A Civil War surgeon turned snake oil salesman. A ragged group of performers and sideshow freaks. A traveling medicine show with a dark, twisted purpose. You’ll want a ticket to DR POTTER’S MEDICINE SHOW, author Eric Scott Fischl’s macabre speculative fiction debut. And like the audience at the show, you won’t be able to turn away. Blending alchemic lore with a healthy shot of imagination, Fischl ignites a slow-burning fuse, drawing the plot forward until the final, violent conclusion. I’m so pleased to chat with Eric today on BCB!
Tabitha Lord: Welcome, Eric! This book is such a fascinating combination of history and magic. What sparked the idea for the story?
Eric Scott Fischl: I’m honestly not entirely sure, aside from insomnia. I spent a lot of years working on writing without actually letting anyone read anything, which is a terrible idea, let’s just be clear there. This book came about as an, “OK, Fischl, time to put up or shut up” exercise, by which I mean I spent a sleepless night coming up with several potential ideas and then decided this would be a good one to pursue. I suppose what I’m trying to say is there was no lightning-bolt moment of, “THIS is a great idea, I should write a book about it.” Of course, where the initial idea started and where it wound up turned out to be vastly different.
TL: The American west provides the perfect backdrop for the novel, a place where snake oil salesmen could work the vulnerable crowds unchecked, and where traveling “medicine” shows provided morbid entertainment. The sense of place is so well developed and authentic in your story. How much research did you do on this particular period in history?
ESF: I did quite a bit of research. I’m a history nerd, and I read a ton of historical fiction. When I read for pleasure, it drives me absolutely batty to see the kinds of anachronisms that a normal, non-historian reader can catch, or just when the sense of time and place seems cursory or thin. For example, the lazy “Oh, they’re wearing cowboy hats, and there’s a horse, so it’s the Old West” – never mind that they’re using things that wouldn’t have existed, or they’re acting like someone born in 1980 would act. It’s the kind of thing that jars a reader out of the story, so I tried my best to stay as true to time and place as I could. It can cause some discomfort; for example, I had a discussion with Angry Robot, my publisher, about the use of the word “whore”. Social mores regarding prostitution – and the words used to describe it – were different in the 19th century than they are today. I wanted to reflect that, but some at Angry Robot wondered if certain readers would find it offensive to read that word over and over, so we compromised a bit. There’s sometimes a trade-off, then, between historical accuracy and not wanting to alienate readers. Also, one final note: I’m fortunate that my agent, the wonderful Jennie Goloboy, is an actual historian who wouldn’t have let me slide on egregious anachronisms.
TL: Readers of speculative fiction catch writers very quickly when rules for their “magic” aren’t consistent. You did a brilliant job of slowly building the reader’s understanding around the tonic’s power and of Dr. Hedwith’s monstrous purpose. How did you work out your magical rules? And, are they based on alchemic lore, your own imagination, or a combination of both?
ESF: I’m a bit of an obsessive reviser, but a terrible planner, so this was really an iterative process rather than sitting down and plotting it all out ahead of time. There was a bit of give-and-take between what I researched and knew about alchemy, and where I wanted and needed the story to go. There’s a historical note in the back of the book that talks about this, but the short story is that alchemy, particularly in its later years, was really less mystical and magical than is often remembered now. In many ways, it was really just an early version of chemistry, which Enlightenment scientists later built on. The magic in the book, then, was something of a “let’s start with that as a basis” and twist it until it fits. So the rules, really, began with an early version of science, salted with imagination as needed. One fun thing about writing speculative historical fiction is that one can geek out about history, and try to be as accurate as possible, but then just make shit up when it suits your purpose!
TL: Your characters span the spectrum of morality – from the truly innocent to the depraved, with several falling in between. Who was your favorite character to explore and develop? Who was the most difficult to write?
ESF: Hoo boy, this is a tough one. Let me flip it around, first, and maybe mention who was the easiest to write: Lyman Rhoades, who is the main villain of the book and a truly repugnant human being. That guy was a piece of cake to write, which probably says awful things about me as a person, but there it is. In terms of a favorite character, I’m not sure I have one, but Dr. Potter himself, along with Oliver Wilson (The Black Hercules), were maybe the most challenging to write … getting the right nuance of who they were, i.e. essentially good and moral people who are broken enough to do amoral, evil things, was tough. These are characters the reader needs to root for and have hope for, but at the same time, they needed to be pretty pathetic and repellent in certain ways. The brothers Sol and Ag were the most entertaining to write – getting back into the idiotic mindset of a young man leaving the nest and trying to figure things out, feeling so strongly about everything and making one terrible decision after another. Plus, coming up with their carping, bickering dialogue was just a lot of fun. So, right, there are a whole bunch of characters to answer that straightforward question!
