On Tuesday night I went off to the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones for the #BadGirls In Crime event, starring See What I Have Done author Sarah Schmidt, The Fatal Tree author Jake Arnott, The Unseeing author, and Little Deaths author Emma Flint, who I saw speak at Foyles a few months ago. There’s something about Little Deaths that has appealed to me since I first flipped through a copy of it last year at work, but for some reason it hasn’t made its way to the top of my book pile yet. Actually, when I say ‘some reason’, what I actually mean is ‘logistics, because of how they will all fall on me if I pull out books from certain angles’. God grant me some more shelves, tbh.
Anyway, I was really looking forward to this event and BOY OH BOY DID IT LET ME THE FUCK DOWN. Not really. It was excellent! See What I Have Done is a book that I’ve been looking forward to reading for ages. It’s a Tinder Press book and there is pretty much no publicity team that’s more awesome than them at getting things out on Twitter – I’ve been seeing pears around for ages and getting more and more excited about the novel. If I am 100% deadass honest I am one of those extremely gross people who loves true crime, so See What I Have Done, which is based on Lizzie Borden, sounds like it’s going to be right up my street. I’ve had the proof for a while and started reading it on the train on the way to the event, and boy oh boy is it good so far. Visceral and sticky and incredibly atmospheric. I’m extremely excited about reading the rest of it (although I have Erin Kelly’s new book, He Said/She Said, to read first – I’ve seen her speak at a couple of events and bought all her books because I thought she was wonderful and I still !! haven’t !! read !! them !! When will I address this precarious book pile problem? Probably never).
Anyway, because I am me, I bought copies of all the books. They are very beautiful, and also, thank God for my Waterstones discount.
Less of the faffing. I’m sure we’d all like to know more about the event. What drew me to it was two things: firstly, listening to writers speak is my favourite thing because they’re all so interesting and clever, and secondly, true goddamn crime. All of the writers were inspired by real life events – Jake Arnott by Edgeware Bess, Anna Mazzola by Sarah Gale, Sarah Schmidt by Lizzie Borden, and Emma Flint by Alice Crimmins. (I remember talking to a friend about a similar book a few months ago. “Is it… is it real person fanfiction about murderers?” I asked him. He laughed at me, which was rude and not untypical). I was wondering just how okay I am with the idea of using real life murders in fiction – it’s something that’s been done over and over again in TV shows and books and there is definitely something that sits with me strangely about the concept of having that creative spark lit up by a real life event in which someone – or multiple people – suffered greatly. As someone who also likes to write, I can understand that. There’s a sort of dispassionate line in your head – as one part of you thinks ‘That is truly terrible’ and is sincerely sad like the rest of the world, another part of you sits back and starts thinking about what exactly’s going on in people’s heads and how you could write it and what you could do with it. It’s an odd feeling, and one that sometimes leads people to think that you’re strange and sometimes overly disconnected from things. Being able to disconnect the intellectual shaping of a story from your own emotions, and yet to still feel those emotions to inspire your writing, is a handy writerly trick.
Anyway. The panel was led by Alex Clark, who is great and who was wearing an absolutely incredible dress. The first question was essentially: what is your novel about?
JA: The Fatal Tree is slang for the gallows. It’s set in the 1820s and tells the story of Elizabeth Lyon, or Edgeware Bess, who was part of a criminal partnership with Jack Shepherd, a bit like Bonnie and Clyde. He wanted to look at the way that women are often portrayed as either a femme fatale or a victim.
AM: The Unseeing was set in 1837 and was based on the Edgware Road Murder and the story of Sarah Gale.
SS: See What I Have Done is based on the story of Lizzie Borden. A pamphlet almost fell on her at a second hand shop and later that night she had a dream about Borden sitting at the end of her bed. (At this point, Sarah mentioned something REALLY GREAT that dream!Lizzie said to her, but like a genius I was too busy going ‘Ooooh’ in my head to write it down. It was essentially about Lizzie’s father, and the portion of blame on him.)
EH: Her central character, Ruth Malone, is based on Alice Crimmins. ‘I don’t know if she did it or not, but I know she didn’t have a fair hearing.’ That fair hearing and the lack of it is really what inspired all these writers in their books, imo.
The next question was about GENDER. That’s all I’ve written. I am a champ.
JA: It’s about women having to be punished in history – they always seem to not get a fair deal, particularly in regard to crime. They’re seen either as victims or as the worst possible – no in between. It comes from the idea of original sin and the Garden of Eden and the concept of all sin coming from women. The crimes are seen as more sinister because women committed them.
EF: Women are doubly damned: they’re condemned for the crime and also for being women. ‘None of our women conform to norms.’
SS: Female enjoyment was punished – see: Lizzie’s life after she was acquitted. Wanted to get inside Lizzie’s head – if she did it, why would she kill her parents? Everything else came after she was acquitted. Before that she had made two mistakes: firstly, showing no emotion, and secondly, becoming trapped in her lies. After the acquittal she and her sister moved into a mansion and started spending the money they’d inherited, which was when the local people really became unsettled re: her. In terms of research Schmidt felt that she needed to be comfortable with certain facts, but she didn’t want to write non fiction. Historical fiction means you can work in the current world while using the distance of history.
JA: He came across Edgeware Bess by chance – women’s stories aren’t often told which makes them a great opportunity for historical fiction writers. Bess was as important as Jack was, and a woman’s POV is often more interesting as their stakes are higher. In the criminal underworld, women have to be tougher to survive. They’re bright, damaged and resourceful. (This reminded me of that Josephine Hart quote: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.”) In fiction, women’s stories work because they’re not told in history so they’re an opportunity for creativity.
