Gail Bell talks about the making of The Poison Principle, the book’s narrative style, voice, and themes, the Varuna Writing Centre, poison, on the need to work, and her next book.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: The Poison Principle is hard to characterise. It is clearly entertainment, but also a scholarly work on poisons, with elements of fiction, and even published fictions, along with biographies, bits of film, and of course the story of Wiliam Macbeth. How would you define it?
Gail Bell: I think of The Poison Principle as an extended essay. It’s deliberately discursive because I’ve tried to follow, though not mimic, the inflections of a speaking, story-telling voice. I’ve tried to give meaning to a collection of facts and stories by borrowing some of the fiction writer’s tools- like dialogue, imagery, metaphor, suspense and revelation- without diminishing the authenticity of the information.
I think the reviewer who lamented the lack of an index at the back hasn’t completely come to grips with this form. I agree, the only way to check facts once you’ve read past them is to flip through the pages, but I would argue that this isn’t a book about facts.
Magdalena: From the tone of the book, it seems like you’ve been working towards the writing of this book; writing it for many years, albeit not necessarily towards publication. Is that right? Tell me at what point you knew that the work was actually towards a full length publishable book.
Gail Bell:The book began as two threads which eventually found each other over a period of nearly ten years.
In 1992 I began collecting whole stories and bits of stories about this and that poison. There was, in the early days, no master plan only a suspicion that if I collected enough data over time, patterns and shapes would appear, and this is what happened. Arsenic for instance emerged as “the queen of poisons”; the colour green began to rustle its silks; good and bad women whispered their deadly secrets. When the patterns revealed themselves I moved the data around and began playing with shapes and designs. This gave me the skeleton but not the beating heart of a book.
I needed to put something of myself on the page. For someone trained in science, where personality is vigorously stripped out of written accounts, I had to go against the grain, but once I started- and this is where the second thread comes into play- I began to enjoy the liberating feeling of self-exposure. How many chemists, I wondered, admit to having poisonous thoughts about their patients? (will I ever work in this town again? was another thought). By allowing the reader to feel my doubts and fears and pleasures, I hoped to invite a deeper, more involved engagement with the text.
And then, of course, there was the one poison story I’d been avoiding because in order to tell it I had to get my father’s permission, and that meant an excursion onto the no-go zones of family secrets. So, to avoid that barrier I kept my father out of the picture until quite late in the editing stage of the book. When I realised that my grandfather’s story would have to move into the foreground (it had developed its own momentum by then anyway) then I knew I had a full length book.
Magdalena: Talk to me about some of the big themes of the book – of appearance and reality; of the thin line between spectator and participant (the poisoner in all of us), of life, death, and power?
Gail Bell: By putting down the story of myself at work in the dispensary with a bottle of arsenic held over a patient’s cough mixture (p.177) I was admitting to the poisoner in me, well, the potential poisoner. This is how it could happen, and, more tellingly, this is why it didn’t happen. And if I could think/react this way, was I on the same slippery slope as my grandfather, and countless others who have poisoned by accident or design?
One of the big themes in the book is death; my fear of it, my fascination with the mechanics of dying, my interest in “post mortem courtesies” by which I mean the business of tidying up a corpse for acceptable viewing; and the phobias that can develop when normal fears are somehow changed into abnormal fears in what seems to me to be elaborate ways of staving off death.
I’ve chosen to re-tell two death stories from The Brothers Grimm to get at the psychological layers of death narratives.
Magdalena: The Poison Principle strains towards a full length work of fiction, and the Macbeth story, despite its roots in family history, plays out like a kind of mystery/detective story, with a narrative voice which seems to strain towards a fictive piece. You’ve written short stories before. Do you think you’ll write a full length fiction one day?
Gail Bell: Yes, I’ve written 38 short stories and had some published, but I look at them now as exercises in finding my voice. Most of them are about me in some disguised way, and the ones I’m proud to own have something true in them, like the one about the barren woman and her renegade eggs . One day I’d like to revisit the best of them and, using some techniques I’ve learned along the way, shape them into an anthology. I think I’m ready to do that now.
I’ve tried novel writing but I know I’m not suited to that genre. My fictions, if they’re published, will be short pieces with their hands outstretched, holding on to each other.
Magdalena: Tell me about the Varuna Writer’s Centre? In what way did the retreat help you to write? Philomena Van Rijswijk told me that at first she felt an almost numbing sense of pressure to produce; that the lack of distraction took some getting used to. Did you also find that?
Gail Bell: I finished the first draft of The Poison Principle at Varuna and the house has the special resonance of a happy, hard-won destination for me. Yes, I struggled with the sudden luxury of time, and spent a lot of the first week staring at fruit trees and inventing chores, but I trusted the process and more significantly, I knew that one day Peter Bishop, the Centre’s director, would knock on the door for an informal chat. When I asked, Peter gave me some invaluable advice: let the air in, don’t be too encylcopaedic, when in doubt- cut, and let the ideas flow from here to there. The best service he did me was to ask me how the book ended.
Magdalena: Are you still fascinated and puzzled by poison, or have you gotten the obsession out of your system?
Gail Bell: Yes, I still collect poison stories, still puzzle over details. Since the book came out I’ve heard more anecdotal reports; it seems a lot of people have had little brushes with the poison pot. Just this week a woman told me she had a datura milkshake in India. I instantly wanted to know more.
Magdalena: Are you still working as a chemist, journalist, or teaching? Do you think that most writers need some supplemental form of work? Do you think that this is a kind of failing with our system, that few creative writers, even some of the more famous ones, are able to make a full time living at it? Or is part of a writers creative power in that tension between a world outside of writing, and that within it?
Gail Bell: I work 2 days a week in a community pharmacy in a quiet beach suburb north of Sydney. Compared to a lot of jobs I’ve had, this one’s heaven, just the right pace for someone who spends a lot of time in her head. I have to work to pay the bills- but also to put myself out there, with people and situations. I’m gregarious with isolationist tendencies if that makes sense.
Even if I was to ever find myself in the enviable position of being able to live from writing, I’d have to teach or dispense or be involved in some public, structured way as an antidote to those lonely, unstructured, staring-out-the-window days that come along too often in a writer’s life.
Magdalena: Are you working on a new book at the moment?
Gail Bell: Yes, I’m at work on another non-fiction book, using the voice I developed in The Poison Principle to look at another death-related topic. Sounds macabre doesn’t it, but you have to go with your passions.