Sue Staats Interviews Erika Mailman - Award-Winning Author of The Murderer's Maid
Author Erika Mailman
Erika Mailman’s website bio says only this: that she grew up in Vermont, attended Colby College, earned her MFA at the University of Arizona, has been a Yaddo fellow, lives in Northern California and loves history, David Bowie, Oakland, Vermont, domestic shorthairs, fairy houses, mochas and movies. That’s it? Well, no. Not quite. Not nearly! There’s more to our September featured writer. Much more! She’s -
Author of The Murderer’s Maid, a true crime thriller and winner of two historical fiction awards in 2018 – the IPPY Gold Medal Award and the National Indie Excellence Award.
Author of The Witch’s Trinity, a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book for 2007 and a Bram Stoker Award finalist, as well as appearing on Entertainment Weekly’s list “Wickedly Great Books About Witches.”
Author of Woman of Ill Fame, praised by Diana Gabaldon (yes, THAT Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series) as “the best book I’ve read in a long time.”
Author, under the pen name “Lynn Carthage,” of the Arnaud Legacy Trilogy, three neo-Gothic YA novels.
A contributor to Arcadia’s local history series, Images of America, with Oakland Hills
A free-lance journalist whose features and travel writing have appeared in The Washington Post and Rolling Stone, among others
A teacher of writing, recently through mediabistro, now offering her own classes through her website AND as part of Stories on Stage Sacramento’s series of author workshops – you can sign up here for her September 26 workshop.
As well as carrying this impressive list of accomplishments, Erika is also a fun, delightful person, as I found in our recent e-mail exchanges and a phone chat. Yes, as an Outlander fan I was itching to get to how she got that endorsement from Diana Gabaldon, but as a responsible interviewer I started with questions about her books, specifically about The Murderer’s Maid, the novel you’ll be hearing an excerpt from (performed by actor Nicole Berry) during our live event with Erika on Friday, September 25.
Oh, okay, if you can’t wait, it’s question 6. But please come back!
SUE: Erika, everyone knows the verse “Lizzie Borden took an axe…etc.” The murder of Lizzie Borden’s parents is such well recognized historic event that I was curious about why you chose to write a fictional account about it. Also, I was curious about why you include a parallel narrative within the novel. Aren’t the stories on Lizzie and her maid, Bridget, juicy enough?
ERIKA: I had always, since youth, been fascinated by the story and known I would eventually write about it. However, there is so much out there, nonfiction and fiction, that has covered the story well, and I wanted to find something that made it different. At first, I thought my angle was simply including Bridget, because she is often discarded and overlooked just as she was in the 1890s; there was no book from her perspective. But then the idea of a contemporary storyline also arose, which also seemed to break new ground. This idea came from my editor at Yellow Pear Press, a boutique publisher formed by a former Chronicle Books editor (since then, YPP has been acquired by Mango Books). She thought the book was very dark and there was zero possibility of a happy ending unless we incorporated a modern-day storyline. I took that idea and ran with it because it opened so many doors, including the chance to draw parallels between how Bridget, an Irish immigrant, was treated and how immigrants from Mexico and Central America are treated today. It also let me talk about the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, a murder-themed B&B where you can literally sleep in the room where Mrs. Borden was killed, and sit on the sofa which is a replica of where Mr. Borden met his demise.
SUE: Sounds like a wonderful, fun bit of research, and leads to something I’ve always been curious about – how do historical novelists manage their research? How do you avoid getting bogged down in it? When have you researched enough? At what point do you say, okay, enough, time to write the story?
ERIKA: You have the problem exactly there! It is so hard not to go down the research rabbit hole. There was a lot to read up on with this case: primary sources like trial transcripts, many nonfiction books, and even a plethora of blog posts from people who have devoted their life’s work to untangling everything they can about the case. I didn’t permit myself to read any fiction about Lizzie Borden until after I had a strong draft written; I didn’t want to be unduly influenced. My goal was to read and mull over as much information as possible, then stop to write a good outline for the novel, and thereafter permit myself only to do small research dives for specific things I needed as I started to write.
