It’s safe to say that I’m a huge fan of Sarah Schmidt’s amazing debut novel See What I Have Done. It’s one of my favourite novels of recent years and one that I think everyone should read. Of course, I’m delighted that Sarah agreed to be interviewed for the blog- so strap yourself in for pigeons, book talk and writing advice…
Can you describe the connection you felt with the Bordens as you were writing the novel?
More than anything it was luck. I was in a second-hand bookstore when I accidentally knocked a pamphlet about Lizzie Borden off the shelf. After reading about the case I was initially uninterested. But that night and for a whole week, I dreamt that Lizzie was sitting on the edge of my bed poking me in the legs. She said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I began writing down my these dreams hoping they’d go away and without realising it, I had started writing a novel. Before too long I was drawn into the case and it was too late too back out.
The connection I felt is hard to explain. I just couldn’t stop thinking about them.
Have you always been interested in true crime, or was it the unsolved nature of this crime that drew you to it? Are there any other cases that have caught your interest?
I wouldn’t say I’m a ‘fan’ of true crime at all however I am fascinated by particular cases and the people involved. I suspect this is what drew me to the Bordens: it wasn’t so much the crime or trial I was fascinated by but them as a family and my desire to find out more about them, the moments leading up to the crime.
Every now and then I’ll come across a case where I think, ‘Now THAT would be an interesting novel to write,’ but it all comes down to the how and why. There’s one story I’m particularly interested in that has recently taken place in Australia: the Tromp family. The thrust of the story is this: over a weekend, the Tromps flee their farm with their grown children and set out on a ‘family car trip’ up the coast. One by one the children escape yet are unable (or unwilling) to tell police what happened on the car trip. All they will say is that their father was behaving erratically and the women of the family seem to be suffering from a type of memory loss. It’s a very strange case. I’m sure I’m not the only writer in Australia thinking of writing around this story.
There’s a strong underlying rhythm to the language in the novel (especially in Lizzie’s chapters)- was this a conscious choice, or one that just happened organically as you wrote?
I think it’s a little bit of both. This is probably going to sound like a ridiculously earnest non-answer but in many ways, much of the rhythm and language of the book is naturally the way I write. Having said that when you set out to write about a particular set of characters in a situation you need to choose the best way to tell that story. For me that was identifying the aspects of my writing that I could ‘play up’ for say, Lizzie, and take it to a place that would be unsettling and creepy – enough to feel like it was my style but definitely not me. When I began writing down those initial dreams, Lizzie had a very distinct way of looking at her world and was very evasive. She sounded so much like a petulant child at times. I went with that feeling and tried to make it work the best I could in my way of storytelling.
Can you describe your research process? What’s the most interesting thing you found out during your research?
My process is haphazard and ill conceived and usually led by the gut! It really depends on what I’m working on but generally speaking, I always start with an image or a feeling and try to work outward from there.
In the beginning with See What I Have Done, once I’d had the image of Lizzie at the end of my bed, I researched the case for a few months, just enough to feel confident with the main thrust of the case, and then I put it away and tried not to actively think about it. I know that sounds counter intuitive but because I wanted to write a reimagining of the events and concentrate on the family rather than a blow-by-blow account of the crime and trial, I knew I should only use the information I could retain. As the years went on I’d again look at other aspects of the case or read about Victoria-era America and I’d start that whole forgetting-relearning cycle all over.
Another thing I do for research is a lot of walking. It almost becomes a fact-finding mission. Moving through ideas is very helpful and often on these walks I’ll notice something that somehow connects with the novel I’m working on. That’s how the pigeons came to be in the book. One day walking around a suburb of Melbourne, I saw a very meaty looking pigeon watch me as I walked by and I thought ‘You filthy little rodent. I bet you’d make a nice pie.’ I don’t usually look at pigeons like this, so I knew it wasn’t ‘me’ per se thinking this but more a character. Then I really started to notice pigeons literally everywhere, that there was no escaping them. Later when I went to stay at the Borden house (which is now a B&B), there were pigeons galore and it was there that I first heard that two pigeon skeletons were found in the attic years before (this could be total rumour but I ran with it). It was around this time that I made the connection between all the pigeons I’d encountered and I got to thinking there is something creepy about those birds and what if there were birds hanging around the day of the murders? Who loves and hates these birds?
So I started weaving pigeons into the manuscript and before I knew it, pigeons had become Lizzie’s pets and Andrew despised them. And we all know how that turned out.
Which writers have influenced your own work?
Too many to list! It’s not always a particular book that is the influence but often the way the writer explores their themes, how they approach writing and so on. My influences can also change depending on the project I’m working on. But I can’t just stop at books: I’m hugely influenced by film and tv.
When I was writing See What I Have Done there were a couple of books which I had on the desk with me as totems. I didn’t always crack them open but having them near me was enough to remind me of a particular quality the book had that I wanted in mine. Sometimes the books would change but I’d always have Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides because I liked the way both the Lisbon sisters and the narrators seemed to move amongst each other like a giant wheel, the circular way of group thinking. It’s how I thought of Emma and Lizzie. There’s so much about Eugenides’ book I admire, I could go on and on.
Roughly four or so years into the writing of my novel, I gave my manuscript to my sister-in-law to get some feedback and she said, ‘Have you been reading Shirley Jackson? This reminds me so much of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.’ I hadn’t (and shamefully at the time I hadn’t really heard of her except I knew she’d written ‘The Lottery’) so I went along and got a copy of the book and it was like reading a long-lost friend, all that creepy gothic deliciousness. Initially I thought my manuscript might’ve been ‘too much’ in the weird department and that maybe I should pull back but when I read Jackson’s book it gave me the confidence to dial up the creepiness and to embrace the household I had creating. It also made me feel better about Lizzie being the way she is!
Which book do you wish you’d written- and why?
The books we wish we had written could only have been written by the author: they are the reason a book is great. However if I were Toni Morrison and delivered Beloved or Hanya Yanigihara and came up with A Little Life I’d be a happy writer.
Who would you invite to your dream literary dinner party?
That all depends what mood I’m in! For a fictional dinner party, and if I wanted to feel highly stressed, then I would invite myself over to Merricat and Constance Blackwood’s house and wait for the mushrooms to be served.
Failing that, I’d like to have dinner with Hanya Yanigiahra.
8) Have you eaten mutton stew or pears since writing your book?
Have I ever!
Actually, the food that I struggle to eat (but which I strangely make often and I’ve grown to appreciate again) is pea and ham soup. Many years ago one of my grandmothers came to visit for a few weeks and made so much of it that we were eating it for months afterward. In the beginning it was great but soon it became thick and strong and I remember the way the ham was torn off the hock, all the sinew fibre mixed into the gut-coloured peas. When we’d reheat it from the freezer the smell overtook the house. By the time we ate the last container I hated everything about it.
Are you working on something now?
I’m working on a new novel that I’ve been thinking about on and off for a few years. The only thing I can tell you is that it’s about a woman on a road trip driving towards a place called Blue Mountain. She is joined by her small child. Nothing is what it seems.
I can also tell you it’s not a particularly happy book.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to write historical crime fiction?
Ask yourself: why this story now? What is it about this case that speaks to you? Don’t feel as if you have to write about a particular type of crime because that’s what’s in vogue with publishing right now. These things change all the time.
Exploring our past to examine the way we are now, where we might be heading, is important and worthwhile. But it can also be complicated, so be mindful of that.