Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mary Bliss Parsons, is that you?


I was looking through my archives and realized I never corrected a major error. In this post, I attached an image that I identified as a painting of my ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons. It’s not! (and one of the commenters references another painting of her with a child, which also cannot be the case.) The image was posted at the UMass website with no caption. Because the site is about MBP and because (I must say it) the woman looks VERY MUCH like members of my family, I made the hopefully-understandable assumption that it depicts her.

I got in touch with the UMass webmistress to request permission to possibly use the image in The Witch’s Trinity, which has an extensive afterword about Mary Bliss Parsons. She informed me that there are no images of MBP. The UMass people had simply noticed the website was devoid of images and cast about to find some. The painting is of the same era, illustrating “Colonial America,” so they used it. They ran out of time and funding to properly caption the image.

(But I hasten to say the website is in all other regards completely amazing. Where else would I have been able to see—handwriting and all—the testimony in Mary Bliss Parsons’ witchcraft cases, without traveling all the way to Massachusetts? It also has a very in-depth analysis of my ancestor’s circumstances versus her accuser’s.)

The funny thing is, the woman in the image is basically a dead-ringer for my mom dressed as a Colonial woman. I’m blown away that this doesn’t depict our ancestor! (By the same token, it initially amazed me that after eleven generations, faces could still be so similar).

Interesting crinkle #1:
There was a second painting on the website (the one I think the commenter on my original post was referring to). I have to give my mother credit for questioning it. She said that she had seen it somewhere before (no, not in our attic!). With a strong interest in Colonial painting/furniture/antiques, she recalled that this portrait was unusual for that era in its use of yellow for the woman’s garment. I googled while she pulled out her books. And I was able to locate the painting, which identified the sitter as the wife of someone—not a Parsons. I just now tried to again locate the image; why didn’t I bookmark it? Can’t find it now.

Interesting crinkle #2:
I just went back to the Umass website and am unable to locate either painting. Looks like they took them down. And added some new content: nice work, guys!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Calling Down the Rain

This image from De Lamiis shows witches bringing down the rain. It looks like they are feeding the cauldron with a snake and a rooster.

Witches were feared for their ability to affect natural phenomena. For people whose lives were staked upon whether crops would fail or succeed, the elements were a fearsome unknown. A cold snap could kill the harvest, or too much or too little rain. If power to affect these elements was in the hands of malevolent neighbors, who were assisted by the devil, well, they were to be hated. And executed.

In The Witch's Trinity, townspeople whose village has been famine-struck look about themselves wildly to find who has kept the fields barren. And thus the witch hunt begins.

Image is from Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700 by Alan C. Kors and Peter Edwards


Going through some old paperwork tonight, I found a draft copy of my first novel with a completely different title on it—a name I had forgotten. You see, various attempts to position it as more of a mystery or less of a mystery had me and a former agent trying on different names. I don’t believe it ever went to an editor under the title “The Blood-Soaked Bonnet” (the title page I just unearthed), but it was submitted under “The China Silk Murders.” The book at that point had plot points surrounding a scrap of silk found clenched in one of the murdered women’s hands. My original title for the novel had been “Ill Fame,” and it was published earlier this year under the much-better expansion, “Woman of Ill Fame.”

Similarly, The Witch’s Trinity was named Hexe (the German word for witch). I loved this title and thought it could really lend itself to some gorgeous cover art. I was ultimately won over by arguments against this title (hard to pronounce! confusing!) and am pleased with what went to press. I’ve seen online reviews poke fun at it and say it is not a serious-enough title, but I like the fact that it makes more sense once you’ve read the book.

And let’s not even talk about my unpublished young adult novel that has had five titles…

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hodder & Stoughton

Today The Witch's Trinity launches in England from the publisher Hodder & Stoughton--perfect timing, being the 13th of the month!

Welcome to any of you coming to this blog from across the big pond. My intent here is to continue to post witchcraft-related content for those who are interested in learning more. It's tough, though, during the holiday season, which for us stateside began in November with Thanksgiving.

During readings, people often ask me how the witch craze finally drew to a close. After all, why stop after four hundred years of persecution? That's got a lot of momentum.

There are many, interconnected and complex reasons for the witch craze coming to an end. One, that I'll quickly explore here, is the fact that they simply ran out of women. Literally, in a few cases: there were two German towns that were left with one woman each.

Can you imagine being that one woman?

In a more general sense, though, the villages and cities ran out of women who were stereotypically able to fulfill the role of witch. These would be women outside of society somehow: whether poverty-stricken, displaying mental health issues, or perhaps just outside the bounds of what was "normal" for a woman at this time--marrying and producing offspring. These women were easy to capture, interrogate and execute.

But when all those women are gone and the roving accusatorial eye then rested on women who were not the typical witchlike woman... women important to their society, who were married, linked with upright men of the community... well, then it became a little more unsettling. Instead of a self-righteous certainty that your village has executed a witch, you begin to be a little worried that she was actually innocent.

In Salem, Massachusetts, the witch hunts came to a fairly abrupt halt when the governor's own wife was accused.

There were of course many other facets to the closure of witchcraft (which actually is not a solidly-closed door--please see my previous post about the agonizing tragedy of young children in Africa facing accusations of witchcraft today) and I will touch on those in later posts.