I still learn new things even now, three years after The Murderer’s Maid was published. And I’ll likely continue to visit the house and take the tour whenever I go back east. However, I don’t think I’ll spend the night again. I slept in Bridget’s attic bedroom (at the insistence of my editor, although let’s admit, I secretly wanted to do it, but had reservations, no pun intended) in 2016, and it was incredibly helpful for my novel. I wrote about that experience here. (Writers: Erika’s workshop on Saturday September 26 is specifically about research. You really don’t want to miss it!)
SUE: So, with all that information, how do you organize your material? A wall covered with post-its? Computer programs? It seems it would be nearly impossible to keep everything in mind, that you’d forever be searching for that tidbit you want to include.
ERIKA: I create separate documents for aspects I’ll need to consult. There’s an outline doc, which contains the plot of the book; a characters doc, in which I note things like people’s eye color (and you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget the names of secondary characters—this document is a place to list them); and a research doc. In the research doc, I set up a chart in which I alphabetically list items I know that I’ll look up and then forget if I don’t log them: things like Bedford cord (the fabric that plays an important role) or the place in Ireland Bridget was known to come from, for instance.
I also have a research folder where I can save documents like trial transcripts or newspaper articles. I do believe in handwriting a lot of material, and so, yes, there are notebook pages where I’ve roughed out plot ideas and snatches of dialogue. I don’t have a wall – yet – but my husband is building me a writing shed and I’ll have a place to put my post-its then. I’m currently team-writing a novel, and the other writer and I spent a couple of days at one of the locations and completely covered a conference room wall with notes, which we found incredibly helpful. So yes, I’m looking forward to being physically able to see all the elements of my stories!
SUE: You’re incredibly productive. How much time do you allow yourself to write a novel? And, are you able to do your freelance journalism and teaching at the same time you're focusing on a novel?
Erika Mailman's novels!
ERIKA: Lots of answers to this one. I’ve written a first draft in a month when I was unemployed after September 11 (Woman of Ill Fame), and taken eight years to write an unpublished novel. In general, though, a novel will take me nine months (The Witch’s Trinity) to a year (the sequels in my YA seriesThe Arnaud Legacyunder the pen name Lynn Carthage. I was contractually obligated to file those within twelve months, so the hustle was on!) I always am writing fiction at the same time that I’m pitching and writing freelance articles and teaching my online writing class. I just put on different hats. I have always been a bit of a short-attention-span person, so it works well for me to switch back and forth between projects. SUE: Speaking of Lynn Carthage: You've written an entire series of novels under a pseudonym. Why did you feel it necessary to use one, indeed create a whole social media presence around this alter ego? ERIKA: I’ve actually come to regret inventing Lynn Carthage. Under my real name, I have a novel about an unapologetic Gold Rush prostitute, and I was thinking to keep that separate from my books aimed at teens. But I lost the momentum of a readership by doing so. I decided belatedly I would let myself promote FROM myself TO Lynn, but not the reverse, but it was too late. Even now, years later, when I feel like I’ve glutted social media with post after post after post saying, “these books are by me,” with an exhausting amount of self-promotion, friends still say sometimes, “Oh, Lynn Carthage is your pseudonym?” Plus, it was silly of me to think I could singlehandedly save teens from the moral depravity of my (very fun) character. So, now I have Facebook and Twitter accounts for Lynn Carthage that I do not monitor, an expensive website I didn’t even bother to update with the third book of the trilogy, and an email account I fail to check. Actually, thanks for reminding me; I should go check that. I’m sure there must be a movie deal waiting for me there! SUE: Diana Gabaldon. THE Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series. She's blurbed two of your books, and was the focus of the great travel piece you did on Scottish tourism. Tell me about how this relationship came to be. ERIKA: Diana has been so kind to me over the years that I can’t believe it. She is a genuine and good person to the soul. I first met her at the Historical Novels Society conference, where she used to host a riotous Saturday Night Sex Scenes reading. I was randomly picked with about ten others to read a seven-minute sex scene; I’m linking to it here although it’s incredibly dorky and NSFW—although I guess if everyone’s working from home, I should change that to NSFWAHWK (not suitable for work at home with kids). (Readers, watch this – it’s great!)
