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See What I Have Done Q & A: Foyles Edition

I’ve had the good fortune of being asked many questions about See What I Have Done lately so I thought I would share some of them with you in the next few posts. 

Critical reflection can be a tricky thing. When I was writing the book I wasn’t always aware of what I was doing and often felt I was writing through intuition alone. It was foolish to think this but there you have it. If you’d asked me why I had made some of the narrative choices I had I’m not sure I would’ve been able to tell you.

 But distance is the thing that affords hindsight. Since the book has come out I’ve been forced to reflect on process on a different level and as difficult as it has been (I still don’t know why I did particular things) it’s had a surprising flow on effect on my current novel in progress: I write with that same intuition but question myself more regularly, seem to have developed a better bullshit detector with things like character development, plot, and prose. And that’s the point, right? That one project helps develop the next and the next, that you learn more about the process of writing. This is not to say I know how to write a novel. I only know how I wrote See What I Have Done after the fact. I’m not entirely  sure I know how to write my new novel but I’m slowly figuring it out, slowly implementing lessons learned.

Anyway. Back to the Q & A. The following first appeared on the Foyles website and I invite you to go there and read the rest of the interview there.

 

See What I Have Done delves into the shocking double murder of Abby and Andrew Borden that took place in Massachusetts in the 1890s. What drew you to write about this story?

I would say pure luck was the initial aspect that drew me to this story. 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 these dreams hoping they’d go away and without realising it, I had started writing a novel. My gut instinct was that this story was about a family who no longer loved each other rather than the actual crime and trial itself.
 The Borden murders are most often thought of as Lizzie Borden’s story, younger daughter of Andrew and prime suspect in the case. See What I Have Done, however, is told through multiple voices: both Borden sisters, the family maid and an outsider. How did you approach creating distinct voices and stitching their stories together?
The short answer is: a lot of false starts and an inability to focus! I began with Lizzie and learnt fairly quickly that she was incapable of telling her story in a way that would be satisfying or complete. I became so frustrated and infuriated with Lizzie when I wrote her that even I couldn’t bear to be in her head for long periods of time. I needed an out.
The next two narrators I came up with were Benjamin and The House and again, I found these narrators were just as selective as Lizzie. The more frustrated I became, the more narrators I dragged into the whole debacle, so that’s how we get to hear from Emma and Bridget. Initially I wanted the feeling that although they might’ve been operating against each other, they were essentially connected, that without one we couldn’t have a whole. But it was also me unable to be with one character for any sustained period: I would be ok for a few weeks or months but then I needed a break and to go and be with one of the others for a while. In the first few years it was hard to remember where I was in the story at any given time, and I realised each narrator needed to concentrate on telling just a few parts of the story. By doing this, you also get to know them as people and this helped build voice and their perspective.  
Benjamin, the outsider in the book, brings a completely different perspective. I thought of him as a wildcard, able to disrupt the stories the insiders told. Where did he come from, and was that your intention when writing him?

