Today I’ve invited Ana Brazil, author of Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper, an historical novel set in New Orleans’ gilded age, to Ascroft, eh? to tell us about her novel.
Welcome Ana. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
AB: FANNY NEWCOMB AND THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is a historical mystery set in 1889 New Orleans, Louisiana. Twenty-five year old Fanny is a typewriting teacher at a settlement house in the Irish Channel slums. She’s an intelligent, ambitious woman who wants to be a lawyer (impossible in 1889 New Orleans). When her favorite typewriting student is brutally murdered—much in the manner of Jack the Ripper’s crimes—Fanny enlists her well-connected employer Principal Sylvia Giddings and her sister Dr. Olive to hunt down the murderer.
What prompted you to write about this historical event? How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
AB: I’ve always been fascinated by how contemporary women and men reacted to Jack the Ripper and his murderous killing spree. I was originally going to set my story in London—and have the action take place in the Toynbee Hall Settlement House in Whitechapel—but then I realized that I really needed to write an American story. And so I set the story in New Orleans about six months after the Ripper’s supposedly last London murder. I started with those historical facts and my imagination took it from there!
What research did you do for this book?
AB: I studied history at Florida State University (in Tallahassee) and decided to write my masters’ thesis about “Social Voluntarism in Gilded Age New Orleans”. I lived in New Orleans for one very long, hot summer and spent almost every day researching in the archives of Tulane University.
While I was researching, I kept discovering smart, active women who were organizing charities, educating children, and yes, opening up settlement houses. I kept thinking, “These women are incredible! Someone should write a novel about them! Someone should write a murder mystery about them!”
In addition to my archival research, I read a lot of Gilded Age newspapers. But my favorite research was—and is—walking and gawking in the neighborhoods of New Orleans.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
AB: Jack the Ripper was all too real and the mythology about his murders is used in the story. Writing about a real historic figure is tricky…especially if they are as infamous as Jack the Ripper. His story has been retold so many times, that I freshened it up by focusing on a copycat.
Fanny, Olive, and Sylvia are inspired by my research of late 19th century women. Newspaper editor Eliza Nicholson was a real New Orleans woman of the times (she also published poetry as Pearl Rivers) and I enjoyed introducing her into the story.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
AB: My husband and I visited New Orleans a few times while I was writing this book and were fortunate to tour (and fall in love with!) many of the buildings and neighborhoods mentioned.
I also dipped into some excellent 1880’s primary sources, such as the Historical Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans and Environs (1885) and Soard’s Guide Book Illustrated, and Street Guide of New Orleans (also 1885).
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
AB: Women, please! My goal is to tell stories about women who assert themselves to reach their happiest path in life. That’s why I have three heroines. Or four, if you include Cousin Charlotte!
Thanks for answering my questions, Ana. I think readers are always fascinated by anything related to Jack the Ripper. My interest has been piqued by this interview and I look forward to reading the novel.
Before we wrap up, let’s give readers a taste of the novel with an excerpt: “Fanny hurried the boy through the dark halls toward the back of Wisdom Hall. She barged through the Infirmary door to find Olive looking up from behind a table of dark apothecary bottles.
“Well,” the doctor asked sharply. “What is it?”
Fanny put her hand gently on Liam’s shoulders, “He sa—”
“Murder!” The boy honked like a trumpet. “A girl’s been murdered in Conner’s Court!”
“Murdered girls don’t need doctors.” Olive scowled at Liam and returned two of the bottles to the cupboard behind her. “Even you should know that.”
“They said she was murdered…but somebody screamed for a doctor.”
Fanny pressed forward gingerly, having been told more than once that the Infirmary was Olive’s sacred soil, and entrance was by invitation only. “If there’s any chance she’s still alive, we must—”
“Of course we must.” Olive took a key from her pocket and turned the lock on the medicine cupboard. She grabbed her medical bag and passed the lantern on her desk to Liam. “Well, what are you waiting for?”
Readers can learn more about Ana Brazil by visiting her website and blog. You can also find her on Facebook, Pinterest and Goodreads. Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper is available at retailers online, including Amazon.
About Ana Brazil: A native of California, Ana Brazil lived in the south for many years. She earned her MA in American history from Florida State University and traveled her way through Mississippi as an architectural historian. Ana loves fried mullet, Greek Revival colonnades, and Miss Welty’s garden. She has a weakness for almost all things New Orleans. (Although she’s not sure just how it happened…but she favors bluegrass over jazz.) The Fanny Newcomb stories celebrate the tenacity, intelligence, and wisdom of the dozens of courageous and outrageous southern women that Ana is proud to call friends. Although Ana, her husband, and their dog Traveller live in the beautiful Oakland foothills, she is forever drawn to the lush mystique of New Orleans, where Fanny Newcomb and her friends are ever prepared to seek a certain justice.