Diana closed out the night with her own, wonderful, sexy scene. I had chosen to read a funny scene, and she asked afterward if the book was on Kindle so she could read it on the plane ride home. It wasn’t; the book had been put out by a small press in Berkeley, Heyday Books, and no ebook had been created. I checked my contract, saw that I had the ebook rights, created one, and asked her to blurb it, which she so sweetly did. We are in contact via email now and then, and she blurbed The Murderer’s Maid, too, She even mentioned The Murderer’s Maid in her own Washington Post piece about recommended reading. I was floored, and I continue to be floored. Despite her international bestsellerhood, she is a down-to-earth and grounded person.
In all my interviews with Scottish people for myWashington Post article about how Outlander has increased tourism exponentially (by 67 percent overall!), person after person just wanted to tell stories about how kind she was. I heard many anecdotes about how she would stay into the wee hours of the morning at readings to sign books, how she participated in benefits for hospice associations, and many more stories I didn’t have space for in the article. SUE: I imagine Covid 19 has put a crimp in your travel writing. But I've loved your feature articles. Where do you find them, what kind of people/places/things inspire you? And what’s your most memorable feature article? ERIKA: Thank you so much. I had just built up a series of travel articles over the year since my first piece about being in Paris and watching Notre Dame burn. I even had a moment where I said to my husband in some surprise, “I think I’m a travel writer!” And then Covid-19 hit, and pitches that had been accepted were put aside.
As to inspiration: I’m inspired a lot...sometimes I’ve even thought I should just post ideas I have for other writers so they can jump on them if I’m not invested enough to pursue them. But my most memorable feature article is, without a doubt, a story that is very personal because it’s the narrative of my friend whose husband suffers from early onset dementia. He was diagnosed with FTD, frontotemporal dementia, when he was 52 years old. Her struggle with caretaking for him without any experience, in such a heartbreaking situation, nearly broke her, and I knew this story had to be told. Our interviews were so hard. I remember sitting with her in a Starbucks in Sacramento, where she told me things that made me blink back tears as I wrote them down, a good, trying-to-be-neutral journalist—and nearby, a fellow sitting with his laptop seemed to be trying not to listen. For a day, this story was the #3 most-read story on the Washington Post website, beating out Trump news and early Covid-19 news (it ran on March 29, 2020). I wondered what had drawn so many people to click on it, and as I started to read through the comments, I saw why: many, many people are in this same situation. The morning it ran, I had thought of texting my friend to say, “Don’t read the comments; people are trolls; people are cruel.” But as I read through the nearly 500 comments, nearly every single one was kind—because the writers also had experiences with caretaking for a dementia patient. Our healthcare system has been letting so many people down, in ways that are agonizing to read. SUE: Fortunately, writers like you are here to draw attention to all-too-common situations like your friend’s. One more question: I noted that your MFA is in poetry. But, no poetry is mentioned on your website. Is this a previous life you'd just as soon forget, or do you still write the occasional poem? And, has the study of poetry informed your writing? ERIKA: I still write the occasional poem and enter the occasional manuscript contest. But while I was at my MFA program, I took a fiction workshop and started writing that eight-years-and-unpublished book I mentioned above. I will always fiercely love poetry, but for the chance to have a career with actual money coming in, it seems fiction – and even more so, nonfiction—are the genres that make that possible. Some of my favorite poems:
“Take for joy from the palms of my hands” by Osip Mandelstam, trans. David McDuff “All Hallows” by Louise Gluck “Bee! I’m Expecting You” by Emily Dickinson Thank you so very much for including me with Stories on Stage. I can’t wait to see what the actor paired with me comes up with! What a fun and memorable way to lift up writers, readers, and the book community! SUE: Thanks, Erika, for your time and generous attention.
Sue Staats is a Sacramento writer. She directed Stories on Stage Sacramento for six years, from 2013 to 2019, and now contributes interviews and blog posts to the website, and cookies to the events (when they aren't virtual). She’s currently looking for a home for her short story collection and getting her feet wet in a couple of other projects, with the hope that eventually one of them will draw her into deeper waters. Sue's fiction and poetry have been published in The Los Angeles Review, Graze Magazine, Tulip Tree Review,Farallon Review, Tule Review, Late Peaches: Poems by Sacramento Poets, Sacramento Voices, and others. She earned an MFA from Pacific University, and was a finalist for the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction and the Nisqually Prize in Fiction. Her stories have been performed at Stories on Stage Sacramento and Stories on Stage Davis, and at the SF Bay-area reading series “Why There Are Words.”
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