Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Happy Birthday, Lizzie Borden

On July 19, 2017, Lizzie would be 157 years old if she'd managed to outwit death somehow--her and Elvis, right?

Birthdays are important things. Some people take them more seriously than others; I personally always took the day off work and enjoyed the fact of my being on earth. Others prefer to pretend the anniversary doesn't exist, denying the onslaught of years.

It's interesting to note that the murders of the Borden parents took place a mere two weeks and two days after Lizzie's 32nd birthday.

I remember turning 30. It felt like a crisis: I hadn't accomplished any of the things I wanted to accomplish: publishing a novel (or 20), having children. I had my mid-life crisis early.

Imagine what it was like for Lizzie Borden, turning 32. In an era that only prized wifehood and motherhood for women, she had no suitors (that we knew about anyway). In a time period that freely threw around the pejorative word "spinster," she was one. As much as we feel sympathy for kids still living at home in their thirties today, imagine how it felt to live at home when you were jobless, powerless, feeling like you had no true "value" in the world other than your volunteering through the church. And with no wifi.

Lizzie volunteered sporadically, undertaking positions and then abandoning them. It has always seemed curious to me that she did not join friends at the seashore at Marion at the time of the murders merely because she needed to do a "roll call" as a volunteer leader. I can only assume a roll call means registering those who will serve on a particular committee and solidifying the responsibilities. Why did she feel that was so important, when she had preemptorily left other posts? If she had gone to the seashore, felt that healing connection to the sea, let the wind lift her hair off her neck, would some of her feelings of rage have abated?

In my novel The Murderer's Maid, I posit that she didn't go to Marion because she had her period. In those tamponless times, it would be no fun to soak cloths in a bucket--and maybe she'd be sharing a room with a friend-- and trying to hide the signs and smells (ordinarily, at home, the maid would deal with such unpleasant tasks). It is said that 1892 was one of the hottest summers on record.

Her roll call ended up having a much more deadly tally.

Well, anyway, happy birthday, Lizzie!

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

History cruise on the Freda B. schooner

Last weekend I headed out with some friends on the schooner Freda B. out of Sausalito (north of San Francisco) for a history cruise. Captain Marina Lambchop comped me some tickets because she likes Woman of Ill Fame....lemme tell you, authors rarely get perks so I was delighted with this generous offer. Thank you a million times over! Unfortunately, Marina wasn't able to sail that day, but her co-captain Paul Dines gave an amazing tour with wonderful, funny narration.

Golden Gate Bridge towers lost in fog.
Sausalito was bright and hot and I scoffed initially at my having brought my down vest...but as we got out onto the bay and closer to San Francisco, it got cold quickly. I was soon very happy to have my vest and the blankets the crew very kindly handed out.

I helped haul up the sails and swallow the moon.

I call this coiffure "Bay Wind Flurry"

We learned so much from this tour and saw porpoises off the side leaping through the water (is that the right verb? Porpoises leap? I understand they often see whales too). We had incredible views of Alcatraz. I think my camera defaulted to this cool filter. Is my phone smart enough to recognize this historic structure and change its own settings??

The Rock. I still think you could swim to the mainland.

After repainting, someone was hired to redo the historic graffiti

And here is a neat triptych:

Alcatraz, sailboat, container ship: they can all share the bay!

Paul Dines told a touching story about the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien, docked in San Francisco at Pier 45. For the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, the ship and its original crew sailed all the way back to France to be feted internationally, reviewed by the Queen and "piped" by other appreciative crews. This sturdy ship participated in D-Day and is one of only two Liberty Ships still functioning. Can you imagine this incredible vessel steaming 18,000 miles for six months? Without a single significant repair and arriving at each port ahead of schedule? I'm even tearing up a little typing this, thinking of those 70-year-old sailors back at their stations after so many decades.

Although we're now paying attention to something else, behind us is the admirable SS Jeremiah O'Brien

Paul Dines was great!

Paul Dines, narrating the history cruise

We passed by the home of Ghirardelli Chocolate, making San Francisco sweet since Gold Rush times...

