I’m so excited to chat with Deborah Swift today. I’ve loved Deborah’s seventeenth century novels – her Pepys series and The Gilded Lily are among my favourites – and when I was lucky enough to receive an Advance Copy of The Poison Keeper I pretty much devoured it in one setting (hmm…perhaps not the best use of words!). I loved it! Here’s My Goodreads Review, the blurb, and then please scroll down for Deborah’s interview.
The Poison Keeper
Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.
Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.
Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.
The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.
Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and courage can vanquish how even the darkest desires and love.
‘Her characters so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ Historical Novel Society
Available on Kindle Unlimited and Amazon
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Deborah, thanks so much for coming on Author Chats. Let’s dive right in. Does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
I actually find it exhausting! After a few years of wondering why, I’ve decided that it’s because I have to live every scene in my imagination, and of course there has to be conflict on every page. So my body thinks I’m stuck in all these terrible dilemmas all the time – being faced with angry mobs, being threatened with guns or knives, never quite achieving my ultimate goal. It’s probably cumulative too, so for me that’s ten years of frustrated goals! My way of counteracting it is by exercise – preferably dancing – I do several dance classes a week, and by walking in the countryside. The quiet orderliness of nature always soothes me. I also love quiet old country houses and gardens. There’s something about old buildings that is calming; their solidity and presence and how many generations they have seen come and go.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I think it’s easy to fictionalize a character but then forget that my version of the person will never be the true one. I rather hope real people will forgive me for my intrusion into their past. Usually I’ve chosen them because of some interesting fact about the person’s life, but often that life has been accompanied by great pain and suffering. It’s a privilege really to be able to sift through the detritus of their lives and construct another version of what they really lived. In my Pepys’ Diary series I was aware that I could never really do the women justice. 100,000 words is not enough to give a rounded and whole picture. So I owe them a lot. The Poison Keeper in my title is based around the real story of Giulia Tofana, the Italian poisoner, but she has been maligned, mythologized, and made into a legend. And of course I have only added to that with more of my own mythology.
What does literary success look like to you?
It has changed over the years. At first I thought it was getting an agent and a big publisher. That happened, but it still didn’t feel like success, as the books didn’t sell many copies, so then I quantified success on the number of sales. I had one best-selling book, but then I worried that I could never replicate that success. Of course I was chasing a chimera. Now my idea of success is to enjoy what I (not the publishers) choose to write, to enjoy improving my craft to be the best book I can make, to be part of a nice community of writers who understand that writing historical fiction from your heart is often a difficult and not very financially rewarding task.
If you have pictures on your writing desk or desktop, what are they and why did you choose them?
I have pictures of my family. My Mum, Dad and my sister. And lots of my daughter. My Dad died at 45 years old, so I am older than he ever was. He was a great believer in books and the written word, but would have been astonished to see I am a writer. His old Parker Pen still lives on my desk. I think of him with fondness, although in life he was certainly a bit of a rogue. My Mum is also no longer with us. She died just before my first book was published in hardback, and I kept a signed copy that was to be hers. She would have bored all her friends to death with showing it off!
My sister, well I can’t imagine not having a sister. She’s bookish too and writes academic books about teaching in the community. We will be getting together later in the year at Gladstone’s Library for our sisterly bookish retreat. And as for my daughter – well, I’m immensely proud of her, and her achievements, (she’s an animator) and I have missed her during this lockdown as she lives across the sea in Ireland.
And tell us more about The Poison Keeper:
What did you edit out of this book?
I edited out lots of journeys and replaced them with chapter titles, such as ‘Naples 1633.’ From that, the reader could assume we’d got there somehow! The journeys were interesting and I’d written in details about travelling by sea and researched the right kind of boat etc etc, but in the end there was nothing to change the character, so they had to go. They were journeys that didn’t affect the character’s journey!
What was your work schedule like when writing this book?
I have a schedule I stick to which is that mornings I work on the book, and afternoons are for research or social media. I write in the mornings because that’s when my energy is the highest and I want to be fresh when I write. I set deadlines and try to stick to them. A big part of this is because once I am a little way through a draft and I’m fairly confident it’s going to be a finished novel, I book my editor nine months ahead – this is because he’s very good and gets booked up. Once my slot is booked, I try to fit into that deadline if at all possible. This particular book,
The Poison Keeper, then went to my publisher, but after 9 months they still hadn’t published so I regained my rights and have published it independently.
In the meantime I wrote the companion book, ‘The Silkworm Keeper’ which will follow hot on its heels.
What was the most difficult part of your artistic process for this book?
Deciding what sort of a book to make it. Through my writing career I’ve been dogged by people asking me to ‘add more romance’, ‘make it more literary’ or make it ‘more commercial’, ‘make it darker’ or any number of other ideas of the sort of book they’d like to see. It can be confusing, and this is certainly a difficult time in my process – sitting with all the possibilities in front of me – but when you begin its important to know what sort of book you are writing. After a number of books, I can see now which ones appeal the most to my readers, so I’m trying to write to that. But writing is an insecure business, and you never know if you’ve got it right until the first reactions and reviews come in.
Give a shout out to a writing buddy or fellow author; how did they help you with this book?
There are too many for me to name. But of course the Coffee Pot Book Club writers who are supporting me in this tour, and many others who rallied round when I decided to become an independent author overnight (Elizabeth included)! Authors are incredibly supportive of each other in the main, as all have a love for books and writing that transcends the personal.
Deborah Swift lives in the north of England and is a USA Today bestselling author who has written fourteen historical novels to date. Her first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, set in 17th Century England, was shortlisted for the Impress Prize, and her WW2 novel Past Encounters was a BookViral Millennium Award winner.
Deborah enjoys writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and most of her novels have been published in reading group editions. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a mentor with The History Quill.
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