Alumni Spotlight - Sarah (Byrne) Penner '04

We love sharing the stories of our Saint Thomas Aquinas Alumni and this time we mean that literally. Sarah (Byrne) Penner graduated from Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in 2004 and recently published her first novel, The Lost Apothecary. The book is on the New York Times Best Seller list and will soon be translated into more than thirty languages worldwide. We recently caught up with her via email and had a chance to ask her a few questions about the book, her life and her years as a Saint. Her words of advice to students, “Dream big, keep your eyes on your own goals, and don't sweat the small stuff”.
 
Where did you go after graduating from Saint Thomas Aquinas?
I attended the University of Kansas and graduated with a degree in Finance. I spent thirteen years in corporate finance and in 2021 I left my job and officially became a full-time writer. I currently live in St. Petersburg, Florida with my husband and our miniature dachshund, Zoe.
 
What is your favorite Aquinas memory?
I took three years of German and I remember loving these classes, so much so that I went on to continue studying German at KU. I also went to Germany with my husband several years ago and was able to navigate around town due the language skills I'd acquired at STA.
 
Who was your favorite Aquinas teacher?
Mr. Ewing's classes were memorable; he taught us a new way of looking at poetry that I still think about on occasion. I also remember one of his quizzes in which the "extra credit" was to provide the adjective form of the word when something phonetically imitates the sound of the spoken word, like "terse" or "luscious." The answer on the quiz was onomatopoeic, and I got it right!
 
How did you get into writing?
I began writing seriously in 2015, after attending a moving lecture given by journalist and author, Elizabeth Gilbert. She was on tour for Big Magic, a game-changing book for creatives. Soon after her talk, I enrolled in my first online creative writing class and haven’t looked back since.
 
Tell us about the background for the book and your inspiration for writing it.
When the idea for The Lost Apothecary first came to me, I envisioned a woman—an apothecary—working from a hidden shop in a dark London alleyway. But, I knew I wanted there to be something sinister about her, and this quickly led me down the path of poison.
 
I clung to this initial vision throughout the writing of the book. The word apothecary is evocative, drawing forth visions of a candlelit storefront with sash windows, its walls lined with mortar bowls, pestles, and countless glass bottles. There is something beguiling, even enchanting, about what might lie within those bottles: potions that bewitch us, cure us, kill us. I aimed to develop this enchantment within the story, to really make the reader feel like he or she had stepped into the old apothecary shop.
 
Researching the many herbal and homespun remedies for this story was a time-consuming, albeit entertaining, task. I spent time in the British Library, sifting through old manuscripts and druggist diaries; I reviewed digitized pharmacopeias; and I studied extensively some well-known poisoning cases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was surprised by the number of plants and herbs that are highly toxic, and I was fascinated while reading about the clever, if ineffective, remedies used by the predecessors of modern-day pharmacists.
 
What advice would you give current Saint Thomas Aquinas students?
High school is an awkward time. I had only a few friends, and I was far from popular. I certainly didn't make any "most likely to" categories in the yearbooks, and I'd wager lots of people in my class didn't even know my name. But here I am now, a NYT bestselling author who resigned from corporate America at the age of 34. Dream big, keep your eyes on your own goals, and don't sweat the small stuff (like high school drama!).
 
You can read more about Sarah and her book, The Lost Apothecary by visiting, https://www.sarahpenner.com/books.
 
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