In Maids (Fantagraphics, Oct.), Skelly reimagines a notorious 1930s crime scandal where two French sisters working in service murdered their employer’s family.
What attracted you to this story?
I love the movie La Cérémonie by Claude Chabrol, which was loosely based on the Papin sisters. I read as much as I could about the case. We don’t have a lot of verified information about the sisters’ early lives or the days leading up to the murders. A lot of other representations I’d seen were either over-the-top camp, or got mired in details and lost the potency of the story. I wanted to tell it from a place that was in between.
The chance to get inside their heads, and not necessarily justify their actions, but put yourself in their shoes, was really interesting to me. John Waters said that murder can be one bad night. You have one bad night, and you’re on your way toward it.
How did you get into these women’s heads?
After they were arrested, they both clammed up. The older sister, Christine, instructed Lea to claim she was deaf and dumb, and she stopped communicating at that point. I tried to think about times when I felt powerless, subject to the mercy of people I was working for, or when I was younger and didn’t quite understand the motivations of the people around me. I have an older sister, and I used to be so shy when I was little that I wouldn’t speak. I would let her speak for me. I wanted to tap into that kind of codependent relationship.
Did you see parallels between the 1930s class tensions and today?
I think we’re approaching a similar critical mass. A few years after the Papin sisters committed this crime, France had a sort of mini labor revolution and established things like the eight-hour workday and lunch breaks and weekends and holidays off. It would take something much bigger to shock people now, because we’re perpetually shocked by laborer exploitation and murder of citizens. It’d have to be something so catastrophic that the public couldn’t comprehend it. That’s what the Papin sisters’ crime was: so ghastly and sensational, it sent a shockwave through the upper-class psyche.
What do you hope readers take away?
A sense of empathy for these girls. Not necessarily a sympathy, but an empathy, and also an appreciation for the rights we have now as workers. We’re approaching a similar sort of barbarism now, but the barbarism that these girls lived every day was so evident in their crimes that the world had to change.
I hope nobody’s like, cool, I’m gonna do this. But I definitely want them to appreciate that these were human beings. And who knows? You could have a bad night too, someday.