When setting up our first box I was very fortunate to be granted a few questions for our first author. Emma very kindly responded to my questions and below you can view her written answers in full, with even a little hint as to her next novel!
1. What was it that first drew you to the Alice Crimmins murder case? Did you see a gap in what had already been said?
Little Deaths began with a lie. I first read about the real Ruth Malone when I was sixteen, and the details stayed with me until, twenty years later and casting around for a story, I remembered hers. I remembered the photographs of her two young children, who vanished from their New York apartment one hot July night, and were later found dead. I remembered the photographs of their mother: perfectly-dressed and made-up, tiny amid groups of men in suits and cops in uniform.And I remembered the discrepancy between what she told the police she’d fed the children for their last meal, and what was discovered at the autopsy – and I remembered wondering why, of all the lies she could have told to cover up what happened, she would lie about that detail. I knew that whatever I wrote, I’d need to address that single, seemingly-stupid lie and what lay behind it.
And I remembered the discrepancy between what she told the police she’d fed the children for their last meal, and what was discovered at the autopsy – and I remembered wondering why, of all the lies she could have told to cover up what happened, she would lie about that detail. I knew that whatever I wrote, I’d need to address that single, seemingly-stupid lie and what lay behind it.
While I read the non-fiction books that had been written about the crime, as well as a lot of newspaper articles reporting on the crime, the investigation, and the trial, I deliberately didn’t read any of the fiction that had been written about the case, nor did I watch any of the films made about it before I started writing. I wanted to come to the story with my own thoughts and not be influenced by the ideas of other writers. It wasn’t so much that I saw a gap in what had already been said, rather that I was simply fascinated and intrigued by the case and by the character who became Ruth Malone.
Most of the fiction that has been written about the case was produced in the 70s: I hope Little Deaths offers a fresh approach from the perspective of distance, and in the light of how the media portrayal of women, especially women involved in shocking crimes, has changed over the years.
2. Is the difference between outward appearance and inward truth something you’re keen to explore?
Absolutely. To me, the details of a murder are far less interesting than the way in which ordinary life must co-exist with violent crime. I’m fascinated by the possibilities of what might be going on behind the neat front doors and the net curtains of ordinary houses in an ordinary street.
In the same way, I’m interested in the judgements we make about people based on how they look or dress or talk, while having no idea about what might be going on below the surface. Alice Crimmins was an easy women for stolid and unimaginative cops to suspect. She was a wife, married to her childhood sweetheart in a Catholic church – yet she was separated from her husband and had multiple lovers. She was a mother who claimed to be devoted to her children – yet she worked as a cocktail waitress in a seedy bar instead of staying home to take care of them. I wanted to explore the reasons behind her behaviour, and to see if there might be another story to tell, beyond the obvious surface details.
3. What did Ruth Malone do wrong? How, if at all, is she guilty?
What fascinated me most about Ruth / Alice was why she became the chief suspect in the murders of her children, before the police even had confirmation they were dead. I wanted to know what kind of woman this could happen to.
When I researched the case of Alice Crimmins, on which Little Deaths is based, the implicit question I kept hearing was ‘How dare she?’ How dare she want more out of life than marriage and kids? How dare she tell her husband she wanted to separate? How dare she put on makeup before talking to the police? (Never mind that heavy makeup was her habitual defense against old, shameful acne scars) How dare she enjoy drinking, dancing, sex, the company of men who were not her husband?
The police and the press believed that any normal mother should be prostrate with grief after her children were killed: Ruth refused to cry for the cameras and was consistently photographed in thick make-up and provocative clothing. How dare she look the way she did? And how dare she refuse to cry in public? For many people, those things were enough to condemn her, even before she was arrested and put on trial.
4. You give us a good insight into how the media can warp reality, which is as prevalent an issue now as it’s ever been. Do you think this novel reflects how the media operates today?
I think that depends on whether you’re talking about official media content, written by journalists, or whether you include the comments sections of online media.
There are certain areas of the media that still judge women very differently to men: on their weight and perceived attractiveness rather than their character or occupation, for example. Some of the fictitious newspaper pieces in Little Deaths were based on tabloid articles about the appearance and demeanour of Madeleine McCann’s mother, Kate, shortly after her daughter went missing and when – like Alice Crimmins – she had not been charged with any crime.
The relationship between the media and public opinion has obviously changed over time, largely due to advances in technology. We’re more used to seeing and sharing emotive reactions to and judgements on news stories, because media is now social and invites discussion.
On a positive note, I do think that most readers are more aware of privacy laws and libel laws in this post-Leverson era, and as a result feel more able to criticise newspapers and online news sources. Calling out bias and objectionable opinions in news articles is far easier and far more prevalent than it used to be.
The downside of this, of course, is that it’s easier to for anyone to express biased and judgemental opinions from behind the safety of a keyboard. In Little Deaths, Ruth is condemned privately in the ‘backyards and beauty parlours’ of Queens, and whispered about in the corridors of the courtroom during her trial – today views like this are shared anonymously in the comments section of any news story that involves an attractive woman.
5. How do you think feminism has tackled how woman are depicted in the media?
Feminism has had a huge effect on how women are portrayed – in news articles, on television, in films, and now online. Early nineteenth- and twentieth-century feminists opened up the discussion of issues like rape, sexuality, equal pay, domestic violence, reproductive rights, marriage – all subjects which are now reported on and discussed frequently and freely in the media.
As well as influencing the content of news stories, opinion pieces, blogs etc, feminism has also had an enormous influence on the way that women and issues relating to women are portrayed in the media. In the 1960s and 1970s, women were making greater social and political gains than at any period in history: feminist discussion became more widespread, feminist movements more cohesive and feminist literature more widely available. It is not a coincidence that the way that women were portrayed on television at this time was also changing. Before the 1960s, women were shown almost exclusively in what would now be considered stereotypical housewife / mother roles, but the Sixties saw the introduction of The Addams Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bewitched and Star Trek, all television shows that included strong / funny / independent women who were not always portrayed solely in relation to male characters.
In 1985, the Bechdel test first appeared: this examines works of fiction (especially films) to determine whether they feature at least two women who talk to one another about something other than a man.
In the last ten years the depiction of women in news articles has been continually called into question, and this is clearly due at least in part to the dissemination of feminist thought. Books like Naomi Wolf’s On Beauty and Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism and Girl Up, campaigns like No More Page 3 and End FGM, have all taken feminist messages and highlighted the visible misogyny in common situations.
As a result of throwing this spotlight on sexism, it has become the norm in many areas of UK society to question and challenge how women are described in the media, particularly in comparison to men – see, for example, the outcry over the March 2017 Legs-It headline, above a photograph showing two UK heads of state, both female.
There is clearly still a great deal work to be done around how women are portrayed in the media, not least in the area of intersectional feminism – the most vocal feminist voices are still those of white middle-class educated women – but the influence of feminism on the media to date has been enormous, and continues to grow.
6. What can we expect from you in the future? Is literary crime going to be your area?
I think so: I’ve always been intrigued by true crime, particularly historical crime. Murder involves the strongest emotions and passions: lust, revenge, hate, greed. In a case of murder, you see human beings are their rawest.
We’ve all experienced that out-of-control, split-second fury – I could kill him! – and I’m fascinated by the men and women who don’t have the off switch that the rest of us do, but who instead take that momentary impulsive rage and grow it into premeditated murder, and all the deception that surrounds it.
My next novel is also based on a true story, but this time is set in the south of England in the 1920s. It centres on a love triangle that ends in murder, and it’s about shame, sex and obsession.