Monday, December 10, 2018

Entertainment Weekly lists Witch's Trinity as #5 in their list of witchy reads

I was dazzled to learn that Entertainment Weekly listed my witchcraft novel in their fun list of Wickedly Great Books About Witches. I had pulled up the list for another project I'm working on and started clicking through, believing I was not even included on the list. I gasped when my own book cover showed up in the #5 slot.

Yay! Thanks, EW and authors Christian Holub and David Canfield, for including me. So many wonderful witchcraft books are out there. I love this genre and these writers. It's important to remember and learn from the horrific tragedies of the past, when simple bad luck could be blamed on the woman in your villageand she could burn or hang for it.

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Monday, October 29, 2018

Malleus Maleficarum, the Witch Hunter's Bible

Modern edition of Malleus has a demon riding backward and a witch being
burned at the stake. My novel shows a similar demon on the cover.

In the very fun movie The House with a Clock in its Walls (based on the classic novel by John Bellairs, which I loved as a child), the warlock character Jonathan Barnavelt starts searching for books to help out in a bad situation. One of the books he's trying to find is the Malleus Maleficarum, an actual book that is known as the Witch Hunter's Bible.

It was written in/around 1486 by two German inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, who were wandering through Northern Germany to help towns with their witchcraft problems.

The title translates to "the Hammer of Witches"—i.e., the weapon which you can use to hammer them downyou can see the root of "mallet" in "malleus." 

Original cover of the Malleus Maleficarum

The book was written to assist if the two friars couldn't happen to be there in your village at the time a witch was ruining everything for everybody else. Says translator Montague Summers, "The Malleus lay on the bench of every judge, on the desk of every magistrate. It was the ultimate, irrefutable, unarguable authority."

This book is still in print today.

It discusses the things witches do (just flipping through, I am seeing chapter headings like, "How they are Transported from Place to Place" and "Here Followeth how Witches Injure Cattle in Various Ways"), how to question them, and how to pass sentence on them. It contains very legal language and is deadly serious in its pragmatic approach to an otherworldly crisis. The language in the sentencing parts is actually so legalistic and long-winded that I hesitate to include an excerpt! 

In this 1591 woodcut, witches bring children to the devil.

The book lays out 35 kinds of questions to put to a witch. Here's the heading for Question 34: "Of the Method of passing Sentence upon a Witch who Annuls Spells wrought by Witchcraft; and of Witch Midwives and Archer-Wizards."

It's like The Handmaid's Tale meets Dungeons and Dragons. The witch midwives "surpass all other witches in their crimes" and the archer-wizards (as in, archery) "constitute the graver danger to the Christian religion in that they have obtained protection on the estates of nobles and Princes who receive, patronize and defend them." Archer-wizards enchant weapons so they don't work right, while witch-midwives either kill the child in the womb or offer up the newborn to the devil (an example of this is seen in the woodcut above).

The book is a lightning bolt of shocking entry into the superstitious, ignorant medieval world. In my novel The Witch's Trinity, set in Germany during this time period, an elderly woman is so indoctrinated in this cultural mindset that when she is accused of witchcraft, she isn't completely sure if she's innocent.

As I continue to flip through my copy of the Malleus, I see passages I highlighted just because they blew my mind, and handwritten marginal notes where I had to vent. In a random flip-through, here is a pretty interesting section:

"An example was brought to our notice as Inquisitors. A town was once rendered almost destitute by the death of its citizens; and there was a rumour that a certain buried woman was gradually eating the shroud in which she had been buried, and that the plague could not cease until she had eaten the whole shroud and absorbed it into her stomach."

Yikes, rumours can be so vile! Hungry corpses are the worst!

If you're curious how it ended, the city's governor caused her to be dug up. The Podesta (an Italian official) cut her head off with his sword, "and at once the plague ceased." This anecdote is compelling not only for its eerie image of the woman eating fabric in her grave, but also because her exhumation was official and endorsed by the highest levels of city government.

