Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction and, probably due to some fault of her parents, is drawn to peculiar and dark historical subjects. Her acclaimed debut novel, The Unseeing is based on the life of a real woman called Sarah Gale who was convicted of aiding a murder in London in 1837. The Unseeing, was published in July 2016 in the UK, February 2017 in the US. The Times called it, ‘a sizzling first novel’.
Her second novel, The Story Keeper, is about a collector of folklore on 19th century Skye and will be published in May 2018. She also writes short stories.
Anna studied English at Pembroke College, Oxford, before accidentally becoming a human rights and criminal justice solicitor. She lives in Camberwell, South London, with two small children, two cats and one husband.
What drew you to this period and to this person in particular?
I first read about the Edgware Road Murder in The The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, where it is mentioned only briefly. As the crime took place in Camberwell, where I live, I wanted to find out more about it. I read the Old Bailey transcript and was intrigued to find that Sarah Gale’s barrister says very little throughout the whole proceedings to counter the fairly outlandish allegations made against his client. Sarah gives only the short statement quoted in The Unseeing. That got me thinking: what would keep a woman silent despite the risk of a death sentence: guilt? Fear? Love?
How did you approach the borderline between known fact (whatever that is) and your fiction?
I spent a long time researching the facts and even longer trying to prise myself away from them in order to write a story that anyone would want to read. That meant, at some points, diverging from the known facts of the case. I agonized over this for many months, and it is part of the reason that one of the key themes of the novel is truth/deception. I have also made clear in my historical note that The Unseeing is a work of fiction. No doubt some people will criticize me for playing with the truth, but, ultimately, I’m a storyteller, not a historian.
Did you find the fictional characters easier to work with than the ‘factual’ ones?
Not easier, necessarily – just different. Both Edmund and Rosina are entirely works of imagination and that gave me more freedom to create. However, having some clues as to what Sarah Gale and James Greenacre might have been like as people gave me the basis of a structure which with to work. I think, to be honest, that we always draw on real people, or facets of real people, when creating fictional characters: we just don’t admit which ones.
How did you endeavour to anchor your characters in your era, to make them truly historical and not simply twenty-first century people in period costume (which you did very well)
I tried to think about how they would have interacted with the world around them, rather than just reeling off descriptions of their clothing and their surroundings. It’s always tempting to shoehorn your research into your writing, but a reader can spot that from a mile away. I also tried not to project too many of our modern sensibilities unto my characters. While I would, for example, have liked Sarah to be a true feminist, 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.
Tell us about your research? Have you got any particular tips for someone else venturing into the very early Victorian era?
I conducted most of my research online. Harvard University is an amazing resource and it was there that I found many of the original pamphlets relating to Greenacre and Gale: http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/5792279. The newspaper articles came mainly from The British Newspaper Archives (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk ) which was also a useful way of finding out what else was going on in London in 1837.
Lee Jasper runs the wonderful Victorian London site (http://www.victorianlondon.org), and Forgotten Books (http://www.forgottenbooks.com) do a great line in out of print nineteenth century texts. I also used Google books search, restricting my search to nineteenth century, to check particular facts.
Judith Flanders’ books on the Victorian era are great, as is Jerry White’s London In The Nineteenth Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God.
Are there any recognisable places or landmarks that feature in the novel?
Almost all of the locations named in The Unseeing were real places, although many of them no longer exist. Windmill Lane in Camberwell (where James Greenacre lived) is no more, but was near to what is now Wyndham Road. St Giles’ Church, where Greenacre and Hannah Brown were to have married, was rebuilt after a fire in 1841. The Angel Public House on Coldharbour Lane, where they were supposed to have their wedding breakfast, has been developed into housing.
Newgate prison, where both Gale and Greenacre were imprisoned, was demolished in 1904. The Old Bailey of course still exists, but in a very different form to how it appeared in 1837. People are no longer led through Dead Man’s Walk to be hanged, although the passage itself is still there.
How did you fit writing around your day job? Now that you’ve given up the day job, is book two proving easier?
Like most writers, I snatched bits of time here and there: in the evenings, on the train, during the weekend while my baby napped. I took a few months out to finish The Unseeing and I am again having some time off law to write my second novel. That of course gives me more time to read, research and write, but I need to ensure I stay focused. I am finding Scrivener helpful in setting targets and I now have a proper desk to make me feel like a real writer.
What’s coming next?
I’m currently writing my second novel (working title, The Vanishings), which is set in 1857. It’s about a young woman who goes to work for a collector of folklore on the Isle of Skye and discovers that several girls have gone missing, supposedly taken by spirits of the unforgiven dead. Although the idea was sparked by a real story (in fact, a story from London), I haven’t tried to base it on fact in the same way that I did with The Unseeing. I may, however, return to that format for book three, when I hope to venture into the twentieth century.