Adventures in Reading: The Poisoner’s Handbook

I just had a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. I stayed up all night to read The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. I loved the book, but what made it even better was what I was able to find on the Internet about both the book and the author.

One thing I found was an interview with the author on Here’s an excerpt:

Steve: So the book is obviously all about poison and that makes it all about chemistry; it’s really a chemistry book in disguise.

Blum: It is. It’s called The Poisoner’s Handbook, but in the most subversive way, it’s about something that is near and dear to my heart, which is that I think chemistry is both beautiful and sinister.

You can listen to a podcast of the interview (and/or read the transcript) by going here.

I also found a blog called The Write Note by the author, where she writes more about poisons as well as her writing experiences. On it, she is extremely generous with her comments and comes across as friendly and accessible. She now has a blog called Speakeasy Science and a web site where you can listen to another podcast from NPR’s Science Friday as well as more information about Ms. Blum herself.

It’s not often that you can enter into the world of an author of a great book you’ve just read. I wish there were more experiences like that out there.

Women Writers and Success

“From George Sand to George Eliot, Isak Dinesen to E. Nesbit, P. D. James to James Tiptree Jr., there’s a long history of women writers who have used disguised names to realize their ambitions. Even J. K. Rowling—the best-selling author of all time—adopted a neutral moniker on her way to success: Before Harry Potter became a phenomenon, Bloomsbury, Rowling’s publisher, asked her to use initials to reassure the target audience of young boys who might be reluctant to pick up a book by ‘Joanna Rowling,’ a female author.

This is just one of the observations by Anna Clark in her article, “The Ambition Condition” that first appeared in Bitch Magazine‘s “Loud” issue in Fall, 2008. I’ve touched on this problem before (see my Femagination blog for the post “Women Writers Get No Respect.”), but Clark has more to say about the way women are treated if they are talented and ambitious.

It’s all too common for a woman to belittle her accomplishments or pretend to not care about fame or fortune. If she shows her hand, she is either ridiculed, criticized or, worst of all, ignored. She does what she has to do be successful, knowing all along that her success will never be rewarded to the degree that men writers’ are. She’s damned if she fails and damned if she succeeds.

I see this pattern in my own writing career. I’m working on an essay right now that I really think has potential. Okay, I’ll go ahead and say it: I think it’s marketable. But after the first burst of enthusiasm I found myself downgrading what I’d written: It couldn’t possibly be that good. Not only that, but I began to doubt whether I had a right to publish an essay that mentions other people. Isn’t that an invasion of privacy? Women aren’t supposed to make others uncomfortable, especially for the sake of their own ambitions.

So what do I do? I’m at a stalemate right now. I’ve lost my motivation to finish because I don’t know if I will ever try to market it. Better to just keep it with my papers, as if it is only a journal entry. Maybe it will be discovered after I die.

I think that a lot about things that I’m working on: if I don’t have enough guts to submit this, I’ll save it and maybe someday after I’m gone someone will read it and say, “She was a really good writer!” But maybe they’ll also say, “Why wasn’t she ever published?”

Is that really how I want my career to play out? Am I so damn afraid of success and of being seen as ambitious that I will passive-aggressively let the dice posthumously fall where they may? How pathetic!

Ms. Clark suggests at the end of her article that perhaps women shouldn’t worry about fame and fortune. Maybe what women have to offer is “simply writing to a different standard. It may be a part of the creation of our alternative to the traditional literary culture.”

I take issue with that. I’m not saying that women can’t contribute something that is uniquely their own, or that they can’t show men different ways to be successful. I am saying that they shouldn’t have to, if that’s not what they want. Women should be taken as seriously as men are, and if they’re not, they should raise a stink about it.

Of course, the tricky thing about writing is that you’re competing with yourself, trying to beat your own record, struggling to find your own voice. You can’t afford to spend any of your energy on righteous indignation.

But then again, you could write about it.

Writing Memoirs

“I can’t stress enough how different it is to write about the real and the unreal. When I started writing my memoir my whole metabolism changed. I’d just turned 50 and I assumed it was just age, but I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and I had the most delicious lie-ins of my life! It was just sheer emotional exhaustion, I now realise. Communing with your significant dead is what it amounts to, and that is an exhausting thing. Not unpleasant, but still hard work.”
Martin Amis

“For me, the memoir is not autobiography. It’s very, very distant from that. There’s no attempt to give a chronological rendition of one’s life. I was looking at the traces of the legacies. I used the novelist’s skills of going into the minds of the people you know least – namely my parents before I was born! These are totally mysterious others. You also need to be able to set scenes and to be able create movement in the text and create characters the way a novelist would.”
Lisa Appignanesi

“Lisa Appignanesi and I may have had peculiar lives but they’re also fundamentally universal. The only things that really matter are births and deaths and separations and unions – and we all have them. This is the advice I’d give a prospective memoir writer: the critic leads the reader from quote to quote, but that’s also what the memoir writer does – you’re quoting from memory, and what stays in your memory is the interesting stuff and that’s the stuff you should quote. And if these things hang together at all, you’re on to something.”
Martin Amis

“I think the first thing to do is to select out. Otherwise you’ll have no time to live as you recollect the past – there is a great deal of it! So select out for the moments that have a particular resonance for you. Play with those and see where they take you. They may take you into interesting places and not necessarily the places where you thought you might visit.”
Lisa Appignanesi