If you're wondering why calmer heads didn't prevail, the very first part of the Malleus establishes that not believing in witchcraft constitutes heresy. So, to save your own skin, you'd become a believer, too.

I hope you've enjoyed this look at the very, very dark recesses of medieval justice. And hey: please vote in November!

*Note: as of this writing (Oct. 30, 2018), The Witch's Trinity ebook is on a Book Bub sale for $1.99 until Nov. 4. It is that price across all platforms (Kindle, Nook, Google Books, Kobo, etc.). Here are the links:

“A gripping, well-told story of faith and truth” (Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner): When a small German town falls on hard times, the townspeople blame
witchcraft — and an elderly woman whose mysterious visions leave her questioning what’s real… “Beautifully written” (San Francisco Chronicle).
Barnes & Noble
Apple iBooks

Photo credit: Petra Hoette


Random House:
Barnes and Noble:

Follow Erika on Twitter: @ErikaMailman
and on Instagram: @ErikaMailman

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Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Exclusive interview with Jody Matzer, actor in Lizzie the film!

Actor Jody Matzer, left, plays Deputy Fleet, right. Nailed the mustache!

Actor Jody Matzer is charming, humble, and energetically devoted to his career. Recently he landed a role in the movie LIZZIE with iconic indie goddesses Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny.

He plays an 1892 police officer—Deputy Fleet— investigating events at the Borden residence. Possibly that includes (who knows?) looking into the dual hatchet murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, a true crime that took place in Fall River, Massachusetts. Chloë Sevigny plays Lizzie Borden, Andrew's daughter who was accused of the murders, while Stewart plays the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan, the only other person in the murder house that day besides the victims and Lizzie. 

The real Lizzie Borden, left, and Chloe Sevigny, right

The film debuted at Sundance this year and got snapped up for distribution by Roadside Attractions and Saban Films. It airs in a limited theatrical release with Landmark cinemas on Sept. 14: that's next Friday! 

I interviewed Matzer and learned more about the fascinating cold case file (Borden was acquitted) as well as insider information on what it's like to work with Stewart and Sevigny. 

Kirsten Stewart, left, plays Bridget Sullivan, right. Stewart has a little more "it girl" quality.
Q: What was it like working with luminaries like Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny?
Matzer: In a word…intimidating. I have to start by saying that when I walked onto set in Savannah I was immediately impressed by how welcomed everyone made me feel. Such good vibes! Then the reality of where I was and what I was about to do hit me. Nothing can prepare you to walk onto set with the likes of Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Kim Dickens, Fiona Shaw and Jamey Sheridan.

Kim Dickens, left, as Lizzie's sister Emma, right, who was conveniently away from
home when murders occurred...

Matzer: My first day on set—my one and only scene—and I would be acting with these talented, seasoned pro’s! I was excited, nervous and struggled to find the eye within my hurricane of emotions. Luckily the cast was extremely gracious and patient as I found my footing.
          Fiona Shaw, who is just, simply put, one of the kindest people I’ve ever
met, on set or off, was genuinely interested in me as an actor and person
and we spent the morning chatting about the business and life. 

Fiona Shaw, right, plays the unlucky Abby Borden, left. You also know her as Harry Potter's aunt!

Matzer: Director Craig Macneill and I were speaking after the premier of Lizzie at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Craig asked how I was able to just walk onto that set and keep it together. He told me he was impressed I just came in prepared and nailed my scene. "If there were nerves," he added, "we didn’t see any."
          To that I would say, as an actor, you take that energy, all your nerves and
anxiety and fear and you use it to your advantage. Even though my character, Deputy Fleet, isn’t nervous or anxious in the context of the scene, I used my nerves to give him a stillness. It’s the energy Craig wanted from me as Fleet. He wanted my size (I’m 6’2") and quiet to speak volumes. So, in the end, it all came together. 

