Chemical Bouquet, collage by Kirsten Stolle

i’m dark, but not that dark: four questions with erika mailman

To celebrate The Murderer’s Maid recent IPPY award victory, we sat down with author Erika Mailman to talk about killing your darlings, the Lovemakers, and Little Women. If you have your own questions for Erika, catch up with her at the Wordspring Conference, the Walnut Creek Library Authors Gala, or the Gold Rush Writers Conference and say hi!

What was an unexpected challenge you had when writing The Murderer’s Maid?

We had a bit of a crisis with the modern-day narrative. Someone at my publishing house was really against it and wanted the book stripped down only to the historical storyline. I had a long dark night of the soul in which I truly tried to think objectively about whether that narrative should go.

To provide some background, I had initially set out only to write the Lizzie Borden story from the point of view of her Irish maid Bridget Sullivan, but my publisher is a big fan of happy endings. There is no happy ending for the Bordens, so she suggested a modern-day storyline that could have one. We talked about several popular books that use this dual timeline tactic, and I got really excited.

By the end, I was in love with Brooke, my modern-day barista, and didn’t like the idea of letting her go. But I also wanted to make sure I did the right thing for the book. I didn’t want to hurt the novel just because I didn’t want to “kill my darlings.” By morning, I knew Brooke had to stay for several reasons:

  1. She provides escape from the relentless bleakness of the 1892 storyline
  2. Her immigrant daughter story is a great foil for Bridget Sullivan. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The things that are said of Mexican immigrants today are what they said of Irish immigrants back then.
  3. Brooke’s storyline elevates the story from just a bloody, historical tragedy to a book that has a social conscience.
  4. Her storyline sets this book apart from others that tackle the Lizzie Borden story in the more traditional way.

Who is a contemporary writer whose work you’re excited about right now?

I adore Sarah Waters. Her historical fiction is exactly the kind of dark, brooding, exquisitely-well-plotted work I love. My favorites are Tipping the Velvet and Affinity. Her latest came out in 2015, so I feel like we’re due for another one soon!

Who is an artist outside your field whose work you’re enjoying right now? (This could be a band you love, a textile artist, a podcast, etc.)

It’s funny, I was just thinking about this band recently because I was on a long car trip alone and could finally listen to explicit lyrics without kids in the car: the band is the Lovemakers. They’re a great indie band out of Oakland, falling in and out of being active; I see they did a show last month at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. I just tried to find them on Twitter and am now their fourth follower. My favorite songs are Shake That Ass and Prepare for the Fight. They are very fun live!

I also like visual artist Kirsten Stolle, whose work is political and provocative. I hope an image from her can be used on my next book cover. She’s an old friend from San Francisco dancehall days. I tried to get an encaustic of hers used on the cover of The Witch’s Trinity.

If you could go back in time and invisibly witness any historical event, what would you choose?

My mind of course goes first to the sinking of the Titanic (whose wouldn’t?!), but I fear my heart would break if I really had to see those people stuck on the deck when the last lifeboats had gone. So maybe it’d be fun to see Shackleton take that crazy sled ride down the mountain to save himself and his men. Or watch women voting for the first time in the U.S. Or nestle down some afternoon in the garret with Louisa May Alcott as she starts writing Little Women.

I’m sure you’re probably thinking I’d choose the Borden murders so I could know definitively whether it was Lizzie who killed Andrew and Abby Borden, but I have a hard enough time just looking at the crime scene photos. I’m dark…but not that dark. I’d probably try to intervene even though I’d be invisible.

[second image is detail from “Chemical Bouquet,” Kirsten Stole]