Woman of Ill Fame is a historical romp about Gold Rush prostitute Nora Simms.
“I loved Woman of Ill Fame! Nora Simms is hilarious, heartbreaking, tough, perceptive… and one of the most engaging characters I’ve ever met between the pages of a book. Wonderful story, great setting and really good writing made this one of the best books I’ve read in a long time!”
-Diana Gabaldon, internationally-bestselling author of the Outlander series
Watch a video of Erika reading a scene from the book, introduced by Diana Gabaldon at the infamous “sex scenes readings” always held at the Historical Novels Society conference. The readings were the idea of Diana Gabaldon when she was trying to talk about how to write sex scenes; she came up with the notion of just having people read theirs to learn by example. I chose to read to read a funny scene–this is not suitable for work, though! The video is from the 2013 conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. It would’ve been nice if the camera was actually attended, and the extraneous mic removed from the shot, but it’s still a fun video.
At the end of the video, Diana wonders aloud if the book is available for Kindle so she can read it on her way home. At the time it wasn’t…but thanks to her voiced request, I looked at my old contract, realized I owned the subsidiary rights to the novel (it was traditionally published by a wonderful, venerable Berkeley publisher, Heyday Books), and created an ebook with a brand-new cover blurb from…you guessed it…Diana. She is such a generous author to other writers.
Woman of Ill Fame received a kind review in the San Francisco Guardian:
Ill Fame, Worse Luck: A young prostitute seeks her fortune as the corpses pile up in Erika Mailman’s tale of old Rush San Francisco
By Kemble Scott
These days, if you were to hear the exprression “ill fame,” you might conjure up the Us Weekly mug shot of some wannabe celebrity. But in the San Francisco of 150 years ago, terms like “ill fame” and “frail” were slurs branding a woman as a prostitute–and, as such, crop up with colorful frequency in Oakland author Erika Mailman’s seductive debut novel, Woman of Ill Fame.
Mailman deftly transports us back to a crazy boomtown San Francisco flooded with fortune seekers who indulge in the city’s notorious sex scene and wince at the outrageous cost of housing. That might call to mind the dot-com silliness of the late ’90s, but it’s also a fair depiction of the city during the Gold Rush of 1849.
Woman of Ill Fame‘s narrator is 18-year-old Nora Simms, who sails into town from Boston to mine the miners of their paychecks by selling them a few minutes with her body. Don’t expect any angst or apologies for this, though. Nora is no hooker with a heart of gold, and Mailman doesn’t try to apply the mainsteam, modern-day view of prostitution to a time and place whose inhabitants lacked our compassion–and our squeamishness. Instead, we’re rooting for Nora as she starts at the bottom of the local sex trade in the disease-infested row of working-girl stalls nicknamed “the cowyard,” daydreaming of the time when she’ll ascend to an upscale parlor house where the women wear ornate gowns and adopt bogus French accents.
Nora’s ambitions hit a snag, however, after the trunk containing all her worldly possession is stolen. Worse still, the bodies of butchered prostitutes begin turning up around town, and each of the victims is found wearing an item of clothing from Nora’s vanished trunk.
The whodunit element makes Woman of Ill Fame a page-turner, and Mailman manages to keep the reader guessing. Yet it’s the depiction of early San Francisco that propels this thriller above its genre, in the manner of historical fiction such as Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. While the serial killer plot fuels the ride, the rich historical details take command of our senses, transporting us backward in time to step in the muddy streets and smell the stench of a city newly born.
As the author of two local-history books, Mailman has done the homework necessary to paint this vivid portrait. And as a fixture of the local writing scene, she has quietly and doggedly been honing her craft for more than a decade in places such as the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop. Now all that hard work is beginning to pay off, with Mailman emerging as a San Francisco author to watch. A second historical novel, The Witch’s Trinity¸ is scheduled to come out in time for Halloween from Random House. Going from obscurity to two published novels in nine months is quite a feat–and virtually unheard of. Clearly, Mailman’s publishers are betting they’ve discovered new gold in San Francisco.
This appeared in the San Francisco Guardian in 2007. Kemble Scott is the editor of the ezine SoMa Literary Review (www.somalit.com) and the author of the novel Soma (Kensington Books)