Jamey Sheridan, right, as ill-fated Andrew Borden, left.

Matzer: And let me say this, because I know people are eager to know. In regards to Kristen Stewart: she is professional, talented and kind. She walked right up to me, offered me her hand, smiled and introduced herself. She was shy but like the other members of the cast, welcoming and professional. Short answer? Don’t believe everything you read in the press.

Q: Had you heard of Lizzie Borden before being cast in this movie? Do you have a sense of the real life woman's guilt or innocence?
Matzer: I am a history buff as well as a fan of movies or television shows which have forensics science and criminology as a backdrop. I had certainly heard of Lizzie Borden and knew the story. In regards to Lizzie’s innocence or guilt, I think screenwriter Bryce Kass said it perfectly. When asked during the Q&A after the Sundance screening, if it was difficult to balance history and storytelling, Bryce said (and I’m paraphrasing here): "We have the courtroom transcripts from Lizzie’s trial. Every single one. She had a very dry, sarcastic sense of humor. So we have a pretty good sense of who she was through her words. We also know exactly what happened in the courtroom. What we don’t know…what nobody knows…is what really happened inside that house. That was the springboard for our narrative."

Bridget texts for help with laundry, cooking, & bloodstain removal

Matzer: I think the story/theory presented in Lizzie is extremely plausible. Suffice to say, it was a horrible, brutal crime. What would push someone to kill their parents in such a gruesome violent manner? It’s a fascinating subject.
          My theory? I think Lizzie Borden killed her parents. I think there was a
number of factors at play, including a compromised mental state, as well as

Q: What the most surprising thing that happened on set?
Matzer: I am a professional actor. When cast in a project, I take my responsibilities seriously. I like to think I am thoughtful and respectful. I do the job and then I go home at the end of the day. My then agent had reminded me to be the actor I always am, the actor directors want to work with more than once. She told me to do what I always do: show up and do the job well.
          I don’t ask fellow actors for autographs or photographs. I give them their space just as I would want someone to give me mine.
          So when I walked onto the Lizzie set the first time, I was taken to my little dressing room. Wardrobe dropped off my costume. I had my sides (my script) and I was prepared to just sit in the quiet little room (one in a row of many) and study and prepare. I wasn’t going to venture out and explore or see who I could see. That’s just not how I operate.
          Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. I answered it.
          It was Fiona Shaw. She shook my hand and welcome me to set. So very kind. We chatted and then she left me to prepare, saying she’d see me on set.
          I sat back down and started going over my sides. There was another knock on the door. I opened it. It was Kim Dickens. We shared a similar conversation as Fiona and I had just minutes earlier. Kim left, saying, "See you on set."
          I sat back down. A minute or two later, there was a knock on the door. I opened it. It was Chloë Sevigny. We chatted. She said, "See you on set," and then left.
          It still brings a smile to my face. These marvelous, powerhouse actors
making a total stranger feel so absolutely welcomed onto set.
          Later, I was asked if I had been good. I simply smiled and replied: I didn’t bother anyone and stayed in my dressing room. 

Jay Huguley, left, plays attorney William Henry Moody, who asked a lot of probing questions
of Lizzie in the courtroom

Q: I'd love to hear about your audition process.
Matzer: It was pretty straightforward. The project was listed on a casting website. My then agent submitted my resume and headshot to the casting director. I was then offered an opportunity to audition. I did as much research as I could in that short period of time. I taped two different versions of the scene and they were sent to the casting director. There were no callbacks. My agent called a few weeks later telling me I’d been cast as Deputy Fleet.

Q: What do you think about how the police force of 1892 handled things?
Matzer: It was the 1890s. I think from a technical/forensic aspect, they did as much as they could. Their scientific hands, metaphorically speaking, to my understanding, were tied. Lizzie was the only person charged. I think that speaks volumes to how much they could do and how much they wanted to do.