Benjamin was a character that came to me fairly early on in the initial writing. A few things happened at once: I had read some wild theories that suggested Andrew Borden may have had an illegitimate son who committed the murders and that Lizzie let him in the house. Then there was a theory that a man was hired by Lizzie and uncle John to carry out the crime. While none of these can be substantiated, the idea of an outsider appealed to me, someone who might be able to either tell us ‘observed secrets’ about the Bordens or be a possible murderer.
However, when I started writing this character, what came out was someone completely unexpected. He was someone who although very violent, also had a traumatising childhood. I began to think of Benjamin as a parallel character to Lizzie, almost mirroring each other when it came to the idea of justice and retribution, the idea that people are products of their environment and act accordingly. I was interested in the ways people can distance themselves from their actions and felt that maybe Lizzie did this (she is someone who is different on the inside and outside). What if Benjamin did this too? So for many years, Benjamin was someone who could literally become other people throughout the novel. Obviously that particular character trait and sub plot isn’t in the book but you never know: that version of Benjamin might pop up in a different novel!
The book is incredibly gripping and hugely atmospheric, claustrophobic and intense. A large part of this was the visceral world you created within the house, its smells and tastes. How conscious were you of expressing the intimate nature of life in the very late nineteenth century?
I have always been drawn to scent and the peculiarities of houses since I was a child. It’s not unusual for me to describe things in that way when I’m writing or even when I’m speaking to someone, so it felt very natural to add those types of details to this book. Having said that, I wasn’t fully aware of the extent I was doing it until I’d written a draft or two. Once I realised the effect it was having on the narrative, I saw an opportunity to heighten it all and exploit it for all it was worth.
Specifically with regard to Lizzie, with her impulsive need to touch, taste and smell things, do you think she craved sensation?
What a great question! My version of Lizzie most definitely craved sensation, craved experience of any kind. For me, she just needed to feel something was real during a very bizarre time in her life. I was always fascinated that real-life-Lizzie could give quite specific details about what she did that day but couldn’t recall other, ‘bigger’, things. This was most evident in her claims she was eating pears or that she’d been looking for a lead sinker that day to go fishing with her uncle. She’d also asked her neighbour, Mrs Churchill, who she should engage to do the funeral. This was literally straight after she’d discovered her father’s body. But when asked if she’d seen Abby, she was sketchy, gave multiple answers. All of this encouraged me to think of Lizzie as someone who existed on her own time, someone who perhaps might have really only considered herself and her experiences..
I enjoyed your portrayal of Lizzie Borden very much, her ability to be callous, demanding, self-centred, but also gentle and loving. Her affection for her pigeons seems genuine and heartfelt, for example. What do you make of her, after researching and living with her for this time?
Lizzie struck me as a woman very capable of playing a role, particularly when it came to ‘daughter’. Even Emma, her sister, has said that Lizzie was ‘peculiar’. All of us have different sides to our personality and we can be slightly different versions of ourselves depending who we’re spending time with. Humans are complex. I wanted this for Lizzie. I wanted her to be chaos wrapped in skin.
While I was researching I heard a rumour that Lizzie killed a cat belonging to Abby. It’s true Abby and Lizzie did not get along and I wouldn’t put it past Lizzie to have gone out of her way to ‘ruin’ something for Abby. However, we know Lizzie was very fond of animals, especially cats, and left a sum of money in her will for animal welfare groups. All this to say, Lizzie is a contradictory woman.
As for me, I have some affection for Lizzie as a character but I don’t particularly like her. I’d never want to be her friend.    
As part of your research you spent time staying at the Borden house, which has become quite a tourist attraction. What was it like, and would you want to do it again?
It was one of the greatest, creepiest and most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. It was probably also one of the stupidest things I’ve done but it was amazing research for the novel. The house is modelled on the crime scene photos so it’s like walking back in time. I met some amazingly generous people there who were only too happy to talk about the case with me and share their theories of events. If it weren’t for this book I probably would never have voluntarily stayed there but saying this now, I think I would like to go back one last time and say goodbye to the house and my created Bordens. We’ve been together for so long that it seems fitting that we part on relatively good terms. Perhaps we could have a nice cup of tea together in the dining room.

Could you tell us about some more of the types of research you did into the case?
Aside from reading the trial transcripts, looking at the autopsies and going through newspaper articles from the time, I also spoke to people about the case while I was at the house. Because this novel is primarily about a family, and knowing what it’s like to belong to one, I realised I could use parts of my own experiences, no matter how small and insignificant, to help build a believable world. For example, when the Bordens go to Boston or when Lizzie was in Rome or Paris, some of those details came from me when I visited those cities. The fictional Borden house is based on my experiences there but also based on houses I’ve lived in. Details like this just help set the scene and make it feel real.
Similarly I used my experiences of being an older sibling as a way to unlock the relationship between Emma and Lizzie (and no, my brother and I are nothing like those two). Even Benjamin and Bridget have some of me in them. I never intended to inject myself into this novel but occasionally something would slip out and if it seemed to fit, I’d run with it, change it up. I think when we’re trying to find people’s humanity in fiction we borrow from our own experiences because we want to see the best in people even if they are, in the end, the worst.