Thanks for checking in!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Two friends sent me a link to this New York Times story ("In Africa, Accusation of Witchcraft Leads to Abuse") on children accused of witchcraft. I read it with a growing sense of nausea.

In my novel The Witch’s Trinity, a family member has possibly accused her mother-in-law of witchcraft because there is not enough food, and she wants one less mouth around the table. And that’s exactly what is happening today in Angola, Congo and the Congo Republic. Except instead of happening to grownups, it’s happening to children.

The article reports:

Officials attribute the surge in persecutions of children to war — 27 years in Angola, ending in 2002, and near constant strife in Congo. The conflicts orphaned many children, while leaving other families intact but too destitute to feed themselves.

“The witches situation started when fathers became unable to care for the children,” said Ana Silva, who is in charge of child protection for the children’s institute. “So they started seeking any justification to expel them from the family.”

This picture is of a six-year-old boy Afonso Garcia, pushed out of his family home because of accusations of witchcraft. He now lives in a shelter with other boys who were accused. Children are being beaten, abandoned and even killed for being witches.

Although my novel describes a horrifying situation, I appreciated the buffer of its being long ago and far away (and fictional, although it certainly could be any woman’s story from medieval Germany). This New York Times story just makes my heart ache… it is happening now.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Talk of the Bay with Rick Kleffel

I'm excited to report that an interview with Rick Kleffel will broadcast on Halloween, Oct. 31, between 10 am and 11 am on KUSP's Talk of the Bay program. This is 88.9 fm or for those not in earshot, it streams at I'll be talking about The Witch's Trinity with Rick.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Read it and eat

Instead of "read it and weep," Towne Center Books has come up with a monthly event called Read it and Eat. It's a luncheon where the author answers questions, reads a passage or two... a low-key, fun thing to do.

For my book, this is quite ironic, since the characters in The Witch's Trinity are starving... but I'll be participating Nov. 30.

Towne Center Books is an absolutely lovely indie bookstore in Pleasanton, California, at 555 Main Street. Please call 925-846-8826 for more information and to register. Hope to see you there.

Death of the Stablehand

First of all, two bloggers were generous enough to post interviews with me: please see Michelle Moran's History Buff and Kelly Hewitt's Loaded Questions.

And here's an image titled Death of the Stablehand by Hans Baldung Grien. Although it appears more modern than the Compendium Maleficarum images I've been posting lately, this is actually older, from the early 1500s. As you can see, the witch in the upper right, wielding what looks like an upside-down broom, has either killed or stupefied the poor stablehand, as the horse looks on bewildered.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Trampling the Cross

Much of witchcraft is a reversal of Christanity. For instance, witches say the Catholic Mass backwards, and it becomes the Black Mass. They accept the Eucharist but underneath their tongue instead of on top--and then spit it out into the privy. In The Witch's Trinity, they pray with their hands pressed together and facing downwards rather than towards heaven. I'm actually not sure if I made up that detail or if I saw it somewhere in my research.

Old witchcraft woodcuts illustrate these reversals. Here is a new witch trampling upon the cross rather than venerating it. And please note--the witch is a male! The image comes from the Compendium Maleficarum, a book that explained everything about witches (borrowing some information from the earlier Malleus Maleficarum, another witch hunting Bible). This woodcut is from a 1610 edition, reproduced in Brian Levack's The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. The Compendium Maleficarum was written by a Milanese monk named Francesco Maria Guazzo.

Is the pebble trial real or invented?

People ask me whether The Witch's Trinity is based on a particular case of witchcraft I found in my research. It's not--it's an amalgam of all the different things I read, as well as some invention.

The pebble trial is a good example of this. In The Witch's Trinity, a character must endure a test of her innocence. A kettle of water is boiled, and three pebbles are thrown into the steaming, rupturing water. The character is asked to retrieve the pebbles--if she can get them, and if she remains unburned, she is innocent.

In my reading, I learned about the pebble trial. It did exist. But I altered it slightly to suit my story--rather than one pebble, the character must collect three, a reference to the Holy Trinity. Like many of the witchcraft tests, this one is impossible to pass successfully.

If you have read The Witch's Trinity (or even if you haven't!) and would like to ask me any questions, please feel free to do so either by writing a comment on any post--the comments automatically go to my in-box, so I always see them--or by sending me an email to (my first name) (the AT symbol) ( I would love to hear from you.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Witch's Trinity on the radio

I will be on KPFA this Monday the 15th from 3-3:30 p.m. as part of Denny Smithson's Word for Word program, 94.1 FM, discussing The Witch’s Trinity. I don't know if KPFA has live streaming, but the website does indeed post the recordings after the fact

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Precursor to the broom

In this image from De Lamiis et Phitonicis Mulieribus--a very old tome on witchcraft--shapeshifted witches ride the air on a stick, a more ancient concept than that of women riding brooms.

De Lamiis was written by German Ulrich Molitor in 1493. He was a law professor, and his book went into several editions, illustrated by woodcuts that were updated so it is possible to find different versions of the same image. I'll post two of those next time for comparison purposes.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Molitor:

Ulrich Molitor (15th century) was a Professor of Law at the University of Konstanz, Germany.

He wrote one of the first books on witchcraft, De Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus (The Witches and Diviner Women), published in 1489.