Jay Huguley with a little light reading

Q: What did you do to prepare for this role?
Matzer: It must be said the character as presented in Lizzie is different from the real man. I of course researched what I could on Deputy Fleet. I first wanted to see what Deputy Fleet looked like. This is a quick superficial, vanity thing, though. As an actor you move past this curiosity and dig deeper and try to find any clue as to who the person you’re playing really was. I feel a sense of responsibility when it comes to portraying someone who was real. At some point, though, I had to blend what was known historically about Fleet and then find those traits we shared—the truth which lies between us. That’s my job as an actor.
          How do you do that when there are no audio or video references? That was the challenge presented to me. There are none. In the end, I finally decided he was an officer of the law. He was a man who was concerned about wrong or right. I had to keep things in perspective. This movie was not The Deputy Fleet Story.
          I only needed to consider the broad strokes of who this man was and what I decided was that he was no-nonsense, serious, practical and suspicious.
          From there, I let Craig’s direction, Kristen’s performance and Bryce’s dialogue guide me. Craig and Bryce both told me they were very happy with my performance as Deputy Fleet. I did my job. I’m very proud.
          In closing, I must say, Lizzie is going to blow people away. Chloë is brilliant as Lizzie. Hers is a raw, heartbreaking, tour de force performance. The entire cast is just amazing. I’m truly blessed to be part of it, even if in a small capacity. Lizzie is jarring, violent, touching and tragic. There are moments which will move you and horrify you. Lizzie is a gorgeous film thanks to the cinematography of Noah Greenberg. Jeff Russo’s soundtrack is a perfect complement to the story and imagery. His themes are unsettling and broken and mirror the tragic broken mind of the film’s center character.

  • Want to know more about Matzer? His website is He tweets as @MATZER_fella_64 and is on Insta as @Matzeractor.
  • Want to know more about the movie Lizzie, like watching the trailer and finding out if it's showing near you? Click here and then at the top click on "Change region/adjust theater."
  • Want to know more about the character Kristen Stewart plays, the Irish maid who was there that day? My novel The Murderer's Maid tells the whole story from her point of view, along with a modern-day narrative about a woman who discovers her own strange connection to the case. [Disclaimer: my book has nothing to do with the movie, other than being another rare case of Bridget Sullivan getting some attention and credibility.] Check it out here:

“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

Follow me on Twitter @ErikaMailman or on Instagram @ErikaMailman.

Finally, I've blogged a lot about the case. Click below!

. . . . .

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, 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

. . . . .

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).

. . . .

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:

Thank you both so much! And thank you to Kate Kulpa for inviting me to the Fall River Library!
. . . .

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 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

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

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

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.

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.

. . .

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!

. . . .

Monday, March 19, 2018

7th annual National Chin Up for Writers Day

Back in 2012, 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,, 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!

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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Monday, February 05, 2018

...In which I attend three literary events in 24 hours

"One of these things just doesn't belong here..."

And I don’t even live in Manhattan!

Friday night I went to an author event for Kelly Corrigan’s book Tell Me More. Although I read fiction until my ears migrate to the front of my head to compensate for the deteriorating eyesight, I’d somehow missed the nonfiction phenomenon that is Kelly Corrigan. This is great, though: now I can binge-read everything she wrote, because I adore her.

This is a lot like my experience with the Harry Potter books; I was clueless until Book Six or so. And then…180 miles an hour.

Back to Kelly. Luckily, my friend Jeannine knew all about her and invited me, knowing I would love her too.

Imagine the scene. A Barnes & Noble filled to the gills, the organizers having to bring out more seats, freeflowing wine and appetizers…we had to be wristbanded to be there. I marveled and thought someday I want people to be wristbanded to hear me.

And pay $45 a ticket.

But the ticket price was fine because it included a gift bag with her hardcover, a wonderful little book light which I’m very excited about, a Random House stadium cup (wristbands, stadium cups: I think they’re working on converting authors to athletes) and a copy of …Glamour magazine. Jeannine laughed and said she didn’t think that had been preapproved by Kelly. I bet she’d want Mother Jones in there.

