See what she has done: Q&A with Sarah Schmidt

Sarah Schmidt, spoke to Robyn Walton, Sisters in Crime national co-convenor, about her crime novel, See What I Have Done (Hachette).

Hello Sarah. Thanks for taking time away from writing your second novel to answer our questions about your debut book.

In the old skipping rhyme, Lizzie Borden takes an axe, gives her mother 40 whacks and then, when she sees what she has done, gives her father 41. Your title is a variant on this; it seems to have a culprit saying: ‘See what I have done’. Your comments?

It’s definitely a play on the rhyme and although it is mainly a declaration from one character in particular I think the title could be attributed to any of the four narrators as confessions or statements about their lives, their role in the murders, or even the way they were in the Borden house. It’s all a rich tapestry!

The cover of the Australian edition gives us an illustration of a pigeon that’s vibrantly beautiful and intact in its head and upper body but is disintegrating into blood-like dribbles lower down. Your text includes quite a few references to pigeons, and your blogs include some images of dead birds you’ve photographed while out walking. What led you to associate pigeons with the Borden case?

The dead pigeons were a slow creative boil over years. I’ve long been drawn to birds (but I’m not a true birder) and find them fascinating, particularly in a creative context. When I first started writing See What I Have Done I kept having the image of a bird flying into windows and then, later on, I liked the idea that birds were always watching the family.

When I’m out walking, trying to work through a writing issue or find inspiration, I always seem to literally step on dead birds. It sounds strange to say but in their death there is a lot of life: other insects and animals feeding off bodies, other birds flying over the top. There is a cyclic knowledge that you can’t have life without death and so that’s always going to be interesting to me as a writer. I also find patterns in birds that I see. This is how I settled on the pigeons.

One day, walking around a suburb of Melbourne, I saw a very meaty looking pigeon watch me as I went 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.

Crows and/or blowflies are more common in Australian writing about domestic murders, I think. A recent instance: Jane Harper’s The Dry. An older instance: Rodney Hall’s Captivity Captive, about the murder of siblings in a rural setting in 1898. Did you have to put your Australianness aside to write appropriately about a US environment?

Funnily enough I have crows in the novel I’m working on now. I’ve always loved crows and for the last year or so I’ve been more attuned to them than any other bird, so I’m not surprised they’ve popped up in this book. But although my new novel is set in Australia, I don’t think of it as an ‘Australian’ novel at the moment, if that makes sense?

I always begin with interiority and work my way out. So for the longest time with See What I Have Done I ‘forgot’ I was writing about a crime that occurred in America and just went with what was coming to me or felt right based on research. Obviously at some stage I needed to revisit some of the outside environments and start thinking about what belonged there (specific types of trees and so on) but that came much much later.

The only ‘US thing’ that came to me very early on was an image of a Bald Cypress tree. This tree has nothing to do with Massachusetts and more with the American South but those trees always make me think something is hidden behind them or obscuring a view and I liked that image. So then I thought, ‘I wonder if another character could be from the South?’ That character was Benjamin.

The cover of the UK edition features an illustration of a single pear with a bite out of it. Pears get picked and eaten in your narrative. Should we be looking out for discarded cores as a clue?

This is like the pigeons! The pears came after I read Lizzie stating she’d been eating them the morning of the murders and then her uncle said he’d been eating them too. I started thinking of pears as these rotting, juicy fruits and I knew they’d be a perfect addition to the feel I was going for in the book.

Some feminist readings of the Borden case came out in the second half of the 20th century. Angela Carter’s story – initially published with the title ‘Mise-en-Scène for a Parricide’ – represented Lizzie’s father as controlling, the ‘old man who owns all the women by either marriage or birth or contract’. Were you influenced by that approach? 

I didn’t come across Angela Carter’s version until much much later. Right from the beginning I always thought of Andrew Borden as a controlling man and father – this has a lot to do with the initial dreams of Lizzie I had. When I did eventually read Carter’s version I thought ‘Thank god I’m not the only one thinking this!’

In the twentieth century there was also an emphasis on social strata differences and exploitation. In your account Bridget, the housemaid from Ireland, is coerced into staying in her place via financial and other manipulations. This treatment gives her reasons to resent so fiercely that she might kill. Any remarks on the social and economic dimensions of your story? 

People straight up believe Bridget committed the crimes because of her social and economic class.

Class affects people in their everyday lives, decisions and actions. It’s only natural it would become part of the book. It’s the social and economic factors that help explain one reason why the Borden case took such a hold over people at the time: here was a wealthy, white man and his wife murdered in broad daylight AND the spinster daughter who happens to be a Sunday school teacher is accused of the crimes. I think this fed into a general fear that if a ‘good’, wealthy woman is capable of such a violent crime, imagine what ‘other’ women are capable of.

Lizzie could also afford a great defence team because of her wealth, so I have never doubted the idea that she was ever going to be found guilty.

But then we have Bridget. As I said, people believe she’s guilty simply because she was working-class and therefore that’s all the motive needed to kill her employers. But it’s easy to suspect the employee and overlook the fact that the Bordens had plenty of reasons to do each other in.

The dynamic between Bridget and the Bordens also gave me a lot to work with while trying to figure out how that house functioned and why someone would commit the murders.

Bridget is the only character who tells the truth. My sympathies lie with her mainly because she is stuck in that house due to economic reasons. When I wrote her I never allowed her to lie (she tells fibs to Mrs. Borden to soften certain truths but she’s aware she’s doing it). My main goal was to get her out of that house but unfortunately for poor Bridget, a murder occurred…

Knowing that readers often suspect Bridget of the crime is fascinating and I wonder if that says more about their perception then what I actually wrote? The suspense I wanted for Bridget was: will she get out of the house? Will she get her money tin back? Will she be killed too? Will uncle John do something absolutely disgusting to her?

