Monday, May 06, 2019

Interview with Kate Braithwaite, author of The Girl Puzzle: A Story of Nellie Bly

Kate Braithwaite's newest novel The Girl Puzzle, published by Crooked Cat this week, provides an insightful look into the exploits and motivations of famed investigative reporter Nellie Bly (real name Elizabeth Cochrane).  In addition to taking us into the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum along with her in 1887, the novel gives us the viewpoint of her secretary Beatrice Alexander, who, decades later, types up notes about her employer's groundbreaking experiences. I'm happy to welcome Kate back to the blog today.

You’ve given your novel an intriguing structure, with the story moving between Elizabeth Cochrane’s undercover expose of the conditions on Blackwell’s Island in 1887, for which she became famous, and her later life in the 1920s, which isn’t well known at all. How did you come up with this idea?

My starting point with writing about Nellie Bly/Elizabeth Cochrane was very much the asylum expose. I found that adventure fascinating: I wanted to write about it, and I knew it was something I’d like to read a novel about. But I felt there were obstacles. Firstly – she’d already written about it herself. What would I be adding to that? Secondly, many potential readers would begin the story already knowing that Nellie was released from the asylum and went on travel solo around the world. I was concerned that might mean the story lacked suspense.

My view changed, though, when I discovered there were contradictory accounts of her time in the asylum – contradictions given by Nellie herself, as well as in other competing newspapers. And by that time, I’d also learned how much more there was to Nellie Bly’s life story and was keen to somehow share that too. When I read that in her fifties, Nellie Bly lived in a hotel suite in New York City and ran an informal adoption agency for children, I decided to structure the novel with two timelines.

Is Beatrice Alexander based upon anyone in particular?

Beatrice Alexander was the name of one of Nellie Bly’s secretaries in 1920. She was interviewed in an unpublished thesis, Nellie Bly: A Biographical Sketch, that I was able to read thanks to Columbia University. That told me some things about Nellie Bly’s later life, but nothing really about Beatrice. So although based on a real person, she’s a fictional character who – in some ways – walks in my shoes. She’s impressed by Nellie Bly. She admires her. She wants to know more about her and understand her character. She even goes to look at the Temporary Home for Women on 2nd Avenue and tries to imagine Nellie Bly there. I have Beatrice doing that in October, 1920, just as I did it myself in October, 2018. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but looking at it now, I’d say that if Beatrice is based on anyone, she is based on me.

What was your reaction, upon first reading what Elizabeth and her fellow patients endured in the asylum?

A weird sense of disappointment! There were many shocking details, but Nellie’s writing is very matter of fact and abrupt. She evens says herself that she tells her story “as plainly as possible,” because she was there as a journalist and tasked with reporting on facts, not feelings. The beatings, the hair-pulling, the bullying incidents and acts of violence certainly make for difficult reading at points. But at the end I didn’t feel that I learned very much about Nellie Bly herself. I wanted to know more. How did she get the assignment? What journalism experience did she already have? She was only 23 at the time. How did the asylum experience affect her? Did she ever see anyone she met there again? What happened to the other patients? How did the doctors and nurses in the asylum react when Nellie’s story was published?

How did you research Nellie Bly’s character during her later life?

My main source for Nellie’s life, outside her own newspaper reports, was Brooke Kroeger’s comprehensive biography, Nellie Bly: Daredevil. Reporter. Feminist. It’s over 600 pages long, amply illustrating by that fact alone that there was much more to Nellie Bly’s life than the asylum expose and her solo trip around the world – amazing as both those feats were. Kroeger’s biography is incredibly detailed and also meticulously indexed. I was able to obtain source material for many of the episodes she details – for example, the thesis I mentioned earlier where Beatrice Alexander was interviewed. My local library helped obtain some of Nellie’s later articles, too. For anyone who wants to know more about Nellie’s life and writing, I’d recommend Kroeger’s biography as well as Nellie Bly, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings, edited by Jean Marie Lutes. This collection includes her first article, "The Girl Puzzle," her two original madhouse reports, her round the world expedition and some much later stories during and after World War I.

author Kate Braithwaite
As a British author writing about American characters, are there any language differences you had to pay attention to? 

Although I have lived in the U.S. since 2010 and am a naturalized citizen, I grew up in Britain and lived there for most of my life. I’m very aware of the differences between U.S. and U.K. English and approached writing The Girl Puzzle with this very much in mind. Nellie Bly was a proud American woman – in fact she disliked the British! – and I was as keen to be true to her story in this aspect as much as any other. Spelling was obviously a starting point. Then there are many everyday words that are different – you say purse, I say handbag, you say bangs, I say fringe, you say two weeks, I say fortnight and so on. Hopefully I kept my British vocabulary firmly under control. If I was setting out to write a contemporary novel with modern Americans as my main characters, I actually think my task might be harder than it was here. As I wrote I read and re-read Nellie Bly’s work across her working life and have the hope that my British educated writing style fits with that period fairly comfortably. Of course, I could be wrong! I did ask early readers to look out for ‘British-isms’ and have my fingers crossed that American readers are not disappointed in the book.

Did you get to travel to any of the sites covered in the novel?

Absolutely. Although I’d love to go to the haunts of Nellie’s early life in Pittsburgh, Cochran’s Mills and Apollo, I didn’t make it over there, choosing instead to focus on New York where all the action takes place. The Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum still stands, at least in part. It’s now an apartment building and the wings are new, but the central octagon is the same, in its exterior at least, as it was in 1887. Standing outside the asylum and looking over the East River at Manhattan, just as Nellie Bly did, was a really memorable experience for me. I also followed in her footsteps on the day she began her adventure, walking from her boarding house on West Ninety-Sixth Street, through Central Park and all the way down to 84 Second Avenue. Bellevue Hospital, a location Nellie visits in both timelines, looks very different now but her home in the 1920’s, (now Herald Towers, then the McAlpin Hotel) is just next to Macy’s Department Store. I spent some time there, imagining Miss Bly and her staff coming and going, although I had to remember that the Empire State building, which looms up behind it, wasn’t completed until 1931.


Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but now lives with her family in the Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania. Her daughter doesn’t think Kate should describe herself as a history nerd, but that’s exactly what she is. Always on the hunt for lesser known stories from the past, Kate’s books have strong female characters, rich settings and dark secrets. The Girl Puzzle is her third novel.  For more information, see her website at and on social media as follows:

Facebook | Twitter (Girl Puzzle) | Twitter (Author) | BookBub | Goodreads


  1. Last month I read Matthew Goodman's "Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World" and enjoyed it very much. But I did feel there was more to the story, and Braithwaite's new book sounds like it adds to the fascinating story.

    1. Yes, I believe it will!

      The round-the-world trip is an aspect of her life that I'm not as familiar with, so I should take a look at that book - thanks for the recommendation.