Yesterday I reviewed Anna Mazzola’s amazing debut novel The Unseeing. It’s a powerful story about one of the most notorious cases of early Victorian England. I absolutely adored the book and I was really pleased to be able to ask Anna some questions about it. I hope you enjoy Anna’s answers as much as I did and that you check out The Unseeing. If you’d like to hear an interview with Anna — including a bonus question from yours truly — check out her appearance on the Tea and Jeopardy podcast.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Anna Mazzola?
I’m a debut author, a very small one. My first novel, The Unseeing, came out in July. I also write short stories, look after small children and act as a criminal justice solicitor to people of all sizes.
How would you introduce people to The Edgeware Road case?
I’d tell them the case was a sensation at its time due to the way in which the victim’s body parts were found (hidden across London) and the fact that a woman was implicated. Two people were convicted: James Greenacre for the murder of Hannah Brown, and Sarah Gale for aiding and abetting him. Both claimed they were innocent and petitioned the King for mercy, and that’s where my story begins.
What drew you to writing about this case specifically?
I first read about James Greenacre and the Edgeware Road Murder because the crime took place in Camberwell, not far from where I live. 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?
You’re a criminal justice solicitor by trade. One would expect that straight up crime writing would be the more obvious path to take. Why did you end up writing historical fiction?
Because that’s what I love to read. I try to read widely – lots of different genres – but I’m particularly interested in history, both fiction and non-fiction, and when I read of Sarah’s story I became fascinated by how different (and, frankly, awful) things were for women in the early Victorian era.
While Sarah’s case is drawn from history, it feels quite modern in your telling, in the sense that the main themes of the case — domestic violence, coercive control, the functioning of the criminal justice system — are still current today. Did you consciously seek to mirror these or is it just that these things are just part of the human condition?
Those are things that emerged from my reading the case itself, but they are probably the reason I was drawn to it in the first place – because they are still so relevant. I suspected that Sarah was in some way being controlled and it was evident from reading the trial transcript that the justice system had not served her well, so I built on those aspects in my writing of the novel.
You’ve included actual newspaper clippings in the narrative. How did the contemporaneous coverage of the case help or hinder the research for the book?
I loved finding all of the newspaper reports, penny bloods, pamphlets and playbills – that was great fun. They gave such conflicting and obviously warped accounts of the story and its characters that I initially found it difficult to get a picture of who Sarah was, but then I realized that we can only try and interpret people through what remains of the history. We have to read between the lines.
What’s next for you? Any appearances planned or are you hip-deep into the next book?
I’ve been doing quite a bit of publicity work and have a few more things planned (local events, Margate Literary Festival) but mainly I’m trying to get the second book finished and sent to my agent. I’m planning a trip to Skye, where my second novel is set, for the Autumn and am very much looking forward to that.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
Lots of things. I’m passionate about human rights and justice, both domestically and internationally. I’m fascinated by history, politics, art, folklore. I adore my family. I love writing but I don’t want it to become my everything.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
So many things! Lots of excellent crime-based novels. I’m currently reading THE CRIME WRITER by Jill Dawson, which is excellent. BLACK NIGHT FALLING, Rod Reynold’s excellent sequel to THE DARK INSIDE (based on the Texarkana Moonlight murders) is out this week. Look out for LITTLE DEATHS by Emma Flint, which will be published by Picador in January 2017 and is going to be big. Beautifully written, it tells the tale of Ruth Malone, a divorced cocktail waitress living in Queens in 1965 who is accused of killing her own children. In May 2017, Tinder Press will publish Sarah Schmidt’s SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE, a re-imagining of the unsolved Lizzie Borden murders, which I’m excited about. In June 2017, Headline are publishing THE WAGES OF SIN: Kaite Welsh’s feminist historical crime novel set in Victorian Edinburgh, featuring medical student/sleuth Sarah Gilchrist. Lastly, I know Jane Harris is writing her third novel and I can’t wait for that.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Alphabetically, but within different categories: fiction, history, science, biography etc. Even my kids’ books are in different categories. We have a LOT of bookshelves in our house.
My local café, The Pigeon Hole in Camberwell, shelves them by colour, which looks beautiful, but I need to be able to find things easily.
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 novel has already won several competitions and Anna came runner up in the 2014 Grazia First Chapter competition judged by Sarah Waters.
Anna has also written and published several short stories. She is currently working on a second historical crime novel about a collector of folklore and fairy tales on the Isle of Skye in 1857.
Anna studied English at Pembroke College, Oxford, before becoming a criminal justice solicitor. She began writing after taking a creative writing course with Literary Kitchen and later attended the Novel Studio at City University.
She lives in Camberwell, South London, with two small children, two cats, one husband and a lot of books.