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The Poison Keeper

Author Deborah Swift brings 17th-century Naples to thrilling life

Today I welcome author Deborah Swift to celebrate the launch of her fabulous new novel, The Poison Keeper.

Based on the true story of a 17th-century Italian woman who confessed to murdering hundreds of men with her poisons, The Poison Keeper illuminates a shadowy corner of history with vivid color. Using graceful, evocative prose, Deborah expertly brings 17th-century Sicily and Naples to life. At the center of it all is the jaw-dropping story of Guilia Tofana.

Young Guilia 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. On the run from powerful men intent on her destruction, she flees to Naples, where she must make a series of agonizing choices to survive.

The novel is beautifully crafted, with so many twists and surprises in the final act that I could not put it down. I was eager to learn more about the research behind the story, so I invited Deborah to take us on a behind-the-scenes tour of her novel. Deborah, welcome to the blog!

AM: How did you come up with the idea for your book?

DS: I came across the name of Giulia Tofana when I was researching herbalism for a different book, and the name just stuck – especially when I read that a poison, Aqua Tofana, was named after her and that she had supposedly killed six hundred men with it!

No portrait of her exists, but I guess she would have looked similar to this portrait of an Italian courtesan. I soon discovered that she was both a real historical person, and also that her life had been somewhat mythologized, in the way of King Arthur or The heroes of the Greek Myths. This piqued my interest as a writer, to work on something that was half in, half out of the bounds of reality. As a writer I thought it would be a challenge to make it feel like ‘history’.


Portrait of a courtesan, Caravaggio

AM: What inspired you to write about that particular era or character?

DS: At first I found the idea daunting – serial killer books are not really my kind of thing!

But it seemed to me that to poison that many people would require not just one woman but a network of people. I’m interested in relationships and particularly how they are put under strain when there is danger involved. I read that Giulia Tofana was in league with a priest, and that seemed to be interesting too, and to touch on the thorny nature of good and evil. Poison being used by women seemed to be endemic in Italy since the time of the Borgias, but Giulia Tofana’s name is the most synonymous with the practice.

 AM: How did you create a realistic setting for your story?

DS: I had my research trip booked to Naples last year to tie up my research but Covid struck just before we were due to leave, so all my research has been done online. I was particularly grateful for online 17th Century maps of Palermo and Naples where the book is set, and for JStor, the academic research site, where you can download scholarly articles about particular items of interest – in this case 17th Century Italian medicine and poisons. I also used a lot of paintings and artwork online and read many books including tour guides and books about women’s lives in Italy at that time. I’ve realized too that the realism of my setting also depends on the reader’s imagination as well as my own, so I hope I’ve done enough to signal ‘Italy’ and provided enough clues for them to imagine what I envisage.

AM: What surprised you in the course of your research?

DS: One of the things that surprised me initially before I realized that it was obvious, was that as a country steeped in Catholicism, the idea of the afterlife was particularly strong. Whatever evil you had done could be cleansed by confession or by the last rites. It was therefore hugely important to emphasize this in the novel as it meant that, provided these customs were followed, death could be a gateway to paradise and so nothing to fear. This idea dramatically affected the womens’ concept of what they were doing with the poisons.

AM: Do your research findings guide the plot, or do you plan out the plot first and flesh it out with research? (Or perhaps both?)

DS: The research always supplies the plot. There were certain aspects of the story and legend that just cried out to be in the story, so they went in my loose map first. I constructed the story around those major events, which included the documented death of Giulia’s mother, and the way women banded together near the end of the book. I can’t say more because of spoilers! In between I used aspects of Neapolitan life which included the plethora of courtesans in the city, the recent eruption of Vesuvius, and the influence of the Camorra, or Mafia.

AM: What is your usual writing routine?

DS: I like to write in the mornings except for an hour of exercising, and then I do research, blogging and social media in the afternoons depending on where I’m at with the process. I’m quite disciplined, because I know I’m easily distracted! Mornings are for the novel I’m working on and I try to stick to that.

 AM: What do you have planned for your next writing project?

DS: The next book is already finished and continues the story of the main protagonists Giulia and Fabio, in the next book, The Silkworm Keeper. The keeping of Silkworms for their thread was common in Italy and Sicily, and was known as sericulture.

AM: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

DS: I love to dance and take several dance classes a week as my way of keeping fit. I also love to walk around the countryside where I live, which has plenty of hills to get my heart rate going and blow away the cobwebs from a life at a desk.

Thank you Amy for your questions, I really enjoyed answering them!

About the author:

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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