I kind of need to make a port of call, stat!
...and here's some history. The brown house in the center was once Jack London's.

Jack had waterfront real estate at one time! And that is fog, not smoke (insert
"To Build a Fire" joke here)

And here's something I found truly fascinating. This stretch represents the last piece of untouched San Francisco coastline. Pretty amazing. This is what early sailors saw and had to figure out how to moor into (is that correct sailor talk?) Much of San Francisco's Embarcadero was plumped out with landfill (and yeah, there are sunken ships under the Financial District; here's a map of what's under there). I should've asked if this is near Clark's Point, where my character Nora disembarks in 1848 in my novel Woman of Ill Fame.

Last vestige of original coastline
My fun, history-loving friends, wrapped in blankets to ward off sea chills!

Me, back near sunny Sausalito. I could shed my blanket and down vest and unzip sweatshirt
to display the shirt a friend made. I wore a ship shirt on a ship!

The beautiful Freda B. back at dock
How, you may ask, can you take such a wonderful tour? It's so easy. Book through this website. What a wonderful thing to do on a date, if friends or family come into town, or to brush up on your local history. I hope you have as wonderful a time as I did!

. . . .

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Lizzie Borden's Perfect Storm

Today's clam shack at Rocky Point. Courtesy, Mary Thibault

I've blogged before about how intrigued I am with the idea that a very tiny action can have huge consequences, especially if there are many, combined such small things: the so-called perfect storm.

One of those in the Lizzie Borden case was the barbecue planned for the Fall River Police Department at Rocky Point Amusement Park in Rhode Island. Lizzie knew about the barbecue; did it occur to her that there would be fewer officers left locally to deal with murders or other issues that might arise while most officers were 30 miles away?

The park closed in 1995, but Google Maps says the distance from Fall River, Massachusetts, to where the park operated in Warwick, Rhode Island, takes 45 minutes by car. We can only imagine that by horse and buggy the travel time was much longer. The police department had essentially advertised its own diminished capacity.

Moreover, I learned from the wonderful blog Warps and Wefts that Abby Borden was intended to watch her little niece whose parents were to attend the Rocky Point picnic, but because she was feeling ill (food poisoning or just take the word "food" off the phrase? Anyone?) she didn't. I'm curious to know if the parents still attended and simply found another babysitter. I learn from the same blog post that George Whitehead, the niece's dad, was a teamster, not a policeman, so I'm not sure why he would be attending. Maybe he was friends with officers.

That blog post points out, "Due to the illness of Abby Borden on Wednesday, these plans were changed, and forever after, those interested in the case have wondered if the outcome of the morning of August 4th would have been very different had Abby Borden been able to assume the care of her little niece."

Indeed. Would Lizzie have had to kill the niece too? Or cancel her murderous plans? Errrr, I should probably point out that Lizzie was acquitted of the crimes.

Other "perfect storm" elements:

  • Lizzie had  her period in the era before ibuprofen and tampons. Anger. Grrr. 
  • Big heat that summer in the era before air conditioning. Anger. Grrr.
  • Lizzie was supposed to go to the seashore with friends but canceled. What if she'd gone and had a great time? Found a bunch of sand dollars?
  • Emma was away. What if she'd stayed home?
  • Uncle John Morse showed up unexpectedly to spend the night at the Borden home. Lots of people loathed him, including Abby herself. What if he hadn't come?
Et cetera.

It's a fascinating story with so many little rabbit holes to go down.

I included a brief mention of the policeman's outing in my book The Murderer's Maid: a Lizzie Borden Novel. I couldn't find much historical mention of what was on offer there in 1892, so I took a chance that the electric trolley would be running. The Ferris wheel seen here was not yet built. How do I know that? Because of Erik Larsen's wonderful book Devil and the White City, which talks about the unveiling of the first Ferris wheel in 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair. There is a connection between the World's Fair and Lizzie Borden, and I'll blog about that soon.

In the meantime, I hope you had a happy Fourth of July!
. . . .

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Another cover design post

I'm so thrilled with this cover for The Murderer's Maid. Why, you ask? Three reasons. Not listed in order of preference!

