Thursday, August 02, 2018

More on Bridget Sullivan's grave

Me connecting with Bridget
Raise your hand: how many of you visit cemeteries on your road trips?  When one of my children found out the incredible coincidence that my novel's real-life character Bridget Sullivan's grave was in the small town we'd be visiting, she said—and I quote— "Here we go again."

Anaconda, Montana, has a population of about 9,000, the same as the Vermont town I grew up in. It was founded by Copper King Marcus Daly in 1883; he tried to call it Copperopolis (which is really fun to say) but the name was already taken. Bridget Sullivan—Lizzie Borden's maid— is listed on Wikipedia as one of 25 notable people who lived there. Bridget settled here sometime after the 1892 murders in Massachusetts; intriguingly, no one knows what happened to her for an intervening period of years before she wound up in Montana. Perhaps she went back to Ireland for a bit? That's definitely a happy thing to consider.

See the preceding post for a little bit about the uncanny nature of learning I'd be visiting Anaconda.

The east-west streets in Anaconda are named for charmingly named for trees, but not alphabetized. Tucked in there between Oak and Hickory is Main Street, and at the end of it is a stunning county courthouse.

Anaconda courthouse
 
Check out that eagle of justice!


I sometimes like to think I have intuition about things and I just felt like the cemetery must be near. Sure enough, to the right of the courthouse we spied a little curving road up into the hillside. Jackpot!
We had a decision to make: choose between the upper cemetery or the lower. We chose upper, parked the car and started walking. There were four of us, and we fanned out to better seize upon Bridget.

View of Anaconda from upper cemetery


There were some incredible markers there, like this one that has tree limbs "falling off" in a beautifully stylized manner.



We quickly found some Sullivans, but not a Bridget.

Then, one of my children called excitedly from a few rows away. She had indeed found a Bridget Sullivan, but someone whose birth date was about twenty years off (even given that it's not fixed in stone—ha ha—when Bridget was born, but she claimed to be 26 years old at the time of the 1893 trial). So we kept plugging. It was a hot day. I decided it was time to call it quits, that I'd go to a local establishment where I could pick up wifi, check the website findagrave.com, and then go straight to Bridget. (My cell carrier gave zero service in Montana).

My laptop malfunctioned and I couldn't get wifi on it, but I did pick up the wifi in my phone...for all of ten minutes before it died. I had been left at the wifi place for an hour while the rest of my family went for ice cream, so I spent some time cursing my luck; I couldn't call them to return earlier! I was over-air conditioned and shivering, went outside and boiled. Am I complaining enough yet? Luckily, those ten minutes of scant wifi did let me ascertain that the whole time we'd been plugging through that cemetery near the courthouse, we were in the WRONG CEMETERY.

So much for intuition!

When the family picked me up, I directed us straight to Mount Olivet Cemetery, which was small enough that we could troll the paths in our car. Even better, I had seen a picture of the gravestone so could describe what we were looking for. We found it pretty quickly.

I loved it that Bridget was up on the hillside. Here's her view of the town (you can see that smelting chimney in the distance). I'm glad she found love, that she had a husband beside her in the ground. And I thoroughly believe she must've loved the wild landscape of Montana, its breathtaking mountains...she traded a busy river town for a remote area where you rotate 360 degrees and see nothing but mountains. Montana is gorgeous.

What Bridget "sees" from her grave. See the smelting tower at the upper right.

A writer friend Genevieve Beltran joked that I dig deep as a writer...six feet down. It's true that it was moving for me to see Bridget Sullivan's grave. Although reports from her relatives are that she was stern and had no sense of humor, I hope that she did find peace.

Rest in peace, Bridget Sullivan.

Bridget and John's grave in the foreground

If you want to know more about Bridget, my novel The Murderer's Maid tells the Lizzie Borden story from her point of view.



“Erika Mailman writes a page turner of a thriller that will fascinate as well as terrify….Don’t read this at night; it will give you nightmares.” -New York Journal of Books
“Erika Mailman’s kaleidoscopic narrative melds true crime, historical fiction, and elements of a psychological thriller, all hinging on a singular question: ‘Who isn’t a survivor from the wreckage of childhood?’” -Foreword Reviews
“A complex and riveting parallax view of domestic crimes, decades apart.” -Kirkus
“Those interested in the Lizzie Borden tale…will appreciate Mailman’s research and be rewarded with this new perspective.” -Booklist


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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Bridget Sullivan's grave




My experience of the Lizzie Borden story is through a somewhat different lens than most people; I view it through the eyes of Bridget Sullivan. She was the Irish immigrant maid employed by the Borden family a few years before the murders took place. It is said she tried to quit several times, but Mrs. Borden always talked her into staying. Bridget was at the house the day that Mr. and Mrs. Borden were slain by hatchet, Aug. 4, 1892. The only other person we know was there that day was Lizzie, who underwent trial for her father and stepmother's deaths, and was acquitted. My novel The Murderer's Maid tells the story of these iconic American murders from Bridget’s point of view.

I’m a writer whose had a significant amount of uncanny things happen through her writing. One was writing a novel about witchcraft and then learning my ancestor had undergone witchcraft trials several times. More recently, after my book about Bridget Sullivan came out, my husband’s brother invited us to visit him at his cabin in Montana. What town in Montana?

Oh, it just happens to be the same small town in Montana that Bridget Sullivan settled in, after a hiatus of years in which her trail went temporarily cold. The town is Anaconda.

I had a rare chance last week to visit the grave of my character. She is buried next to her husband John Sullivan (he already had that very common Irish last name, so she didn’t need to change hers, although I guess she could’ve called herself Bridget Sullivan Sullivan). Her side of the shared grave is higher than his, and I fancifully imagined it was her bulky shirts and petticoats causing the difference. Someone had left bouquets of colorful fake flowers on both their graves.

Bridget is on a hill overlooking the town of Anaconda, with a lovely view. She can also see the tower which I think is a smelting tower where her husband would’ve worked. I ran out of time to do that research on this trip, but I hope to return. I’d also really love to connect with Bridget’s great-niece who lives in a nearby town.

So here, a few days before the 126th anniversary of the murders, is a photo of Bridget Sullivan's grave at the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Anaconda, Montana. Next post: more about the search for Bridget's grave (hint: it wasn't easy, although it should've been).



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Saturday, June 02, 2018

Where will I be in June? Fall River, Massachusetts!

At left, librarian Kate Kulpa invited me to come talk about The Murderer's Maid


I'll be doing a free Powerpoint and book talk at the Fall River Public Library 7 p.m. on June 7. Learn more about Lizzie Borden's Irish maid Bridget Sullivan and the events of a horrible day in 1892.

Lizzie Borden took an ax,
Gave her mother 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father 41.

I'll be talking about that, how much Bridget Sullivan might've known or seen--and how interesting it was both to invent a personality for this little-known historical personage, and to create a modern-day storyline that connects back to the past.

I hope you can join me there. Village Partners Bookshop will be on hand to sell copies I'll be happy to sign.

Deborah Allard Dion and Linda Murphy each wrote great articles previewing the event:
http://www.heraldnews.com/news/20180525/meet-author-of-the-murderers-maid-lizzie-borden-novel
http://www.heraldnews.com/entertainment/20180601/dive-into-good-book-or-few-this-summer

Thank you both so much! And thank you to Kate Kulpa for inviting me to the Fall River Library!
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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

IPPY Awards win!

Note that cool yellow thing in the upper right. It's new!

I found out last week that The Murderer's Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel won a gold medal in historical fiction from the IPPY Awards. This award series is for independent publishing: small presses like Bonhomie/Yellow Pear Press (who published my novel), university presses and self-publishing. It's truly an honor and it was really exciting to actually win something!

And I note that there is a really nice space near the title where the gold medallion fits in so nicely.

Thanks to the IPPY folks, and to Yellow Pear Press for entering my book.








We went out to dinner to celebrate and I forgot to order a margarita! Ah well...my Arnold Palmer was very satisfactory. ;)

I have a good handful of upcoming events to share. Some free, some not. Some for readers, some for writers. Most in California, but ONE IN MASSACHUSETTS... in fact, in Fall River, where Lizzie Borden lived. If you're an east coaster, clear your calendar for June 7.

Upcoming events:


Saturday, April 28, 2018: Two presentations at Butte College’s WordSpring Creative Writing Conference: “From Murder to Manuscript” and a session on writing young adult fiction. All day event in Oroville with many workshops includes light breakfast and buffet lunch, $75 ($45 for Butte College students). Space still available; visit https://buttewordspring.org/

Saturday, April 28, 2018: Walnut Creek Library Association’s Wonderland Author’s Gala: Cocktail party and dinner with many authors. Tickets go on sale in March; visit http://www.wclibrary.org/gala/

May 4-6, 2018: Gold Rush Writers Conference, Mokelumne Hill, CA. I’ll be presenting on theme in the novel and moderating a panel on publishing. This weekend-long event is stocked with workshops, wonderful food, friendly writers. If you can’t spend the entire weekend ($195), you can come up for the dinner and keynote speech by Booker Award finalist Karen Joy Fowler, $35. You can also dip into individual presentations for $35 each. For details, visit http://www.goldrushwriters.com/

9-11 a.m., June 1, 2018: Presentation to the California Writers Club on how to balance social media time with writing time, Coco’s Restaurant, 7887 Madison Blvd (at Sunrise Boulevard)., Citrus Heights, CA. Free event and open to public; attendees buy their own breakfast. http://www.cwcsacramentowriters.org/monthly-meetings/

7 p.m., June 7, 2018: Presentation at the Fall River Public Library, 104 N. Main St., Fall River, Massachusetts. Free. I’ll present on Lizzie Borden, Bridget Sullivan and my novel. Pretty excited to do an event in the city where the murders took place; this knowledgeable crowd will keep me on my toes. http://fallriverlibrary.org/






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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Frankenstein's Maker



Two hundred years ago, the novel Frankenstein was published.

Its author was Mary Shelley, at the time living under the shadow of her famous poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. She was also the child of the forerunner of the women's liberation movement, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792 (it is said Jane Austen read this and it influenced her portrayal of strong female characters).

Mary Shelley's life was almost impossibly dramatic and tragic, the kind that makes you say the truth is stranger than fiction. She married Shelley after his first wife committed suicide, he turned his extramarital attentions to her half-sister, she suffered incredible losses with her children and then Shelley.

As immortalized in the 1986 movie Gothic, Mary was part of a literary ghost-telling evening with her husband and Byron. Her nightmare that night led to the first pages of Frankenstein.

My intent in writing this blog post is to talk about a historical novel that tells Mary's story, from her girlhood to the end. From making love on her mother's grave to her husband's drowning death to her own burial with the exhumed bodies of her parents, this novel covers it all in beautiful prose and with an empathetic heart for Mary's brilliance throughout her woes. The book is New York Times bestselling author Antoinette May's The Determined Heart.

I absolutely loved this book and highly recommend it. Now's the perfect time to read it and contemplate the life of this extraordinary author of 200 years ago, Mary Shelley.

Fun fact: It is only through Antoinette that I know Bysshe is pronounced "bish." Looks more posh than it sounds.

Antoinette is the founder of a writing conference now going into its 13th year, the Gold Rush Writers Conference. There are still spots available; one of the keynote speakers this year is Karen Joy Fowler, author of the Booker finalist We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves and the popular Jane Austen Book Club (see? I got to mention Jane twice in this post! Happy me). The other keynote speaker is Ace Antonio Hall.

The conference takes place May 4, 5 and 6 in Mokelumne Hill, California, truly Gold Rush country. I'll be presenting on "Balancing Plot and Theme: How to Make a Novel Resonate." This conference is focused only on the craft of writing in all forms (poetry, screenwriting, nonfiction, fiction) without the sometimes stressful addition of agents and editors. If you want to truly write, meet other friendly folks and relax (as much as one can relax in a haunted hotel), this is the conference for you. Visit this site for more information.

And don't forget to check out The Determined Heart!


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Monday, March 19, 2018

8th annual National Chin Up for Writers Day



Seven years ago, I designated March 19 as National Chin Up for Writers Day. Each year on this holiday I've written an update post. This year I'm trying something new ... er, old. I've recently been introduced to the term "evergreen" in terms of posts that are always relevant. I'm going to recycle this evergreen post, and in 2019 I'll write a fresh one. So here we go!

I originally wrote this post as an email to a Facebook acquaintance, who was clearly getting depressed about his inability to find a traditional publisher for his novel, but as it lengthened I thought it'd be worth posting here. I remember those dark days myself very clearly, and my heart goes out to anyone in this situation--because getting a novel published isn’t just something that would be cool for us; it’s something that validates how we see ourselves. I remember that before traditional publication, if I met someone new and identified myself as a writer, they’d invariably ask, “So have you published anything?” and I'd have to embark on the Road to Apologia, why this is, and how hard I've tried, and I came close with that one agent, and I attended that conference and had a nice talk with that publisher, and how I keep trying and I…

Yes, it sucks.

So I’m appointing today National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers. I have a few thoughts to share that hopefully will serve as a bit of a pep talk.

1. Nearly every published writer I know (myself included) had about six novels under the bed when they finally got that offer. Count up your own manuscripts: two? Three? You may need to keep churning them out, because with each novel your craft improves. Writing is mysterious, and I do believe in innate talent, but as with everything single thing in this life, we get better with practice. So keep practicing. It occurs to me that this bit of cheer may backfire, that a writer may say, “I can’t keep doing this to myself! I just finished my third book, and that’s IT. You’re telling me I have to write three more?!” Someone who really cares about their career will nod philosophically and take the long view that it’s worth it to keep working, keep improving, and finally get a publication contract for a book that’s your best effort.

And after all, you can’t force a book to sell. You can revise based on editorial feedback, you can try again; you can try multiple times! But at some point, you have to cut your losses and start the next project. Soon, the joy of creating a new world within your novel will ease your feelings of feeling frantic about the previous book. And with what you learned from the new novel, you may wish to launch another revision on the old. But at least you’ll have another fresher, better book to try to publish.

2. Joining a writers group really helps with the emotions of being unpublished. Kvetching together, sharing the anticipations as queries go out, consoling each other when rejections happen, cheering each other on to try again: that’s something that non-writers can’t really offer. They don’t “get” what’s so important about being published. The other thing about joining a writers group is that suddenly the idea of being a writer becomes more real. It’s one thing to type away in your home, but when you’re sharing your work with other writers, equally serious about their craft as you, your idea of yourself as an author gains more weight, validity. It will seem more possible that you can do this successfully. I heartily recommend finding a real-person writers group, but online works too.

3. Keep reading books you love. It’s not escapism, it’s not a reason not to write. It’s research--because every single sentence you imbibe resides in you. The more you read, the more those different ways of constructing a sentence moil around in your head. You give your brain more options. You are tutoring yourself subconsciously. 4. “It only takes one person to say yes.” I’m sure you’ve heard that dozens of times, but it’s so true in the publishing industry. It doesn’t matter that 50 agents sent you form rejections, if one says, “I love it!” Your onus is to find the person most likely to say yes. Like I said in #3, keep reading…and when you find a book that’s similar to yours in tone or aesthetic, look at the Acknowledgments section to see if the author thanked their agent. That’s a good person to send a query to. Another good tactic is to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (you can do it for $20 for one month, jam through the archives, and cancel, if money is an issue): you can see what’s selling right now to editors, and which agents are doing that selling.

See an agent’s name several times, linked with books that are similar to yours? That’s another good person to target. You can also look through those thick tomes of agent directories (or better yet, www.agentquery.com), but that doesn’t give you a feel for what the agent likes. Just knowing they represent historical fiction, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean that they like books set in Colonial America. Look at the agent’s website and rifle through their client list. Can you get a sense of the agent’s personality through the books he/she has chosen to represent?

