Saturday, December 29, 2018

Interview with David Blixt (part 2), author of What Girls Are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly

And here's the second half of my interview with David Blixt about his new novel What Girls Are Good For.  If you missed the first part, it was online yesterday and can be found here, along with a tour-wide giveaway.

Although some editors warn Nellie not to become part of the story she’s writing about, she (fortunately) doesn’t listen. How groundbreaking was her approach/style to journalism, not just the fact that she was female?

Elizabeth Cochrane
(aka Nellie Bly)
She may not have been the first undercover journalist, though I’d be hard pressed to name anyone before her. She was certainly the pioneer of the field. And what’s astonishing is how long she was able to carry it off. The Madhouse exposé was just the start of a two-year run of stories with her infiltrating one illegal or immoral situation after another. At the start of the second novel (which I’ve only just begun writing), she foils a serial rapist in Central Park by posing as a potential victim and catching him!

So it was certainly groundbreaking. But I’m not sure a man could have done it – or, at least, done it so dramatically. There’s something viscerally attention-grabbing about her gender and size being seen as at odds with her experiences. Little wonder that Pulitzer and Colonel Cockerill adored her.

Yet I think what really set her apart was her choice of stories, and I worked to make it a big part of her character. She was a champion for the poor, the dispossessed, the downtrodden. It was not lost on her that the majority of these were women. And I just don’t think a man could have written those stories.

I also think she had to insert herself into the stories to be taken seriously. A woman writing about women in workshops or Mexican natives being denied their rights would sound moralistic from on high – there were plenty of editorials like that. The fact that she put herself into danger made her experiences immediate for the readers, and while she was certainly derided for being a thrill-seeker, I think it also allowed her topics to have an actual impact.

A side effect of this was that she set the tone for what became known as “stunt journalism”. Everyone wanted a “stunt girl." Two years after the Madhouse story, Annie Laurie fainted in a San Francisco street to infiltrate the local hospital. In St. Paul, Eva Gay imitated Nellie’s Workshop Girls series. In Chicago, Nora Marks got into the prison to report on children being held for trial. Everyone wanted a sensation, thanks to Nellie Bly.

My favorite quote about her comes from the humor magazine Puck: “When a charming young lady comes into your office and smilingly announces that she wants to ask you a few questions regarding the possibility of improving New York’s moral tone, don’t stop to parley. Just say: ‘Excuse me, Nellie Bly,’ and shin down the fire-escape.” She terrified the male establishment.

Authors’ background knowledge can inform their writing choices and approaches, and along these lines, I caught a number of allusions to Shakespeare’s plays that were cleverly worked into the novel. Did you find that your experience as an actor influenced in any other way your approach to telling Nellie’s story?

*Sigh* I’m never as clever as I think I am. Yes, I found uses for my vast experience with Shakespeare, and also even a Dante reference, as nods to my readers. At least I didn’t hide any anagrams this time!

I hope that acting has influenced my writing in terms of looking at each person’s motivations, and how motives can be misinterpreted or misconstrued. I want every character to have their own life, even if it’s not part of Nellie’s story. They aren’t just there for her, or to move the plot along. I want us to feel for the people she leaves behind, the ones she writes about and then forgets. I hope they linger for my readers in the way she hoped they’d linger for hers.

In the author’s note, you mentioned that “female characters drive historical fiction,” and you found your ideal subject in Nellie Bly. In addition to the sequel that you mention will be next (and I’m looking forward to it!), do you plan to continue writing novels with women at the center? Do you have any other thoughts on this focus/trend within the historical fiction genre?

Wow. A potentially fraught question.

The simple answer is, yes. I’m working on a non-historical novel starring a women right now. It’s a story I’ve been planning for around fifteen years, and I hope to finish it this coming year.

As for trends in general, historical fiction is one of two or maybe three writing fields where the gender gap is reversed. Whereas in fantasy J.K. Rowling hid her name with initials, in historical fiction men do it. I can count on one hand the popular male historical authors who use their first names. Women dominate the genre as writers, and there are certainly more female readers of historical fiction than men (though I think that’s true of nearly every genre).

So it’s natural – and quite fantastic – that there are so many novels starring women. Historical fiction nearly always passes the Bechdel Test. And stories about women sell better! When the study came out last week saying that female-led movies do better box office than male-led films, it wasn’t shocking to me. Everyone is longing for good stories starring women.

My trouble until now has been, simply, the female figures I’m interested in have been written about before, and often far better than I’d do it. Cleopatra, Helen, Boadicea, Elizabeth – they’ve been done.

But that’s true of male figures as well. I was incredibly lucky with the Star-Cross’d series to discover a leader no one had yet tackled in Cangrande della Scala. But I covered the same ground as several others (including the amazing Margaret George) when I wrote about Nero in the Colossus series, and didn’t much care for it. I feel the same about King Arthur – I have some ideas, but why bother if I’m just treading familiar territory? I want to explore, not emulate.

Which is why I was so excited, late one April night in 2016, to find Nellie Bly. A terrific character, part of her appeal was that she hadn’t been done yet in any real way. That’s about to change. There are two more novels coming next year, and a TV movie on Lifeline, and talk of a whole TV series. Just this once, I wasn’t chasing a trend, but setting one. If I’d found her today, I wouldn’t have written this novel. Timing is everything.

So for me, it’s less a question of gender than of having the right story to tell. Or rather, gender was just one factor in my mind when I was looking for stories. I was keenly aware that I hadn’t written a woman lead, and wanted to correct that, so I was on the lookout. But I was on the lookout for the story more. I knew about the Madhouse exposé. It was reading about how Nellie got the job in the first place that grabbed me. In that moment, I had a story I felt compelled to tell – her story. I couldn’t not tell it.

So next time I write a historical novel with a female lead (and I’m sure I will), it won’t be just for the sake of writing about a woman. It will be because her story is one I simply have to tell.

Thanks so much, David - it's been great having you here again and hearing more about Nellie and your writing process.


  1. Terrific interview. Spirited women running the social gauntlet make both fabulous role models and fictional heroines. I can't wait to get my eyes on these pages.

  2. Thanks, Laurie. Hope you'll enjoy the read as much as I did. Nellie Bly is definitely all of that!