(In case that sounds mean of us, one of Kelly’s ongoing riffs is about foregoing showers).

Kelly is freaking funny. I found myself laughing very hard, the sharp bark of surprised laughter, and the murmuring laugh of “oh yes.” Women everywhere were exchanging glances as we/they laughed, because much of what Kelly said was universal, bonding.

And then she spoke of loss, and even though I made a vow a few months ago to cry less, I just couldn’t stop some of these tears. Jeannine said she’d been listening to the audio book on her way in to work and bawling her eyes out. I would add some hard-earned advice to readers here: don’t listen to Schindler’s List in your car.

If you have a chance to see Kelly in person, take it. It’s incredibly rewarding and will make you feel good about being a human.

The line to have your book signed snaked around and around, and thanks to our arrival time, we were literally the last people in line. And when I finally got up to Kelly, what did I say to her? “Thank you for all the feels.”

It would be good if Barnes & Noble could provide a trapdoor immediately in front of the author signing table for people who say stupid things like that. I never even use the phrase “all the feels.” How did that come out of my mouth? Worse, it sounded glib after Kelly had just evoked truly genuine emotions out of all of us and shared some devastating things about her own losses, which reminded us of our own losses, and connected us in the communality of grief.

Accordingly, she responded, “What’s your name?” and signed my book.

Jeannine and I went around the corner, had gin and tonics and some weirdly-cold (but delicious!) truffles with raspberry dipping sauce and only went home when her husband texted us that he was falling asleep watching our brood of kids.

I went home, I slept. I recharged for …Literary Round Two! Ding ding!

Saturday morning, I went into Sacramento for our monthly brunch gathering of the Historical Novels Society friends. We have no agenda and just meet to talk shop and encourage each other. I love this group so much. We meet for two hours in a closed-off room at Ettore’s Swiss bakery and there’s always good talk and laughter.

This time, we were all asking about our leader’s situation with a dearly loved one that is facing cancer for a second time. He’s such an incredibly kind person (and a great writer) and it was hard to see the struggle etched in the lines of his face. It’s always so difficult to know what to say, but I hope he knows how much we all are concerned and want to be supportive and listen while his family undergoes this horrible time. Mark, I hope everyone who reads these lines will pause and send a little heartfelt ping of support to you.

There’s another Erika M. at the group, and she just released a lovely early reader book called Big and Yellow. It has wonderful illustrations and so far, a neat story. I read the first chapter to my kids last night and they were enthusiastic, wanted me to keep reading when it was time to turn off the light. 

The Adventures of Big and Yellow by Erika Nyhagen

She’s using a pen surname Nyhagen, but it was still fun to see her signature on the title page as a flourished Erika. The book involves two bears fretting about being released to a new caregiver now that their boy has grown up (one thinks they are being given away because he failed to learn how to fly when the boy tossed him in the air). It is sweet and funny thus far. And the illustrations threaded throughout are absolutely gorgeous, created by a former Disney illustrator. Nice work, Erika!

Next, I carpooled with my friend Gina and her husband to Jackson, California, for the book launch of another HNS friend, Kathy Boyd-Fellure. Aside from Gina’s brilliant book launch on a boat on the Sacramento River, I have never seen this many people at a “real” person’s book launch before. I mean, she nearly approached Kelly Corrigan levels! I was thrilled to see so many friends support her as she launched her book Language of the Lake. She held the event in the upstairs of Hein & Co. Bookstore, where there is a charming area that has been built out to look like Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street. She had a wonderful spread of cheeses and Snook’s chocolates. And five of her eight sisters were there! (or maybe she is the eighth). As one of four sisters, I find that thrilling. Can’t wait to start reading, Kathy, and congratulations!

The Language of the Lake by Kathy Boyd-Fellure

Can you tell I had fun staging these book photos?

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