Diane Awerbuck interviews Patricia Schonstein

What was the origin of the idea for your novel, The Apothecary’s Daughter? And what were the influences, those you were conscious of, on your writing it?
This novel crept up on me. I was working on something else. The narrative voice of The Apothecary’s Daughter kept intruding, disturbing the voice of the work-in-progress. Eventually I put aside the other manuscript and just got on with the intrusive one.  It was a difficult novel to write because of all the over- and under-lays and because of the complexities of the characters. I was exhausted at the end and haunted by certain characters who wouldn’t leave me, but hovered in all the recesses of my life. I went on a three day semi-silent retreat to reclaim my energies and distance myself from them. Interestingly, when we were preparing this new edition, Frederick Montague, the lover, appeared, wanting a few adjustments to his love-making. I obliged.

Would you call yourself a [R]romantic? You seem to be, from the text.
I’m a romantic. Perhaps at a push, we could fit this novel in among the Romantics. But I think it’s better placed as Gothic though I’m not Gothic.

Could you have written this novel at any other time in your life? Some writers wait years to talk about a particular topic.
If I’d written this work in younger years, it would have lacked resonance. It needed maturity and the strong life-lessons that led up to it.

Would you agree that writers are also cartographers of a kind?
Absolutely – cartographers of the human heart and human condition.

And do playwrights and actors share the same sort of responsibility in their work?
Yes, indeed. I would put artists and architects in this category too.

Which characters are you most interested in or identify with?
I’m particularly interested in Balthazar and his study of the stars and planets, and the courageous way in which he challenges the status quo of the known universe.

Because he was able to search for and find truth. And also because he continued to explore new knowledge, despite the dangers at the time, of the Inquisition.
I’m fond of the Nubians, too. All the while I wrote this book, I was aware of their music, their drumming and songs far off in the background. They give an important back-drop to the cast of players – invisible because they are servants, yet ever present because of their energies and magic.

What ‘message’ – a horrible word, I know – would you like people to come away with after having read this novel? I know each reader’s experience is different, but there are some commonalities, I think.
This novel creates a fictitious arena in which to discuss religious intolerance, and intolerance of new knowledge, with particular reference to the refusal by the Church of the time to accept that the earth was not the centre of the known universe. I would like my readers to come away reflecting on these issues. Yet at the same time, I want them to enjoy the romance and sensuality that is stitched through the tale. It is a many-levelled love story. It’s erotic – I’d like them to enjoy that. The costumes and furnishings are good too. I still often close my eyes and ‘walk’ into the interior of those rooms, and feel the fabrics. And I can smell the aniseed that fragrances the lover’s pipe-tobacco.

I loved the verses at the beginning of each part.
Are those yours as
well? If so, did they arrive at the same time?
Yes, I wrote these verses to complement each of the Parts One, Two and Three. Each verse places a solitary figure on a landscape and so sets a contemplation in place. But the epic poem, the one that appears in Part Two and then accompanies the novel to its end, I only started writing about half-way through the novel and completed it at the end. The epic poem took my final attention and care. It had to appear as an ancient text, with some parts lost.

This interview was conducted via email, from the respective authors’ homes in Cape Town, to coincide with publication of the new edition of The Apothecary’s Daughter.


The verses from The Apothecary’s Daughter:

Part One: The Bone Gatherer
I looked for your bones.
There were so many strewn across the outskirts of the town
that all I could do was line them up:
tibiae fibulae finger-bones skulls teeth splinters.
I placed them neatly
and for each bone wrote a poem,
hoping that at least one was yours.
How is it that everything recurs?
That no lesson is learnt from war or genocide?
The story of hell can be told in every country, in every time:
the book-burning, the inquisition, the ghetto, the death by fire
belong to us all.
How sad I am for this.

Part Two: Lamenting Figure
Another has entered our chamber of love, unbidden.
This I know from the light in your eyes,
which differs from the light I kindle in them.
The other touches you and I know,
for my skin feels it, though I am so far away.
The other’s lips touch yours, and I know,
for mine too sense the intruding tongue.
You are promised the earth.
Listen not,
it is not anyone’s to give.
I offer you my simple love, here in the hot open scrubland.
Come back to me.

Part Three: Contemplative Figure
Who placed the stars,
who kindled their light,
whose doing is the firmament,
who decorates the night sky
so faithfully?


Diane Awerbuck’s first novel, Gardening at Night, was awarded the Commonwealth Best First Book Award (Africa and the Caribbean) in 2004 and was short-listed for the Dublin IMPAC Award in 2005. Her short stories are published regularly in magazines and anthologies, and her work has been translated into German, Swedish, Mandarin and Russian.

She develops materials for educational publishers, having honed her skills at Electric Book Works, and reviews fiction and non-fiction for the South African Sunday Times, TimesLIVE and SLiPNET. Awerbuck also blogs for Mail and Guardian’s Thoughtleader.

Diane’s recent publications include a doctorate – The Spirit and the Letter: Warblogs, Trauma and the Public Sphere – from the University of Cape Town, where she was a Mellon Foundation Fellow. Rowman and Littlefield will publish her findings in book form in 2012.

A collection of short stories, Cabin Fever, was published by Umuzi in 2011. A novel, Home Remedies, is due out in September 2012.

Cabin Fever
Diane Awerbuck
Umuzi Books
ISBN 978-1-4152-0111-4

The Apothecary’s Daughter
Patricia Schonstein
New edition: African Sun Press
ISBN 978-1-874915-18-8


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