By Leslie Lindsay
Explosive debut novel, part-crime, part-historical, and part family dynamics, Sarah Schmidt reimagines the infamous Lizzie Borden story.
We’ve all heard the rhyme, about Lizzie Borden taking the ax and whacking her mother and then doing the same to her father, with one more whack. If that’s not chilling enough, being a nursery rhyme and all, what follows in the narrative is just as disturbing.
It’s August 1892 and Fall River, Massachusetts is experiencing a major heat wave. Everyone’s a bit on edge, and ill. Sarah Schmidt, an Australian debut author takes the story we’ve all heard bits and pieces of and breathes life into the terrible, twisted tale of Lizzie Borden and her family with deft skill at bringing the senses to life. In fact, much of why I loved this tale is because of the visceral reactions to I had during the reading experience. That’s not to say a story about a grisly double murder isn’t enough, but it’s Schmidt’s use of language that had me wincing. In this case, that’s a good thing, a testament to her writing.
SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE (Atlantic/Grove Press, August 2018) focuses on the stepmother, Abby (it was a remarriage following Lizzie’s mother’s death when Lizzie was just 5), the sometimes temperamental businessman father, Andrew, and the two spinster sisters, Emma and Lizzie, and another, the enigmatic character, Benjamin.
I found the character of Lizzie so well drawn, so real; definitely a character I loved to hate. Schmidt writes her with such psychological precision, a woman who never really grew up as much of her characterizations led me to believe Lizzie younger than her stated 32 years.
Told in alternating POVs, SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE focuses mostly on the days surrounding the murder, if not focusing exclusively on the day itself. We hear from several characters, their interpretations of the events, and then we also hear about bit about the trial (but not much), leading us to draw some of our own conclusions. Perhaps Lizzie didn’t kill her parents after all?
I’m so honored to welcome Sarah Schmidt to the blog.
Leslie Lindsay: Sarah, I loved SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE. In fact, it got me thinking about the case and the characters when I wasn’t reading and then I was drawn to do some more digging. I heard somewhere that you just couldn’t get Lizzie to leave you alone. Can you talk about your inspiration, and how Lizzie ‘haunted’ you?
Sarah Schmidt: I had difficulty letting these characters go and constantly thought about them, so I’m relieved to hear they infiltrated your mind too. I ‘discovered’ this case while I was in a second-hand bookstore in 2005 and initially I wasn’t interested in it at all. However later that night I had a dream: Lizzie was sitting at the end of my bed, poked me in the leg and said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I had this same dream every night for a week and it was only then that I decided to write down the dream and hope Lizzie would leave me alone. She didn’t but the upside was that I was able to write this book. I felt like Lizzie in particular was with me most days and this allowed me to play with her character in unusual ways. It’s quite the gift for a fiction writer to have a set of characters feel absolutely like fresh and bone—in a way it allows you to visit them whenever you like when it’s time to write them.
L.L.: One thing that struck as I was reading is that you are Australian, not American. I had always thought the Lizzie Borden story was pure American folklore, having taken place in Massachusetts, not exactly a worldwide case. Can you expand on that a bit?
Sarah Schmidt: I hadn’t heard of this case until I stumbled upon it however I’ve since learnt that many people in Australia and elsewhere have heard about Lizzie and the case (or at the very least they know the nursery rhyme). This case was a phenomenon: a wealthy white woman from a privileged, respectable family was accused of axing her father and step-mother to death. The details surrounding the case were a total mystery and this only increased interest in the case. I think in many ways the idea that a woman could be so violent was the pulse of the story and this helped push its way around certain parts of the world. The fact that it became American folklore definitely helped keep the story alive.
L.L.: I’m curious about your writing process. I can imagine it would be easy to get bogged down in research. There’s got to be plenty out there on Lizzie Borden and her family, some of it accurate and others not-so-much. How did you decide on what to include and what to jettison?
Sarah Schmidt: Research is often the fun part—it’s the actual writing that can be the downside. As I mentioned, I wasn’t really interested in the case but the fact that Lizzie kept talking about her father in my dreams made me realise that what I was interested in was the family and what these people may have been like. The central questions I wanted to explore were: if Lizzie did do it, why would she commit such a crime? What happens to a family when they no longer love each other?