Read the rest of this interview here

Above: UK edition of See What I Have Done
    

Look Up

My mind is a rush. For weeks I’ve divided days into categories: See What I Have Done and Blue Mountain. I find it difficult to generate new scenes or ideas for Blue Mountain on any day I need to deal with Lizzie. It’s emotionally and mentally tiring to have to deal with all those characters while they congregate in the same place. Which is frustrating because right now I need to be working on both. 
I moved on from See What I Have Done around August last year. Although I was knee deep in edits and still had proof reads to look forward to, I’d fallen in love with a new novel that germinated from a strange dream I’d had years before and which had been waiting for me to come back to it when Lizzie was done (yes, I’m aware I’m beginning to hang a lot of respsonbility on dreaming for writing but whatever). Suffice to say, I got shitty when the Bordens interrupted my dates with Blue Mountain. But on we’d go and it was happiness to be able to write about new people and new situations. It was also frightening.

When you work on something over and over again you forget what a beginning is like. You trick yourself into thinking that first drafts (or in my case draft zeroes) come out fully formed and need only a few minor tweaks. So then you write and what comes out is somewhere between potential and utter shite, and you remember all the first drafts you’ve ever written (not great) and confidence begins to drain. You begin to think that you can’t do it, that actually, the craft of writing is now too hard for you to even comprehend and while it is absolute euphoria when your project sings it is equally excruciating to sit there and write and have nothing come out, make you feel like you’ve never written a sentence in your life.

I find that once I get in a rhythm the frightening days become fewer (or is that less? See, this is why I did terribly in editing at uni) and while not always fantastic writing, I can see where I can take the next draft. So by now you might be thinking, ‘But Sarah, you’ve been working on your new novel full time for a few months now. You must be banging that first draft out.’

Guess the answer.

Which brings me back to my rush mind. Now, I didn’t intend for this post to be yet another long winded saga about the writing process. On the contrary. I wanted to show you a dead possum. But before we get there you need to know my current frame of mind: a confusing mess of novels. I sit down to write and the old and new fight for attention. And it’s not a pretty sight. Often the writing and narrative and characters in Blue Mountain come out on the page and make no sense (literal no sense. I can barely read my own writing lately) and before I can iron the crinks out, get over myself and get on with it, I am asked to (and I am very happily to do so, I should add) do something for See What I Have Done and I have to abandon the novel for the day or week and that frightening first draft panic lingers.

Last week, in an effort to solve these feelings and take control over the situation, I did what I always do and went for a thinking-walk to sort out  my issues. Admittedly I was also on a mission to find something ‘inspiring’ for character work that would help get the writing juices flowing and thus first-draft-glory would all be mine. 

I took to a street I always walk, started day dreaming, stopped paying attention to the world around me. That’s when those feelings of first draft panic struck.  I was meant to be paying attention, was meant to be working through ‘things’. I was angry at myself. And that’s when I looked up.

At first I wondered if the possum had fallen, had saved itself with a flick and grab of tail. I went closer. When it didn’t move, didn’t flinch as I approached, I realised it had crossed powerlines, that it was dead and that it had probably been swift. I couldn’t believe what I almost missed because I was feeling sorry for myself.

This jolt from the unlikely, the reason to always look up, to look outward.

I stood there awhile, took it in. There was something in this. I went home immediately and started writing, got to work. It felt great. 

My curiosity. Sometimes I’m ashamed of it. My first thought on waking the next day was: is the possum still there? I got up, went to it, and there it was, tail still clinging and I noticed that overnight decomposition had made small changes, had bloated a stomach, had fattened fur. What if it were to drop? The wind picked up, gave a little knock on the body. I waited. Nothing. The small changes that had occurred. Thoughts returned to the novel. Right there in the street the little scene I had written yesterday was beginning to transform. I could see how I’d develop it, what I wanted my character to do, who I wanted her to become. Small changes, like that belly, that fur. 

I went home, took to work. That afternoon I had to return to See What I Have Done but I wasn’t phased that I had to abandon Blue Mountain. Just like that possum, I knew it would be there when I got back. 


I didn’t get a chance to go to the possum for two days. On the third day I went to the spot, looked up. Gone. A major change. I was disappointed, if only because I wanted to know how much longer the possum could stay there, how it would change from day to day. When had it been moved? The fourth day? The fifth? Just before I arrived? It was clear I hadn’t been the only one to look up.

But here’s the thing. Since the possum, not once have I  panicked  about going back day after day to the inevitable beautiful-ugly first draft mess that’s waiting for me, haven’t panicked* about juggling the demands of two novels that are complete opposites: finished, beginning. 

