Yes, that's right! It's not Women's History Month anymore... and #womenshistoryreads is still going strong. How long will the series go? Keep tuning in to find out!
Today's interviewee is Erika Mailman, discussing the inspiration for her novel THE MURDERER'S MAID, whose life she'd like to see Jane Campion take on, and what show she calls "novel writing with fabric." Here's Erika!
Greer: Tell us about a woman from the past who has inspired your writing.
Erika: There are so many ways in which powerful people of the past are remembered. But I like thinking about the people who skirted the edges and didn’t have biographies written about them. For my latest novel, I focused on a woman who—if she had not been hired in a household with a famous double murder—would’ve been a nameless one of the millions of Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1800s.
Bridget Sullivan sailed to New England in 1886 and moved from state to state for the next few years before coming to work for Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1889. Bridget served as the family cook and maid. So many young Irish women with this name served in that capacity that “Bridget” became a noun for a maid. In this time period, the Irish were scorned and thought to be dirty, sickly, verminous, and a drain on public resources.
On August 4, 1892, Bridget was washing the windows when Mrs. Borden was felled by multiple hatchet wounds to the head. The body lay temporarily undiscovered in a second-floor bedroom, and eventually Bridget went to her third floor attic bedroom to take a nap. She awoke to the daughter Lizzie Borden calling her down, because now Mr. Borden had been murdered, too. “Miss Lizzie” went through a media circus of a trial and was acquitted.
Bridget fades from the record, but her time in court was not fully squeezed for the information she surely had about the tensions and resentments in the house. She was discounted because of her immigrant status. In court, she was even openly mocked for her brogue, and the courtroom laughed at her. I loved the opportunity to fill out the spaces of what Bridget might’ve known and not said. Mysteriously, her inquest testimony has disappeared. In court, she contradicted what she’d said at the inquest a year earlier (withdrawing the assertion that Lizzie had been crying the morning of the murders)…who knows what else she retracted or changed her mind about?
My novel also includes a modern-day narrative about a woman who is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant. I wanted to underscore the parallels of how immigrants are treated, then and today.
Greer: Play matchmaker: what unsung woman from history would you most like to read a book about, and who should write it?
Erika: Maud Gonne, Irish activist and suffragist—and muse to poet William Butler Yeats, who yearned for her and was spurned by her. Rather than a book, I think Jane Campion should write a screenplay about her, because Bright Star was so intensely wonderful and drenched with all the everything, that I know she’d make this story incredible.
Greer: What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?
Erika: I love "Project Runway." People would find it surprising because I’m not a style maven and as a feminist I worry about the unrealistic body types found in the modeling industry (although the last season included plus-sized models, which was fantastic to see). I’m less interested in the modeling side, and more in the design side. What I love about the show is that it follows the process of creation from the first idea, through first draft, through feedback thanks to the eloquent Tim Gunn and revision, and final iteration. It’s like they’re novel writing with fabric!
Greer: Love it! (And love Tim Gunn, especially.)
Erika: Would you say you’re obsessed with the 1800s—if so, why? Do you ever look at daguerreotypes and wish you could go be there with those people for the day?
Greer: Not obsessed, exactly, but yes, I would love to experience the world of my characters directly, knowing it has to be different from ours in countless ways, large and small. Historical fiction is always fascinating to me in the ways it draws parallels between the past and present (like you said above, with the resonance of how immigrants were treated then and now) but there's a lot to be said about both the similarities and differences between our world and theirs. In the area of character, I often focus on the similarities -- even if women didn't have the same rights and privileges, for example, who's to say many of them didn't have the same yearnings we do? But in painting a picture of their world for my readers, how it smells and tastes and looks and feels, I definitely investigate and describe all the differences as much as I'm able. That's what I'd want to go see for myself.