So initially I began my research by reading anything I could get my hands on and I read a lot of the court transcripts. When I would go to write I felt completely bogged down by the history and facts of the case and I didn’t feel connected which made my writing feel stale. It was then that I decided I would take liberties and simply concentrate on the family. This was completely freeing. I was writing fiction after all. So I began to research in stages when I needed to: whatever information I retained indicated to me that these were the parts that would resonate within the story and a readership. As I went on, I began looking for things that told me about the humanity of the family. After a few years you begin to intuit what your manuscript needs.
I also decided early on to limit my interactions with other interpretations of the case (whether books or films etc) because I wanted to create my own story and didn’t want to be completely influenced by what had gone before me. This is such a mythologised case: you need to find your own way to a story.
L.L.: And the structure. That’s another major undertaking, weaving all of these different POVs into a seamless whole. Was there ever a time you thought about writing this as a first person POV, say, from Lizzie only? Or a third person narration? Did you try it other ways before deciding on the final outcome?
Sarah Schmidt: I had no idea how I was going to write this book. In the beginning I had Lizzie’s voice but I quickly realised that she was never going to be the narrator I wanted her to be: she was effusive, petulant, annoying. I knew I needed someone else. That’s how Benjamin came to live in the book. But even he had his limitations. Overtime I collected the narrators and the story unfolded as I learnt more about them and what they knew, what they wanted to share with me. I would constantly switch from one narrator to the other when I got bored with them. This process can become complicated and often I got lost in the narrative however in a way, I think this helped create the rhythm of the novel.
Depending on who I was writing the narration would either be in first person or third person (for example Emma was in third person for a very long time) but for this book I found being in first person was the best way to tell this story, especially because it’s such a claustrophobic novel. Being trapped in the heads of these characters helped the mood and shape of the whole thing.
I wish I could write a novel that is told from one POV and sticks to a linear narrative but that’s just not how my brain works!
L.L.: And what more can you tell us about Benjamin? He was quite mysterious. Who was he, exactly?
Sarah Schmidt: Benjamin is a fictional character and was born because I couldn’t handle Lizzie on my own. I liked the idea that there would be a parallel character to Lizzie, one who was just as violent but wore it differently to her. Over time he became his own person and I was able to use him to explore themes such as justice and retribution.
L.L.: Of course I have to mention the visceral reading experience. Oh my! I felt everything deep in my gut. I found myself licking my lips at certain passages and feeling anger and disgust and so many other emotions. Instead of asking how you write that way, what do you do to keep the saw sharp?
Sarah Schmidt: I’m not sure I even know the answer to this only that I try to always follow my gut instinct and pay attention to what is around me. Observing everything and everyone helps as does allowing yourself to sit by your character’s side and let them dictate their world view. It’s very tiring to write this way but it’s the only way I know how. If I feel bored by something or if it doesn’t ring true to me (or to the character) then I have failed creatively and I start again. It’s the only way to keep it fresh.
L.L.: There’s a part in your acknowledgements section that thanks Lizzie for choosing you to tell her story but then you say, ‘it’s time to go.’ Do you still think about her? Does she still ‘find’ you?
Sarah Schmidt: I haven’t felt truly connected to Lizzie for a good while now but she still pops into my head from time to time. I spent eleven years with her and these people: I think it’s going to take me a while to adjust.
L.L.: What are you working on now? Another grisly historical fiction?
Sarah Schmidt: I don’t like talking about projects in their infancy however I’m working on a novel that came to me in a dream about five or so years ago. It was a simply image of a woman driving a car toward mountains with a child in the backseat. Nothing was what it seemed. I knew instantly that it was a novel, I just didn’t know what it was. Last year I began to explore this idea and image in depth and it has surprised me. I didn’t set out to write about the past but that’s what it has become. You just follow the feelings of your characters and see where they take you.
L.L.: Sarah, it’s been such a pleasure! Though the tale is horrific, I enjoyed your writing very much. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Sarah Schmidt: Thank you for these questions: they were great!
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE, please visit:
- Instagram: @ikillnovel
- Twitter: @ikillnovel
- Read more about Sarah Schmidt’s experience with Lizzie on her blog
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: After completing a bachelor of arts (professional writing/editing), a master of arts (creative writing), and a graduate diploma of information management, Sarah Schmidt currently works as a reading and literacy coordinator at a regional public library. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. See What I Have Done is her first novel.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Grove Atlantic and used with permission. 1892 image of Lizzie Border and the Borden home retrieved from author’s website , image of girl with axe from vimeo rhyme of Lizzie Borden retrieved from, all on 3.7.18]