When I first came across the central idea for The Herbalist, I didn’t even know I wanted to write. I was nineteen and working with old local newspapers, indexing their contents in preparation for computerisation. These were broadsheets from the early forties, yellowed, and crammed with small print. Topics ranged from no lamps on bicycles and breaches of promise to the price of live-stock. Then one day, a small article on the bottom of a page caught my attention.
It was short, two maybe three sentences, and referred to an Indian Herbalist who was arrested for offences against girls. That was it, not a word of extraneous description or detail. Did I mention that it was a local paper? That the town hall in which we were working was set right in the middle of a market square, the one in which the man who called himself a herbalist had set up business almost fifty years before? I felt that strange curiosity combined with excitement that I now recognise as the sign to get writing but, I didn’t write back then.
Years later (over twenty actually) and thanks to a wonderful writing workshop with John MacKenna, I began writing short stories. It was during that time that an Indian herbalist appeared on the page of one of my stories, lifted a glass bottle up to the light and smiled. As it happens I was sitting in that town hall again, in the library rooms, but this time I was ready to take it all down.
Other voices began to speak to me as I wrote, and they were all talking about the same person- the herbalist. Some called him a scoundrel, some a saviour. Each was a woman and each whispered a different version of a similar tale. I knew they wouldn’t rest till it was all written down. So I bought the biggest notebook I could find, got up earlier than usual (that was hell!) and wrote as if someone was going to steal my pen. My children were very young at this time so I focused on scraping together the hours to write.
I wrote long hand in the mornings and typed it up at night, often staying up till three or four a.m. I had red eyes from tiredness but I was madly in love with all the words that kept pouring out. It’s not easy to balance a young family, writing and work (I’m a librarian) but lots of people do, and I was encouraged to keep going when one of my stories was nominated for The Hennessy Award in 2009. So on I went, listening to the voices and writing this novel. Which, by the way, I didn’t dare call a ‘novel,’ I thought of it as a story, on my notice board I had posted a reminder to encourage me along, it said – just write the damn story!
I concentrated on getting the words-a-day done, my average was 2,000. No dusting was done during this time! I gave up a lot of things to concentrate on achieving my word count… voluntary work, my painting, life drawing classes all went out the window, and I did as little housework as I could, (some might say that hasn’t changed!) But I believe first drafts should be written quickly, that you should immerse yourself in the world of the book and not come out till it’s done. I realise my way of working wouldn’t suit everyone.
When I heard about The Irish Writers Centres Novel Fair last year, I decided to enter The Herbalist. I was lucky enough to win a place at the fair with twenty other writers. I can’t say enough good things about the Irish Writers Centre’s staff and the way they organised the day of the fair, they were wonderful. Twenty finalists met twenty agents and publishers in a speed dating scenario where we had ten minutes with each before a bell was rung. It was an exhilarating day. Ger Nichols became my agent after the fair, and Penguin Ireland decided they wanted to publish The Herbalist shortly afterwards. Both Ger Nichols and Patricia Deevy from Penguin have been wonderful to work with, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the whole process of editing the book to the stage it’s at today. After all this, it’s ended up where I always hoped it would be, in the hands of a reader and I hope they enjoy it.
The Herbalist is available in all good bookshops and online here – read on to find out more about the story…
About The Herbalist
Out of nowhere the herbalist appears and sets out his stall in the market square. In this dull midlands town the exotic stranger brings glamour and excitement. The townspeople call him The Don and with his potions and lotions he seems to have a cure for all that ails them.
Teenager Emily is enchanted. In the herbalist she sees a Clark Gable to her Jean Harlow, a Fred to her Ginger – a man to make her forget her lowly status in this place where respectability is everything.
But Emily has competition for the herbalist’s attentions. The women of the town – the women from the big houses and their maids, the shopkeepers and their serving girls, those who oblige the town’s men sexually and their pious sisters who turn a blind eye – all seem mesmerised by this visitor who can perform miracles. Rumours swirl and the herbalist thrives.
Emily may be ignorant and full of foolish dreams, but she has a fierce sense of right and wrong. And by the end of that summer she has discovered the dark side of the herbalist. But how big a sacrifice is she prepared to make to force him to pay for his sins against the women of the town?
About Niamh Boyce
Niamh Boyce is the 2012 Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year and she has been shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story competition 2011, the Hennessy Literary Awards 2010, the Molly Keane Award 2010 and the WOW Award 2010. Originally from Athy, Co Kildare Niamh now lives with her family in Ballylinan, Co Laois