In the twenty-first century we’ve seen re-imaginings that play up the gothic, paranormal and horror possibilities. How do you feel about these contemporary takes on the case?

There are always going to be stories people are fascinated with especially those that have become so mythologised like the Borden case. To be honest I haven’t read or seen most of the newer, fictional takes on the case because I wanted to keep myself locked in my own Borden cocoon and concentrate on the story I was trying to tell. But I did watch some of The Lizzie Borden Chronicles after I submitted the book.

There are so many different angles to this case. I reckon if there are new ways to tell the story and it’s genuinely good, let it rain Borden. I’m sure there is more than one person who is absolutely livid with what I’ve done to this case and story and would like to see it doused with petrol.

The psychodrama, psychological mystery approach is also familiar in crime re-tellings. You introduce an intruder, Benjamin. He narrates some chapters, giving us reasons to suspect him of being the murderer. However, Benjamin could be read as a projection of the violent impulses of Lizzie, or someone else, or the household. Any comments? 

Absolutely spot on. Benjamin both fits the theory that there might have been a hired thug who committed the crimes and he is very much a type of twin for Lizzie. I was interested in looking at two characters who had abusive and controlling fathers, similar personalities but different environments to grow up in. What would the outcomes be for those characters?

I also wanted to see who the reader might sympathise with (maybe both, maybe none, hopefully maybe just Lizzie to a degree?) and what that might say about Western culture and violence. I’ve found it fascinating how some readers have viewed them both — and often Lizzie is demonised the most. Which is kind of the point of having two extreme characters: violent women, ‘bad girls’, are more often than not viewed as worse than violent men. It’s like they’re defective. It’s really no different today than it was back in 1892.

While Lizzie is someone who could never truly admit to herself what she is capable of, Benjamin is someone who can and is disgustingly proud of it. He’s someone who says, ‘Yes, I did this, I’d do it again and here is why.’

I’d never want to meet Lizzie or Benjamin but bloody hell they were great to work with. For the most part.

Your prose style is marked by a poetic, inventive use of words and syntax. ‘Beautiful weirdness’ was an awed description I found on Goodreads. Can you tell us some of your favourite phrases, images, sentences – words that expressed what you wanted to say?

I wish this ‘beautiful weirdness’ re syntax and words and images had been a celebrated thing when I was in high school and uni! I wasn’t aware I was writing (or even speaking) ‘incorrectly’ until it was pointed out to me but by that stage it was too late. There’s no escaping it I’m afraid.

When I read my own work, I’m filled with horror (it’s a little bit like listening to your own voice on tape) but during the proof reading stage there were a few images and lines that even I had to admit were fairly decent. An image I love is from Benjamin: Heat ate me like a crow. I mostly like it because it had come after weeks of bad writing. I was so happy to have a break through that I told myself to take the rest of the year off. But it was only one good line and so I didn’t. Another one I like from Benjamin is Some men scare, some men are the scare. I knew what I was.

But I also enjoy Lizzie’s little quips. She’s quite the nasty. Is it weird to admit that one of my favourite ways she describes her father’s body is I saw all of Father’s blood, a meal, the leftovers from a wild dog’s feast. His book the body of apocalypse? She’s so strange, that one.

Your chronology and narrative construction are not orthodox either. The storyline reaches a description of the trial (in 1893) in chapter 15. Yet in chapters 16 and 17 it jumps back to the days immediately after the murders in 1892. How did you go about determining the order in which you’d narrate events and which characters would be best to do the narrating? 

Ooooh, that was a long process to figure out. Some of it was organic. For example, I always knew how the book would start and finish. Those images are meant to be a loop, of sorts. I knew while writing Lizzie that she’d always want to leave her narrative just as she was about to open up and reveal something. So I had to have another character come in and take over. This weaving in and out during the writing process essentially became the bones of the narrative structure. Being inside Lizzie’s head is a lot and if I needed a break I knew the reader would too.

I liked the idea that we would come back to a certain moment in someone’s narrative (often Lizzie’s) and a chunk of time would be missing and we wouldn’t really know what had happened. I am really into repetition and memory and think when these are used together you can do some interesting things with storytelling, particularly when you have a book that is character driven rather than plot driven. It can help keep things ‘interesting’. This element helped me figure out the structure too.

The bigger problems came later when I got rid of a narrator, introduced a new one or changed their motivations. That threw it off balance. I became confused (and often didn’t know the storyline I was up to in each narrative) so I had to structure the book into parts to keep track. (This remained for publication).

I also had rules for each narrator especially the Borden sisters: they are stuck in the past and for their narratives they would stay there no matter what. I’ve always been absolutely fascinated by the fact that Emma moved out of ‘Maplecroft’ in 1905 and never spoke to Lizzie again. We have no idea why this happened (but there are plenty of theories) but I really wanted to visit that aspect of their relationship in some way because it’s so important. But I had no idea how to do this until I realised Benjamin was an obsessive and would stop at nothing to get what he thought was owed him. So that’s why he gives us the trial aspect and that’s how we glimpse ‘my theory’ as to why Emma leaves Lizzie in 1905.

I also like the idea of leaving things unfinished. In life, we don’t often get a satisfying ending or answer and particularly with this unsolved 125-year-old case we’re never going to know what happened. That allowed a certain freedom to be ambiguous as to how the narratives would end.  After all, who am I to solve the case?

Thanks for your detailed responses, Sarah.

Sarah is speaking on a Sisters in Crime panel, Dangerous deceptions and delusions, on Friday 29 September, 8pm, at the Rising Sun Hotel in South Melbourne.  Click here for booking details.