1. The tweaked image of Lizzie Borden. There aren't that many photos of Lizzie, alas; perhaps a handful. The designer wanted to use this one, and I made one small suggestion that I think will resonate with people who know Lizzie. In the original portrait, her eyes are looking off to the side. I asked if the gaze could be designed to look straight at the viewer. I think it's chilling and a subtle, wonderful change.

2. The blurbs! I have been so fortunate to have two bestselling authors whom I deeply respect, admire and downright like give blurbs to this novel. The ever-gracious, sweet Diana Gabaldon and my loveable partner-in-witchery Kathleen Kent donated kind words. I'm forever grateful to them both.

3. I love the bold red which will hopefully draw readers' eyes to the cover while browsing at the bookstore. They say you can't judge a book by its cover but you can certainly notice  a book by its cover.

What do you think?

. . . . .

Monday, June 19, 2017

The cover that never was

Occasionally I'll google to see if there are any reviews I've missed. Imagine my surprise when I saw mention of my book on a book design site. I clicked through and could see that along with the hardcover U.S. design, there was a jacket there I hadn't seen before. I could only see a small portion of it through a circular thumbnail and, wouldn't you know it, something was up with my computer and I couldn't load the full image.

Here's what I saw:

So I emailed the designer Laura Duffy and we had a lovely exchange. And the next day, I was able to click through and see the beautiful book cover in its entirety.

Isn't that gorgeous? For an author, book design is a really important thing. I know I reject books when I'm browsing based on their jackets, and pick up something I maybe wouldn't otherwise if the look is arresting. It's also a very interesting process to see someone else's vision of your book: kind of intimate in a way. I know it's rare that a designer would actually read the book but nonetheless that person has been given descriptive materials and creates their own vision of what the story is. It's maybe a brief taste of what it would be like to see your work on the screen. At any rate, I loved what Laura created.

I think the colors are attention-grabbing, the element in the middle looks like a rune-meets-a-torture-device (very fitting for my book!), it's allusive to a devil's pitchfork, and ghosted behind it all I can see wording from the Malleus Maleficarum, a Witch Hunters Bible from the medieval period, and elements from a design that appeared on the book's galley but was ultimately rejected. I LOVED THAT COVER. Here it is:

It has all the Rorschach test value of "what do you see in the flames?" and is dangerous and would've been so beautiful with the promised gold foil in different colors for the fire. Since my book takes place during the era when witches would be burned at the stake, this is a haunting design. Laura, you knocked it out of the park with this one! I was told at the time that it looked too science-fictionish and instead this quiet yet still lovely design from Laura was used:

I have been lucky that the book then went into paperback with a new design, that a British edition was created with its separate hardcover and paperback designs, and that an audiobook was recorded in England with again a different cover. Seeing each one of these designs brought a frisson of delight to see the designer's take on what was so very personal to me. Speaking of covers, I have a reveal I'll be doing on Wednesday for a new project. Stay tuned!

Laura's design work is beautiful. See more of it here

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

A new voice for Nora

Seems like just a few months ago I signed a contract with Tantor Media for an audiobook to be made of Woman of Ill Fame...and it officially releases in three days! That company moves quickly. (It has to have been longer...these days are just flying by!)

I love the new cover they designed, and can't wait to hear the narration by Tiffany Morgan. It will be exciting to see how an actor interprets Nora. Back in 2008, an audiobook was made of The Witch's Trinity, but only in the U.K. I remember driving around in my car listening to it--such a strange thrill to hear one's words read back to one.

I really like this new cover: gritty, stark...and with a nicely unadorned Nora. That image is a photograph of a Dodge City prostitute nicknamed Timberline. If you're interested in her story, please see my previous posts here and here.

. . . . .

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Your presence is hereby requested at the Gold Rush Writers Conference

Me, Mark Wiederanders and Antoinette May

For the last few years, I've attended the Gold Rush Writers Conference. Registration is now open for this year, and I want to let people know about what a laid-back, welcoming conference this is. Often, conferences can feel competitive or there's a sense of panic about those agent pitch sessions...this conference doesn't include agents, so that stressor is completely off the table. Gold Rush is a weekend of hanging out with sweet people who love to write and want to be with other writers. Period. I don't know how author Antoinette May has managed to create a veritable ambiance of kindness—but she has.

