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  • Writer's pictureThe Publishing Post

The Angel Makers: An Interview with Patti McCracken

By Katie Farr, Iona Fleming, Jess Scaffidi Saggio, Ayman Sabir and Lucy Powell

When asked what inspired her to write her debut The Angel Makers, journalist and author Patti McCracken simply answered, “the story.” The book focuses on the series of murders that took place in rural Hungary in the 1910s and 1920s, where mainly women (who were nicknamed “the angel makers of Nagyrév”) poisoned their husbands and other family members. Nagyrév’s dark history is something its people know and live with; Kronberg, the prosecutor of the trials, is considered “a local hero.” Outside of Nagyrév, McCracken found that aside from historians such as her assistant Attila Tokay, the crimes were only widely known amongst Hungary’s older generations. Surprisingly, the book has not yet been published in Hungary, though McCracken “would love for it to be published there.” McCracken knew that she “couldn’t pass up” this story, and, likewise, she “doesn’t know any journalist who would pass it up.” Though her initial article on the topic didn’t run, McCracken found herself so invested by the story that she thought “there’s got to be more to it, and it turns out there was.” 

The writing process for The Angel Makers was “completely different” to that of her previous journalistic writing. The longest article that she had previously written was 2,000 words, in comparison to The Angel Makers’ 130,000. McCracken realised that “[she] went fishing and caught a whale.” Ability was never an issue, however: “[she] knew [she] had it within [her] to be able to do it, but had to gain the skill.” McCracken’s previous work as a visual journalist may have been very different to long-form non-fiction writing, but the experience of conducting research and working with infographics meant that she was used to a very detail-oriented level of reporting where she “would need to know way more than what was put in the story.” In the huge amount of investigation required for the book, she was able to notice where details were not provided where she “would have been subconsciously ignoring something.” McCracken’s experiences of living in Austria and travelling in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe were likewise useful in her research. Her time spent in villages in these areas helped her to gain “insight into the ways people lived there” and to “recreate the villages of that time.” 

McCracken believes it may not be the writer’s place to judge how their book is categorised, but that she would compare The Angel Makers more to a docu-drama than a documentary. “There’s a reason why it took fourteen years to write this book,” McCracken says, as she was determined to “uncover every possible stone” in her research. This included learning which films were being played at the time, as well as reading contemporary literature and memoirs. McCracken had help from her small team of linguists and historians, using research to make up for “not being alive one hundred years ago and not being Hungarian.” McCracken said she wanted to “recreate the DNA of the case” to make it an immersive experience for the reader. The original “journalistic remove” she took did not really work by itself because she wanted to also make her characters “get up and walk around.”

While “there is room for every approach” in writing about true historical events, it was important for McCracken to find the best way to write the story using her own skillset. Though a great admirer of the work of journalist and author Erik Larson, McCracken found that trying to follow his approach ultimately didn’t work for her. “Emotional truth,” says McCracken, was the best way for her to honestly tell the story. In the book, she places the reader in a position where they have to “find that emotional truth for themselves.” 

At the beginning of the writing process, McCracken tried to avoid reading too much, for fear of being “influenced.” However, she cites Patricia Highsmith and Anne Tyler as two fiction writers whose work she has always found “captivating.” McCracken admires how Highsmith can “take on the outside this completely mundane person [...] and all of a sudden you see this deep darkness inside them.” Meanwhile, Anne Tyler “finds such a delicate aspect of human nature that a lot of writers don’t find.”

Representing the humanity of the people in The Angel Makers was extremely important to McCracken. At the time of the crimes and the subsequent trials, the women’s story was only being told by men reporting on it, who called them “dissolute sluts and bitches,” and alleged they were sleeping with Russian soldiers, a claim for which McCracken “didn’t find any evidence.” By putting the women’s crimes back into the context of the abusive situations many of them faced, often with husbands having come back from World War One with “massive mental health issues,” McCracken has tried to correct the record. For the most part, these women “were not just killing because they enjoyed to kill.”

Another aspect of the abusive situations faced by the women of Nagyrév was their lack of bodily autonomy. Zsuzsanna Fazekas, Nagyrév’s midwife and a central focus in The Angel Makers, was also known to be performing abortions in Nagyrév. Despite this being illegal, Zsuzsanna admitted to it, seeing it as part of her responsibility as a midwife. McCracken laments that “it’s unfortunate that the book is so timely – it doesn’t speak well of our society in 2024,” with politicians rolling back abortion rights both in Hungary and the US. Though McCracken states that she, “doesn’t know if anything can allow us to evaluate what’s happening now,” she hopes that works like The Angel Makers might be able to help “sound the alarm louder and louder.”

There is no particular area of history that McCracken hopes to focus on in the future; ultimately, “it has to feel right.” McCracken states that she never intended to write a true crime book, but that “it was just a fascinating story,” and as a journalist and an author, this is where stories begin. 



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