Thursday, December 12, 2013

Interview with Erika Mailman, author of Woman of Ill Fame

Today, Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Erika Mailman to our little corner of the net to discuss her novel, Woman of Ill Fame.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Erika. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Woman of Ill Fame.
Thanks so much for hosting me! It’s a pleasure to be here. Woman of Ill Fame is a novel about a Gold Rush prostitute who unwittingly becomes involved in a serial killer’s snare. Immediately upon arriving in San Francisco, she learns her trunk has been stolen, leaving her without clothing (not the worst thing for a prostitute, let’s say) and resources. But things become worse when women start turning up dead, each with an item of her clothing.

What inspired you to write this story?
I used to spend a lot of time researching a newspaper history column at the Oakland (California) Public Library’s History Room. One day I sat at a different table and let my eyes wander over the spines of the books on a nearby shelf. There were about three or four nonfiction books on turn-of-the-century prostitution, including Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery and Soiled Doves. I devoured them. I had been considering starting a new novel, since my first had been such a disaster (unpublished, for good reason!), and I figured this would be a great topic. Sex sells, history sells…. and I was fresh out of a job, as luck would have it, and entirely free to hammer out a draft. Woman of Ill Fame was published by Heyday Books in Berkeley in 2007, and is still in print with them. Last month, I released an e-book version since the subsidiary rights still rest with me. I’m excited Diana Gabaldon contributed an amazing blurb to add to the book cover.

What research went into Woman of Ill Fame and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating the background material for you book?
Many surprises! One was that many U.S. cities at the turn of the century tolerated prostitution so long as it was limited to a certain prescribed zone, and as long as prostitutes agreed to register with the police department (!) and use a logbook, which a doctor would stamp on a semi-weekly basis to “prove” the woman’s freedom from disease. It was said that for the photograph in the book, many prostitutes would make funny faces and screw up their eyes because they didn’t trust the police and didn’t want their calm, recognizable face associated with the prostitution passport. Oakland was one of those cities—the area around Jack London Square was the legally-recognized prostitution zone.

Another surprise, and a very disturbing one, was the treatment of the Chinese prostitutes. They were brought overseas literally in crates. They were very young, and kept as slaves even once they arrived. They were misleadingly considered indentured and could earn out their freedom by working a certain time period. The very brutal truth, though, was that their contracts added on several days work for any missed day. Since they didn’t work during their menstrual cycle, each month that they worked put them deeper into servitude.

You probably have many, but is there one scene that you particularly enjoyed writing?
I really enjoyed writing a scene where Nora attends a dinner very kindly hosted by Mehitabel, the woman who runs the boardinghouse where Nora rents a room. Nora has chosen not to sleep where she works, like most girls of the line did. A few of the men at the boardinghouse resent having to sit down to eat with a prostitute and let their discontent show. I enjoyed letting Nora bait them, and seeing poor Mehitabel defend her even though she is uncomfortable with Nora’s line of work. I liked creating sparks and drama …and it was fun to see some of the men afterwards make arrangements with Nora for trysting.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
Hm, how to avoid a plot spoiler here. Wellllll, there’s a scene where Nora fights for her life, and that was hard really just from a technical perspective. What happens when that fist lands there, how does that skin react, how does that lamp fall, what noise does it all make, etc.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of their story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I loved Mehitabel and was sad she had to bow out at one point. I liked Nora’s interactions with her, but Nora had to leave the boardinghouse to improve her lot in life.

Do you see yourself in any of your characters and is there one of them you wish you were more like?
I really wish I was as ballsy as Nora. She has a lot more fire and is more outspoken than me; I appreciate and admire her self-confidence. She’s also incredibly resilient. Yes, she has to work as a prostitute because of her economic situation and the time period she lives in…. but she wastes no time in feeling sorry for herself. She is pragmatic and yet optimistic for the future. She’s unapologetic.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
I might find Nora intimidating to sit down and have a cocktail with! Maybe Abe—but I might not be as comfortable talking with him as Nora was. The professor? I know I keep harping on Mehitabel, but I think she is really who I would choose. She is tart, unjudgmental and plays piano. 

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
A better understanding of women’s choices in the past. We are so lucky today; we really have no idea. I love Nora and her spirit, but would not have wanted her life.

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
My next foray into publishing is in the young adult world. Kensington has acquired my contemporary Gothic in a three-book series tentatively titled The Arnaud Legacy. The first will appear in early 2015. It’s about a teen who must go live in the ancestral mansion in England, which is unfortunately still inhabited….

Thanks for such fun questions, and for hosting me today.

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About the Author: Erika Mailman is the author of The Witch’s Trinity, a Bram Stoker finalist and a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book, and Woman of Ill Fame, a Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award nominee. While writing The Witch’s Trinity, she learned she was the descendant of a woman accused twice of witchcraft in the decades predating Salem. 

For more information please visit Erika Mailman’s website and blog.

About the Book: Looking for a better life, Nora Simms sails from the East Coast to gold rush San Francisco with a plan for success: to strike it rich by trading on her good looks. But when a string of murders claims several of her fellow “women of ill fame,” Nora grows uneasy with how closely linked all of the victims are to her. Even her rise to the top of her profession and a move to the fashionable part of town don’t shelter her from the danger, and she must distinguish friend from foe in a race to discover the identity of the killer.

“I loved Woman of Ill Fame. Nora Simms is hilarious, tough, perceptive … and one of the most engaging characters  I’ve ever met between the pages of a book.” -Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series

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Check out all the stops on Erika Mailman's Woman of ill fame virtual book tour

Monday, December 9
Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, December 10
Guest Post & Giveaway at HF Connection
Wednesday, December 11
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Thursday, December 12
Interview & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary
Friday, December 13
Review at Historical Fiction Obsession
Monday, December 16
Review at A Book Geek
Review at Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, December 17
Review at Book of Secrets
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, December 18
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, December 19
Review at A Bookish Libraria
Friday, December 20
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Review at Confessions of an Avid Reader

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