes I feel I’ve made the process more complicated and harder on myself than I have to.
Readers usually have a strong reaction one way or the other to my writing style. I’ve weathered years of rejection, so let the readers rage.
AUTHORLINK: Very stoic of you! There is one more book in the series, which you mentioned earlier, ‘Death at St. Vedast’ that’s coming out in 2017. What’s it about? It would be great if the series were optioned by the BBC! Which actor would you like to see playing Bianca?
LAWRENCE: After writing Death of an Alchemist, I assumed the series had legs to continue on. Death at St. Vedast gives Bianca a chance to sleuth without relying on her room of alchemy equipment. I have her hobnob with the merchant class and she leaves London for a time. The subplot of a certain wraith living under London Bridge had to take a rest while I mulled over its direction. So in book 3 I moved Bianca away from his influence.
In the next book, Death at St. Vedast, Boisvert, the silversmith, plans to wed the wealthy widow of a goldsmith. A pall is cast over the upcoming nuptials when the body of a pregnant woman is found beneath the bell tower of St. Vedast, the church where the couple are to be wed. At their wedding feast, tragedy strikes again when the bride suddenly drops dead. Boisvert is accused of poisoning his bride for her money and Bianca seeks to determine the cause of her death along with a slew of other strange happenings at St. Vedast. This is my nod to the pervasive presence of the church in Tudor England.
As far as actors who would make a good Bianca? I think Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black, or Yasmin Paige could pull it off. But there is a world of fine actors I am unaware of.
|“One disadvantage to being a new author these days is the competition for attention.”|
AUTHORLINK: A lot has changed in the last 20 years in the publishing industry with regards to marketing. Do you enjoy this aspect of being a published author, including the media component?
LAWRENCE: One disadvantage to being a new author these days is the competition for attention. I’m astonished at the number of folks putting out books. A lot of these people are better marketers than writers. Readers are overwhelmed with choices. Some people think that’s a good thing. I disagree. I compare it to those gigantic supermarkets where you spend half your life walking up and down the aisles searching for spaghetti sauce then when you find it there are forty different brands all screaming, “Buy me!”
It isn’t easy for me to get out and toot my horn, but it’s a necessity if I want to survive in this business. Public speaking does not come easily for me, but the more I do it the more comfortable I get. I’m engaging in social media but I don’t believe it makes much of a difference, except that it keeps me in touch with folks who like my writing. If someone reaches out via my website or social media to pay me a compliment it is the highlight of my day. I like that the internet makes writers more accessible.
One thing I really enjoy is going to Ren Faires. I get to dress in garb and meet people who love the era. It’s always a great time–except when it rains and the wind blows.
AUTHORLINK: What’s after the Bianca Goddard Mysteries? Any plans for a new series? What are your ambitions for your writing career?
LAWRENCE: A children’s book is bouncing around in my brain, perhaps a mystery series using Irish folklore as a springboard. There is a character from Bianca’s original coming of age story who hasn’t shown up in these three books, but he’s a cheeky fellow and I can visualize him causing lots of havoc in 16th century England. My editor is interested in keeping the Bianca Goddard series going. The last thing I want is for my series to become too predictable or for the writing to feel tired. I’ll kill everyone off before that happens.
|“When I’m writing, I try to get down a thousand words a day – however long it takes.”|
AUTHORLINK: That’s great! And with that a movie deal. What is your work schedule like when you’re writing? Do you aim for certain words a day? How much time is spent researching?
LAWRENCE: When I’m writing, I try to get down a thousand words a day – however long it takes. Some days are harder than others and it can take me ten hours. I constantly bargain with myself, ‘You can have another cup of coffee if you get to the end of the page’…often I can’t sit still and focus. With contract deadlines peering over my shoulder there is a growling, consuming, presence that stalks me and it often interferes with my concentration. I need to learn to handle that pressure or figure out a way to lessen it. I’m not a fast writer and I have other obligations so I can’t write every day.
|“Practicing the piano before I sit down to write helps immeasurably.”|
Research happens mostly before I begin a project, but is ongoing. I constantly check and think about word usage for the period, sensibilities, and anachronisms. Practicing the piano before I sit down to write helps immeasurably. I miss my lengthy commute to work because I sorted out plot problems while I drove. There were times I didn’t even remember crossing the Piscataqua River Bridge and only ‘woke up’ when I turned into the parking lot. Now I go for a walk when I get stuck.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Lawrence, thank you for your time today. It was a real pleasure talking to you. We wish you only the best with The Death of an Alchemist and the trilogy.
LAWRENCE: Thank you, Anna, for inviting me on Authorlink. I appreciate it.
|About the Author:|
Mary Lawrence is the author of the Bianca Goddard Mysteries. Set in Tudor London in the final years of Henry VIII’s reign. Originally from Evansville, Indiana, Mary attended Butler and Indiana University, moving to Maine after completing a degree in cytotechnology. She has worked in hospitals and labs and written indexes for several small publishers.
Recently she started a berry farm in southern Maine with her husband. She is an avid reader of historical fiction and nonfiction and concentrates on Tudor/Elizabethan history.
In 2010, she was a finalist in the RWA’s Golden Heart Contest and won the Golden Claddagh in historical fiction. She was also a finalist in the Gotham Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest in 2010.
You can find out more about Mary Lawrence at: http://www.marylawrencebooks.com/, https://www.facebook.com/marylawrence.author, https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/84420.Mary_Lawrence, and, https://twitter.com/@mel59lawrence
|About Anna Roins:|
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.
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This post was written by Anna Roins