Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. Kathryn completed a PhD then a postdoc before realising that talking, writing and demonstrating science appealed far more than spending hours slaving over a hot fume-hood. Kathryn delivered writing talks at University of Surrey on science and engineering topics that would appeal to bored teenagers, anything disgusting or dangerous was usually the most popular. She is currently working as a science communicator. Let us know more about her writing.
What inspired you to start writing?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, even when I was a kid and just making up stories. I don’t suppose I was any good but my parents and teachers always encouraged me. I never thought it could become something I did for a living. When I started writing a blog on the periodic table I thought it would be a good discipline to write regularly and practise communicating science that I found interesting but that hopefully non-scientists could engage with. I didn’t know this would lead to a publisher contacting me and asking me to write a book.
What did you like to read when you were a girl?
I read all sorts of things when I was young, and still do, but I remember reading a lot of ghost stories in particular. In my teenage years I read a lot of Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse but the horror theme continued and I remember reading and loving the Anne Rice vampire series.
What is the greatest challenge in writing a book?
For me it is a challenge to write about science that I am passionate about but to make it interesting and intelligible to non-scientists. It is always difficult to find a balance that will satisfy a scientist’s interest in the chemical or biological details and the non-scientists interest in Christie and crime. I may well have missed the mark but it was important to me to include as much science as I could in A is for Arsenic to do justice to the detailed knowledge Christie had spent a long time in obtaining. I had lots of people read chapters from the book, both scientists and non-scientists, and listened to their feedback.
How much research do you do before writing the book?
A lot! I’m writing non-fiction so I have to get my facts right. There are many dedicated Agatha Christie fans out there who will spot any little mistakes I make about her work. Scientists are also keen to make sure the science is right so I knew the book would come under a lot of scrutiny from its readers. I have spent hundreds of hours reading all the Agatha Christie books as well as books on poison, toxicology, forensics, true-crime and biographies. I’ve done the best I can but there are bound to be errors and I am grateful to those who point them out to me so I can correct them for future editions.
What motivated you to write the book “A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie”?
I got an email from a publisher out of the blue. He asked if I had ever thought about writing a book. After I checked it was a real email from a real person and not spam I responded that I would love to write a book. I had sometimes thought about it in the way you might think it would be amazing to be an astronaut – it would be an incredible experience but it wasn’t something I was ever likely to do. Being given the opportunity not only to write but to be published as well seemed too good to pass up. I offered a few ideas for books and the publisher picked poisons and Agatha Christie. Before I knew it we were signing contracts and I was trying to track down every Christie book I could find.
Can you tell us more about your latest book “A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie”?
A is for Arsenic is a celebration of Agatha Christie’s impressive use of poison. No other author used poison more often, more accurately or to kill more characters than Christie. Although she was writing fiction she took great pains to be as accurate as possible. Although she bent or broke the rules of detective fiction, for example, by having some of her murderer’s narrate the story or even having one of her detectives as the killer, she was always proud of the fact that she ‘never cheated’. Her plots may be fantastic or improbable but they are very rarely impossible. She excelled in her use of poison and I wanted to explore how Christie used her vast knowledge of toxic compounds to distort timelines, for example, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, where the effects of the poison are delayed to give the murderer an alibi; or how the symptoms of poison can give clues such as in Five Little Pigs where hemlock extract and its slow paralysing effects help Poirot figure out whodunit.
I was also interested, from my chemistry background, in just how such tiny amounts of some compounds can have such a devastating effect on the human body. Even more interesting is how some of these chemicals are still used in medicine today, in appropriate doses, to treat all kinds of conditions. It’s been fascinating to find out how these poisons kill as well as real life cases where they have been used. The development of forensics and detection of poisons has an intriguing history and exemplifies how chemistry has advanced and been applied over the past two centuries.
How did you come up with the idea of writing non fiction genre book?
This was an easy choice as I wouldn’t know where to start on writing fiction. I am in awe of people like Christie who can come up with fantastic plots and characters. What I have tried to do in my book is show just how good Christie’s writing really is. The amount of research that must have gone into her plots and the brilliant way she used her knowledge to present seemingly insoluble puzzles is very impressive.
Who are your favourite authors?
In terms of fiction, I love Christie, obviously, and I will never get bored of P. G. Wodehouse. I also thoroughly enjoyed the first two parts of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy and can’t wait for the final instalment. I will very happily read anything by Andrey Kurkov, a Ukrainian writer with a deliciously dark humour. But I also read a lot of non-fiction. There are lots of excellent science writers out there but Oliver Sacks has to be one of the best. Recently I read Richard Holmes Age of Wonder, a brilliant history of science in the romantic era.
How much time do you dedicate to writing on a daily basis?
I don’t write every day but tend to write in blocks of time. Because I write non-fiction I have a lot of research to do so I can spend a lot of time reading and researching before I put a single word on the page. It’s also important for me to have a good structure to the book before I start it so I know where I am heading and what research I need to do for each chapter. Once I feel I’ve got enough background knowledge I try to empty my head of everything I have learned into a document. At this stage it won’t make very good reading but it means I can go back through it and work on it and rewrite until I am happy it makes some sort of sense. The actual writing might not take much time but the agonising over what research to do and if I’ve done enough as well as the rewriting can take ages.
What words of wisdom would you like to give to aspiring writers?
Get lots of feedback from as many different people as you can. Those who are most critical are probably the ones to listen to most carefully.
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