Sarah Schmidt Pulls the Curtain Back on her Debut Novel, See What I Have Done

Hardcover, 328 pages
Published August 1st 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published March 28th 2017)
Hey Navi Review Followers! See What I Have Done hit the shelves a couple months back to rave reviews and more than a little press! Everywhere I looked, I saw this book–and its very talented, very candid author, Sarah Schmidt. After reading and reviewing the novel, I just HAD to know more about her and this book! Her zany tweets never fail to amuse and neither does she herself. In this exclusive Navi Review interview with her, we get up close and personal with the author of this celebrated novel about that infamous day in 1892–the Australian phenom herself, Sarah Schmidt.
Question # 1
It is so cool that you work around books all day at a public library—what a great place for a reader/writer! Could you tell us a little about your journey to becoming a published author? How did your work in libraries affect that journey, if it did?


I began working in public libraries around 4 years ago, so I was well and truly deep into writing See What I Have Done by that stage. But the catalyst to work in this area was the impending birth of my daughter. I remember sitting at my desk writing the novel and all of a sudden I had this overwhelming feeling of impending doom that to this day I still can’t completely describe. That’s when I started thinking about what was important to me and working in a community service organisation was up there. That feeling of urgency also helped push me to get the manuscript to a place I was happy with and do something with it. It took a few more years but it was the push I needed.

Question #2

See What I Have Done is told from multiple POVs in a 19th century setting. Was it difficult to write from so many perspectives and in such a setting? What was the most difficult and the most fun part about that?

In the beginning all I had was Lizzie and I knew immediately that she was never going to give me a complete story. She was always going to hide things, even from herself. I also couldn’t bear to be in her head for long periods of time. That’s when I started dragging other characters in and hoped that somehow these separate narrators would give as a ‘whole’ story in some form. I knew that if I could find empathy for each of them, even Benjamin, then I could find a way to write that point of view. Once I gave in to their wants and needs I really started having fun. Benjamin and Lizzie are the worst people and they would do and say things that I’d never dream of doing. Pushing your characters to do more and more is very satisfying!

Which brings me to the problematic nature of finding balance between your natural writing style and voice versus the voice of the character. I found this the most difficult aspect and although not perfect, I think I was able to find a balance. I know readers have said that they found Lizzie and Emma to be very similar. And I agree. That was a deliberate choice: I wanted them to be so similar because of their parasitic relationship and close proximity.

In the beginning I ‘forgot’ that this book was set in the 19th century and wrote it as if it was happening now. Obviously you bring in the social context of the time to fill the world you’re creating and to give your characters plausibility but I found the more I tried to remind myself this was 1892 the harder it became to write. I added details like clothing, transport etc at the very end of the process.

Question #3

Who was your favorite character to write in See What I Have Done? Who was the most difficult?

At different stages I had a favourite and for years I was addicted to Lizzie. She preoccupied my thoughts at all times and even now I consider writing new scenes for her because I’ve become so used to her being a shadow.

But my favourite character to write was probably Bridget, not least because she knows that family is utterly dysfunctional and had total motivation to leave that house.

Question #4

As a working woman and writer, how do you manage to keep your life balanced? Do you have any tips for other writers on how to manage it all in today’s busy world?

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I have found a balance. Before I had my daughter it was a bit easier to work and write. I had structure. But things will always change and you need to adapt for where you are at that stage of your life, especially if you decide you’d like to have children.

The only thing I know for sure is that if you really want something you’ll figure out a way to get it done. For a long time after I had the kid, the only way I was able to write See What I Have Done was to get up at 5 am and write for an hour before work.  Often that was all the time I had so I used it wisely. It’s slow going but that’s ok. The other thing I’ve learnt is that you need to take care of yourself. If writing is that thing that makes you happy, makes you feel your complete self, do that and never feel guilty. Because men don’t.

Question #5

Do you think the mystery will ever truly be solved on whodunit?

I don’t think it will and I’m okay with that! I think the mystery is what fascinates and if we were to find out, I think a lot of people would be disappointed. I still maintain that the logical explanation to this case is the simplest: someone in that house is responsible.

Question #6

With all of the great hype and reviews of See What I Have Done, your readers are surely looking forward to your next works, too! Your online blog offers this info on your next project: 

“1. that it’s a dual narrative family portrait spanning 30-40 ish years.

  1. It is about a woman who takes a car trip with her child. Nothing is what it seems.

The working title is Blue Mountain. (You got 3. I’m generous like that!)”

Has blogging through this process been helpful to writing your next novel? If so, how?

It’s been helpful to blog in some ways because it’s forced me to think more logically about how I’ll approach this second novel. The first time around I went purely on gut instinct. That was fine except it took eleven years! This time around I’m still using my gut but encouraging it to be more focussed in some ways.

