Thursday, February 4, 2016

Interview with Martine Bailey - A Taste for Nightshade

Please welcome back to the blog Martine Bailey. She was here last year to talk about her debut novel, An Appetite for Violets and she's back now to chat about her new release A Taste for Nightshade. See what Martine has been up to in the past year.

ISBN-13: 9781250056924
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Release Date: 01-12-2016
Length: 464


Manchester 1787. When budding young criminal Mary Jebb swindles Michael Croxon's brother with a blank pound note, he chases her into the night and sets in motion a train of sinister events. Condemned to seven years of transportation to Australia, Mary sends him a 'Penny Heart'-a token of her vow of revenge.
Two years later, Michael marries naïve young Grace Moore. Although initially overjoyed at the union, Grace quickly realizes that her husband is more interested in her fortune than her company. Lonely and desperate for companionship, she turns to her new cook to help mend her ailing marriage. But Mary Jebb, shipwrecked, maltreated, and recently hired, has different plans for the unsuspecting owners of Delafosse Hall.
A Taste for Nightshade is a thrilling historical novel that combines recipes, mystery and a dark struggle between two desperate women, sure to appeal to fans of Sarah Waters and Carolly Erickson.

Hi Martine welcome back to the blog!
Tell my readers about A Taste for Nightshade.
Hi Debbie, thanks for inviting me back. A Taste for Nightshade is the story of two women with hugely different backgrounds and values. Much of it is written in alternate chapters, firstly by Grace, a sensitive and artistic young heiress who finds herself at isolated Delafosse Hall, horribly attracted to her indifferent and selfish husband. The alternate strand follows Mary, her housekeeper, a clever cook, and - the reader realises - a talented con artist. I wanted to look at recipes from a different perspective, as quackery and aphrodisiacs as well as the amazing way we must trust those who prepare our food.

Between the two women featured in the novel, Grace and Mary.
Which one misbehaved more during the novel creation?
Mary arrived fully formed as a character and I immediately admired her cleverness, her pluck and courage. She is not a good person but I hope the reader realizes that there are good reasons why she has the impulses she has. She is a con artist, with all the steeliness and quick wits that demands. On the other hand, her mistress Grace is a good and sensitive person but that did make her harder to write. Eventually mounting pressures force Grace out of her passivity. As I wrote the novel my own sympathies wavered and I did have a struggle over who should prevail.

The title and cover changed from the UK release.

Tell us how The Penny Heart became A Taste for Nightshade.
When St Martin’s Press in New York began preparing The Penny Heart for publication they asked me if I could come up with a new title that was a little more gothic. I then had a frantic weekend when I had to brainstorm a list of new titles  – there were lots of ideas about A Dish Served Cold or Just Desserts  – but in the end I liked the associations with nightshade.  The strange thing for me is that here in England henbane/nightshade is a completely different plant with big cream-coloured flowers veined with dark purple that eventually form ugly frilled seedheads. But in the end I think the blossoms on the new cover look wonderfully sinister in contrast to the elegant silver spoon.

Martine your website describes both your debut An Appetite for Violets and A Taste for Nightshade culinary crime novels, what a delicious category.
Have you ever had a “taste” to sample a different genre?
Looking back, even when I wrote non-fiction under the pen-name Laura Bloom, there was a culinary theme. I wrote The Wedding Diaries about my own wedding and included the trouble I had with my home-baked wedding cake. I still love writing recipes and have just put a modern version of Taffety Cake (based on Taffety Tart in An Appetite for Violets) in A Year Of Cake, compiled by the Clandestine Cake Club. I do think quince and apple are such a lovely flavour combination.
Having said that, my next book is a murder mystery without a culinary theme.  It is set in an English village and revolves around time, the seasons, and traditions of country life. My worldly heroine is left stranded in the countryside after a robbery and discovers her mother has died leaving cryptic notes in her diary. After being enlisted as the village Searcher, with duties to lay out the dead and keep records of mortalities, she joins forces with an urbane hack writer to solve a series of enigmatic riddles.  I am loving writing it.