Don’t be surprised if a dead possum on a power line appears in Blue Mountain. And if it does, you’ll know how I was feeling when I wrote it in. 
* I may panic later. 

Bad Days At Work

As much as you want ideas to turn into good then great prose, some days and weeks it just doesn’t happen. Last week was particularly bad. All that turgid writing. I was working on a new section, my characters going down paths so completely wrong in tone and emotion that I felt I’d lost them, that I no longer had control. I’d had bad periods of writing before but this was something else. The things I told myself: this was proof that I was a weak writer, that I really don’t have anything whatsoever to contribute to the world of literature. I told myself to walk away now while the going was good. No one need to know about this failed novel, you imposter. Maybe allow a more talented writer to find the seed of this novel and turn it into gold.

I realised after a few days that the problem was that I wasn’t connecting with anything that was happening on the page. And if I wasn’t connecting, what hope would the next draft have? 

So I went for a walk. Several walks:

Construction. Cycles of life and death. Breathing. Perspective. There would be answers to the narrative problems I was having.  Perspective.

I have been here many times before: this period would pass. Besides, it’s only writing. That can be fixed with perseverance and trying new approaches. That can be fixed by getting out of your own head and being in the world. And when you’ve been there, come back to the page and try again tomorrow.

Small Things That Happened Last Week

A small snapshot of last week:

My publisher sent me a proof of Sally Abbott’s debut ‘Closing Down’

I returned to Blue Mountain and wrote more scenes for one of the many difficult characters who’ll live in the fictional town of Winton (yes, there are Winton’s that exist in Australia but not quite like the Schmidt version of Winton).

I also started notebook 4. Writing longhand. That shit really slows things down. But I love it. 

I saw these boys riding their bikes, heard them talk footy, tv and school, heard them sibling-tease each other. Old young friends. I hope when they grow up they don’t shed this particular skin of theirs. 


That’s it. There’s nothing else. I was pretty much writing the rest of the time.

When Emma Borden Became a Narrator 

Previously I told you about Bridget’s inclusion in See What I Have Done as a narrator, told you the way your manuscript changes over time can be a miraculous thing. This beast of words that has shape shifted so much over the years has been able to adapt, in various degrees of success, to whatever ‘new visions’ I had for it. 

I think I’ll continue the theme of process and drafting, especially as the Australian publishing date of See What I Have Done draws nearer (and as I try to wade through the thicket of mush that is the new manuscri ptwhich is making me have all kinds of self doubt). This post is one of a many I’ll probably do about Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister. I’m somebody’s older sister and so I thought even on a loose base level, I might be able to identify and draw out something from Emma, explore  that kind of relationship to a sibling, the way you become a protector. 

In a notebook dated 29 December 2012 I wrote:

Continue with the idea of people ‘confessing’ to Emma. 

At the time the introduction of Emma as narrator was a year old – I’d started weaving her into the main fabric of narrators sometime around early 2011 (probably. It may have been mid to late 2010 but memory, as it does, alludes me) – and I was still etching out all her possible roles and uses as a narrator.
It became clear to me through different newspaper articles I had read that she might have been somebody who was used to absorbing the feelings of others. Emma, the vault. While people told her secrets, perhaps all she ever wanted was the truth from her sister. Would she ever receive it? As far as Emma the character was concerned, would I keep her historically accurate, use her as the reliable narrator and allow the ‘real life’ Borden case to funnel through her lens? OR was it better to continue what I had been doing, fuse reality and fictional reality together?
In the 29 December scene I had Emma and Bridget meet each other on the backstairs (this still happens in the final version of the book albeit a slightly different version of the conversation). Bridget confesses to Emma that the police have been questioning her and that she is going to leave the Borden’s employment. She also tells Emma that she heard Lizzie laughing on the front stairs earlier that day.

Bridget’s ‘confessions’ happened, just not in this way, not on the public record. But maybe it did. Maybe she told Emma things that day. Originally in the scene I made Emma imagine a secret sisterhood between Lizzie and Bridget, one that she was jealous of. On and On the scene went but in the end, not all of it rang true to the characters as they developed. So it was cut. Many many weeks and months of work, cut. 

Not all was lost. Having Emma vault secrets meant she was capable of protecting her sister. Emma may not be that trustworthy after all. 


