Questions & Answers
See What I Have Done delves into the shocking double murder of Abby and Andrew Borden that took place in Massachusetts in the 1890s. What drew you to write about this story?
I would say pure luck was the initial aspect that drew me to this story. I was in a second-hand bookstore when I accidentally knocked a pamphlet about Lizzie Borden off the shelf. After reading about the case I was initially uninterested. But that night and for a whole week, I dreamt that Lizzie was sitting on the edge of my bed poking me in the legs. She said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I began writing down these dreams hoping they'd go away and without realising it, I had started writing a novel. My gut instinct was that this story was about a family who no longer loved each other rather than the actual crime and trial itself.
The Borden murders are most often thought of as Lizzie Borden's story, younger daughter of Andrew and prime suspect in the case. See What I Have Done, however, is told through multiple voices: both Borden sisters, the family maid and an outsider. How did you approach creating distinct voices and stitching their stories together?
The short answer is: a lot of false starts and an inability to focus! I began with Lizzie and learnt fairly quickly that she was incapable of telling her story in a way that would be satisfying or complete. I became so frustrated and infuriated with Lizzie when I wrote her that even I couldn't bear to be in her head for long periods of time. I needed an out.
The next two narrators I came up with were Benjamin and The House and again, I found these narrators were just as selective as Lizzie. The more frustrated I became, the more narrators I dragged into the whole debacle, so that’s how we get to hear from Emma and Bridget. Initially I wanted the feeling that although they might’ve been operating against each other, they were essentially connected, that without one we couldn't have a whole. But it was also me unable to be with one character for any sustained period: I would be ok for a few weeks or months but then I needed a break and to go and be with one of the others for a while. In the first few years it was hard to remember where I was in the story at any given time, and I realised each narrator needed to concentrate on telling just a few parts of the story. By doing this, you also get to know them as people and this helped build voice and their perspective.
Benjamin, the outsider in the book, brings a completely different perspective. I thought of him as a wildcard, able to disrupt the stories the insiders told. Where did he come from, and was that your intention when writing him?
Benjamin was a character that came to me fairly early on in the initial writing. A few things happened at once: I had read some wild theories that suggested Andrew Borden may have had an illegitimate son who committed the murders and that Lizzie let him in the house. Then there was a theory that a man was hired by Lizzie and uncle John to carry out the crime. While none of these can be substantiated, the idea of an outsider appealed to me, someone who might be able to either tell us ‘observed secrets’ about the Bordens or be a possible murderer.
However, when I started writing this character, what came out was someone completely unexpected. He was someone who although very violent, also had a traumatising childhood. I began to think of Benjamin as a parallel character to Lizzie, almost mirroring each other when it came to the idea of justice and retribution, the idea that people are products of their environment and act accordingly. I was interested in the ways people can distance themselves from their actions and felt that maybe Lizzie did this (she is someone who is different on the inside and outside). What if Benjamin did this too? So for many years, Benjamin was someone who could literally become other people throughout the novel. Obviously that particular character trait and sub plot isn't in the book but you never know: that version of Benjamin might pop up in a different novel!
The book is incredibly gripping and hugely atmospheric, claustrophobic and intense. A large part of this was the visceral world you created within the house, its smells and tastes. How conscious were you of expressing the intimate nature of life in the very late nineteenth century?
I have always been drawn to scent and the peculiarities of houses since I was a child. It’s not unusual for me to describe things in that way when I’m writing or even when I’m speaking to someone, so it felt very natural to add those types of details to this book. Having said that, I wasn’t fully aware of the extent I was doing it until I’d written a draft or two. Once I realised the effect it was having on the narrative, I saw an opportunity to heighten it all and exploit it for all it was worth.
Specifically with regard to Lizzie, with her impulsive need to touch, taste and smell things, do you think she craved sensation?
What a great question! My version of Lizzie most definitely craved sensation, craved experience of any kind. For me, she just needed to feel something was real during a very bizarre time in her life. I was always fascinated that real-life-Lizzie could give quite specific details about what she did that day but couldn’t recall other, ‘bigger’, things. This was most evident in her claims she was eating pears or that she’d been looking for a lead sinker that day to go fishing with her uncle. She’d also asked her neighbour, Mrs Churchill, who she should engage to do the funeral. This was literally straight after she’d discovered her father’s body. But when asked if she’d seen Abby, she was sketchy, gave multiple answers. All of this encouraged me to think of Lizzie as someone who existed on her own time, someone who perhaps might have really only considered herself and her experiences..
