Kate Braithwaite is the author of the new historical novel The Girl Puzzle: A Story of Nellie Bly. She also has written the novels Charlatan and The Road to Newgate. She grew up in Edinburgh and lives in Pennsylvania.
Q: Why did you decide to write about journalist Nellie Bly in your new novel, and how did you choose the periods of her life on which you focused?
A: I first learned about Nellie Bly only a few years ago, when I came across a blog post about her on the Brain Pickings website. I was amazed to discover that in 1887, she had feigned madness and spent 10 days in a New York asylum. I bought Nellie’s book, Ten Days in a Madhouse, the same day.
My first two novels were historical crime stories with lots of scenes set in prisons and an asylum is a location that really attracts me as writer. But Nellie’s story left me feeling a bit flat. Of course, she was writing for a newspaper and a late 19th century audience, but I felt from the first that she wasn’t sharing how the experience really felt.
Next, I read all the books about her that I could find, and learned that there was much more to Nellie Bly’s life than the asylum expose. Reading Brooke Kroeger’s biography, Nellie Bly: Daredevil. Reporter. Feminist, I was particularly struck by Nellie’s later life, her interest in orphans, and the way family relationships affected her throughout her life.
When I got hold of a thesis by a woman who had interviewed Beatrice Alexander, a woman who was Nellie’s secretary in the early 1920s, the structure of The Girl Puzzle began to take shape.
Q: Can you say more about how you researched the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: Research for a historical novel has several stages. I started with Nellie Bly’s life and her own writing. As I spent time looking for her articles, I quickly saw that her asylum adventure had also been featured in other competing newspapers.
In particular, The Sun, a major rival to The New York World (the paper Nellie’s expose would appear in), had reported on her appearance in Judge Duffy’s magistrate court and produced follow up stories about the mysterious pretty waif (that she appeared to be) as she was committed to Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum.
When she was released and the first of her two lengthy articles appeared in The World, the staff at The Sun were furious. They visited the Island and interviewed doctors and nurses, presenting their own account of her stay before she could. Not surprisingly, the two versions of her 10 days didn’t match up. And then there were the extra details that Nellie herself added in later versions of the story. Some of those were very surprising!
Beyond that, I did lots of research about New York and life in 19th and early 20th century America. I visited New York City – many of the locations in the book are still there – and mapped out everywhere Nellie went. I read a lot about madness, female hysteria and Bellevue Hospital.
There were many technological changes during Nellie’s life and I enjoyed that aspect of the dual timeline. In Nellie Bly’s later life, there were telephones and motor cars, but in the 1887 sections of the novel she travels by streetcar and sends telegrams.
Q: What do you see as Nellie Bly's legacy today?
A: Nellie Bly changed the face of journalism in New York City. She didn’t, as is sometimes claimed, change the face of mental health treatment, although her reports did have some immediate beneficial impact on the Blackwell’s Island Asylum.
But just before her asylum adventure, Nellie interviewed the editors of all the big New York papers about their views on women journalists. Their sexism and prejudice was very clear. Women could not be sent out on reports in bad weather or at night. Women would be rushed out of courtrooms and could not report on violent crimes. Women would disrupt the men in the newsroom. Women could not be trusted to be as accurate as men.
And yet three months later, Nellie Bly was known across America for her daring reporting. She had a full-time job with one of the editors she had interviewed, and her own byline in his newspaper. She broke barriers for women journalists and exhibited great personal bravery to do so.
Oh, and then she went around the world by herself, continued her undercover reports, later ran a huge manufacturing business, reported from Europe during World War I and did a wide range of charity work and fundraising. I could go on!
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope readers get a sense of Nellie Bly as a real person – a complex person who was not always right, but was always brave and true to herself. I hope I’ve given a good accounting of her experience in the asylum and the way women were treated at that time, many put there simply because they were inconvenient, or immigrants who spoke little English and had no one to help them.
I also hope I’ve given a sense of Nellie’s life as a whole, and something of what might have made her be the person who did all these ground-breaking things. Her asylum story has been made into various movies and all the ones I’ve seen have added melodrama and events and characters that are entirely fictional. I’ve tried very hard to keep to the historical record in this novel and to tell her story as truthfully as possible, within the context of fiction.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m doing the research for (I hope) a series of novels set during the French Revolution. That means lots of reading and I’m even taking a Coursera online course on the French Revolution to make sure I’ve got the historical context right.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just that I’m also the author of two other novels.
Charlatan is set in 17th century Paris, during the 1680s. It was the time of a scandalous poison plot that even implicated one of Louis XIV’s most famous and celebrated mistresses, Athenais, Madame de Montespan.
My starting point for that story was a lot of sympathy for Athenais. She had seven children with Louis XIV but when she was 40 he tired of her, turning his attention to a beautiful 18-year-old, Angelique de Fontanges.
The Road to Newgate is also set in the 17th century, but in London. It’s about the Popish Plot – a turbulent time in British history when a man called Titus Oates claimed he had uncovered a sprawling Catholic plot to invade the country and assassinate Charles II. Only one man, a writer, Nat Thompson, doubts Titus Oates. His search for the truth puts his own life, his marriage and his friends’ lives at risk.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about The Girl Puzzle! Here are some social media links: Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb