I met Erika Mailman last October when we both did SF in SF at the American Bookbinders Museum. She struck me immediately as a kindred spirit.
Officially, Erika Mailman is the author of four historical novels: The Witch’s Trinity, a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book which Khaled Hosseini called “gripping;” Woman of Ill Fame, which is about a Gold Rush prostitute; House of Bellaver, a literary ghost story set in Oakland; and now The Murderer’s Maid: a Lizzie Borden Novel. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona, has been a Yaddo fellow, and served as a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards.
Did something in the real world inspire The Murderer’s Maid?
Yes, my novel was inspired by a true crime case in 1892 Massachusetts: the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, husband and wife. They were both killed by hatchet in their home, an hour or so apart (which meant the killer laid in wait for Andrew to return from his errands). Andrew’s daughter Lizzie Borden was accused of the murder, spent a year awaiting trial, and was acquitted by a jury that couldn’t believe a woman capable of such depraved violence. Rumors have followed her throughout her lifetime and beyond that she… somehow… got away with murder.
What is your favorite scene in the book — and why?
The opening scene where the family maid Bridget Sullivan is opening the door to Andrew Borden, home from his errands and minutes away from being murdered. For some reason, he couldn’t get in via the side door like usual and had to use his key at the front door—which for some reason wasn’t working. Bridget had to run to the door to let him in and even she had trouble with the triple locks. While she battled to let him in, she heard Lizzie on the staircase behind her laugh. It’s such a chilling moment that still “gets” me when I spend any real amount of time thinking about it… because Mrs. Borden was lying on the upstairs floor dead, visible to anyone standing on the stairs.
What was your writing process like as you wrote The Murderer’s Maid?
I wrote 100 pages of the historical storyline and they sat for two years (long story, and I don’t want to get my heart rate up). Then I wrote the rest very quickly. My editor suggested the contemporary storyline and I threaded it into the existing historical narrative. I tried to think in broad strokes, so I wouldn’t get distracted by googling research along the way. I added detail-work in after the draft was complete. I spent a lot of time on Lizzie Borden forums and pestering a wonderful expert Faye Musselman, who was very patient with me. Small problems arose, like did Lizzie really faint at trial at the sight of her father’s skull, or was that apocryphal? Further, was that really his skull or a plaster model? The skulls in the display cabinet at the Lizzie Borden B&B: are those plaster casts? If so, where are the real skulls? Et cetera. I indulged in this level of detail to make sure I got it right (even while feeling the liberty of adjusting and inventing because it is, after all, historical fiction).
The Murderer’s Maid: a Lizzie Borden Novel tells the iconic American true-crime case from the point of view of the family maid, an Irish immigrant named Bridget Sullivan. The murders took place in 1892 Massachusetts, at a time when the Irish were scorned and shopkeepers would put signs on their doors: “Irish need not apply.” Sullivan’s importance to the case (she was the only other person in the house that day besides the accused and the victims) was discounted because of her background. She was mocked in court for her brogue. The novel also incorporates a modern-day narrative with the daughter of a Mexican immigrant echoing the long-ago racism leveled at the Irish. I jokingly call this book “bloodthirsty with a social conscience.”
What was the best thing that happened during your promotion of the book?
Meeting you! 🙂
Besides that, the first event I did for this book was the “Why There Are Words” series in Sausalito, hosted by Peg Alford Purcell. It was a wonderful night because, despite the wildfires raging in Santa Rosa, a small group of people came out for healing words. Peg and her husband’s home was in danger (they had evacuated) and a very good friend of mine, Linda McCabe, had also evacuated and came to the event anyway… It felt moving that words were still important in the midst of all that trauma. I also got to see several other dear friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, and we had an absolutely wonderful dinner beforehand at a restaurant on the water. Finally, there were other readers at that event whose work blew my mind.
And then, this just in, a late add: I just learned that a woman who is so into the Lizzie Borden narrative that she got married at the Bed & Breakfast contacted me to say she loved the novel and posted a review. She had stayed up until 4:30 a.m. to finish reading it. To garner the approval of such a (forgive me) “die hard” Lizzie fan meant the world to me!
What do you have planned next?
I always have several things cooking writing-wise. Either that is productive multitasking, or a failure to commit. 🙂 In terms of book events, I am doing the Authors on the Move event in Sacramento on March 10 and the Walnut Creek Authors Gala April 28.