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Interview: October 27, 2022

THE POISON MACHINE is the thrilling follow-up to Robert J. Lloyd’s debut novel, THE BLOODLESS BOY, which was a New York Times Best New Historical Novel of 2021. This time, early scientists Harry Hunt and Robert Hooke of the Royal Society stumble on a plot to kill the Queen of England. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, Lloyd explains how his approach to writing THE POISON MACHINE differed from THE BLOODLESS BOY, discusses his research for the sequel and the most unexpected discovery he made during the process, and previews the conclusion to his Hunt & Hooke trilogy.

Question: When you began writing THE POISON MACHINE, you had one novel under your belt. Tell us one thing you promised yourself you would do differently from your approach in writing THE BLOODLESS BOY.

Robert J. Lloyd: I wrote THE BLOODLESS BOY in a very cavalier fashion and took me over 10 years of fiddling, stops and starts, and drastic revisions. It was a hobby, done furtively around my full-time teaching. I’d let it accrue, then see what I had, change it all, think of another direction. Find some little nugget of 17th-century history that simply had to go in and rewrite around that.

For a long time, the story was formless, plotless and pointless. It also didn’t have an ending. It wasn’t until I’d stumbled on one --- ah, yes, that’s who “did it”! --- that I was able to get a “final” draft into shape, ready to send to literary agents. I was advised to trim it from its 150,000 words to a more manageable 100,000 or so. (This kind of thing takes a while.) Then it received another thorough hose-down after Melville House picked it up for publication.

Having learned some bitter lessons on the way, I resolved I’d write this sequel far more efficiently. Before committing myself to writing sentences, I planned the whole thing in detail, and I knew how it ended very early on. The drawback of this is that characters “do their own thing,” but a lot of this kind of insurrection can be dealt with in the plan. I was far more business-like about it. It only took two years, still around my teaching schedule, rather than 10.

Q: The research that goes into your books is impressive. For THE POISON MACHINE, what was one unexpected discovery your research led you to make?

RJL: The unexpected discovery I’ll go for, one among many, was the detail that spurred the whole story. I was reading about Captain Jeffrey Hudson, who was Queen Henrietta Maria’s court dwarf. Famously, he was presented to her by hiding him inside a pie at a banquet, from which he emerged, all 18 inches of him, to the Queen’s evident delight. He fled France after being involved in a duel, where he shot his opponent dead. But he was taken by Barbary pirates and spent 25 years in captivity. The bizarre thing is --- as if all that’s not bizarre enough --- during his captivity he doubled in height. He explained this as being due to all the buggery he endured from the pirates --- the physics of which eludes me --- but I thought up a different reason. Which you may read, of course, in THE POISON MACHINE.

Q: Before you began writing your own historical series, had you read any novels that featured an emphasis on the scientific knowledge of the late 17th century? Was there one book in particular that inspired your decision to utilize a background of Restoration period science?

RJL: Not necessarily Restoration science, but there were a few books I read that suggested the kind of book I wanted to write. Allen Kurzweil’s A CASE OF CURIOSITIES is about a man who wants to create an automaton that talks realistically, set in late-18th-century France. Peter Ackroyd’s HAWKSMOOR uses Nicholas Hawksmoor’s architecture (Hawksmoor was Sir Christopher Wren’s assistant) to create something truly creepy. Lawrence Norfolk’s LEMPRIÈRE'S DICTIONARY moves through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. This was the book that made me want to write a novel more than any other.

Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle trilogy uses 17th century “natural philosophers” such as Hooke and Newton (as I do) and places them into a more fantastical framework than mine. I wanted my book to be a thriller, too, as I read so many. Frederick Forsyth’s THE ODESSA FILE was an enormous influence, where a German journalist infiltrates the Odessa organisation in the 1960s. My decision to use 17th-century science was more because I'd written my MA thesis about Robert Hooke, so I had researched him and the early Royal Society.

Q: Unlike your debut novel, THE POISON MACHINE moves between London and Paris for its settings. What kind of research into historical Paris did you need to do to make it as authentic as your knowledge of 1600s London?

RJL: A lot of reading, and a lot of looking at maps. Michel-Étienne Turgot’s panoramic map of Paris, although produced in 1739, was hugely useful because it’s so detailed, and it’s available online. With checking to ensure these streets and places were still called the same thing (or existed) in 1680, I could describe many of Harry’s journeys through Paris. Also, I used buildings that still exist, and so they can still be visited, such as La Bibliothèque Mazarine. Researching the French characters I used was more important. Character has to be foremost for me.

Q: The Hunt & Hooke series now will move on to the third book in your trilogy. Are you anticipating any changes to the main characters as we have observed them to this point?

RJL: There are changes, certainly to my main character Harry Hunt. It’s difficult to be detailed about that, because something happens to him in THE POISON MACHINE that I don’t want to give away. It significantly changes him. The books are a study of him growing up and “becoming his own man,” so I’ve always planned to have Harry changing as he goes through the series. His relationship with Grace Hooke continues to evolve as well.

Q: It would require a considerable budget to film any one of your novels, but they are crying out to get the miniseries treatment from an HBO or a Prime studio. Have you been involved in any discussions to that end?

RJL: Only in my head! And I agree with you utterly. I started THE BLOODLESS BOY so long ago that my mental cast has changed drastically over the years, as the original actors get too old. If any such thing ever does get made, I’d love a cameo, à la Stan Lee or Lee Child. Perhaps as a maimed soldier, begging for coin.