What inspired you to write The Arsenic Eater’s Wife, and how did you first come across the historical case that the novel is based on?

I came across Florence Maybrick (the woman on whom Constance Sullivan is based) in a book entitled, Bad Girls from History: Wicked or Misunderstood? Florence’s story (located in the “One-Off Killers” chapter) stood out to me for a few reasons. One, there was such a thing as “arsenic eaters.” Apparently, in the 19th century there were a small number of people, predominantly men, who ingested arsenic for medicinal purposes. These men believed arsenic made them more sexually virile (think Victorian Viagra!). Mind you, this was the late 1880s—a time when arsenic was prevalent, yes, but also a time when it was a well-known poison used to kill insects and rodents. Who would be so foolish to deliberately eat it?! Secondly, if Florence’s husband was widely known by the people around him (local chemists, family, friends) to have self-administered arsenic for years, why would she be suspected of poisoning him? I went down the rabbit h

ole from there and found a host of morally gray servants, family members, and friends who were in the house for the two weeks her husband languished in bed before his death. They all seemed to have a motive, including Florence herself. I couldn’t have set up a better whodunit if I’d tried, and so when I discovered that no one had written a fictionalized version of her case, I leapt on it.

How did you develop the character of the protagonist? What were the most important traits you wanted to convey about her?

Since Constance is based on a real character—Florence Maybrick—much of her life, mannerisms, and personality traits were taken from the historical record. There wasn’t much to embellish. She was fully formed to me from the beginning; I just had to put her on the page for the reader. Key to doing that was showing how young and naïve she was (she was 27 years old at the time of her trial). She was an American living among the British in a house of secrets. She was a continent away from her closest family member, her mother. While Constance might have had her own reasons for wanting her husband dead, she wasn’t the only one. Her undoing, ultimately, was not realizing it until it was too late.

She was also, as we so often see in historical fiction, a victim of her time. She had no voice at trial (defendants couldn’t testify on their own behalf in 1889), there was no court of appeal, and she was a fallen woman—a stain that the judge, all-male jury, and the patriarchy at large couldn’t see past. The small details were there too—she purchased arsenic days before her husband sickened, and incriminating letters were found in her room that seemed to point to murder. In many ways it was a perfect storm of evidence against her.

Also important, I felt, was to tell the story of the contradiction of her title. Florence Maybrick is known as the first American woman sentenced to death in England…but that’s not how things played out. Not at all. The story of that is what I wanted to tell.

How do you approach writing from the perspective of a character who is on trial for a serious crime?

Trial scenes are tricky. It’s difficult to make them interesting because you’re basically just delivering back and forth dialog which can quickly turn dull and bring your murder mystery to a screeching halt. So in each trial scene (and subsequent rewrites), I tried to either convey something new about a character or introduce a contradiction or twist the reader doesn’t see coming. If I couldn’t do either of those, I tossed out the scene. On the other hand, I had verbatim court testimony at my fingertips that was immensely helpful. What I introduced into those were Constance’s internal thoughts as the details of her life are spilled before the jury.

 What was your favorite scene to write in The Arsenic Eater’s Wife, and why?

There’s a scene early on when Constance learns something about her husband’s past that devastates her. It was fun to construct just how this plays out and write her emotional and physical response to it. She doesn’t realize it at the time, but it will change the course of her life forever.

What was it like hearing Penelope Rawlins bring your characters and story to life in the audiobook version of The Arsenic Eater’s Wife? Were there any particular moments that stood out to you?

I haven’t yet heard the audiobook version! Bloodhound sent me a few audio files of different narrators reading a short scene that required speaking different accents. I knew as soon as I heard Penelope’s voice that she was the one to do it. Luckily, Bloodhound felt the same.

You can start listening to The Arsenic Eater’s Wife, and can download your copy on Audible, Libro.fm, Apple, and wherever audiobooks are sold. You can also listen through your local library on apps such as hoopla and Libby.