Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Sarah Schmidt found out about axe murderess Lizzie Borden when a pamphlet fell out from between books at the second-hand bookshop where she was working. Consciously, she ignored the pamphlet – but Lizzie lurked in her subconscious and re-emerged in Sarah’s dreams. The librarian was compelled to write about Lizzie, and after 11 years See What I Have Done, Sarah’s debut novel based around the murder of Lizzie’s father and stepmother, came to be. We asked the author about reconciling fact with fiction, her terrifying research, and the time one of her siblings tricked Sarah into thinking that they had sustained a grievous injury.
The Lizzie Borden case has been heavily scrutinised for over a century. What about it was so compelling to you?
Although the events surrounding the crime and the trial are really fascinating, for me this story has always been about a family imploding and the consequences of that particular ‘type’ of family dysfunction. I wanted to explore the reasons why someone would kill their parents.
You’ve spoken about a recurring dream that lead you to write about Lizzie, and of a creepy op-shop pamphlet that disappeared when you went back for it – are you a naturally superstitious person? Has writing this book made you more so?
I don’t think I’m particularly superstitious however this whole process has made me more of a believer in the notion that as animals, we should listen to our gut instinct more, let our curiosity guide us through patterns and themes, especially when we’re creating or problem solving. For me, that means paying attention to dreams. When Lizzie came to me night after night I had a choice: ignore her (which I was doing) or listen to her (that part of my brain that was picking up patterns in the initial pamphlet I had read) and see where it led. I’m forever grateful I chose to listen. Without realising, my gut instinct connected to a family story that wasn’t overtly present in that pamphlet.
Your blog traces a lot of your writing process, the heartache and the triumphs. Throughout it all, your dreams about Lizzie seemed to become increasingly regular and vivid. Did you have some particularly creepy ones? How much did they inform your process?
Let me tell you about dream-Lizzie: she does not give up! It felt like the more I wrote about her, the more she popped up and showed me ‘things’. In a way I was glad because I used so much of what I dreamt about to help write this book. Very rarely, if I was lucky, I’d dream a complete scene ready for me to write when I woke up (the scene where Lizzie hops into bed with Mrs. Borden was a direct dream image). In the early stages I had one dream where Lizzie showed me an image of Abby and Emma trying to clean up vomit. I distinctly remember the smell and texture and she told me, ‘I’m so glad I don’t have to do that.’ As gross as it was, I used this image to not only help build my characters but to develop a sense of the house dynamics.
You had to undertake a significant amount of research for the novel – a decade’s worth in fact! Were there times when new findings would contradict your intentions for the story and its characters? How did you go about reconciling the fictitious with the factual?
The biggest barrier to overcome was that pesky little fact that Lizzie was acquitted of the crime. For narrative reasons I needed her to be guilty in someway. So in the beginning I researched to the point I felt comfortable enough to rattle off some of the main points of the case. I read random newspaper reports, trial transcripts, looked at photos and so on just to get a sense of what the overarching story was in real life and what it could be fictionally.
At the same time, I was playing around with the mood and voice of the novel. I discovered pretty quickly that the more I tried to stick with the facts the more I felt constrained and that made the book rather static. I realised I wasn’t overly interested in the details of the crime and trial: I was interested in the Bordens and wanted a character driven novel. That’s when I decided I’d veer slightly from much of the accepted version of events. Once I did this the novel became alive.
One of the greatest aspects of this case is that it’s a mystery. There are indisputable facts (such as who discovered the bodies, that Lizzie was acquitted, that uncle John came to visit the night before the murders) that wouldn’t feel right to fictionalise but there are far greater things we will never know, so by it’s very nature the case invites speculation.
I wanted the novel to feel as if this was a potential truth so to do that I needed to weave fact and reality throughout. I was still revisiting the case right up to the proofread!