EF: Because her story is set in the more recent past, there’s more documentation than the other authors had, but there was absolutely nothing with Alice’s voice. Writing non fiction would have been a rehash of other books – fiction was an opportunity to make the characters come to life. Ruth was a bit of a femme fatale but not in a one dimensional Raymond Chandler way. As a character, Ruth was intended to be powerless, but to the men in the novel she’s either desirable or dangerous because she’s sexy.
AM: Thought that it would be easier to base a novel on a real story. She’s also a solicitor, which probably led to the fact that her agent (Juliet Mushens, I think? Who is amazing) spotted that her novel needed to be taken away from the real case more. In the Old Bailey transcript, only the man’s POV was heard. Her book is about the lies we tell ourselves.
SS: She felt fine writing about Lizzie Borden because there’s already been so much written about her already. She wanted to figure out what hadn’t been told already – what was actually happening in that house?
JA: When researching, he looked at the journalism of the time – this is how people were preserved. Also mentioned the oranges and lemons rhyme and its more serious undertones (SIDENOTE: I LOVE ANYTHING ABOUT HOW GODDAMN CREEPY NURSERY RHYMES ACTUALLY ARE).
EF: Didn’t go to Queens to research but used google street view. Her second book is set in London and she finds that physical details help.
AM: Walked around London a lot to research and also went online. She wants to visit Dead Man’s Passage (same).
SS: Went and stayed overnight in Lizzie Borden’s house, in her bedroom. (What the ever living fuck.) She wanted to see specifically that house, but she based the book also on her own creepy house experiences. The house she wrote about is almost a character in the book. It was initially the second narrator. A little like a Shirley Jackson book.
HOW DO YOU STOP YOURSELF BRINGING IN MODERN SENSIBILITIES?
AM: Immerses herself in the time period. Her second novel is based in Skye so she’s been using the Napier commission to hear the voices of the people around there in that time period. She also reads newspapers, trying to link everything back to what’s still important, which is the fact that women are still vilified by the media.
JA: Reads court testimony, which is great because it’s verbatim. Also reads first person narratives, along with a dictionary of slang. The criminal classes used slang in a creative and vibrant way. Vernacular is often richer, and more articulate and intelligent.
SS: She’s more interested in characters and people than time periods – she focuses on bringing the characters alive. It’s all about people and what they’re thinking. Everything else can be built around that.
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE THE NARRATOR?
AM: She always knew that it would be Sarah, but she changed it from first person. She also needed a second narrator, to pull the story out of Sarah.
SS: She was interested in the arrested development of Lizzie. Lizzie would tell her things and sometimes act like a petulant child refusing to say anything so she had to bring in other narrators to open Lizzie up. She liked to move in and out of the different narrators.
EF: Knew it would be Ruth’s story, because she was the main suspect – although it was hard to know how much to give away. She had to bring in a second narrator because Ruth wasn’t aware of everything going on during the story and investigation. She decided to make the second narrator fall in love with Ruth because ‘I didn’t like him very much’. (HA!)
JA: Using a second narrator opened up the story. First person narration helps you to become the character.
(I found the whole thing about first/third person narration fascinating, partly because I sometimes feel as though first person narration can distance you from a character more than close third does. Speaking fully in a character’s voice means that you can hide the things the character doesn’t want to talk about from the reader more easily than you can in third person. To me, third person can reveal more about the character than first. This was super interesting to listen to.)
WAS IT HARD TO MAINTAIN GOOD HUMOUR WHILE WRITING A GRIM STORY?
SS: It took about ten years to write and it was hard. She’s interested in everyday violence and found it liberating to write a character who enjoys being violent and is very uninhibited.
AM: Being a criminal justice solicitor is much harder – for her, writing is escapism. For her, writing in third person felt like taking a step back.
EF: Found herself obsessed with Ruth while she was writing her, almost like being in a relationship. It was hard to let go of her in the end.
DO THEY THINK THE OUTCOME WOULD BE DIFFERENT NOW?
AM: For Sarah, things would have been different. Back then there was an all male jury who would have known her background and been swayed by it.
EF: Now individuals have much more of a voice – you can find your own platform on social media. She would also hope that now the police would be more open. Back in the 50s, Alice Crimmins was shown her dead daughter’s body without being told what was about to happen so the police could gauge her reaction – this would never happen now and would hopefully be grounds for a mistrial.
JA: The early 18th century was very brutal – there was a lot of worry and fear about crimes against poverty and assault on the poor. Back then, murder was seen as treason, which means that women could be burned instead of hanged as punishment. The poor stole so little and got hanged for it. The rich stole more and got nothing. (This is still true now.)
SS: You can use mythology. The town that Lizzie Borden lived in thinks it’s cursed because it’s built on a land where indigenous people were massacred. We protect ourselves through mythology.
AND THAT’S IT. You can see that my hand got tired halfway through as I wrote down less and less of their answers – whoops. It was a really fascinating talk and I can’t wait to read these books. I have a ticket for the Rooftop Book Club tomorrow night, where Sarah Schmidt will be talking again alongside Sarah Winman, who I got to speak to at the Headline press night earlier in the year. I am so so excited about Tin Man coming out but also slightly gutted that it isn’t until July because I am absolutely desperate to read it. Anyway, that’s not the point. Fingers crossed SS doesn’t think I’m stalking her if she recognises me. This was a great evening – I’m so glad I went to it.