Finance alumna Sarah Penner pens best-selling novel
Before author Sarah Penner transported readers to the back alleys of 18th century London in her New York Times Best Seller, The Lost Apothecary, she was a student at the KU School of Business.
Born and raised in Hillsdale, Kansas, Penner started her journey at KU as a pre-medicine student before a C in chemistry during her freshman year led her to evaluate other majors.
“I kind of wavered, like a lot of college freshmen do,” she recalled.
Penner considered shifting to journalism or pharmacy but ultimately chose to play to her strengths with numbers and analytics, knowing a career in business would provide professional security. After majoring in finance, Penner graduated in 2008 and started her career at Koch Industries, where she rose through the ranks before moving to Florida and accepting a position at PwC.
Writing a best-seller
Despite her corporate success, Penner’s lifelong love of words and language inspired her to enroll in online writing classes and eventually draft her first book. She got in the habit of waking up at 5 a.m. and writing before work each day. Though her first manuscript was never published, the process taught her how to structure a book, invaluable experience that she brought into her second project, The Lost Apothecary.
The novel interweaves the story of an 18th century London apothecary owner who sells poisons for women to use against the oppressive men in their lives with the journey of a modern-day aspiring historian who comes across a mysterious vial in the River Thames.
The Lost Apothecary was published on March 2, 2021, and instantly made it on the New York Times Best Seller list, where it’s remained for more than a month. Penner called the turn of events surreal.
“I remember writing it and there being several scenes that I didn’t like,” she said. “I would think to myself, ‘This book is never going to get agented; it’s never going to sell.’ There were a couple of really memorable moments where I thought about scratching the idea all together, and I think back, and it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ I’m so glad that something in the universe kept pushing me forward.”
Penner recently left PwC, also known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, to focus on writing, a move that was a long time coming.
“For 13 years, I’ve really kind of had two jobs — one of them wasn’t paid until I sold the book, but I just kind of balanced the corporate life with my writing passion,” she explained. (Penner wrote about the experience in a recent essay for Kansas Alumni Magazine.)
Although she’s looking forward to her next professional chapter, Penner sees her business background as extremely beneficial. Writing fiction might seem a world apart from working in finance, but the process of revising a book requires critical thinking and analysis, skills Penner honed during her career, she said. Her time in the financial industry also provided security.
“There was something really reassuring and comforting in having a day job that I knew was going to pay my bills. That allowed my creative work to be really playful and fun,” she said. “Now, I’m in a different situation where my day job is my writing, but I can only do that because of the foundation I was able to lay while hustling for 13 years in corporate America.”
For others looking to balance their creativity with a career, Penner recommends deciding where you’re willing to make changes to create space for your passions, whether that’s getting up early or spending less time with friends. Then, start small.
“You don’t just have to set out and decide to write a novel or a screenplay or to become an expert in piano, whatever someone’s goal is,” she said. “You have to start with these really small steps. For me, that was signing up for those online writing classes.”