“Seven Seconds” arose out of Erika Mailman’s fascination with the French Revolution. Similar shades of this history are found in Betrayed, her young adult novel under the pen name Lynn Carthage. She has written two other novels under that name and three under her real name, including The Witch’s Trinity, which was a Bram Stoker finalist and a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book. She holds an MFA in poetry, has been a Yaddo fellow, and is co-director of the Gold Rush Writer’s Conference.
Tell us a little about your story, “Seven Seconds.”
I got interested in the guillotine and read several nonfiction books about it. I learned that some people believe there are seven seconds that elapse from the time of beheading to the moment of death. I was scared and intrigued by what you might see in your seven seconds.
In “Seven Seconds”, your narrator travels to Paris and visits some of the city’s more gruesome locations. What kind of research went into crafting the story?
Hearing the horrible statistics about the French Revolution guillotine usage fascinated me. As my story says, at Place de la Nation, one of several guillotine sites, legend has it that in one 24-minute period, a headsman killed 54 people. What a desperate circumstance, that the ending of one’s life does not even require a full minute’s attention.
I wondered, what happened to the bodies? Did the families bury them? Unlikely, since usually an entire family perished together. And ... were the heads collected up separately? These kinds of questions drove me to research, and to at least an answer for those killed at Nation. I was able to therefore visit the cemetery at Picpus, where two mass pit graves hold 1,307 people: heads and bodies together, although not necessarily placed together. (I blogged about it over at Loren Rhoads’s site:
I revisited Picpus this April and I’ll be posting some photos on social media. In the meantime, my piece on watching Notre Dame burn is here: http://bit.ly/NotreDamefeu
Anyone who loves horror and/or history: you must visit Paris someday if you haven’t already. It is a city built for us.
What is your relationship to California, and does California influence your work?
I moved to California in Fall 1991, just in time for the Oakland hills fire. I remember the terror of watching the news, watching the smoke in the sky, and wondering if we were going to have to evacuate. At the time, I lived not too far from the Claremont Hotel, an historic structure whose fate was threatened, and whose placement on the hillside was considered the fireline that must not be crossed.
My roommate—with whom I’d driven cross-country from the east coast—and I decided we would voluntarily evacuate to stay with friends in San Francisco. I remember thinking whatever I left in the apartment might be destroyed. I had a Kaypro PC (remember these? With two floppy disk drives, and amber Fixedsys font?) and knew I couldn’t bring it on the BART. Yet it was the most valuable thing I owned. It held all my short stories and poems. My roommate convinced me to put the word processor in the bathtub, without water, of course, as the best line of defense against fire. And off we went. Upon return, all was fine for us ... but not for many people in the hills.
I will always remember the hills fire with a sickening sense of fear in my stomach. I feel so sad for those who lost so much, and I’m grateful to be part of this anthology helping people who experienced tragedy in the November 2018 Camp Fire. And thank you to you, the reader, for supporting efforts to ease their burden.
On a far lighter note, California captured my imagination and fueled my first novel Woman of Ill Fame, which is about a Gold Rush prostitute who gets caught up in a serial killer’s targeting of women of her profession. And Oakland’s Pardee Home Museum provides the fictional setting for House of Bellaver, a literary ghost story.
As writers, we constantly use our imaginations, sometimes in terrifying ways. But can you imagine a hopeful future for California? What might that future look like?
I will always find California to be a hopeful state. It was founded by optimism (well, and greed) and is a truly diverse and welcoming place to call home. I hope to see more people developing empathy for others—and I believe one of the easiest ways to develop that skill is to have kids read for pleasure from an early age. When we read, we are imagining the lives of others, which gives us great practice at doing that for people in real life.
Where can readers find more of your work?
At www.erikamailman.com, people can see “extras” about my four historical novels, including The Witch’s Trinity, which was a Bram Stoker finalist, set in medieval Germany during the era of witchcraft persecutions. It’s about a woman accused of witchcraft by her own daughter-in-law, which was actually a frequent happenstance from that time period.
At www.lynncarthage.com, I feature the Arnaud Legacy trilogy. It’s easy to pop into the trilogy with Books One (Haunted) or Two (Betrayed), but less straightforward to start with Three (Avenged). The second book, Betrayed, is set in Paris and provides a deeper amplification of some of the history I touch on in “Seven Seconds.”
NEXT POST ON MONDAY 5/27/19, SCARY STORIES FOR A GOOD CAUSE: Gerry Griffiths ON “The White Stuff”