Above: Emma Borden, approx the era of the crime

Whatever was between the sisters ended in 1905. There’s endless speculation as to why they essentially ended their relationship, never speaking to each other again, and although I touch upon it in the book, it was never something I wanted to focus on. For me, the book was all about that day, that family, that awful entanglement of love.

Supposedly Emma gave an interview to the Boston Post in 1913 (I say supposed because it’s debated amongst Lizzie scholars whether this interview actually took place). When the article was published it was quite the sensation. I would read the article many times as I was developing Emma and it became a semi touchstone, something that proved a pattern I was trying to write about. 

At the time, Emma was in a self imposed exile. Somebody somewhere claimed that Lizzie had confessed to the crimes. But here was Emma defending her sister once more, telling the reporter that her sister had nothing to do with the crimes. And yet. She said the strangest thing. When asked why she moved out of French Street she said ‘The happenings at the French Street house that caused me to leave I must refuse to talk about…I did not go until conditions became absolutely unbearable.’
Emma, the vault. That great protector. 
If you’d like to know more about the 1913 article or want to delve head first into the case, I highly recommend you head over to lizzieandrewborden.com . Don’t solely rely on Wikipedia for this one. 

But ask yourself this: am I someone who loves spoilers? Do I want to know what is true and what isn’t as I read See What I Have Done? If you do, by all means go at it and have a great time researching. But if you want to know nothing, let yourself become immersed in this reimagining of the case, resist temptation. Wait. Then go forth and see what you can make of it all.

Beginning and Developing a Scene: See What I Have Done

First attempts at your novel are almost never right. The second and third attempt doesn’t fair much better but it gets closer. Everyone has false starts but the point is to write those false starts one word after the other and build on that,  see what you can make of it. You can’t be proud of something if you never write it in the first place. You also can’t be proud of it if you don’t revise or reimagine. At least, this is how I feel. But beginning’s are daunting. Every time  I start something new I have the same feelings and thoughts: I panic I won’t finish it, I fear the ugly work that will come, I worry I won’t get better as a writer, and there’s always little voice that tells me ‘You’re not good at this. Give up now. You’ve nothing to offer.’ I both dread and embrace the beginning of a new project.

But then I start. I’m very stubborn. I hate being told I can’t do something (especially when it’s me telling myself!) So I wrestle with the slumps, am overjoyed when it goes well. Then I get ready for the drafts (these have their own set of feelings but no need to go into that). I tell myself: I love these characters so much that I’m prepared to do almost anything to get their story down. I’ll rewrite and rewrite until I mentally can’t do it anymore. And sometimes that little voice will crawl into me again. But I persist. 

I have lost count of the drafts I wrote for See What I Have Done. Over the eleven years it took me to write the book I know there would have been at least twelve drafts (more. I know there was more). Some drafts changed dramatically, while others very little, perhaps only a narrator’s storyline was drafted, perhaps the draft concentrated in building the mood of the manuscript. In hindsight I know I wrote this book in the worst possible way. But living, learning.

I was terrified and overwhelmed when I began writing Bridget as a narrator into the novel (she was once a peripheral character. Now she’s probably my favourite part of the book). Want to see me at my most vulnerable on the page? Here are some Bridget excerpts from various stages of drafting, right to the finished page. Much of what I wrote never made it into the manuscript that was submitted to publishers, let alone the final version of the book. But writing passage after passage of false starts helped me shape the character and allowed me to strategise how I would use Bridget in the book. 
The very first day:




As you can see, it’s not particularly interesting, not even particularly good writing but each day I sat down with Bridget, her voice shifted into her own and I started getting a better sense of how she might have felt about the Bordens and what she might know about the family, the secret things.

Eventually I began writing actual scenes. Here is the first attempt to write the ‘winter lock in’ that eventually made it into the final version:



I worked this draft a few times. When the manuscript went out to publishers, this is what the scene looked like:



Once I sold the manuscript I went through a whole year of edits and a bit more rewriting. This is what that fragment of the scene looks like in the uncorrected proof version:



Could I have kept going, kept revising and reimagining? I’m sure I could’ve. I’m sure some readers out there will think I shouldv’e scrapped the whole thing. Maybe maybe not. But this is what the book is. I’m taking what I learnt about See What I Have Done and using that knowledge for my second novel, discovering what type of writer I’ve become, where I might go next.