The other thing that’s been helpful blogging about the creative process is that it reminds me that the beginning of things can be hard and messy. You become very used to working on something that is draft ten, draft twelve. When you start something it’s horrifically beautiful. Your immediate thought is ‘This is shit. I can’t write. This won’t be anything good,’ but at some stage draft one begins to become draft two, draft three, and edges closer to being the manuscript you want it to be.

Question #7

What is the most interesting/funny/strange experience you’ve ever had working in the public library?

Where to begin! Public libraries are weird places. Most of my experiences have been relatively neutral but my work colleagues have told me some incredible stories…like the time they had to step over a sleeping man to get into the building. Only it turned out he was dead.

Question #8

What is the strangest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing?

Someone once told me a story about how they died five times. They said something like ‘I’m telling you this because you seem like the type of person who just gets it.’

Question #9

What is your favorite quote from SWIHD, the one that really made you feel one with the story?

Oooh, that’s a tough one. I don’t think there’s one singular moment (although the repetition of ‘the clock on the mantle ticked ticked’ really anchored a particular mood for the novel very early on in the writing process) however when I wrote Benjamin’s line, ‘I used to be butter – the way I’d disappear at the sign of heat’ I knew instantly who he was and what he was going to become. I also knew thematically what I could do with that line for other parts of the novel. Up until that moment I didn’t really connect with him. I have no idea where it came from but I’m glad it arrived when it did.

Question #10

Tell us one awkward/embarrassing/unique fact about yourself!

I feel my whole life could be summed up as one embarrassing, awkward moment after another!

There is however one moment that haunts me to this day and I can’t believe I’m about to make this public. The setting: high school, geography class. I got my period while standing at the front of the class giving a presentation. I had no idea it was happening and no one told me…until much later. I was mortified but the only thing I could do was just push on through the day and act as if it didn’t happen. I think that’s how I survived much of my teenage years.


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See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Hardcover, 328 pages
Published August 1st 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published March 28th 2017)

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a novel that has the advantage of having a truly titillating premise and a built-in fan base of readers who already know of Miss Lizzie Borden’s infamy:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one. 

If you’ve ever sung that “nursery rhyme” to yourself, you’re already at least a step ahead. See What I Have Done has its roots in the factual 1892 trial of Lizzie Borden–the characters are even based on and named for the real people who were in and out of the house on the fateful day of the murders. With those common facts out of the way, Schmidt rolls up her sleeves and dives into the task of reconstructing that fateful day and retelling the notorious story of Miss Lizzie Borden.

Let me start by first of all saying that the cover art and title of this novel are both phenomenal. In a bookstore setting (whether in person or online) I’d definitely reach for this book, even if just to see what it’s about!

With that out of the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also add that Schmidt has a true talent for finding her readers’ pressure points and picking at them consistently, a skill that sets a suspenseful novel apart from a predictable one. I can see this author’s method working for so many readers, pulling them in and making them feel immersed in these characters’ very thoughts. But, it didn’t work for me. In fact, there were times when this novel was an uphill struggle for me.

The one thing that will always stick out to me about this novel is Lizzie’s temperament. Throughout the novel it was eerily strange despite her obviously childlike temperament, menacing just below the surface in a way that was clearly deliberate on the author’s part. Whether she was not in her right mind in a vaguely sociopathic way or in a childlike way hinting at mental retardation I could not fully tell (though I’m leaning toward the latter), but it certainly functioned to add a little unpredictability and upheaval in the otherwise monotonous 19th century lives these characters seemed to lead.

However, there was something about the execution of this novel that really turned me off—possibly intentionally—but I definitely didn’t take to it the way I would have wanted to. Lizzie’s personality was like an itch under my skin, one I wanted to scratch until she was gone completely and long forgotten about. Instead of building suspense or anxiety, her twitchiness and oddities really just annoyed me to the point that I could no longer stand her. I wanted to be out of her head—away from her altogether at times—at any cost. Only, her chapters were by far the most interesting, as the others seemed to melt into the background for me as a reader. The characters’ voices didn’t pull me in; their actions didn’t interest me. So, that left me with Lizzie, and you can imagine the conundrum that left me in as a reader! 🙂 There was just too much of it. A titillating hint here and there is intriguing; 5 hints toward her psychological oddities per page, every page is annoying. That’s what created that itching sensation under my skin, the tap dancing on my reader Spidey senses.

The thing is, Sarah Schmidt’s ability to affect her reader in that way is a true gift, a skill that’s difficult to hone and display. So, just because it didn’t work for me personally doesn’t mean that I don’t see the cleverness and mental dexterity it took to execute that aspect of this novel, and for that I tip my hat off to her. I’d recommend this novel to lovers of The Village (2004) or of historical mysteries in general. There’s absolutely a fan base out here for Sarah Schmidt and See What I Have Done, and I look forward to giving her another shot the next time she hits the shelves. 3 stars ***

**I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.**

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Sarah  SchmidtSarah Schmidt is a Melbourne based writer who happens to work at a public library. See What I Have Done is her first novel.