I never saw this book as ‘strict’ historical fiction, so when it came to adding details about 1890s America, I have to admit I did the bare minimum. For example I didn’t spend months researching Victorian era kitchen floors or contact the Fall River Historical Society asking if they knew for sure what floors the Bordens had. I consulted roughly three websites, chose a floor I liked the sound of and which seemed the most common and went with that.
What was it like staying overnight at the Borden Bed and Breakfast?
It was one of the greatest, creepiest, and surreal experiences I’ve ever had. It was probably also one of the stupidest things I’ve done but it was amazing research for the novel. The house is modelled on the crime scene photos so it’s like walking back in time. I met some amazingly generous people there who were only too happy to talk about the case with me and share their theories of events. I highly recommend a visit!
The story centres on the dysfunctional family dynamic, particularly the between sisters, Lizzie and Emma. As an older sister yourself, do you have any funny or memorable stories of sibling rivalry?
I distinctly remember a particularly nasty game of backyard cricket. Our parents were out at the time and I was in charge. I always wanted to bat first and hated bowling. After I batted I told my brother I was tired and didn’t want to play anymore. We had a bit of a back and forth about that. He was so upset. The poor kid! But I went inside, started reading and thought nothing more of it. A few minutes later I heard him scream, ‘Sarah! Help me! Help me! I’m bleeding.’ I ran to the window and saw his forehead and the bat covered in blood. My stomach dropped. Not only was he hurt but I was going to get into some serious trouble from mum and dad. He was bawling his eyes out. I raced out the front door and went to him, threw my arms around him and said, ‘What happened? Are you ok? Where are you bleeding?’ And then he started laughing, his whole body convulsing. ‘Gotcha!’ He said. We had a plum tree in the front yard and he had rubbed a whole bunch of them on his face and bat. Then he said, ‘Now that you’re here, will you bowl to me?’ So I did.
It took you over ten years to write this story – through drafts, doubts, and motherhood – how did you keep the stamina up?
Stamina is a tricky thing. I’m still trying to figure out how to strike a good balance. I’ll be honest: many times it was hard and it took it’s toll physically and mentally. But when I had to, I reached out for help. Sometimes you can’t do everything all at once and that’s ok. I’m also a stubborn creature and this book was going to be finished no matter how long it took. Not once did I ever feel I wasted my time even when it looked like I’d never publish this novel. You persist with something because it’s good for you as a human to do it and that helps give you stamina.
After investing so much in this project, surely it bugs you that the murder remains unsolved?
The crime was 125 years ago and there’s not much physical evidence left that will give us a definitive answer. But the answer is there, somewhere. I’ve always thought the most likely scenario of this mystery is the least complicated one. Someone in that house knew the crime was going to happen. Someone in that house probably had a hand in at least one of the murders. If that’s the only answer we ever get, that’s good enough for me at this stage.
Having spent so long with these characters, how well do you feel you’ve come to know each of them? What would they say about way they’ve been portrayed?
I’m still not sure I completely know who these characters are. Even in the edits they would come out with things that took me by surprise. But as much as they irritated me, kept me up at nights, and are for the most part people I wouldn’t want to be friends with, I have deep affection for these characters. I know I’ve created very specific fictional interpretations of real people in a horrific situation but I hope they’re well rounded characters. Not everyone is good, not everyone is bad all of the time.
Which other Australian authors are you particularly inspired or influenced by?
Not to sound ridiculously earnest but I’m inspired and influenced by many authors in all genres for countless reasons. Sometimes it’s they way they approach the craft of writing or the themes they focus on. I love authors who take risks and I learn a lot from those whose voice, style, language and imagery, themes, and politics dictate the way they chose to tell stories. They are unapologetically distinct and fierce and have total command of the page. I’ve started work on my second novel and recently it’s been memoirists who have taught me a lot about distilling the personal and specific into incredibly universal stories. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race, Cory Taylor’s Dying: a memoir and Inga Simpson’s Understory are three books I’ve read this past year that have knocked me off my feet and have a certain something I aspire to.