by Grace Topping
Place a book during the time of King Henry VIII, add a few murders, stir in a bit of alchemy, and you have pure magic. Don’t believe me? Suspense Magazine selected The Alchemist’s Daughter, the first book in Mary Lawrence’s Bianca Goddard Mystery series, one of the “Best Books of 2015” in the historical mystery category. High praise for Mary’s first published book. Mary followed with Death of An Alchemist, and just days ago, Kensington released the third book in this excellent series, Death at St. Vedast.
Death at St. Vedast
During the tempestuous reign of Henry VIII, London alchemist Bianca Goddard has seen up close what keeps a man alive—and what can kill him. A good thing, for she will need all her knowledge to keep a friend away from the gallows . . .
Bianca and her husband John are delighted to share in the glad fortune of their friend, Boisvert, the silversmith, who is to wed Odile, the wealthy widow of a goldsmith. But 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 very church where the betrothed are to be married.
Tragedy strikes again at the couple’s reception, when Odile suddenly drops dead in the middle of the wedding feast. The constable suspects Boisvert poisoned his new bride for her money, but there’s not a trace of poison in her food or wine. Could the two deaths be connected? To prove their friend’s innocence, Bianca will need to employ her knowledge of alchemy—for if she can determine how the bride was killed, she may find the person responsible for her murder—before another victim is added to the death toll . . .
To celebrate the release of her latest book, Mary is giving away a copy of Death at St. Vedast. Leave a comment below for a chance to win.
Welcome, Mary, to Writers Who Kill.
In your Bianca Goddard series, you’ve painted a realistic picture of life in 16th century England—definitely not glamorizing it. What inspired you to write about the grittier side of life in Tudor England?
Your main character, Bianca Goddard, rejects her father’s work as an alchemist and becomes a practicing chemiste. What is the difference? What are they each pursuing?
Generally, an alchemist is interested in creating the philosopher’s stone—the agent for transmuting an imperfect substance into perfection. Alchemists often pursued their goal at the expense of their family’s wellbeing. Every available coin was spent buying whatever they believed they needed to create the philosopher’s stone. Because alchemists were never successful, they were often poor, desperate men looking for patrons or resorting to trickery to earn money. Bianca sees the folly of their pursuit, but she has learned that some of her father’s methods are useful in creating medicines to help people. As a chemiste, Bianca takes a more measured and practical approach. She also, would never call herself an alchemist. Henry VIII and Parliament passed a law forbidding sorcery and witchcraft in 1542. She needs to keep a low profile.
Bianca is a courageous and hardworking woman dedicated to her work. What drives her?
Bianca is a curious person. She is fascinated by disease and seeks to understand it. In sixteenth century England, mortality was ever present. Bianca has the mind of a scientist; she sees the suffering caused by disease and wants to help. She is an observer and a thinker.
Bianca resists moving away from a low-lying area of London. What keeps her in this community, even though it’s an unhealthy place to live?
She stays because the smell from her chemistries isn’t noticeable in Gull Hole. That’s important because she needs to be careful that her work isn’t misconstrued to look like sorcery or witchcraft. She has a neighbor who keeps smelly chickens so not many folks wander down her alley. It is also a matter of economics—it is cheap to live there.
Living during the reign of King Henry VIII, Bianca is frequently a victim of the corrupt political system of the time, even being accused of murder and thrown in the Clink. How does she deal with the unsavory forces that surround her?
Her parents weren’t the most loving people, so she learned early on to depend on herself and survive by her wits. Often there was no money for food, so she became a cutpurse (pickpocket). She needed to be observant and wily to avoid (and get out of) trouble. Growing up disadvantaged she learns to navigate the system. She doesn’t consider how she might change that system—to even think of that was treasonous. Her first thought is to survive.
Bianca joins forces with some dubious characters to solve crimes. How is she able to work with the various elements of society that surround her?
Bianca grew up streetwise. Because she does not come from privilege she is familiar with the seedier elements in society. When she meets conniving sorts in the merchant class, she transfers her learned observations of human behavior, assuming that people, no matter their walk in life, are similar in their wants and desires.
Did your degree with a specialty in cytotechnology contribute to your interest in alchemy?
