The morning of August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts started out like most any other warm summer New England day. But before noon, the prosperous mill town would be rocked by two horrifyingly brutal murders that continue to fascinate and mystify the American public and the world to this day. More than a century later author Erika Mailman has tapped into the infamous and terrifying legacy of the person accused but ultimately exonerated of those crimes, Lizzie Borden, as a backdrop to her new novel, “The Murderer’s Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel.” I sat down with Mailman recently to talk about the book, the craft of historical fiction and the public’s ongoing fascination with one of America’s most notorious crimes.
Open Mic: What is the official definition of historical fiction?
Mailman: It’s fiction about a time period that has be at least 50 years ago from the current time. It may be based on historical fact or it may be completely invented but it definitely evokes a bygone era and is squarely set in that time period. That of course includes the morals and paradigms of that era. For instance, in my witchcraft novel my main character believed in witchcraft because everybody in that era did and it would be really unusual to have somebody saying “well that’s such superstitious behavior, we don’t think that way.” So in historical fiction you must have everybody thinking and behaving the way people did in that time period.
Open Mic: And how did you come to focus your talents on historical fiction? Did you always love history?
Mailman: I love history! And it’s really funny because when I was in college I had a friend who was a history major and I was like, “really, that just seems so boring.” The one history class I did take I didn’t enjoy, but I’ve always loved historical fiction and I love thinking about the past. I think historical fiction is better than history textbooks at really bringing a time period to life so you can visualize it and really viscerally feel the time period, and that’s what I love.
Open Mic: Your book “A Women of Ill Fame” does a fabulous job of capturing not only the grubbiness and bawdiness of San Francisco during the beginnings of the Gold Rush era, but also the optimism of the people that were coming there to make fortunes or just because it was new and exciting. What is your research process like?
Mailman: Well, for one I read voraciously. That particular book came about while I was writing a history column for a small newspaper in Oakland called the Montclarion. I was their history columnist and so every week I would just go to the Oakland history room on the third floor of the public library and I peruse the stacks or go through files until I found something that I was interested in enough to write about. It was really fun to have that freedom to just follow my gut. There was one shelf that had maybe three or four books about prostitution in the west, and so I leafed through those. It was such a fascinating era. Women didn’t have that many options for employment. You might tend to a shop if your husband owned that shop but you probably wouldn’t own the shop yourself. You might be a governess, you might be a school teacher, but you probably weren’t a merchant. So prostitution was just one option for women who may not have had many others. And so I thought instead of a reluctant, pressed-into-the-situation prostitute I wanted somebody who approached it by saying ‘I’m going to make my own fortune, I’m going to attack this with a sense of gusto and become filthy rich.’ And so I loved that idea of my character Nora embracing what she did because she had to do it and then was committed to doing it really well, making a ton of money, and the ultimately getting out of the job.
Open Mic: Was it different with “The Murderer’s Maid?”
Mailman: Well, that’s the only book I’ve ever written that is built around a historical personage, which created a situation where I really felt like I had to get things right and accurate. I pored over everything non-fiction I could get my hands on. The court transcripts are fascinating because Lizzie Borden contradicted herself so many times. They’d ask a question and she’d give an answer, and then they ask it again and she would give a different answer. She was all over the place. So there was a lot about Lizzie out there but not so much about her maid, and so I jumped on the idea of writing the novel from the maid’s point of view. Bridget Sullivan was the only other person in the house on when Mr. Borden and his wife were brutally murdered by hatchet. Bridget was upstairs napping in her attic bedroom for one of the murders and outside washing windows for the other.
Open Mic: And missed it all?
Mailman: And missed it all. The house where this took place is now a bed and breakfast. There’s a lot to be said about the ethics behind spending the night in the room where Mrs. Borden lay in a pool of blood, but my editor insisted I go and stay there because one of my characters in the book is contemporary and goes and stays in this bed and breakfast. There’s a two hour tour that accompanies overnight guests. Our tour guide told us that Mrs. Borden weighed probably 180-200 pounds, and so when she fell the whole house would have quaked. Our guide actually weighed about that much, and so she jumped herself to show us what she meant. I shrieked because, first, I didn’t expect her to do it, and also because it really did quake the entire house. So even if Bridget was outside doing windows you would think she would have heard that. So yeah, there really are a lot of questions about how much the maid knew about what happened that day. The prosecuting attorney had always privately said she knew more than she was telling. Of course Lizzie Borden was acquitted and so this is an unsolved case to this day.
Open Mic: How much license are you able to take in terms of putting words in a character’s mouth or creating situations that you know they are in when we are talking about a real person rather than someone you created out of whole cloth?
Mailman: There’s a lot of latitude, in part because there’s just not very much we know directly from her mouth. Bridget was discounted a lot in her era, in great part because she was straight from Ireland, and this was during an era where there was a lot of anti-Irish sentiment. She was definitely interviewed many times, she testified in court and she testified at the inquest, but she was never really taken seriously the way she ought to have been. So I had a lot of latitude to put words in her mouth and create scenes. For the Lizzie character, a lot of the scenes are real things that people testified in court that she told them. Things like “my mother is a mean old, good for nothing person and I don’t call her mother, she’s my stepmother.” But then I did also invent some things out of whole cloth that were fun to create.
Open Mic: In non-fiction there’s so much emphasis on platform. If I was going to write a non-fiction book about Lizzie Borden an agent or publisher would want to know why I was the best person to do that. Do you ever run into that when you write historical fiction?
Mailman: No, I don’t think I needed or have a platform in that way. I’m not a Lizzie Borden expert. I do know I’ve been fascinated by this case ever since I heard about her from the jump rope rhyme when I was a child growing up in Vermont. But I’m certainly not a historian and I’m not a Lizzie Borden expert. For fiction writers, platform seems to be more about how many followers you have on Twitter or how many Facebook friends you have.
Open Mic: Speaking of social media, how has it impacted your career and what you do?
Mailman: It has affected my career in that I spend a lot more time online now when I could be writing, I mean once I put the kids to bed it could be prime writing time but instead I seem to catch up on Facebook first and whittle away a certain amount of time that I feel guilty about. That said, I do think Twitter is more helpful for writers than Facebook. For instance, there is an upcoming Lizzie Borden movie with Kristin Stewart playing the maid and Chloe Sevigny playing Lizzie. I happened across the hashtag #Lizziethemovie where people were sharing stills and anything else they found about the upcoming movie because they love those actresses so much. So I started posting to that hashtag. I would make a diptych of the author with the historical person next to them and they would be re-tweeted quite a bit. I was seeing numbers I had never seen before, so that was exciting. I don’t know how much that will translate into sales but I could see if you knew better than I do how to use those hashtags it could be a really effective marketing tool.
Open Mic: Do you believe in the concept of writers block? How do you deal with issues of creativity and motivation?
Mailman: That is such a big question with so many components. I have so many threads I like to follow. I actually have a computer file of book ideas, or books that I have 50 written or 100 pages worth but then had to abandon. That list the last time I looked was around 50 books. So if I did a book a year, I’ve already outlived myself. And these are all things I’m fascinated by. But the constraints of real life with young children and the freelance work I do to help the family income make it very hard. It would be great if the instant my time freed up I could just sit down and start writing, but I need to get into a meditative space first, and sometimes doing a little bit of social media helps me kind of settle down in that way. I do have to say I’ve learned that when time arises that I can jump on it and I can write. I believe that writer’s block probably does exist, though it’s not a problem for me. My problem is more finding time to write.
Open Mic: Do you work off an outline?
Mailman: I would say like 90 percent of my traditionally published books have been outlined, and the ones that weren’t outlined were not published. I once spent eight years working on a non-outlined novel. I still believe in that book, and I’m still planning to turn my attention to it at some point because I’ve learned enough writing the other books that I think I can go back and attack it and fix it. But the next book I wrote I had an outline, and that was “Woman of Ill Fame.” I happened to be unemployed at the time and I busted out a rough draft in a couple of weeks. It was only novella length but having that outline really let me just fly through cause I wasn’t pausing in my seat wondering where it all went next. I knew where it was going. And I write a YA series with Kensington books where I was required to turn in an outline to the publisher ahead of time. And I definitely outlined “The Witch’s Trinity” and the Lizzie Borden book. So I definitely believe in the efficiency of duking out plot twists and big moments before you start writing. You then have a skeleton you can put flesh and tissue and muscle onto. There’s still a lot of room for whim and serendipity to happen but at least you’ve got that structure happening.
Open Mic: Sadly, unexplained murders happen almost every day in America. But this particular case has been fascinating the public at large for more than a century. Why do you think the Lizzie Borden case has resonated so strongly for so long?
Mailman: There’s so much about it that I think is intriguing. Killing a parent and a step parent, is in itself pretty shocking. I think we’re fascinated because she was acquitted and a lot of people think she’s guilty, so there’s a sense of, she got away with it. The fact she was a woman who possibly and probably did such a brutally violent thing is fascinating to people. In this era women weren’t usually wielding hatchets. They didn’t usually chop the wood because that was the man’s job. This was an era where women wore skirts, were gentle and sweet, weren’t allowed to vote, were not allowed to serve on juries. It really was the trial of the century, and every major newspaper sent a reporter to sit in that tiny courthouse in New Bedford, Massachusetts and cover this trial. She faced a jury of men who didn’t really think her or any woman capable of hitting an individual with a hatchet for that many blows. And I think maybe that’s the fourth element of what’s so fascinating – how many blows there were. There was so much rage. And it wasn’t 40 or 41 like the rhyme says. One was 19 and one was 11, I believe, but that’s still a lot because probably after two or three the individual is deceased and yet this person continued in some kind of unearthly rage to lay blows. And I think that’s just part of what’s fascinating, seeing the ugliest part of human nature blown up large in that way.
Open Mic: There is also a modern element to your story. How did that come about?
Mailman: That was actually my editor’s idea, and I’m really glad she suggested it because I think we love stories where there is a modern-day component and then those characters can reflect back and give readers the firsthand historical elements. And part of why I think that’s important for this book, as I mentioned earlier, is that Bridget Sullivan was discounted and scorned for her Irish immigrant status. My modern-day character is the child of a Mexican immigrant and just as the Irish were despised in the 1800’s, Mexicans have a really hard time in today’s political climate. And so I thought that this modern day narrative provides a lens which we can look through at modern day discrimination against immigrants.
Open Mic: That’s really interesting. We’re seeing more pushback against writers having multi-cultural characters in their work, sometimes from editors or agents who feel people aren’t going to want to read a book where the protagonist is Hispanic or black. Did you run into any resistance in that regard to having a character not be Caucasian?
Mailman: The book isn’t out yet but everybody’s who’s on my team at the publishing house is embracing it and thinking it’s important. And in particular with this story because if we treated it any differently it could be just a really sordid story because it is about murder. I think this modern day character elevates the prose so that it’s actually socially conscious and not just a story about bloodshed and gore. Now it’s also a way to look at how lots of things: how we treat immigrants, how we treat murder and why there is something like murder tourism. I’m personally fascinated by the case and I totally see that there are other people who are sufficiently fascinated with it that they would want to stay there, but I think there were some people that were staying there for less reputable reasons maybe?
Open Mic: And what do you mean by that? Like fascinated by the salaciousness of it?
Mailman: Yes. That it’s great to in the room where this poor elderly women was slain and lay face down on the floor in her own spreading blood and then was photographed and autopsied and the whole nation eventually had access to her crime scene photographs. There’s just something that’s so distasteful and sad about that. And that’s human nature too. We’re curious. People drive by the highway accident and slow way down so they can see what people look like.
Open Mic: The publishing industry has changed a lot over the last 20 years. Do you think it’s better now for writers or worse than it was 10 or 15 years ago?
Mailman: It’s better for some writers and worse for others. The publishing houses have shrunk, the imprints have been swallowed by larger conglomerates and the big players own everything. So editors at publishing houses are being a lot more selective. They’re more tentative, they won’t take risks, they are being really cautious. So for people pursuing traditional publication it is very much harder. However there is this whole wonderful indie publishing world that has arisen. It used to be called vanity publishing, which sounds so undesirable. But indie publishing has been re-branded and I think it’s wonderful because if the publishing houses aren’t taking books they would have published in the past, then what are those authors to do? Now they can get their work out there, they can control it better, they can get cover art they love, they can have more of a say in how the editing process goes and I honestly think readers can’t tell sometimes what’s traditionally published and what’s indie published. I think we writers can look at something and instantly know if it has been indie published, but if you’re trying to reach readers – and we all are – I don’t think they can necessarily tell. I feel lucky that the Lizzie Borden book found a traditional publisher. I just indie-released “House of Bellaver,” which is set in Oakland, so we’ll see how that goes. I think it’s kind of exciting that authors can now have the reins in their own hands.
Open Mic: Do you think there’s a chance that traditional publishing dies out and we all bear the cost of publishing our books and the traditional publishers turn more into distributors and marketers?
Mailman: Right now I have to believe that traditional publishing will continue to thrive, albeit in a smaller way. Because I think they’re a validation mechanism for what makes up a really good book. I can only hope that it never goes away.
Open Mic: Let’s imagine I have the power to arrange for you to have dinner and a conversation just one of the three following people: Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, or Lizzie Borden. Which one would you choose and why?
Mailman: I knew you were going to say Lizzie Borden! I would not want to have dinner with her because I feel so strongly that she is guilty that I wouldn’t want to sit down with her. Even if she was innocent, she still seems like a very unhappy person. Her contemporaries said she was always a downer. Everyone else would be laughing and having fun and she would be kind of sunken into her thoughts. So she doesn’t sound like a fun person to be around. Amelia Earhart of course I would love to be able to press her as to what happened on that last fateful trip and where she ended up, her and Fredrick “The Great” Noonan. But hands down it’s got be Susan B. Anthony. I love the suffrage story and the fact they there were women who gave their all, gave their everything for their lifetimes for me and my contemporaries to vote, so I would love to sit down and eat with her and to thank her. Have you ever seen the photograph of her tombstone where people paste their “I Voted” stickers? That can actually bring me to tears sometimes, so I would love to have dinner with her and thank her.
All of Erika Mailman’s books can be purchased through Amazon or wherever books are sold.