Martine on our last chat you spoke about your 18th century cooking spree.
How is that coming?
Last year I was thrilled to learn more about period sugarwork with food historian Ivan Day. I became fascinated by tiny sugar devices, such as a doll-sized bed to be placed on a bride-cake and a tiny cradle and swaddled baby.

These are made using beautiful hand-carved wooden moulds and create the equivalent of a modern 'cake-topper' for a wedding or christening cake. In the novel however, they do have a double-edge; though beautiful objects, they are in the end fragile, lifeless, and of course ultimately edible.
Gingerbread is a particular favourite of mine that I sometimes bake and bring along to book events - though not using the recipe in the book which is bulked out with nasty additives to maximize profits! Ivan has ak wonderful collection of wooden moulds for gingerbread carved in the shapes of carriages and animals, heroes and monarchs. In the book there are romantic associations too, in the baking of gingerbread ‘husbands’ and ‘wives’, bought by sweethearts as 'fairings'. The gilding of gingerbread makes it glitter, recollected in the proverb Grace reflects on as she becomes disillusioned by her husband: To take the gilt off the gingerbread. (Meaning: the fading of an item’s glamour.)

Speaking of your culinary expertise people may not know that you’re an award winning cook and you won a Merchant Gourmet contest and even represented the UK at the Dessert Championships at Le Meurice in. Wow and congratulations!

What constitutes being a chef and are you considered one?
I am just an amateur cook who became obsessed! For a number of years, I loved entering cookery contests and I especially like writing recipes. Winning the Merchant Gourmet contest led to a life-changing prize of a French cookery course in Provence. That really helped with my pastry and dessert skills and I had a wonderful time, even baking a lemon tart for ‘multi-sensory’ chef Heston Blumenthal.

 The Paris Dessert Championships were a dream, after Italian chef Valentina Harris picked my White Chocolate and Cassis-Soaked Summer Fruits Cheesecake as the British entry. We took visits to historic sites such as Voltaire’s Café Procope and it was all fabulous with one exception – I found the heat and stainless steel labyrinth of the kitchens at Le Meurice pretty scary. The French chefs there could handle vast equipment under incredible heat and pressure – something I'm glad I don't have to do day-to-day.

Martine you had inspiration for A Taste for Nightshade/The Penny Heart, one of which was a penny heart convict token.

What exactly is this how did it inspire the novel?
In 1788 the British government sent the first criminals from its overcrowded prisons to Botany Bay, Australia. To some convicts it was seen as worse than hanging, as Australia was at least eight month's voyage from Britain and considered to be at 'the ends of the earth'.  Penny hearts, or love tokens, were smoothed copper pennies engraved by convicts with messages for loved ones to remember them by. Though at the time convicts were often believed to lack all humane feelings, they left messages of desolation, pain, defiance and anger. I mention one poignant coin in A Taste for Nightshade: a woman who depicted her dog in her cottage garden and the words: 'This was once my cottage of peace...Going out of her cotage for life, E.A.'  Another woman is shown releasing a dove beside an anchor of 'Hope' and the words 'I Love till death, shall stop my breath'.
In the novel, Mary has a penny token engraved at Newgate prison with a rhyme that is part promise, part threat:
Though chains hold me fast,
As the years pass away,
I swear on this heart
To find you one day
And of course, unlike most other convicts, she does return…

This was a quote from your website about A Taste for Nightshade “My agent warned me I needed to have an idea for a second book ready, so I asked myself what I was equipped to write in a beautiful solitude that lacked a museum or specialist library. I decided I had my memories and identity from northern Britain and also lots of powerful Antipodean history about castaways and convicts.”
Tell us how you came to have this knowledge please.
In February 2011, my son Chris and his partner were caught up in the Christchurch earthquake and though they were thankfully unharmed, we flew out there for an extended stay. For our first year, we house-swapped on New Zealand's East Cape and the solitude and sense of distance from Britain was an immense influence on A Taste for Nightshade. I was struck by many contrasts: between wild convicts and respectable pioneers, and between myself as a new migrant and my more comfortable life back in England.  Then of course, we were literally ‘house-keeping’, inhabiting other people’s homes, driving their cars and using their household goods - an interloper’s role experienced by both Grace and Mary.
Instead of book research I found out about the early European women who had come over to live in the bush and treasured miniature portraits, hair jewellery and scraps of cloth from ‘home.’ My husband Martin was teaching Maori youngsters and photographing local people for a Creative Arts exhibition, so I was fortunate to get a glimpse of local traditions of singing, tattooing and celebration around the Maori meeting grounds or Marae. Few prisoners ever escaped Sydney’s penal colony so I was especially intrigued by Mary Broad, a Cornishwoman who stole a boat and eventually returned to England. Those ingredients, a nostalgia for England and the true experiences of the British on those wild shores, combined in the development of A Taste for Nightshade.

Martine this novel takes place in several locations.
Do you feature food specialties from each place?
Yes, I try to. Writing the book while I was thousands of miles away from home did leave me nostalgic for Northern British dishes such as Yorkshire Fat Rascals (flat buns with cherries and nuts) and the old-fashioned cookery of Delafosse Hall’s forgotten serving woman, Nan, harks back to the age of nature-foraged foods and pure flavours. Some places such as the Assembly Rooms in York were a delight to visit, though instead of shrubs and syllabubs it is now better known for pasta as it is an Italian restaurant. 

I did try some extraordinary food on my travels, including Maori foods cooked underground with hot stones in a Hangi pit oven. I also ate kangaroo, crocodile, paua (black sea snails), campfire damper and grubs. I wanted to look at recipes from a different perspective – as quackery and aphrodisiacs and also what you might eat if shipwrecked or slipping into genteel poverty. However I've only cooked the more familiar recipes from the novel so far: Apple Pie, Pease Pudding, Cherry Trifle, Gingerbread, Fat Rascals and some of the decorative sugarwork.

Martine thanks for taking this time to answer these questions, good luck with the new novel and bon appétit!
Will you be touring in the US this time around?
Many thanks to you, Debbie. Oh, I wish I was coming over to the US but I’ve not yet been invited! 

A TASTE FOR NIGHTSHADE (St Martin’s Press) is a historical novel of suspense, that draws on age-old themes of cooking, trickery and revenge. Martine's debut, AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS, was one of the American Library Association Booklist's Ten Best Crime Debuts of 2015.

Martine's debut An Appetite for Violets

Connect with Martine - Website - Facebook - Twitter

Photo by John Bailey
I have always enjoyed baking, having at first taught myself from books. When a student, I started baking to save money, by making local English specialities like Bakewell Tart, biscuits and cakes. Then when I had more opportunities to travel I became fascinated by foreign foods and entered a Merchant Gourmet contest with a Spanish dish for A Smoky Asturian Stew. I won it and the prize was a French cookery course in Provence. At Le'Baou D'Infer the chef was Alex Mackay, former director of the cookery school at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons. I particularly loved learning to make excellent French sweet pastry for a variety of delicious tarts.

Today's Gonereading item is:
a Jane Austin Mug
Click HERE for the buy page


  1. Fantastic post, I love learning new things. You have me curious about this one!

  2. I like the new title. Great interview Debbie!

  3. Love the cover of A Taste of Nightshade and what an interesting interview. Of course my eyes picked up when I found she had spent some time in NZ after the earthquake! I think you've made me want to read this one!

  4. Riveting interview from the talk of food to how the story came into being with the transportation and revenge element. I had not heard of these coins. It would be fascinating to see them.
    I'll have to check out both books.

    Thanks for sharing and introducing me to a new to me author, Debbie!

    1. I know Sophia Rose half the fun of doing these interviews is all the interesting stuff I learn!

  5. Debbie you're killing my tbr pile this week. The cook totally has me curious :D

  6. Oh gosh, Debbie, I swear the books you feature here are delicious sounding! I love the cover art for this too, will definitely add this to the TBR!