Although Molitor supported the death sentence for heretics and practitioners of witchcraft, from a moderate point of view for his time he considered that the Sabbaths were an illusion caused by the Devil and not a reality.

This image located in Alan C. Kors and Peter Edwards: Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


This image is from a 1610 edition of the book Compendium Maleficarum (found in Brian Levack's The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe). It shows witches who have taken the form of creatures--including a slow but very evil snail--to work their maleficence.

Shapeshifting plays a role in The Witch's Trinity, as an owl and a cat are possibly imbued with human souls.

It is ON SALE!

My local bookstore (only bookstore in my new "hometown") had not received The Witch's Trinity by the on-sale date of Sept. 25. I had to check back three different times to see this stunning vision: a pile of my books! I knew the store had ordered five copies, so I was thrilled to see only four. That means one got bought! Heady stuff. ;)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Litquake update

Here's the word on the Litquake panel I'm so happy to be part of:

Monday, October 8, 5:30-7:30 pm
The Journey to Being Discovered:
First-Time Authors Reveal All

Foundation Center, 312 Sutter St., Second Floor Conference Room. FREE

Learn from a panel of newly published, first time writers at this panel discussion, a co-production with The Foundation Center. Three novelists and one nonfiction author will talk about all that was involved in making their dream of writing a reality. We’ll cover finding the time and discipline to write regularly, identifying potential publishers, getting noticed by literary professionals, dealing with rejection, and publicizing your book. In Litquake festival fashion, the writers will also be reading from their newly published works. Bring your questions. Space is limited and advance registration required. Please visit to register.

Participants include: Anita Amirrezvani, Bridget Kinsella, Erika Mailman, and Kemble Scott

The next Witch's Trinity reading is 7 p.m. this Thursday the 4th, at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland's Montclair District, 6120 La

Sunday, September 30, 2007

San Francisco Chronicle

A really nice review ran in the Chronicle for The Witch's Trinity, which you can read here. I really like the reviewer's writing style; she must be a writer herself.

I have four more events scheduled before I lapse into quietude:

* Oct. 4: A Great Good Place for Books, Oakland , at 7 p.m. (6120 LaSalle Ave.)

* Oct. 8: Litquake, San Francisco’s Foundation Center near Union Square, at 5:30 p.m. (312 Sutter St.)

* Oct. 13: Book Passage, Corte Madera, at 4 p.m. (51 Tamal Vista Blvd.)

* Oct. 17: Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco, at 7 p.m. (155 Fell St., at Van Ness)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Witches offer children to the devil

This image was included in a pamphlet for the witchcraft trial of a Scottish woman, Agnes Sampson, in 1591.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about her trial:

(b.unknown- executed 28 January 1591) Agnes Sampson was a Scottish healer and purported witch. Also known as the "Wise Wife of Keith", Sampson is most famous for her part in the North Berwick Witch trials in the later part of the sixteenth century.

Sampson lived at Nether Keith, a part of the Barony of Keith, East Lothian, Scotland. She was considered to have healing powers and acted as a midwife for a large section of local society.

In the spring of 1590, James VI returned from Oslo after marrying Anne, daughter of the King of Denmark-Norway. The Danish court at that time was greatly perplexed by witchcraft and the black arts, and this must have impressed on the young King James. The regal voyage back from Denmark was beset by storms. "In the summer of 1590 a great witch hunt was instituted in Copenhagen. One of the first victims was Anna Koldings, who under pressure divulged the names of five other women, one of whom was Mail the wife of the burgomaster of Copenhagen. They all confessed that they had been guilty of sorcery in raising storms which menaced Queen Anne's voyage and that they had sent devils to climb up the keel of her ship. In September two women were burnt as witches at Kronborg" [1] James heard news from Denmark regarding this and decided to set up his own tribunal.

By the autumn of 1590, Scotland was aflame with witch hunts and many of those sent to trial were questioned by the King himself.

Agnes Sampson was arrested along "sundrie" [sic] others, questioned regarding her role in the storm raising, and that of others. She was put to the torture which she resisted at first but:

"This aforeaside Agnis Sampson which was the elder Witch, was taken and brought to Haliruid house before the Kings Maiestie and sundry other of the nobility of Scotland, where she was straitly examined, but all the perswasions which the Kings maiestie vsed to her with ye rest of his counsell, might not prouoke or induce her to confesse any thing, but stood stiffely in the deniall of all that was laide to her charge: whervpon they caused her to be conueied awaye to prison, there to receiue such torture as hath been lately prouided for witches in that country: and forasmuch as by due examination of witchcraft and witches in Scotland, it hath latelye beene found that the Deuill dooth generallye marke them with a priuie marke, by reason the Witches haue confessed themselues, that the Diuell dooth lick them with his tung in some priuy part of their bodie, before hee dooth receiue them to be his seruants, which marke commonly is giuen them vnder the haire in some part of their bodye, wherby it may not easily be found out or seene, although they be searched: and generally so long as the marke is not seene to those which search them, so long the parties that hath the marke will neuer confesse any thing. Therfore by special commaundement this Agnis Sampson had all her haire shauen of, in each parte of her bodie, and her head thrawen with a rope according to the custome of that Countrye, beeing a paine most greeuous, which she continued almost an hower, during which time she would not confesse any thing vntill the Diuels marke was found vpon her priuities, then she immediatlye confessed whatsoeuer was demaunded of her, and iustifying those persons aforesaid to be notorious witches."


