• St. Martin's Press
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A Conversation with Sara Poole

Could you tell us a little bit about your background, and when you decided that you wanted to lead a literary life?
I grew up in a family of journalists who were taken aback when, at the tender age of twelve, I announced my intent to write fiction. I immediately set about doing so and have never stopped. Along the way, I’ve worked in advertising, public relations, and publishing but fiction has always been my lodestone drawing me home. I can’t imagine a life without it.

Is there a book that most influenced your life? Or inspired you to become a writer?
As a child, I read everything from Lewis Carroll to comic books (Little Lulu stands out in particular). I loved it all indiscriminately and gobbled up anything that fell into my hands. Somewhere along the way, I encountered Jean Plaidy in one or more of her various incarnations and became hooked on historical fiction.

Who are some of your favorite authors?
My favorite novel of all time is Killer Angels by Michael Shaara; in my opinion, it’s the finest historical novel ever written. Apart from that, my favorite writers remain those I discovered early on—Jean Plaidy aka Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, Daphne du Maurier, Anya Seton, Mary Stewart, among others.

Who are some of your favorite historical figures?
Obviously, I have vast affection for the Borgias, although I can’t say that I would have wanted to live under their rule. The combination of ruthless ambition, brilliant intellect, and unfettered sensuality that they embodied is enormously appealing from a writer’s point of view. Apart from them, I love the Tudors, most particularly Elizabeth, who has to be regarded as a survivor of one of the most dysfunctional families ever.

What was the inspiration for Poison and its heroine, Francesca?
Several years ago, I became interested in the wild plants on my doorstep that in one form or another are poisonous. One evening, I mentioned this to my family at dinner, setting off a round of teasing about what I’d put in the food. Two words popped into my head: woman poisoner. In the strange way of such things, Francesca appeared shortly thereafter, virtually fully formed. I’ve had to run to keep up with her ever since.

Do you scrupulously adhere to historical fact in your novels, or do you take liberties if the story can benefit from the change? To what extent did you stick to the facts in writing Poison? 
I try to stick very closely to the historical facts while weaving a thread of fiction through and around them. Nothing in Poison contradicts anything that happened in the summer of 1492. But as is always the case in such fraught times, much that did occur was hidden from public view and will never be known. It is in those secret, forgotten spaces that I found room to begin Francesca’s story.

Much of the plot of Poison revolves around poison and its use by the leaders and politicians of Renaissance Italy. How much of this was historically accurate?
Because so many of the poisons available at the time produced symptoms similar to those caused by common diseases such as malaria and cholera, it is impossible to know how many deaths can be attributed to natural causes versus unnatural. What we do know is that people in all ranks of society believed that poison was in widespread use, and that many lived in terror of falling victim to it.  In that climate of fear, families of means took steps to protect themselves, including employing experts capable of detecting the presence of poison in food, wine, fabric, etc. These men and women appear cloaked in household accounts as “perfumer,” “herbalist,” “apothecary,” and so forth—occupations that concealed their true purpose How many of them crossed the line between defending against poison and deploying it as a weapon remains a matter of speculation.

In your research of the poisons used in Renaissance Rome, what was the most interesting/surprising/shocking thing you learned?
For me, the role of poisons during the Renaissance turned out to be a window into the era as a whole through which I glimpsed the herculean struggle that went on between the forces of conservatism (i.e., much but by no means all of the Catholic Church) and the forces of modernization including the emerging merchant class. Previously, I’d had only a general sense of the competing visions that tugged at all corners of life and eventually ripped the fabric of the world. What struck me most were the eerie parallels to our own time when we seem to be experiencing equally profound and sweeping change with consequences we can speculate about but cannot yet really see.

There is a proverb attributed to the Chinese that is said to embody a curse: May you live in interesting times. The Borgias and their fellow travelers through the Renaissance certainly did, and so do we.

Why do you think readers are so drawn to historical fiction?
Historical fiction has been categorized as “infotainment” and there is something to that. In the vicarious experience of a far-flung time and place, we can find a better understanding not only of another age but of ourselves and our own world.

Are you currently working on another book? And if so, what—or who—is your subject?
Poison is the beginning of a series depicting the life of Francesca Giordano and her entanglements with the Borgias. The second book, Serpent, is completed. I am currently working on the third book in the series, Malice.