Exterior of the Hotel Leger, showing entrance to its saloon

Last year, I presented on poetry, including doing an "Exquisite Corpse" group-writing exercise and looking at Isabella Gardner's "Summers Ago" and did a separate presentation on historical fiction, I think. I just glanced back at my website events page to double-check, and all the events since 2011 have been deleted somehow. Sighhhhh. This year, I'm going to be talking about social media. The headliners this year are James Ragan and Donna Levin. Last year I was the brunch headliner and Mark Wiederanders was the after-dinner speaker.

One of the sessions in the ballroom

For each timeslot during the weekend, there are four or five options—and as is often the case, I want to attend more than one. For instance, here's Sunday morning's lineup:

The conference is for screenwriters, poets and novelists. I've also run into memoirists and creative nonfiction writers at this conference before.

Mark's speech

My speech

My speech: this basically shows how small and intimate the conference is

After 11 years of hosting the conference, Antoinette May has found success in linking people together. The Friday night picnic, hosted around her beautiful grotto pool in a Victorian garden, is always a wonderful evening of people reconnecting and greeting new attendees.

My bedroom at the Hotel Leger

The second story balcony overlooking the main street in Mokelumne Hill

The conference takes place in the Hotel Leger, dating to 1879 (but on the site of an 1851 hotel). The hotel itself is worth the drive to Mokelumne Hill: each bedroom has its own charming Victorian furnishings, and due to its vintage, some rooms have bathrooms while others require you to go down the hall. But that's okay! Everyone's nice and it gives you a taste of what it would've been like a hundred years ago when Mok Hill was a Gold Rush boomtown. The hotel has a wonderful restaurant onsite, the Whitewater Grill, which caters the conference. There's also an authentic old saloon with the long wooden bar and I once had a basil martini here that blew my mind. If all that isn't fantastic enough: the place is reputed to be haunted. Just ask Antoinette: she spent the night here alone once.

Okay, yes, we stayed in Room #13. You get chills just looking at this, I know

I had youngsters in my room with me, nervous about the talk of ghosts. We put a strip
of toilet paper at the door to stop ghosts in their tracks. It worked!

Hope to see you next month! Feel free to email me if you have questions about the conference or tweet me @ErikaMailman.

Silliness in the saloon with, from left, Genevieve Beltran, Kathy Boyd Fellure and me.

We might've had a couple already

The Gold Rush Writers Conference takes place this year May 5, 6, and 7 in Mokelumne Hill, a few hours easterly-southerly from Sacramento. The cost of $185 includes:

Price Includes:
  • Your selection of four workshops out of sixteen. Several are limited so register early (first-come, first-served).
  • Informal supper in a Victorian garden Friday night
  • Open mic poetry readings
  • Sit-down dinner in an historic Gold Rush hotel with speaker Mark Wiederanders
  • Sit-down pool-side brunch Sunday with speaker Erika Mailman
  • Plus lectures, demonstrations

    To learn more, visit the conference website at www.goldrushwriters.com.

    . . . . 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Kathleen Kent's remarkable ability to turn on a dime

For many years, it's been my honor to track the career successes of someone who has become a friend. Kathleen Kent, who burst onto the scene in 2007 with an incredible historical novel about her ancestor Martha Carrier, hanged at Salem—The Heretic's Daughter—has kept a steady flow of beautiful books coming.

The Wolves of Andover came next, in some ways my favorite of her books. It was a prequel to The Heretic's Daughter, telling about the earlier days of the Carrier family. I loved it and its poetic language against the backdrop of a harsh Colonial setting. It was later retitled The Traitor's Daughter, but I prefer the repeated consonance of the V sound in the previous title.

From left, author Michelle Gagnon, me, Kathleen Kent at the Book Group
Expo in San Jose in 2007.

