Delighted to have previous Retreat West short story comp winner, Anna Mazzola, here today talking about her brilliant debut novel, The Unseeing, which was published by Tinder Press in July. It’s a fictionalised account of a true life crime and tells the story of Sarah Gale, who was sentenced to hang for her role in a horrific murder. I loved it and got completely swept away in the world Anna has built around this piece of history.
Anna, how did you find out about Sarah Gale and what prompted you to tell her story?
I first heard about the murder at the heart of The Unseeing in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. The crime is mentioned only briefly, but grabbed my attention as it took place in Camberwell, not far from where I live, and was both peculiar and horrific. James Greenacre, the man accused the crime, had distributed the body parts about London, the torso beneath a paving slab off the Edgware Road, the head in Stepney Canal, the legs in a ditch off the Coldharbour Lane. However, when I read the Old Bailey transcript, it was Sarah Gale’s story that gripped me. She was accused of helping Greenacre to conceal the horrific murder of another woman and yet she said virtually nothing throughout the entire trial. Given she was facing the death sentence, I thought that was very strange. What was really going on?
Themes of lies – the ones we tell others and ourselves – and truths, and how they are subjective, run all through the book – what made you want to explore this?
That was partly to do with the case itself (it was clear that the key characters were lying), and partly to do with the way I wrote the book. I did a large amount of research into the real case, and became rather fixated with getting to ‘the truth’ of what happened. However, given the inconsistencies in the reporting and the scant information about Sarah herself, that just wasn’t possible. Moreover, I realized that I myself had to diverge from the facts in order to write a story that anyone would want to read. The Unseeing therefore became an exploration of truth and deception – how we interpret other people’s stories, and how we narrate our own.
The lack of women’s rights and how they are financially and legally dependent on men is also a theme you explore yet to me the women in the story also came across as being as strong and as independent as they could be. Do you think this is a true reflection of how women really were in Victorian England?
I’m glad you think they come across as strong, as they can all be viewed as victims in some regards, but I wanted to make sure they had agency. This was an era in which married women had no legal personality of their own, and when wives who had committed crimes under the influence of their husband were judged to have a defence due to apparently having no mind of their own. In one way, I would have liked my characters to fight more against that, and for Sarah to have been a true feminist, but that just wasn’t realistic for the era in which she was living and her position in society. She had to do what she could in order to survive.
What made you want to fictionalise a true life story for your debut novel?
God knows. I suppose I’ve always been drawn to novels based on real people (Alias Grace, Fred & Edie, Arthur & George), so when I came across Sarah Gale’s case, I thought she would be a good jumping off point for a novel. Little did I know how difficult I was making things for myself. There were many times during the course of writing the novel that I looked back and cursed myself for not just making the whole darn thing up.
How do you think historical fiction like this is relevant to the world we live in today?
I suppose it puts our own lives in perspective. While researching and writing The Unseeing, I was continually struck by the contrast between now and then – the fact that women couldn’t travel unaccompanied without causing a scandal, the fact that they could own no property nor have any rights over their own children. The terrible poverty and hardship so many people faced, the injustice and ignorance that pervaded society. And history is always relevant. We need to know what has gone before in order to make sense of our place in the world.
What’s next from you?
I’m currently writing my second historical crime novel, set on the Isle of Skye in 1857, a few years after the Highland Clearances. It’s about a young woman called Audrey who goes to work for a collector of folklore and discovers that a young girl has gone missing, supposedly taken by spirits. Of course that’s not what she believes is going on. Again, the idea was sparked by a real case, but I haven’t tried to base it on the case in the same way that I did with The Unseeing.
I also want to write some more short stories. I miss them.
Thanks for coming, Anna. Look forward to finding out more about Audrey’s story.