Why we loved it: Any Australian who hasn’t yet heard about one of America’s most well-known historical ‘murderers’ will soon become familiar with Lizzie Borden after reading this much praised debut by Australian author Sarah Schmidt. It is the breathtaking fictional account of this murder, a mysterious unsolved case in the popular imagination. If you love crime and historical fiction then this is most definitely a must-read, and yet it’s also a beautiful work of literary fiction.
What made you choose this story of America’s notorious accused ‘murderer’ Lizzie Borden for your debut novel in See What I have Done?
More than anything it was luck. I was in a second-hand bookstore when I accidentally knocked a pamphlet about the Lizzie Borden case 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 novel appears to be a thoroughly well-researched take on this famous historical murder. Can you tell us a little about how you researched?
I took a cyclic approach to research for this book. In the beginning I eased my way into the case, first by reading a lot of newspaper reports and then overtime reading sections of court transcripts, looking at photos, reading crime timelines and so on. So that the early drafts didn’t feel bogged down with ‘research’, I put everything aside and only used details that I remembered. When I needed to add another layer of the case, every few months I’d go back to the official documents to look at other aspects of the crime and start that process over again.
A few years into writing the book I went to Fall River and stayed at the Lizzie Borden bed and breakfast (the house where the murders took place). That was great for adding very specific details for the novel.
But I also found I was using aspects of my own life to write the book, particularly when exploring the emotional lives of the characters . But I want to make it clear this is not an autobiographical novel!
Where to begin! Writing a book is about making decisions and every decision takes your book down a specific path. This case has been so mythologised and has had so much written about it that I knew I’d have to try and do something different. So that was the first challenge and the first decision. I decided that I didn’t want to necessarily focus on the trial or the actual murders : I wanted to write about the family breaking down. The big question I had at the time was: if Lizzie did it, why would she kill her parents? We know Lizzie was acquitted but for me to explore that question, I needed Lizzie to be guilty of ‘something’. So this meant I was already changing the facts and it had ongoing consequences.
I also needed my reimagined fictional account to be believable. To do this, I needed to weave facts amongst the fiction and the challenge was to figure out what to put in and what to leave out. Sometimes it became difficult for me to discern what was real.
There’s a haunting atmosphere and intimacy in your depiction of the Borden home after, and leading up to, the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden? How did you create that?
There’s a few ways I went about creating the atmosphere. In the first instance I began thinking about this family of adults living in that house , thought about how intimately they would’ve known each other in specific ways. Perhaps they didn’t know each other inside out but they would’ve known each other’s body language, their smells and so on as if it were second nature. I thought about them so much that I started feeling as though I lived with them, was trapped, and I constantly had the feeling that they were always in the room with me. I realised then that these feelings were a key to the atmosphere and I exploited it as much as I could!
You tell the story from the point of view of a few characters including Lizzie herself, her sister Emma, and the poor Irish maid Bridget? How difficult was that?
It was a challenger juggle them all at times because they all wanted a turn. I would work with a character for a few weeks until I was sick of them and then I’d swap to someone else. But each character had a role to play, so I gave them specific narrative tasks to help make writing their sections ‘easier’. Often it was hard to keep track of who was doing what.
The other difficult thing was voice: how to juggle my particular style and way of telling the story with the characters pov and voice. There were times where it felt as if it all merged together. It got pretty noisy with all of us in there!
How did you personally feel towards those characters? Did your attitude change towards Lizzie and Emma as you wrote and researched?
No matter how despicable your characters become you need to care for them in some way. They are part of the created world and you need them to help bring the novel to life. Writing Benjamin and Lizzie was hard at times. On the one hand they are awful characters who do awful things, yet like all people, they have another side to them. I had to find at least one good thing about them and hold onto that otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to write this book.
Early on when I was writing Lizzie and Emma I constantly vacillated between my feelings for them. It was easy to do: I wasn’t sure who they were yet. But all that changed when I read their last will testament. That told me so much about their relationship and gave me an insight into who they might’ve been in real life.
I love Lizzie as a character but I could never be her friend.
Your biography describes you as a ‘reading and literacy co-ordinator (read: fancy library) at a regional public library’. Can you tell us about that?
The most simple answer is: I’m a branchless librarian who develops reading and literacy programs across our region to help develop a love of reading and promote our wonderful collection and resources. That ranges from author events to festivals, writing programs or provide support to our branches who are working with our communities in daily programming. The types of projects I work on change all the time and that’s what I love about it.
Will you approach another historical story for your next novel?
To be honest it’s a surprise to me that this book was considered historical fiction. I know it sounds silly but I don’t think of this novel as historical, more of a story that happens to be set before our time. I wrote it in a way that would make it feel as if the murders had just happened. Obviously there are elements of the way this crime was treated that reflected its era, which makes it interesting.
For me it can be easier to explore themes etc when it’s a little removed from ‘now’. I didn’t plan to do this but my next novel happens to be set between 1940 – 1970. Is that historical?