Michelle, me, Kathleen, and Brunonia Barry: we were all part of a witchcraft panel.

Next came a shift from the Colonial era, but still historical, with her novel The Outcasts.  This featured a shady Texas woman and a policeman pursuing a killer, with wonderful plot twists. It's so cinematic (well, they all are); I could totally see this as a brooding movie along the lines of the True Grit remake.

And once again Kathleen has turned on a dime, reinventing her genre. Her latest is The Dime, a modern police procedural featuring a tough-as-nails, red-headed lesbian cop. The first scene in this book? Heavy duty, pulse-racing, can't-stop-reading drama. And you will love the heroine based on her quick thinking and strategizing in this scene. The Dime is amazing. So few authors can master a genre, but Kathleen easily does it and then turns her focus on yet another one. I guess next she'll tackle a poetry volume or maybe some manga, and totally kill the poetry and manga world.

The Dime is a work of incredible suspense, with threads you thought dropped returning to pay off in the end. It contains some harrowing scenes that had me gasping (literally—my husband on the other pillow asked, "Are you okay?"). It's everything you want out of a book: an escapist ride, a heroine triumphing over almost unspeakable odds, and rooting for the good guys.

Bravo! I think the world of her; she's one of those truly nice people who deserves every success she's had. Can't wait to see what comes next from this talented author.

We found some more witches and banded together at the Historical Novels Society
Conference in 2013. From left, me, Kathleen, Mary Sharatt, Suzy Witten

Our panel

And just for some levity...

At the Book Group Expo, there was a very funny
typo on the room schedule sign...a mash-up of two book titles.

. . . . .

Monday, February 27, 2017

Lizzie: The Musical

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see Lizzie: The Musical, a rock opera based on Lizzie Borden. I almost didn't go, and I'm so glad I persisted beyond my usual triad of configuring childcare/ticket price/laziness because it was fabulous.

Starting with Lizzie, blond, to left is Emma, above is Alice, to right is Bridget

Upon first googling, I thought the show took place in a Ramada and I haven't had much luck thus far with "hotel theater" ... I have no idea where that came from, because it was held in a perfectly respectable black box theater in the Sacramento Community Center. It was the first production of the Actor's Playpen, and if this is what they're capable of, I better get season tickets.

Here are a few great reviews of the show itself, which has many different productions happening around the country and internationally:

“A gothic rock ritual with a ‘riotgirl’ attitude … an eerie hybrid of rock club and a turn-of-the-century New England parlor.”
“Presented with wall-rattling glee…deliciously watchable”
— The New York Times
“Lush tunes which retch sex, rage, dyke heat, misanthropy, and incest … Surreal glee and gallows humor … Finally, a rock musical you’d wanna mosh to.”
— The Village Voice 

The show features four actors portraying Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget, and former next-door friend Alice Russell. They were played respectively by Jennifer Morrison, Joelle Robertson, Sara Logan and Chelsea Fitzsimmons. They were backed by a six-member band and two "swings" (which I guess is an understudy but when I first saw it in the program I thought it might have to do with aerial depictions of the hatchet "swinging" LOL...but they sat in the loft with the band and sang backup). The band was amazing. The singing of the four actors was amazing. I know it can't be easy to unleash total rock and roll mayhem in a small theater (around 60 attending the matinee with me) when at times you can literally reach out and touch an audience member--but they made it happen. The woman playing Lizzie really was amazing, both in voice and bodily command and the facial expressions that (when not being kitschy) really conveyed the agonies experienced by this 1892 woman pushed to (as I believe) commit the ultimate act (twice) of desperation.

Much of the show had this kind of action and vitality: that's Alice on her knees,
Emma in red, Lizzie with back turned and Bridget in blue

Every actor committed to their performance and each had something wonderful to contribute. I was especially fond of Bridget, as my upcoming novel The Murderer's Maid (Yellow Pear Press, releasing in October) is told from her point of view. In fact, I'm regretting not staying afterward to grab a photo with her, but I was able to find a lot of great ones on the Actor's Playpen Facebook page, many of which are courtesy Yuri T. Photography (thanks for permission, Yuri!)

