Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Barbara Barnett?
Chicago-based author-blogger-editor Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics Magazine.
Always a pop-culture and sci-fi geek, Barbara was raised on a steady diet of TV (and TV dinners), but she always found her way to the tragic antiheroes and misunderstood champions, whether on TV, in the movies or in literature. (In other words, Spock, not Kirk; Han Solo, not Luke Skywalker!) It was inevitable that she would have to someday create one of her own (like Gaelan Erceldoune!). She’s always been a bit quirky and is happy to admit she’s managed (with her soul mate of a husband Phillip) to raise two geeky children of her own (sorry, Shosh and Adam, you never had a chance!).
She is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA’s HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as “The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture,” “The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes,” “The Hidden History of Science Fiction,” and “Our Passion for Disaster (Movies).” This autumn, she will reprise her MENSA appearance with “The Conan Doyle Conundrum.”
Your debut novel, The Apothecary’s Curse, will be published by Pyr in October. It looks rather interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
It’s been described as “Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton.” It has elements of fantasy and historical fiction, but it’s also a medical/science thriller, so I think that’s a good “standing on one foot” description. The Apothecary’s Curse weaves magic and science, history and mythology, medicine and alchemy into a story of greed, unintended consequences, and, ultimately, love, telling the tale of the tormented, immortal Gaelan Erceldoune and a singular book of healing from a mysterious people out of legend. It can be read as a stand-alone or as the first book of a series (I’m working on a sequel as we speak).
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.” I think that idea, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s notion that when all else is eliminated, what remains, however improbable must be true were in my head all the way through writing The Apothecary’s Curse. I love playing in that nexus between magic and science, the improbable and the possible. When does medicine become poison; when does poison become medicine? Ancient magic, witchcraft, whatever you want to call it is today’s known science. But whether it’s magic or science you have to use it wisely. Too often knowledge gets ahead of humanity and that’s when things go awry. It’s something I think about a lot, and very much informed the writing of Apothecary and my writing in general.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I was introduced to The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits by my mother when I was about seven or eight years old! That began to develop my love for the genre at a pretty early age. And Star Trek. Then I happened upon my brother’s sci-fi stash and I was soon hooked on Bradbury and Asimov, Ellison, Del Rey. I remember reading Lester Del Rey’s Nerves and being completely freaked out by it. Of course it didn’t stop me from devouring Fail Safe and On the Beach — all before I got to high school. I regularly read Analog and Galaxy as well.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I love writing, but it’s almost not a choice for me. Writing is simply a part of who I am and who I’ve been since a very young age. I work in publishing in a couple of different ways. In addition to being an author, I’m executive editor and publisher of Blogcritics Magazine, one of the oldest online magazines on the ‘Net. That end of publishing moves incredibly fast, like much of journalism. Always on deadline, stories are up and out there in the blink of an eye.
Book publishing is almost the opposite. It’s a slow process: from submitting a manuscript (which my agent does) to acquisition, contract, editing, and finally publishing — months later. Sometimes it’s a challenge for me (as a journalist) to slow down to the pace of a book author without getting frustrated.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
My writing and research tend to be pretty intertwined, and although I always start with a roadmap, I keep an open mind while researching. You never know in what new direction it will lead.
I’ll write something: a scene, a line of dialogue, a moment that just pops into my head. But then I’ll start researching it (Google makes my life possible!) to see if what I’ve just put to paper (pixel) is possible. Is there something in history, mythology, science that validates what I’ve just written (or plan to write) or suggest to me a way to ground it in reality? I’m a journalist, so one source is never good enough for me. I’ll do hours of reading to make sure I’ve nailed facts to ground the science fiction (or fantasy).
In The Apothecary’s Curse, Gaelan suffers a terrible ordeal at one point, and I wanted to understand how what he went through would physically and psychologically affect someone who’s immortal. The context for it was completely fantastical, but could I somehow move it into the realm of improbability rather than flat-out impossibility? While researching that, I came across a story from Celtic mythology that fit the narrative and Gaelan so perfectly, I was blown away, although it had nothing to do with the idea I was researching. I had no choice but to find a way to incorporate it into the story somehow. And it turned out that the little journey I’d taken to research one thing led to what became a crucial element of the novel. That happened to me several times while writing Apothecary, and each time would both astonish inspire me, and always led me in new and interesting directions while crafting the novel.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
My first published work was a poem in a Religious School magazine called World Over. It was about Samson and Delilah. I was in third grade. I was hooked, and never looked back. The publication of my first book (Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D.) in 2010 was an incredible experience. Seeing it for the first time, sitting on the New Releases table of my local booksellers, was one of the most thrilling moments of my adult life (behind my wedding and the birth of my two children, of course!).
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I tend to gravitate toward SFF with a strong element of social commentary. I loved Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain. Written more than a decade ago, it is a chilling read today in the midst of a looming climate change crisis. I’d tend to like SFF that tackles any today’s demons head on: climate change, superbugs, genetic engineering, the often too-rapid advances of science and technology that accelerate beyond our ability to use them wisely. I would like to hope that my own writing reflects those concerns as well, whether directly or more subtly. One of the challenges for writers in the genre is to stay several steps ahead of where we are both technologically and as a society.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a sequel to The Apothecary’s Curse. My protagonist Gaelan Erceldoune has lived a long time, and I feel I’ve barely started exploring his life and world(s). I do a lot of public speaking, so right now I’m working on a talk called “The Conan Doyle Conundrum” for MENSA’s HalloWEEM convention in Chicago. I’ll speculate on how the man who created the most rational, logical fictional character of all time could have, until his dying day, believed in fairies. (It’s also a question that I touch on in The Apothecary’s Curse and will explore more fully in the sequel). I’m forever at work on Blogcritics, where I (mostly) write about genre television and film.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?
Yikes! The hardest question ever! For SFF, I think Ursula LeGuin’s Hanish Cycle novels really stand up as a brilliantly conceived world with compelling characters and say something profound about our own human tendencies. I would start with The Dispossessed, which is actually, I believe, the fifth novel, but first, chronologically. And anything Kurt Vonnegut, especially Cat’s Cradle. For non-genre, I think Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. A master class in biting satire writing.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
In a completely separate part of my life, I’m a professional singer, and ordained Jewish clergy.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
I’m looking forward to The Apothecary’s Curse being well received by readers, which will hopefully lead to the opportunity to continue Gaelan Erceldoune’s story in a second book.
Barbara Barnett‘s The Apothecary’s Curse is published tomorrow by Pyr Books, and is available in the UK. For more on Barnett’s writing and fiction, be sure to check out the author’s website, and follow her on Goodreads and Twitter.
Here’s the novel’s synopsis:
In Victorian London, the fates of physician Simon Bell and apothecary Gaelan Erceldoune entwine when Simon gives his wife an elixir created by Gaelan from an ancient manuscript. Meant to cure her cancer, it kills her. Suicidal, Simon swallows the remainder — only to find he cannot die. Five years later, hearing rumors of a Bedlam inmate with regenerative powers like his own, Simon is shocked to discover it’s Gaelan. The two men conceal their immortality, but the only hope of reversing their condition rests with Gaelan’s missing manuscript.
When modern-day pharmaceutical company Genomics unearths diaries describing the torture of Bedlam inmates, the company’s scientists suspect a link between Gaelan and an unnamed inmate. Gaelan and Genomics geneticist Anne Shawe are powerfully drawn to each other, and her family connection to his manuscript leads to a stunning revelation. Will it bring ruin or redemption?