"Item, the saide Agnis Sampson confessed before the Kings Maiestie sundrye thinges which were so miraculous and strange, as that his Maiestie saide they were all extreame lyars, wherat she answered, she would not wishe his Maiestie to suppose her woords to be false, but rather to beleeue them, in that she would discouer such matter vnto him as his maiestie should not any way doubt off. And therupon taking his Maiestie a little aside, she declared vnto him the verye woordes which passed betweene the Kings Maiestie and his Queene at Vpslo in Norway the first night of their mariage, with their answere eache to other: whereat the Kinges Maiestie wondered greatlye, and swore by the liuing God, that he beleeued that all the Diuels in hell could not haue discouered the same: acknowledging her woords to be most true, and therefore gaue the more credit to the rest which is before declared."(Newes from Scotland)[2]

Prior to this last confession James had not been convinced of Sampson's guilt, but afterwards he was convinced. Sampson was taken to the Scaffold on Castlehill, garotted then burnt to ashes.

Edinburgh Burgh Treasurer's accounts itemise the cost of Agnes Sampson's execution, giving the date as the 16 day of January 1590 [OS] 'quha wes burnt' as £6 8s 10d.

This image is from Alan C. Kors and Peter Edwards: Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700

Monday, September 24, 2007

Book release is tomorrow

We went to Cody's today to drop off wine for tomorrow's event. Although the book isn't on display because it doesn't release until tomorrow, there was a wonderful big poster for it on the front table. The reading is tomorrow, Sept. 25, at Cody's on Fourth Street in Berkeley.

It feels like forever ago that I learned the book was going to be published... and it also feels like just yesterday. I am thrilled and grateful.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mediabistro course

I'm teaching novel writing again, starting Oct. 9. This is an online course with chats on Tuesday nights. Visit to enroll.

I really enjoy teaching creative writing... it's great to take a look at part of someone's novel in progress and hopefully offer some useful critique. Like a brick-and-mortar workshop, the website allows other students to comment on each other's work, building community. I've taught with MB three times, and twice the students decided to continue contact with each other after the class ended, forming their own writers groups. That makes me feel great... since writing is such a solitary activity, we need the support of our peers to help make it possible.

Ancient Egypt beckons

Apologies for the long hiatus in posting... we moved out of our beloved Oakland! Hard choice to make, but necessary to avoid my poor partner commuting three hours a day for work. We all breathe a little easier now.

Want to recommend a great book on ancient Egypt, Nefertiti. It's written by Michelle Moran; we both work with the same fantastic Random House editor. In this book, iconic Egyptians come alive and walk and talk and scheme...and temples are built and destroyed. I recommend it highly.

Friday, August 24, 2007


Litquake is coming up again... was it a whole YEAR ago?

I'm excited to be part of it again with The Witch's Trinity. I'll be appearing with other authors including good friend Kemble Scott. Litquake is San Francisco's literary festival on an astonishing scale... a whole week of event after event, with simultaneous event! See below for this one.

Monday, October 8, 5:30-7:30 pm
The Journey to Being Discovered:
First-Time Authors Reveal All

The Foundation Center, 312 Sutter St., Second Floor Conference Room. FREE

Learn from a panel of newly published, first time writers at The Journey to Being Discovered: First Time Authors Reveal All. Three novelists and one nonfiction author will talk about all that was involved in making their dream of writing a reality. We’ll cover finding the time and discipline to regularly write, identifying potential publishers, getting noticed by literary professionals, dealing with rejection, and publicizing your book. In Litquake festival fashion, the writers will also be reading from their newly published works. Bring your questions. Space limited. Advance registration required. Please visit starting September 4, 2007 to register

Participants include: Anita Amirrezvani, Bridget Kinsella, Erika Mailman, and Kemble Scott.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

English cover

The English publisher Hodder will be bringing The Witch's Trinity out in December, with a different cover. Can't wait to see it "live"--the colors are amazing.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Witch's Trinity book cover

The Witch’s Trinity comes out September 25, and I can’t wait. Three months away, but given how time has been flying now that I have a baby, it’ll probably be here tomorrow.

My wonderful publicist has set me up with six readings in the Bay Area, as follows:

  • Sept. 25 (the launch): Cody’s Books, Berkeley
  • Sept. 26: M is for Mystery, San Mateo
  • Oct. 4: A Great Good Place for Books, Oakland
  • Oct. 13: Book Passage, Corte Madera, at 4 p.m. (changed from the 12th)
  • Oct. 17: Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco (changed from the 18th)
  • Oct. 30: Books Inc., Alameda CANCELLED

This last weekend I was a panelist at the Book Group Expo in San Jose. A wonderful event! I really enjoyed meeting the other authors – and a panel is so much easier than a reading. It’s more comfortable to present as a team rather than a solo flyer, and answering questions is more fun than reading a chapter from your book.

I’m posting two different covers of Witch’s Trinity. Can you tell which one is the one Crown is going with?

Initially, Crown created the fire cover. I liked this because the wood shape against the fire is mysterious and Rorschachian. But apparently it doesn’t look literary enough (and could even be mistaken for fantasy genre), so the cream-colored cover with the small demons woodcut is the official cover now. I think this was ultimately a good decision!

P.S. Now that I've uploaded the "fire" cover, I'm seeing that it's coming in as a wonderful eerie blue... something to do with me converting a PDF to a jpeg and it being rasterized. Let me scout around for a true-color version, or if worse comes to worse, I'll scan in my galley. But I kind of like it in blue!

P.P.S. Here's the galley.

P.P.P.S. I looked at an older post and saw that I had referred to my newborn as "preternatally wise." Pretty funny malapropism... getting the word "natal" in there. I meant, of course, preternaturally.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Book Group Expo

I'll be at the Book Group Expo in San Jose on June 9, as part of a panel called "Beats, Shoots, and Bleeds: Characters on the Edge." My fellow panelists are Kemble Scott, Peter Plate and Cara Black, with Eddie Muller as moderator. Our panel is at 11:30 a.m.

The expo is a fun, two-day event with lots of writers, chocolate, wine tasting... I went last year and had a great time. The headliners are Amy Tan and Khaled Hosseini.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Take my fiction class!

Later this month, I will begin teaching Novel Writing through Mediabistro. This 12-week class starts May 30 and goes through Aug. 22... and it's all online. No pesky commute!

The class convenes every Wednesday from 9 to 10 eastern time (6 -7 p.m. California time) and lectures are posted throughout the week as well for your leisure in downloading. I' ve taught with Mediabistro several times before but this is the first time doing it online--I'm excited to see how it all goes.

Click here if you are interested in learning more. There are price breaks the earlier you sign up.

In other news, I will be a panelist June 9 at the San Jose Book Group Expo with Kemble Scott, Cara Black and Peter Plate. Can't wait!

And in other news.... well, I determined not too long ago that this blog would transition into strictly writing-related news, but there are some personal things that are just too exciting to contain. On April 19, Alan and I became the proud parents of a fantastic little girl who is healthy and happy and preternatally wise. Life is GOOD.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Ill Fame cover design

One of my favorite blogs to check regularly is The Book Design Review. As someone who has loved books all her life and spent a lot of time looking at covers, I thoroughly enjoy reading a designer's reaction to covers he comes across.

Joseph and I emailed a little bit about Woman of Ill Fame, and he very generously posted the cover with a little bit of critique. You can read his post here. Like most people, he was struck by the photograph of the woman on the cover, just as I was when I first came across her. I feel so lucky that Heyday Books was willing to incorporate her image into the design.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

New review of WOIF

Kel Munger of the Sacramento News and Review wrote a short review of Woman of Ill Fame that you can read here. I'm always grateful and excited to see media coverage.

Remember, next week is my last reading for this novel.
7 p.m. Wednesday, April 4 at Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, 510-486-0698.
Come see me in all my pregnant splendor as I talk about the closed-door activities that got me to this gravid state.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Reading at Black Oak Books

I'm delighted that I will be reading at Black Oak Books in Berkeley at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 4.

Black Oak is a venerable institution, and all of us indy bookstore lovers chewed our nails for a little bit on hearing that the store might close. Looks like things are back in order, and I'm thrilled to be booked with them.

This will probably be my last Woman of Ill Fame reading, so I hope I can give it a good send-off. Would love to see you there! Black Oak Books is at 1491 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, 510-486-0698.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Trying to make it all real

Historical accuracy is a tough thing to keep your eyes open about. When I first began writing Woman of Ill Fame, my intention was to make it absolutely true (while the characters were fictional)… so, for instance, I was going to situate Nora’s brothel at the same address that I would be able to locate one on a map of the time, any saloon she frequented would be an actual one from 1849, etc., etc.

However, right away (first page!) I ran into a sticky mess: the name of the ship Nora comes to San Francisco on. I knew I wanted Nora to arrive on November 11—a little bit of number superstition on my part—so I went to the UC Berkeley library microfilm room to look at the Alta California newspaper. That’s the actual newspaper that the Gold Rushers read—pretty astonishing that somehow copies existed long enough to be photographed and stowed on microfilm. The Alta California ran lists of the ships coming into harbor on any given day. And to my dismay, none of the November 11 ships had evocative names. I even loosened my superstition enough to look a few days after and before the 11th… nothing good. I always thought ships had very cool names!

So I decided to break my own self-imposed historical accuracy rule and just completely made up the name of the ship, The Lady’s Peril. And what a relief! This instantly freed me up to invent addresses and names of liveries and such. The historical background of the novel is still truthful: things like the Christmas Eve fire, the details surrounding contraception and prostitution…but I felt free to devise small details.

And then came… the final editing phase.

For a writer, few things are as scary as realizing the pages in front of you are your last chance to fix any errors. I was frantically googling and using my dictionary to determine whether things like isinglass windows, the penile appellation John Thomas, and Panama hats were in existence in 1849. And then, too, I was trying to go through garment history to see whether women wore bell sleeves at that point, because I really liked the consonant sound of them –and boy, if you try to google anything about clothing online, you get hundreds of hits for Renaissance Festival costumes and it’s hard to navigate around that stuff to get to solid historical clothing history…

And then you come up on bigger issues.

Here’s my little frustrated note to myself at the time:

Major sticking point. Shit. All along, I’ve had Nora on the ship called The Lady’s Peril, but also had her crossing the isthmus of Panama, canoeing the Chagres River… I did not think it through to realize that if she got off the ship, the ship couldn’t continue… so it would be a different ship that brought her the rest of the way. I got confused between the ships that go round Cape Horn and the ships that make the Panama cutoff.

Shit. So, now I have to restructure all the references to her ship and to the other prostitute on board… or should I make her a Cape Horn person as well and cut all the stuff about the canoe trip?

Damn. Exactly NOT what I need when I’m trying to finish my edits a mere 14 hours before I have to go to the airport for a two-week trip to Paris I haven’t even packed for yet.

Well, I got to Paris and I think/hope I caught all the glaring mistakes. Note to self: next time, write a novel set in the modern day!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Real life prostitutes

Rob Tocalino has posted this review of Woman of Ill Fame over at his very fun Egg Blog--and accompanying his text is a great oldtime photograph of some ladies of the evening.

Recently I've been trying to track down some 1800s brothels here in Oakland, where we once had a legalized prostitution zone (roughly 1870 to 1913). Click the links to read these Montclarion columns in order:

1. A brothel site in the midst of the redwood forest whose timbers built San Francisco. Pictured here is Dee Rosario of the East Bay Regional Park District, lifting fallen limbs to reveal the moss-covered staircase of Ruby's brothel. Nothing other than a second staircase remains of the structure.

2. A reputed house of prostitution in the middle of Oakland's Victorian Row. The photo at left shows the lavish double staircase that quite possibly allowed men to engage the services of higher-class prostitutes than the women who serviced the rough lumbermen in the redwoods. This is now an attorneys' office.

3. One possible brothel near the waterfront and nine confirmed in West Oakland. The photo of the rudimentary map seen here is West Oakland's Pacific Street as logged by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. See the lettering that reads "Female Boarding" and "Fem. Board'g?" If you click the link above, you'll learn that this was a euphemism for a brothel, which the fire insurance company took into account since such places were a low fire risk.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Could you do it?

Do you think you have what it takes to have been a Gold Rusher?

First of all, you need a lot of greed. You’ve got to want to race out there and fill your pockets with gold.

Secondly, you need a certain amount of arrogance/fearlessness. Think for a moment about whether you’d be willing to undertake a seven-months journey to a land very few people you know personally (or maybe none) have actually visited. On the way:

Overland: You face being attacked and possibly killed by Native Americans protecting their land. You may get lost and perish, like the Donners. You may fall prey to the diseases that stalked the wagon trains: diptheria, smallpox and the like. You may die of starvation or thirst as your supplies run out and you can’t replenish them. You may die of heatstroke. Or pure exhaustion, since most emigrants, to spare the cattle already pulling a very heavy load, walked the whole distance.

By ship: You face the perils of being vulnerable to the sea: shipwrecks, mutinies, rogue waves. Wooden ships, paired with open flame lighting, introduce the very real danger of a ship fire. Plus there’s scurvy, rats, nausea… Oh, and there’s no Panama Canal built yet, so when you arrive in Panama, you’re going to have to deboard and keep watch of your trunk and belongings as you are canoed across the isthmus and then ride a mule to reach open sea on the other side.

And once you get there, you’re not sure what it’s going to be like. Will it be safe? Is everyone so gold-blind that they’ll kill you as soon as look at you? Will there be things to eat? Will you regret coming? (And if you do, can you face doing that same horrible long voyage in reverse?) Will you think of all the folks you left behind in the East and weep?

Based on all of this, I admire the Gold Rushers for their fortitude and brassiness, even while I admit probably a fair number of them were depraved and unprincipled.

And then, when you think of unescorted women making their way to the West Coast… well, the admiration becomes a little stronger, because this was an era when women (at least high class women) were not supposed to even step outside by themselves without a chaperone. This was the Victorian age, with all its rules for “protecting” females. Certainly, many of the women who came to California during that time did not arrive under their own steam (my novel talks about the deplorable plight of Chinese prostitutes brought over in cages), but those who did make the journey willingly and under their own power earn my respect.

Prostitution in the 1800s was a different undertaking, at least psychologically, than today. Women had so few options for employment, and so many real possibilities for starving to death, that embarking on prostitution was more of a put-food-in-mouth situation than today. Supermarkets did not exist. Many people grew their own food, or bought it directly from those who did. Same with meat: the same guy who owned the animals was the one who butchered them and sold the meat, at least in the very early days of San Francisco. In many cases, reform had not yet hit charity houses, so women shied away from the prison-like institutions that might be able to help them.

In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed, allowing faster and safer travel across the country. By 1900, 50 years after the Gold Rush, the Bay Area had significantly grown up. My city, Oakland, had a city hall built as a skyscraper. The landscape looked very different, with buildings galore and streetcars connecting the various neighborhoods. And while women were now permitted to gain employment in ways previously unheard of, they were still not making the wages that their male counterparts made (still the case today). In 1913, a prostitute told the Oakland Welfare Commission, “If working girls were paid living wages, there would be fewer prostitutes."

For more on Gold Rush prostitution--in fictional form--read my novel Woman of Ill Fame.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Friend's book does better than mine

But I ain't bitter! I fully congratulate Kemble Scott on his novel SoMa making it to the San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller List. His book deserves all this play--and you should check out his SoMa related video offerings on YouTube.

Now, I'll just place this wet kleenex over here... did my mascara run?

Upcoming Oakland event

This event is not about Woman of Ill Fame, but instead my book Oakland's Neighborhoods. I was given a grant from the city's Cultural Funding Department to write it, and so librarian Steve Lavoie has teamed me up with Jeff Norman, Ly Nguyen and Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen so we can all talk about our grant-driven Oakland books.

Jeff's book is Temescal Legacies, and it has hit the SF Chronicle Bestseller List! It's about the history of this Oakland neighborhood, told through oral histories collected by Jeff.

Ly Nguyen and Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen's book is called As-Is. They are two of the contributors to this collection that showcases art and literature from the Bay Area's Vietnamese community.

My book Oakland's Neighborhoods is a combination of neighborhood histories, A-Z, researched and written by me, and creative writing by residents about their neighborhood.

What follows is the official library press release.

Meet the Authors of Three Books Documenting Oakland


(Oakland, CA)—In an exciting evening celebrating our city in print, Oakland Public Library will host the authors of three fine books documenting Oakland’s diverse history, stories, and neighborhoods. Come hear from and meet authors Erika Mailman, Jeff Norman, Ly Nguyen and Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen as they promote their books, each of which was funded through the City of Oakland’s Cultural Funding Program. Steven Huss, Acting Cultural Arts Programs Coordinator for the City of Oakland, will help to introduce the evening’s program and the city’s funding objectives. The event will take place Thursday, March 8, 2007 from 6 to 8 pm at Oakland’s Main Library, 125-14th Street.

The books will be available for sale and signing at the event. The titles are Oakland's Neighborhoods by Erika Mailman, Temescal Legacies by Jeff Norman, and As Is, an anthology of visual and literary art by the Vietnamese Artists Collective, which will be presented by editors and collective members Ly Nguyen and Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen. Each book has been well received by critics and the public, and each will serve as a lasting resource to help in the understanding and enjoyment of our city.

The program is sponsored by the Oakland History Room of the Oakland Public Library. For more information, please call (510) 238-3222, or see the Library's Web site: Additional information about the authors can be found on the following Websites: (for Temescal Legacies),, and Please refrain from wearing scented products. To request sign interpretation, or other accommodation, call the number above or (510) 834-7446 (TTY) at least five working days prior to the event. The Oakland Public Library is a department of the City of Oakland.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Oakland Tribune blurb

In today's Oakland Tribune, reviewer Kathleen Geib says:

Mailman serves up vivid description, sparkling prose and a Gold Rush prostitute as scrappy as Scarlett O'Hara.

I like the reference to Scarlett. I love GWTW and I believe the melodrama of the movie has somewhat cheapened what is an incredible historical novel. I have always loved how unashamed Scarlett was--if she needed to steal her sister's fiance to put food in everyone's mouth, so be it. If she had to trick Rhett Butler into thinking she's rich so he'll marry her, so be it. I was definitely inspired by this headstrong heroine.

And there's more... throughout my novel Nora uses unconventional expletives. I had a great time making these up (and I have a list somewhere of the ones I had to agent who once represented the book thought it was overkill, rightly so)... my favorite is "Donkey's funeral!" I could just picture the sad circle of donkeys in the middle of the dusty street, looking down at their fallen comrade.

I think I was inspired by an expletive Scarlett uses: "God's nightgown!" The idea of the old-style big-bearded majestic God feminized by wearing a frilly 1800s nightgown; it just cracked me up. I still don't know if that was a typical irreverent exclamation or if Margaret Mitchell made it up; whichever, I was charmed.

I also remember my nana saying "Well, good night!" as her own interjection of surprise or disbelief.

Colorful language is so pleasurable... I once worked for a boss who would coin things on the fly while talking on the phone. I recall him calling someone a "son of a sea biscuit."

Next reading: Tonight!
Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007. Reading at Books Inc. in Alameda, 7:30 p.m., 1344 Park Street, Alameda. 510-522-2226

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Woman of Ill Fame cover art

Who is the woman on the cover?

She is a Dodge City prostitute, and her name is Timberline. More than that, no one knows. I found her photograph while doing nonfiction research on prostitution (the image appears in several books), and just felt a connection to her.

I loved her fierce expression, her defiance... and also her vulnerability. In a scene from the novel, the professor basically tells Nora what he thinks about her features, which echoes what I think. (And she responds that her jaw is like a shovel, which is partially true but doesn't diminish her looks!)

Luckily, I found the image early on, so that I had her face in mind as I wrote the novel. To me, she truly is Nora.

The photograph is in the collection of the Kansas State Historical Society, and I worked with that organization to get permission to use it. Heyday Books added spot color so she would have lipstick and a gory bloodstain.

It's odd to think that this woman posed for her photograph a hundred or more years ago, never knowing that it would wind up as an illustration in several nonfiction books, and the cover of a novel. Would Timberline approve of Woman of Ill Fame? Would she get a kick out of it? Would she be angered? If she's anything like Nora, she would undoubtedly be contacting me to get a portion of the profits.

Next reading: Sunday, March 4, 2007. Bird & Beckett's in San Francisco, 4:30 p.m., 2788 Diamond (cross street is Chenery... this is close to Glen Park BART). 415-586-3733

Monday, February 12, 2007

Feminists took notice

A friendly staffer at Heyday Books sent me this link with the note "I had a feeling feminists would take notice of your book!"

Please see this review posted at Feminist Review.

[Image is from here]

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Article in Nob Hill Gazette

I've written a piece on old-time prostitution in San Francisco, including info on Sally Stanford, the madam who became mayor of Sausalito, which appears in this month's edition of the Nob Hill Gazette.

The article is not available online, but you can visit NHG and order a copy, or find the magazine on sale at various SF locations. See their website for details.

My next reading for Woman of Ill Fame is Thursday, Feb. 22, at Books Inc. in Alameda at 7:30 p.m. The bookstore is at 1344 Park Street in Alameda, 522-2226.

Excited to report a new event has been scheduled with Black Oak Books in Berkeley: Wednesday, April 4 at 7:30.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

France and Japan are on the ball!

Well, Woman of Ill Fame has finally showed up on Amazon, albeit without the book cover image. Hooray!

It's still at Barnes and Noble online and Heyday Books online and best of all... in your local bookstore if you ask nicely!

If you liked the book, please take a moment to write a positive review. If you didn't like it, please forget you ever read it.

I'm also pleased to note the book shows up on French Amazon and Japanese Amazon...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Where to buy Woman of Ill Fame

First of all, please patronize your local independent bookseller! Even if they don't stock the book, they can easily order it.

Secondly, the book is available at Barnes and Noble online, here.

Soon it will also be available on Amazon.

The launch party last night was wonderful. There was a good turnout & lots of books sold! It was a nice chance to see a lot of my friends from the writers workshop that I haven't seen in a while.

Please read the really nice review of the book by Kemble Scott that appeared in the SF Guardian here, amusingly titled "Ill Fame, Worse Luck."

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Launch is tomorrow!

I'm getting excited and nervous... tomorrow is the launch party for Woman of Ill Fame, at 7 p.m. at A Great Good Place for Books in Montclair Village. Hope you can come!

Kemble Scott, a writer I greatly admire, has written a review of my book for the SF Guardian that you can read here. Scott himself has a novel that launched just yesterday! It's called SoMa, named for the region south of Market in San Francisco, and it's about characters who explore the alternative sex scenes available in that fair city. His launch party is Feb. 26, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Le Colonial bar in San Francisco: mark your calendar. SoMa is incredibly fun, a very fast read: you'll gobble it up in one or two readings and never look at SF the same way again. Visit his website here for more.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Woman of Ill Fame launches Feb. 1!

My novel Woman of Ill Fame is about a Gold Rush prostitute who gets caught in the web spun by a killer targeting women of her kind. It is available as of Feb. 1. Please attend any of the readings below. Information on how to purchase is also listed here.


1. Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007. Launch Party and reading at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, 7 p.m., 6120 LaSalle Ave. 510-339-8210.

2. Friday, Feb. 9, 2007. Reading at Laurel Bookstore, 7:30 p.m., 4100 MacArthur Blvd. in Oakland. 510-531-2073. Note: originally posted at 7 p.m., this event is now a half-hour later.

3. Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007. Reading at Books Inc. in Alameda, 7:30 p.m., 1344 Park Street, Alameda. 510-522-2226.

4. Sunday, March 4, 2007. Reading at Bird & Beckett's in San Francisco, 4:30 p.m., 2788 Diamond (cross street is Chenery... this is close to Glen Park BART). 415-586-3733.

How to Purchase:
  • First of all, please check first with your local bookseller. Most Bay Area stores should carry it... and if not, you can prompt them to order it. Most booksellers can order a book and have it to you within days.
  • You can visit my publisher's website and follow the links.
  • It is available at Barnes & Noble online: click here.
  • Amazon will be listing the book... but the posting has been delayed.
  • Attend a reading! Books will be available for purchase and signing at any of the book events.
Please also see my website for more information on the novel.

Why are her lips purple on your book cover?
You got me! Blogger loaded the jpeg strangely, somehow. The lips are supposed to be blood red, and that splotch is indeed a blood drop.

What's going on with your blog these days?
Well, it's a bit of a paradigm shift. When I first established the blog, I intended it to be a place for me to post additional information about my novels--sort of like the Extras on a DVD. But then my publisher pushed forward the pub date and with such an invitingly open blogosphere, I just started blogging about my personal life: trips I took, what I was thinking, what's great about Oakland.

But now that my first book is actually going to hit bookshelves, I'm going to revert back to the initial purpose. This post will remain up for a while, and then I'll start posting things about the research behind the novel: where the cover photograph came from, why I started writing the book, whether Nora is based on a real person, etc.

And when my novel The Witch's Trinity comes out in mid-October, I'll again shift the blog, to talk about research behind
that book.

I hope you will check back here (or my website's events page) to see if/when new readings are added. For instance, we're in the middle of scheduling something at San Francisco's Bird & Beckett bookstore and I'll post that when the date is firm.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

This is me today, at 24 weeks and 3 days. Compare to the post two down where I announced the pregnancy... I grew a lot in six weeks!

That spot on my forehead is called "The Mask of Pregnancy"... I love how dramatic and Dumas-esque that sounds. It's supposed to go away after birth.

In about five hours, I leave for New York to stay a few weeks at Yaddo, an artists' colony. I've never done such a thing, and I hope it will be a great experience.

Happy 2007, everyone!