Cool shot of Bridget. The stage had no set so this must've been a promo shoot

This is live, shows the bare set. Courtesy of Yuri T Photography

 After this point, there are going to be some plot spoilers, so I hope you are prepared. Let me include a few ornaments to give you a few moments to depart if necessary.

The play utilizes the incest theory, that Andrew Borden sexually abused Lizzie, motivating her murder of him. During the song  "This Is Not Love," the actress's face was so incredibly expressive of that pain that I almost couldn't look. I missed some of the lyrics, but I think the insinuation was that Emma had also been abused. In my novel, I had to decide whether to use this theory. I decided not to.

Almost certain she's singing "This Is Not Love"

The musical also avails itself of the theory that Lizzie was involved in a lesbian relationship--but in a twist, not with Bridget but instead Alice Russell! The kisses onstage were pretty hot. I really liked how Alice's song of seduction, "Will you lie with me" transforms to Lizzie later singing to her, "Will you lie for me"...clever. Alice and Lizzie were both young in this production: in actuality, Alice was 40 and Lizzie 32 at the time of the murders, but hey that's rock and roll. In the film version coming out this year, it's reputedly Bridget (played by Kristen Stewart) who is Lizzie's lover and aider/abetter of murder. Lizzie will be played by Chloe Sevigny and Emma by Kim Dickens. Not sure who's playing Alice. See this blog post for diptychs of historical persons paired with their current day actor. But I digress...back to the musical...

Lizzie and Alice. Courtesy, Yuri T. Photography

The list of musical numbers in the program made me laugh out loud. The song "Why Are All These Heads Off?" could only be about the pigeons, and "What the Fuck Now, Lizzie" was one of my favorites, with Joelle Robertson ripping a fierce and elegant stripe through her sister's stupidity.

During the pigeons aftermath, Bridget is on the ground floor singing while Lizzie is up in the loft. Attention was focused on Bridget, but I happened to glance up at Lizzie crouched by the empty pigeon cage and the look on her face was such deplorable misery that somehow morphed into resolution: that she could do something about her pain and anger. Major props to this actress.

The production raised a historical thought I hadn't had before. I'd always thought of Lizzie choosing not to accompany Emma to Fairhaven, but in the musical it seems as if Emma abandons Lizzie, leaving her to face Andrew and Abby by herself. Emma, through Bridget, passes off a book about poisons, as if a primer for Lizzie, and the trip to Bence's pharmacy is covered. Click here for my blog post about whether that trip really happened. I always like hearing new approaches to historical questions, and the idea that Emma abandoned the post is a fascinating one. She'd been mothering Lizzie since their mother died, and dropped the ball during this one hot August. Interesting.

The production is well-researched and much of the dialogue comes straight from trial transcripts. The kitsch factor is, well, high, and there were a few moments of discomfort for me because at the heart of this was two elderly people who may or may not have deserved the ends they received. Murder is murder, and sometimes it's hard to want to rock out to that discordant tune.

A stairs promo picture...the musical didn't address Lizzie's being able
to see Abby's body on the stairs, but did mention her laughing.

Overall, though, I was carried by the show and the passionate performances. This show got a standing ovation from its audience. I hope that if you get a chance to see a production in your town, you will. Check the website for show dates: it's in London right now, and in July/August will be in San Jose for my fellow northern Californians (including August 4, which will be the 125th anniversary of the murders). Follow me on Twitter (@ErikaMailman) or follow this blog if you'd like to hear more about Lizzie Borden (check this blog's main page for a link to all my Lizzie posts) and/or my upcoming novel The Murderer's Maid. The dual-chronology novel follows the Borden family maid Bridget Sullivan through the events leading up to the murders, and introduces a modern-day woman whose mother was murdered-- and she fears she's the next victim. Sounds good, right? ;)

. . . . .
P.S. after uploading, I found this brief video clip from Good Morning Sacramento. It doesn't truly express what it feels like to have audience energy, to truly hear the band filling the space... but it is a chance to hear the incredible vocals.