Definitely. I like history, and alchemy is the rudiments of modern-day science. Cytotechnology is the study of cell morphology as it changes into cancer. It was natural for me to create a character who could explore the history of medical science.
You’ve written that environmental and political issues matter a great deal to you. Do you find this interest influencing your books?
Unfortunately, environmental issues were not a consideration in Tudor London. I can look back at their sanitation or approach to disease from a modern day perspective, but when I write these stories, I can’t comment on or judge what was their reality. I can only act like a reporter and show their world. Likewise with political matters—though that is a bit more difficult for me to stay out of. I’ll often have characters voice political opinions in a snide off-handed way. I see evidence all over that they were not without opinion. I’ve always rooted for the lower class to rail against the powers that be.
Writing is an isolated activity. Living in Maine, are you able to be a part of a writing community?
I’m fortunate to have a few writer friends with whom I can commiserate. I also check in with a couple of online groups, but I’m doing less of that now. Because I live in the country and run a farm, there are more opportunities for me to socialize with neighbors and other farmers.
Authors are self-centered and competitive by nature and that includes me. It’s a constant battle to stay relevant, and being an author breeds insecurity. Almost everyday I think what a conceited thing to do, write a book. Then I talk myself back from the ledge. Writing is a creative art and it does have value. I can’t change the world, but if I can help people escape, if I can help stretch their imagination—because it is a mind exercise when one reads—and if I can offer a different perspective, or give a reader joy, then that is worthwhile.
What writers have influenced your writing the most?
Jeanette Winterson’s work inspired me to try my hand at writing. I love writers who use humor and who have the ability to tell a story from a different perspective. Patricia Finney, David Liss, Wesley Stace, and Hilary Mantel top my list of influencers.
Tell us about your road to publication. Was it a smooth or bumpy ride? What do you know now that you wish you had learned earlier in your writing career?
It was a war of attrition. I started writing in my early thirties. Mostly it was a way to escape what I felt was a dead-end life. After five years I submitted a coming of age version of The Alchemist’s Daughter, and it was good enough to land me an agent. But years went by and it never sold. I rewrote it more times than I ever kept track of. I also worked on other manuscripts and improved my writing skills. I stayed with my agent for 15 years, too terrified to change for fear I’d never find another.
In 2010 a different manuscript made the finals of the Romance Writers’ Golden Heart contest. It felt like a book contract was within my grasp. But life has never been easy for me. Two of my best manuscripts came very close to selling, but ultimately were rejected. I was devastated. The time had come to either give up writing or keep going. But the struggle had become who I was. The bottom line was that I loved crafting a good story. Whether my work would ever find an audience was out of my hands. I wanted the affirmation of a traditional book contract. Coming close and hitting a wall, I reevaluated my approach and decided to try to write a mystery since I’d never written one before. It would give me a new challenge.
Two years later I had a manuscript ready to send out. I was rejected by eighty-six literary agents before Fred Tribuzzo offered me representation. A month later I was offered a contract with Kensington.
Looking back, I wish I had attended writing conferences earlier on. Sending cold queries is not the way to go. You need to meet an agent in person, pitch them your story, and be a human with a face, not a name at the bottom of an electronic query.
I particularly like the covers of your books. They definitely illustrate the essence of your stories. Who designed them?
I’m really happy with the covers, too. Kensington’s art department gets credit for their designs and, in particular, Wendy Mount. I might be asked for ideas, but usually they go a different direction. I have no say once the process starts. I was nervous about what they would come up with for the first book. It needed to set the right tone for the series. So far, the covers have come as a pleasant surprise, and when I study them, I see all kinds of little details that make them interesting.
What’s next for Bianca Goddard?
I’m working on book four and there will be a book five. In book four, Bianca’s husband is conscripted into the army, and I will resolve a character arc for a certain creepy character. By the time book five comes out, I will be able to see whether the series has legs.
Standing in a bookstore, what book couldn’t you resist recommending to a nearby stranger?
Without hesitation, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I think it is one of the most perfect books ever written.
Thank you, Mary, for joining us at WWK.
For more information about Mary Lawrence, her books, and an introduction to alchemy, visit her website: http://www.marylawrencebooks.com.