I follow a lot of authors on Twitter and Anna Mazzola is genuinely one of my favourites; I liked her even before I read her stonking debut novel, The Unseeing. I was curious to know what inspired her work, how her job as a solicitor influenced her choice of staory and also to maybe gain a few sneaky tips for my own writing…
1) How did you first find out about the crime in your book and what was it in particular that held your interest?
I first heard about the Edgware Road Murder in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. The crime is mentioned only briefly, but grabbed my attention as it took place in Camberwell, not far from where I live, and was both peculiar and horrific. James Greenacre, the man accused the crime, had distributed the body parts about London: the torso beneath a paving slab off the Edgware Road, the head in Stepney Canal, and the legs in a ditch off the Coldharbour Lane. However, when I read the trial transcript, it was Sarah Gale’s story that gripped me. She was accused of helping Greenacre to conceal the gruesome murder of another woman and yet in both the Magistrates’ Court and the Old Bailey she said almost nothing. Given that she was facing the death sentence, I thought that was very strange. What was keeping her from speaking out?
2) Have you always been interested in Victorian crimes?
I’ve been interested in mysteries and crimes for a long time, but not specifically Victorian ones. I began reading mystery books as a child. I was obsessed with the Riders at Black Pony Inn series by Christine Pullein-Thompson, and then with supersleuth Nancy Drew. In fact, I recently found a book I’d written aged 7 called ‘The Kidnap of Lucy’. Which is particularly worrying when you consider that Lucy is the middle name of my little sister (who was at that stage a baby). I gave it to my mum as a mother’s day present. Alarming.
3) How did you conduct your research- and what was the most interesting thing you found out during the research stage?
I started off with researching the case itself (through newspapers, the National Archives, Old Bailey online, convict records and pamphlets) and of course Newgate prison, where much of the action takes place. I read prison diaries and parliamentary commissions, I searched for sketches and pictures, and I studied plans of Newgate to get a sense of what that prison might have been like. In terms of the streets outside, I read journalistic works such as Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, the fiction of the period, guidebooks, newspaper reports, court reports, letters, and the journals and memoirs of those who lived in or visited London. This was all great fun. The tricky bit was stopping myself from researching and finishing the darned book.
I learnt many interesting and strange things, about both London in the 19th century and the case itself. I was unnerved to learn that James Greenacre had left Sarah his spectacles. I suppose glasses at that time were valuable, and it was perhaps an act of kindness, but he doesn’t seem to have been a kind man. Far from it. I wondered if it could have been a message: a warning that he was still watching.
4) How did your job influence the novel?
I suppose it was because of my interest in justice that I became fascinated by this particular story, and why it plays out as it does. I’m interested in how the criminal justice system treats vulnerable people and victims of crime, and how a criminal charge affects people’s lives, whether they’re acquitted or convicted, so those aspects all feature in The Unseeing. However, I can’t say that my legal knowledge was directly relevant to the book. Whatever we think of the British justice system, we’ve come a long way from the early Victorian era!
5) Can you describe your writing process? How has it changed between The Unseeing and your second novel (if it has.)
It involves reading, writing, procrastinating and panicking in about equal measure. The way I write has changed a lot as I’ve progressed as a writer, however. For The Unseeing, I created a relatively short synopsis and worked from that, but the novel changed drastically over the three and a half years in which I wrote the book, and I now know that I should have plotted it out in a far more detailed way, and thought far more carefully about the characters’ arcs. Every writer is different, but I think I work best when I know where I’m headed (even if the plot later changes). For my second novel, I’m working from a far more detailed plot structure. We will see how that works out.
With both novels, I have spent far too much time carrying out research. I have vowed to be more restrained with my next one!
6) Which authors and novels have influenced your own writing?
Ooh, lots. Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Sarah Waters, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Dickens. My favourite books generally have a crime at their centre but aren’t always classed as ‘crime’ novels: they’re explorations of why people end up committing terrible acts.
7) If you could have written any novel ever, which one would it be and why?
Alias Grace by Atwood. It’s practically perfect in every way. It’s dark, it’s clever, and it’s so bloody funny. I’ve read it five times and every time it gets better. For financial reasons, it might also have been handy had I written The Girl on the Train.
8) If you could host a literary dinner party (and could invite authors or characters), who would you invite?
Well, I’d need someone who could cook, because my cooking is dire. Maybe Constance from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it might not be wise to invite her sister, Merricat. Zaphod Beeblebrox can make the cocktails and Jay Gatsby will make sure everyone’s glass is kept topped up. I’ll invite a few troublemakers to to liven things up – Hunter S Thompson would be a good bet, and Becky Sharp. Some great talkers – Oscar Wilde, David Sedaris, Yossarian. And on the far end of the table, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, arguing it out.
The Unseeing is out now. You can follow Anna on Twitter: @Anna_Mazz