How would you introduce people to Simon Bell and Gaelen Erceldoune?
Simon Bell is a late Regency/early Victorian gentleman physician born to a family renown for its brilliant men of medicine. He is a cousin of Joseph Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s medical mentor—and model for the creation of Sherlock Holmes. But Simon is confronted with a desperate situation. His wife has cancer of the breast, and of all people he has treated, he can do absolutely nothing to save his wife. So against all advice, he turns to a reclusive, enigmatic apothecary—Gaelan Erceldoune. The results are (to say the least) life-changing.
Gaelan Erceldoune is a brilliant and skilled medical practitioner. When Simon first meets him, Gaelan is established in Smithfield Market in London as an apothecary. It is there he provides medicines and treatment to the needy citizenry of the impoverished community—a place where few gentleman-physicians would likely dirty their hands. Gaelan Erceldoune harbors several great secrets, however, one of which might be the cure for Simon’s wife.
Readers will know very early on that both Simon and Gaelan are both immortal. But the story of how and why would spoil more of the novel than I’m willing to tell ☺.
What drew you to writing about alchemy and its connection to the healing arts?
I have a background in chemistry, so I’ve always been intrigued by chemical reactions—and their magic (since my first chemistry set when I was 10!). As a student I synthesized aspirin in the lab (it’s a simple undergrad organic chemistry experiment), so the connection between chemistry and healing is always there in the back of my mind.
As I was researching the novel, I came across the work of Paracelsus, a sixteenth century scientist-physician—and an alchemist. He is credited with introducing into the practice of medicine opium and mercury.
Paracelsus wanted to separate himself from the alchemists who aspired to turn lead to gold or to discover the secret to immortality, and instead, use alchemy’s secrets to heal people from the horrible diseases of the time. He was a true medical visionary, and I wanted to connect him in a very concrete way to Gaelan. I think Gaelan would consider himself a disciple of Paracelsus and note that he and Gaelan’s grandfather were correspondents. In The Apothecary’s Curse, Gaelan quotes Paracelsus quite a bit.
There is a lot of science and mythology in The Apothecary’s Curse. Did you have to do a lot of research to get this right?
The simple answer is: YES!
I really wanted to get the science absolutely believable, and ground whatever “magic” exists in the novel’s world in some measure (albeit miniscule) of possibility (no matter how improbable). My process really was organic. I would get an idea about the science, and go research it. Every time, the research led me down new and interesting pathways for the novel.
For the mythology, I started with the fairy folk, which led me to the Celtic goddess of healing Airmid and her people, the Tuatha de Dannan. I came across her while researching something in the plot that happens to Gaelan, and her tale so completely fit the story, I had to weave it into the fabric of the novel.
To research immortality, I read everything I could on elixirs of life and the holy grail of the immortality quest. None of it satisfied me. Then I read a scientific paper on the Nobel Prize-winning work on the immortal jellyfish, and I found my connection and a way into exploring immortality from a modern scientific perspective, and from there back to the mythology!
You included some cameos by famous authors and people in The Apothecary’s Curse. Which one was your favourite? Was there someone you would have loved to include, but couldn’t manage to fit in?
Without a doubt, my favorite cameo is by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His fingerprints are all over the novel. The ghost of Paracelsus hovers here and there as well (at least his words). Sir Isaac Newton is briefly mentioned in the novel as a colleague of Gaelan’s (Sir Isaac was not only a visionary scientist but an apothecary like Gaelan). I note their friendship, but it would have been fun to explore that more. I would have loved to include more of Joseph Bell, but there was no way to do it, given the way the timeline of the story works. Perhaps Harry Houdini, since Gaelan is in America during Houdini’s time (and the famous magician also a friend of Conan Doyle’s). Who knows, Houdini might yet turn up in Gaelan’s story 😉
I absolutely loved the ending. Without giving away spoilers, did you ever consider ending it the other way?
Thank you! And yes! The ending was something I grappled with for weeks. Too sweet? Too ambiguous? Too jarring? I went back and forth quite a bit with it. In the end (as it were), I’m happy with the final chapter.