I enjoyed your portrayal of Lizzie Borden very much, her ability to be callous, demanding, self-centred, but also gentle and loving. Her affection for her pigeons seems genuine and heartfelt, for example. What do you make of her, after researching and living with her for this time?
Lizzie struck me as a woman very capable of playing a role, particularly when it came to ‘daughter’. Even Emma, her sister, has said that Lizzie was ‘peculiar’. All of us have different sides to our personality and we can be slightly different versions of ourselves depending who we’re spending time with. Humans are complex. I wanted this for Lizzie. I wanted her to be chaos wrapped in skin.
While I was researching I heard a rumour that Lizzie killed a cat belonging to Abby. It’s true Abby and Lizzie did not get along and I wouldn't put it past Lizzie to have gone out of her way to ‘ruin’ something for Abby. However, we know Lizzie was very fond of animals, especially cats, and left a sum of money in her will for animal welfare groups. All this to say, Lizzie is a contradictory woman.
As for me, I have some affection for Lizzie as a character but I don't particularly like her. I’d never want to be her friend.
As part of your research you spent time staying at the Borden house, which has become quite a tourist attraction. What was it like, and would you want to do it again?
It was one of the greatest, creepiest and most 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.
If it weren’t for this book I probably would never have voluntarily stayed there but saying this now, I think I would like to go back one last time and say goodbye to the house and my created Bordens. We’ve been together for so long that it seems fitting that we part on relatively good terms. Perhaps we could have a nice cup of tea together in the dining room.
Could you tell us about some more of the types of research you did into the case?
Aside from reading the trial transcripts, looking at the autopsies and going through newspaper articles from the time, I also spoke to people about the case while I was at the house. Because this novel is primarily about a family, and knowing what it’s like to belong to one, I realised I could use parts of my own experiences, no matter how small and insignificant, to help build a believable world. For example, when the Bordens go to Boston or when Lizzie was in Rome or Paris, some of those details came from me when I visited those cities. The fictional Borden house is based on my experiences there but also based on houses I’ve lived in. Details like this just help set the scene and make it feel real.
Similarly I used my experiences of being an older sibling as a way to unlock the relationship between Emma and Lizzie (and no, my brother and I are nothing like those two). Even Benjamin and Bridget have some of me in them. I never intended to inject myself into this novel but occasionally something would slip out and if it seemed to fit, I’d run with it, change it up. I think when we’re trying to find people’s humanity in fiction we borrow from our own experiences because we want to see the best in people even if they are, in the end, the worst.
Given that the truth of the Borden case remains unknown, even if popular opinion is clear on the matter, how compelled did you feel to be factually accurate in your book?
Fiction allows you to explore motives and people and situations in a particular way. I wanted to focus on a family, focus on people that we ostensibly don't know that much about on a personal level. I wanted to explore the reasons why someone might want to commit such a violent, brutal act. To do that, I needed to push some of the intricacies of the case and trial to the side and only include what was relevant to that purpose.
Also, distance can be everything. If this crime had happened recently or if I wanted to write a book that was going to attempt to actually solve the crime, I would've felt compelled to stick more closely to ‘facts’ and be more sensitive to the choices I made when it came to my characters. But because this crime has become so mythologised, so analysed, I felt there was room to come at it from a different angle.
As well as being a story of a horrific crime, See What I Have Done also highlights the constrained nature of women's lives at the time. All of the female characters appear trapped by their circumstances. Was this something you deliberately wrote into the book, or did it surface naturally as you told the story?
I think it’s chicken and egg. If you start with the question of ‘Why would…’ then you begin to pick up on the subtleties of the story. Why would a 32-year-old woman living under the constraints of Victorian era America kill her controlling father? Well, there could be an answer right there. Similarly when I learned Abby had essentially paid Bridget off to stay in the house every time she tried to leave, I saw it as a way to explore how wealthy women can exploit working class women and how that shaped Bridget’s ability to either fight back or leave her situation.
I’m instinctually drawn to these types of questions and stories and am interested in the circumstances and situations people find themselves in, so for me it was both deliberate and natural.