Keep your chin up. There’s a part of this process you can control, and you should: the rest of it is out of your hands. The best thing you can do is move to the next project, and let the current novel marinate. Mark your calendar for six months from now, and re-read it.

Is that chin in the air yet? Higher! Like Cora in Downton Abbey, let me see that plastic surgery scar! I offer you an e-hug and a rueful e-smile, because I’ve been there. Believe me, I’ve really, really been there… and I hope the Gods of Publishing will soon smile on you and your novel.

If you'd like to read the previous years' posts on Keep Your Chin Up Day:

Second year
Third year


Sixth year: As I look for it to link to, I am just now realizing I forgot to do it last year! Oh dear. Rats!


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Friday, March 16, 2018

Ireland will always be in my heart


You never know how the experiences of youth will sculpt the future. I took my junior year abroad in Cork, Ireland, mainly because I was following a guy, but can it be a coincidence that two of my novels feature Irish protagonists? I love the brogue but more than just the accent, it's the imaginative nature of the language. I will never forget sitting in the tiny living room in the rental flat in Prosperity Square (close to the Murphy's Stout brewery, and those hops are forever living in my nasal memory), watching the peat fire burn, and my Irish roommate said, "I watch the flames and I fall to dreaming."

I fall to dreaming!!!

And no, she was not in my poetry program, and no, she wasn't trying to sound poetic. She was a grownup with a regular job. That is just how people sometimes speak in Ireland, reared on a literary island.

I'd like to tell you a bit about my two Irish characters, each of whom wound up on American shores. One fictional and one based on a real-life historical character, the maid to accused murderess Lizzie Borden.

Dodge City prostitute that I saw as "Nora." Her image appears
on the front cover of Woman of Ill Fame


First, Nora Simms. She's part of a Boston Irish immigrant family and departs for California as soon as she hears the reports of gold. She's an unapologetic prostitute who wants to capitalize on the chance to make money, fast. She arrives in San Francisco when it's rough, crude and open to any possibilities. Unfortunately, Nora's path entangles with that of a killer targeting the women of ill fame (a euphemism for prostitute in that era), and she has to use her quick wits to ensure she's not the next victim. The novel Woman of Ill Fame launched a decade ago from Heyday Books, a small press in Berkeley that is still going strong after 40 years in business. Their rights in the book elapsed, and now the book is only available as an ebook under my steam. I'm hoping to repackage this with a sequel in the next year and give Nora new life.

The real Bridget Sullivan on the right. At left is actor Kristen Stewart
portraying her in the upcoming movie Lizzie,
which is not based on my book.


Next, Bridget Sullivan. She was the real-life maid in a household where a husband and wife were brutally murdered by repeated blows to the head with a hatchet. The younger daughter of the family, Lizzie Borden, was accused of the murders. That day, she and Bridget were the only people in the house besides the victims. After a circus of a trial (every major newspaper sent a reporter to Massachusetts to cover it), Lizzie was acquitted. Bridget provided testimony against her employer, and I can only wonder how nervous Bridget was for her own safety once Lizzie was released from jail. Legend says she returned to Ireland to buy her mother a farm. Her traces fade as there were many, many women named Bridget Sullivan in this late-1800s era. The Murderer's Maid: a Lizzie Borden Novel was my first book written involving real historical people, which definitely provided a challenge in terms of getting it "right." The Lizzie Borden story also has a following of many passionate people and I hoped I got it correct for them. A few months ago, I learned that a woman who loved the Lizzie Borden narrative so much that she got married in the murder house gave my book a glowing review: I felt jubilant! This book launched in October 2017, so apparently the trend is that I publish an Irish novel every 10 years. I'd like to carve that down significantly for the next one!

HAPPY ST. PATRICK'S DAY!
Go wear your bra, Erin!

P.S. It wasn't until I started uploading the book covers below that I realized my two Irish books were both blurbed by the magnificent and generous Diana Gabaldon. Her Scottish kindness has reached across the sea to my Irish women. :)

P.P.S. I hasten to say I hadn't forgotten she blurbed them. Far from it!!!!!! I just haven't ever done a post before that connected the two books' Irishness.

















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