I’ve always been fascinated with poisoning. It’s a hard thing to talk about at a dinner party,” says Susannah Appelbaum. She describes a mushroom known as the inky cap that’s not dangerous at all unless it’s combined with alcohol. “So the way you poison someone is to make a mushroom dinner and pour them a lot of wine. You eat the food too, but don’t drink anything,” she says with a knowing smile. “Poison is sly.”
When Applebaum was around four, she tasted an alluring blue flower in her aunt’s garden and wound up in the hospital for three days. Several years later, she took to crossing an old railroad trestle near her New Paltz home. “This was in the pre-Rail Trail days, so there were ties missing, it felt very dangerous. I used to look down and think, What if there was a little man living under there?”
Appelbaum’s debut novel, Poisons of Caux: The Hollow Bettle (Knopf Books for Young Readers) features trestlemen, a trained crow, a wild boar, some exceedingly scurvy knaves, and a mysterious jewel. Her feisty young heroine, Ivy Manx, has a way with plants, both healing and lethal—a valuable skill in a land where the rule is “Poison or be poisoned.”
Tall, striking, and regally poised, the author resembles a fairy-tale princess whose basket of apples may not be entirely safe. She’s the daughter of poet, SUNY New Paltz philosophy professor, and Codhill Press publisher David Appelbaum; her mother died when she was eight. A voracious reader, young Susannah wasn’t allowed inside her father’s office, but “I’d peer around the door at his writing table—the same table he still uses—piled with messy papers. He was a pipe smoker back then, so there was a haze in the room. It was a place that was very intriguing.”
When David Appelbaum went to teach at the Sorbonne for two years, his teenage daughter learned French by the “sink or swim” method. She attended NYU, traveled abroad, and found work as a magazine editor, shunning New Paltz for 13 years. “But like some twist of fate in a story, I guess I was destined to raise my kids on the same playground I played on,” she says. She and her husband moved back here nine years ago and just built a house, which he designed; the paint on the porch is still wet.
Though the Poisons of Caux trilogy targets young readers, its supple prose and award-winning artwork will also entice adult readers of fantasy. It’s hard to resist a character introduction like “Mr. Sorrel Flux’s heart, in fact, which pumped its limp business inside his chest, was just as hard and calloused as the rest of him. It was stony and small, and if someone had plucked it from his chest and thrown it at you, it would have certainly left a bruise.”
The trilogy’s second volume, The Poisoners’ Guild, will be released in August 2010; Applebaum is currently writing the third. The mother of two young children, she often wakes at 4:30 and writes until her husband leaves for work. She treasures the quiet intensity of predawn hours. “You’re transferred from your dream world right to your desk,” she avers. “The less time from bed to desk, the better.”
On her first publication day, Appelbaum took a day off. “I allowed myself a day of celebration before I went back to work,” she says. Though she was afraid to go into bookstores “in case they didn’t have it,” she did make a stop at New Paltz’s Inquiring Minds. As she passed a college-age woman making a purchase at the cash register, the salesclerk said, “This author will be signing books later this month.” Appelbaum turned, and the book in the young woman’s hand was The Poisons of Caux. She was exultant. “That’s me! You can’t beat that feeling.”
Or maybe you can. She just received an e-mail from a male reader who wrote that he wished the book would go on and on, and couldn’t wait for the next volume. “I guess it’s officially my first fan mail.” Appelbaum shakes her head, smiling. “You can float on that for, like, a week at 4:30 a.m.”
Appelbaum is not the only Hudson Valley-raised young-adult writer enjoying a first publication this fall. Four days before publication of Nova Ren Suma’s middle-grade novel Dani Noir, the author can barely contain her excitement. “I don’t think I’m going to stalk the book in stores, but honestly, if I walk past a bookstore, how can I not go in?” she says.
Dani Noir (Aladdin) is set in the mythical Catskill town of Shanosha, where 13-year-old Danielle Callanzano is spending the summer after her father’s desertion chilling out at the town’s art house cinema. Her imagination inflamed by film noir classics, she starts stalking a teen femme fatale wearing polka-dot tights.