Sarah Penner is the New York Times and internationally best-selling author of The Lost Apothecary.
Throughout her 13-year career in corporate America, Penner craved a creative outlet. One day she finally heeded the urge to write a book and applied the same discipline to writing that she did to analyzing spreadsheets.
This year’s Friends of the Library of Collier County welcomes Penner, who resides in St. Petersburg, to an in-person author spotlight event at Sugden Community Theatre on November 3. Read on for a conversation with Penner, and learn how she successfully swapped numbers for letters.
NI: What is your formal education?
Penner: I have no formal writing education. No MFA. No English degree. I went to the University of Kansas and graduated with a degree in finance. [As a young businesswoman, Penner traveled the world, writing only in her free time; she admits she did take some online writing classes before attempting to write her first novel.] In early 2021, upon the great reception of my debut novel, The Lost Apothecary, I resigned from my day job. I’m now thrilled to call myself a full-time author.
Are you an avid reader? A sometime reader?
I read all the time. It’s a must for those of us working in this industry. I mostly read books that haven’t yet been released. I’m often asked to review forthcoming novels; most of these are historical fiction, mystery, or magical realism. It’s a great perk to this job, but also stressful—more deadlines to adhere to.
Were you a bookworm as a child? If so, what books did you enjoy reading?
I was a bookworm, yes, and I also loved to journal. I loved Nancy Drew books, the Sweet Valley High series, and The Baby-Sitters Club.
What do you enjoy reading today? Do you have a favorite genre?
When I do read for pleasure, I absolutely love narrative nonfiction. My favorite author of all time is Erik Larson, and of his books, my favorite is Dead Wake. I have a strange obsession with maritime and seafaring stories. Other favorites in this sub-genre include [Nathaniel] Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea and [Julian] Sancton’s Madhouse at the End of the Earth.
Where do you get your inspiration for your novels?
I’ve been inspired by countless authors. I love Fiona Davis’ use of a dual timeline and the fact that her historical fiction is accessible to a wide audience without feeling tense or verbose. I also love Ira Levin’s prose—namely the way he relays sensory detail with only a few words. Some of my earliest historical fiction favorites were written by Ken Follett, Philippa Gregory, and Elizabeth Kostova. I also love Erin Morgenstern’s writing style as seen in The Night Circus.
Writing a period piece necessitates research. Where did you get your information?
For The Lost Apothecary, researching the many herbal and homespun remedies was a time-consuming albeit entertaining task. I visited the British Library, sifting through old manuscripts and druggist diaries. I reviewed digitized pharmacopoeias, and I studied extensively some well-known poisoning cases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was surprised by the number of plants and herbs that are highly toxic, and I was fascinated while reading about the clever, if ineffective, remedies used by the predecessors of modern-day pharmacists.
Do you have a set schedule for writing that you follow every day?
It depends on where I’m at in the writing process. Right now, I’m focused on early publicity for The London Séance Society [Penner’s second and forthcoming novel], as well as drafting the pitch for my third book. So, my days look different, and I don’t follow a schedule. Once I begin working on my third book, I will be much more rigid with my routine. I will spend a minimum of three to four hours at my desk every morning.
Do you love what you do?
Absolutely. I truly feel like the luckiest person in the world. Every day I interact with readers and booksellers. I travel throughout the world to talk about my creative work. I read extensively, including lots of great books that aren’t yet available. And I get paid to make up wild stories full of twists and strong women. What’s not to love?