Friday, December 28, 2018

Interview with David Blixt (part 1), author of What Girls Are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly

It's hard to believe that it's been 11 years since a copy of David Blixt's first novel, The Master of Verona, showed up in my mailbox. This sweeping historical epic of 14th-century Italy was a wonderful reading experience, and it prompted me to arrange for an interview with the author; you can read part 1 and part 2 of the interview here.

David's newest release is another fantastic read. What Girls Are Good For moves over five centuries ahead in time to America during its Gilded Age; the focus is Elizabeth Cochrane, who used the pen name of Nellie Bly for her groundbreaking investigative journalism at a time when female writers were typically relegated to the "women's pages" of newspapers.  It immersed me in Nellie's story, including her family background, courageous ambition, battles against gender discrimination and other forms of social injustice, and her enthusiastic determination to live life on her own terms. She was a woman who set out to change the world, and did. I highly recommend it.

Thanks so much to David for his detailed and thoughtful answers to my questions!

Since your earlier novels have been set further back in the past, did you find it an adjustment to research characters and settings of the late 19th century? Had you had an interest in the American Gilded Age before discovering Nellie Bly?

A passing interest at best. I tend to look at periods by the art they produce, and I’m not a huge fan of Stephen Foster (ironic in the extreme, given he inadvertently gave my lead her nom de plume). But that’s part of the joy of writing historical fiction – discovery!

As for the adjustment, it was a very large one. While I was free to invent dialogue, all of the people in the novel were quite real – no inserting fictional characters into historical settings to fill a gap in the historical record! There is a vast and deep pool of research about the period, meaning endless rabbit holes. What buildings were where, and when? What train lines got her from place to place? I became fascinated with Pullman cars, and also with Newspaper Row in New York. It means there are more mistakes to be made, and for a historical perfectionist, that’s daunting. I don’t like getting my history wrong, so I put two years of work into the research and writing.

What was the experience like, putting yourself in Elizabeth/Nellie’s shoes as she fought against gender bias and the unjust treatment of women, especially on Blackwell’s Island? How did it feel to write those scenes?

That’s the question I’m most aware of, because it’s the thing I fretted over most. Not only am I a man writing a woman’s point of view, I’m a 21st-century man writing a 19th-century woman’s POV. Add to that I’d never written a 1st person novel before, and I had a lot of trepidation.

I’m quite the humanist. I believe deep-down all people experience the same feelings and thoughts. That said, I was acutely aware of not being a woman. So I listened. A lot. I am fortunate in the women in my life, and all of them have experiences that, while awful, were also true. I started this over a year before the #MeToo movement grabbed headlines, but the stories that were coming out at the end of 2017 certainly influenced my writing and revisions. The thing that seems to be resonating the most with readers was that I allowed her to be angry.

The best boon I had was in my subject. Nellie Bly was forever seeing the injustices perpetrated upon her gender, and commenting on it. So it felt right to comment upon them, not by imposing modern values, but rather her own. She’s wonderfully contradictory – she’s this incredible champion for women, but she’s perfectly willing to judge other women by their appearances, and she lied about her age, even under oath.

How did it feel writing those scenes? Thrilling, and terrifying. I was excited by the story I was telling, and how I was telling it. It felt raw and honest. But I was utterly terrified that I would make a hash of it, and that my wife would mock me forever. (I wrote a scene between two women for The Master Of Verona that did not end up in the final version because of her remorseless ridicule. She brings it up to this day). Like I said, I’m fortunate in the women in my life.

Strangely, the scenes on Blackwell’s might have been easier for me because, awful as they were, she had already written them. She didn’t lay them out chronologically, and there’s a lot in other reports that she omitted from her book and articles – it was exciting reconstructing it from several sources at once. But how she felt about it was plain and clear, and one of the reasons 10 Days In A Madhouse continues to be popular today. I just tried to capture it in the context of the life she never shared with readers. There was her Nellie Bly persona, and there was Elizabeth Cochrane. I think the former came out of the madhouse stronger and more dominant. But she never quite lost the Lonely Orphan Girl.

I enjoyed the depiction of Nellie’s relationship with her mother, who is a brave woman in her own right. How did you get behind the scenes to reveal more about these characters and their personalities than Nellie’s own writing did?

I’m so glad you like Mary Jane. As complex as Nellie was, her mother was far more of a puzzle for me. All I had were the raw facts: twice widowed, once divorced, with five children. We have the testimony from the divorce. We have her going to Mexico with her daughter, and living with Nellie on and off throughout the newspaper years. A lawsuit towards the end of her life. That’s it.

author David Blixt
From just those facts I had to extrapolate a woman who would both inspire and infuriate her daughter, a woman who was both guide and a figure to rebel against. Nellie doesn’t want to be her mother, yet in so many ways they are incredibly alike.

It all came together during the trip to Mexico. We have Nellie’s articles from that trip, but she never mentions her mother in them. Yet her mother was there as her chaperone, which allowed me to explore one huge aspect of that experience that her own readers were denied. Putting them in close proximity for months in a strange land led to all the various personal revelations and debates that, to me, are the best part of writing.

Nellie’s narrative voice was one of the highlights for me, since it felt fresh and lively, but also very evocative of the period. What were some of your favorite 19th-century turns of phrase or expressions you came across in your research?

I had the incredible advantage of her own body of written work to draw upon. Her writing is very conversational, likely due to her on-the-job training. Poring through her works, I looked for her particular writing tics, words she preferred, her style of expression. For instance, she likes to begin sentences with conjunctions – And, But– which told me her head was always halfway through the conversation before she opened her mouth. She loves her adverbs – Vehemently, Spitefully, Incredulously– which to me speaks of passion. And she has certain small phrases she likes in inject: Strange to say, Not to mention, Here and there.

I ingested all this information, then let it go. The end result, I think, is that rather than attempting to write in an “oldey-timey” way, I was able to interpret and inject her style without trying to imitate her.

I was also fascinated by things that were new in 1885. Everyone in the novel compares things to locomotives, or electricity. The scene early on in the roller rink was hilarious to me – roller-skating in January, when you could far more easily be ice-skating outside? But it was all the rage!

I also get fascinated by how language evolves. Today we say, “I fell for him” and it sounds romantic. Not so in the 1880s. To “fall” was to fall from grace, to become a “wanton” woman. Therefore falling for someone is not a phrase used lightly.

(To be continued!  This concludes part 1 of the interview; look for part 2 tomorrow.)

About the author:  

David Blixt's work is consistently described as “intricate,” “taut,” and “breathtaking.” A writer of Historical Fiction, his novels span the early Roman Empire (the Colossus series, his play Eve of Ides) to early Renaissance Italy (the Star-Cross'd series) up through the Elizabethan era (his delightful espionage comedy Her Majesty's Will, starring Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe as inept spies). His novels combine a love of the theatre with a deep respect for the quirks and passions of history.

Living in Chicago with his wife and two children, he describes himself as “actor, author, father, husband. In reverse order.”

For more information, please visit David Blixt’s website. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away 4 paperback copies of What Girls Are Good For! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on December 28th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

What Girls Are Good For


  1. Such an incredible interview, thank you Sarah & David! thank you for hosting What Girls are Good For!

    HF Virtual Book Tours

    1. Thanks, Amy, and for arranging the tour as well!