TL: Did you know which characters were going to make it out alive, or did that aspect of the plot evolve as the characters did?
ESF: That was pretty baked-in from the beginning. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a terrible planner, so I don’t outline from the get-go, but I had the rough strokes of the overall story figured out fairly early on. Getting from points A to Z took several meanders as I wrote and revised but, as well as I can recall now, there was no one whose overall path really changed or surprised me.
TL: I find that my surroundings often inspire my work. Does living in Montana inspire your writing in any way?
ESF: I think the best way it inspires me is that I’m just really in a good mood being here, as it’s exactly where I want to live. I feel incredibly fortunate in that way. The sun is usually shining here which, coming from 9 months of rain every year in the Northwest, where I lived until a few years ago, makes me happy and gives me more energy to write. Then, there are the mountains to stomp around in when I need a break. On the writing front, I think all that has made me more attentive to just how a place, and weather, and indirect physical things can affect a character’s state of mind and subsequent action. There’s a lot of rain and dreariness in DR POTTER’S MEDICINE SHOW, low gray clouds and that sort of thing, which not only helps with the overall tone of the story but directly influences the characters. It’s easy to overdo it, of course, but I think there can be a lot of nuance to this kind of idea if you pay attention to it. The way a character responds to indirect, sometimes pretty minor things, say a wet pair of pants, can be a shorthand way inferring a lot of other things about them, without having to explicitly describe it. These are the kinds of writerly things I geek out over, so blame Montana for giving me the enthusiasm to do so, I suppose.
TL: On a personal note, I know you’re a pretty impressive cook! What’s your favorite dish to make?
ESF: Don’t make me pick just one! Continuing on a bit from the prior question, I’ve always loved cooking, but living in Montana has given me more time to do so. That said, I have a lot more patience now for making fussy meals that take a bit of time and effort. Let’s see, if I had to pick a couple … I make a mean paella, and this year at Christmas I made an absolutely ridiculous boeuf bourguignon, a classically fussy French staple. Also, it’s been fun having access to more game meat and fresh river and lake fish to work into some recipes. A hunter friend of mine gave me an elk tongue recently that I turned into lengua tacos. They were damn good, although the tongue looked fairly disturbing during the cooking process. I can talk food for days so I should stop now.
TL: I have a mountain of books on my coffee table that I affectionately call my “pile of good intentions”. Do you have a similar stack? And if yes, what’s on your reading list this year?
ESF: My “stack” these days is more of a digital list that becomes physical books as I work down through it, but a similar idea for sure. As to contents for the year: I read an amazing Paris Review interview with the historian, Robert Caro, a while back that I just can’t stop thinking about, so I want to work my way through some of Caro’s books. I was on a Cormac McCarthy kick a couple of months ago and am planning to visit/revisit the rest of his books as well, which need a bit of spacing out. I finally read The Secret History recently and now want to read Donna Tartt’s other books. Then there are the books coming out this year – I can’t wait for the new George Saunders novel, and yet another Cormac McCarthy, and hopefully G.R.R. Martin gets his latest one released. And oh man, that Marlon James announcement about a fantasy trilogy? Sign me up and, yes, OK, fine, the first book of that is technically slated for 2018, but still. And you know what? I’ve never read the Dark Tower books. I know. People keep telling me I need to read them, so maybe I will.
TL: You have another book in the works. Can you give us a sneak peak?
ESF: I sure can. THE TRIALS OF SOLOMON PARKER is a follow-up to DR POTTER’S MEDICINE SHOW; it’s related, without being a direct sequel and is a very different type of story. It will be out in November, also from Angry Robot. I’ll just give you the back-of-jacket blurb:
“Flame and smoke. This is Butte, Montana in 1916, the Richest Hill on Earth: a copper-fueled boomtown of industry, pollution, labor unrest, vice, and crime. The Gibraltar of Unionism, where a man can get a fair wage for fair work, or maybe get himself killed down the mine, one way or another. Butte, where fortunes are made. These are the years of the Copper Kings.
Solomon Parker, broke, busted down, and in debt to the wrong sorts of people, wishes his life could have turned out differently. Lately, he’s always one step ahead of his last bad decision, the wrong bet, but those steps are getting shorter.
Little does he know that, soon enough, he and his young protégé, Billy Morgan, a man caught between two cultures, will get the chance to change their lives.
The Above Ones, the gods of the People, are bored. Marked Face, their servant, is coming, and he’s bringing his dice.”
TL: Thanks so much, Eric! Best of luck with the release.
Eric Scott Fischl writes novels of speculative historical fiction and the supernatural. He lives in Montana’s Bitterroot mountains and writes his author bios in the third person.