Monday, February 22, 2021

Interview with David Blixt about his discovery of Nellie Bly's long-lost novels

It's not every day that a novelist makes a significant historical discovery. During the research process for his next book about undercover reporter Elizabeth Cochrane (pen name Nellie Bly), David Blixt uncovered the text of eleven full-length novels she had written over 125 years ago, but which had been presumed lost. The Lost Novels of Nellie Bly will be published in book form on March 16th, with new introductions by David and other details that put her work into context. I enjoyed chatting with him recently about this fascinating find.  Please read on.

Could you provide some background to Nellie Bly’s fiction-writing career? For example, why did she switch from reporting to writing fiction, and what was the New York Family Story Paper?

From Bly’s letters, we know that becoming a novelist was a long-held ambition. She often referred to other authors who started off as journalists as examples she wished to emulate. And by 1889 she was famous enough to get her paper, The New York World, to publish her first novel in serialized form through the summer. The Mystery Of Central Park was then released in the fall in book form, just before she left on her race around the world.

What we know now, due to this discovery, is that even as her first novel was hitting the stands she was finishing her second. Eva the Adventuress is clearly based on the scandal that gripped New York in the fall of 1889, the trial of Eva Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton’s great-grandson. (For those interested in the scandal itself, here’s a run-down). Bly interviewed Eva Hamilton in prison, and then had only three weeks to knock out what ended up being her longest novel, more than double the length of The Mystery Of Central Park.

It had to have been finished before she left on her race, because the first chapters appeared in print in late December, in the pages of the New York Family Story Paper. This was a weekly eight-page fiction anthology from her book publisher, Norman Munro. It was aimed at women (he had a detective paper aimed at young boys as well), and filled with adventures and romances replete with melodrama and cliffhangers.

What I wonder—because I don’t know—is if Munro started publishing the story without a contract with Bly. She might have sent it to him before she left, but there’s no evidence of a contract. Yet I can see him wanting to capitalize on the huge publicity her race around the world—her name was everywhere! The first chapters appear with the phrase “By Nellie Bly, who is now attempting to make the circuit of the world in seventy-five days.”

What we do know is that when she got back, he offered her an enormous contract—$40,000 over three years. When you consider that she made at most $5,000 a year at the World, that’s a veritable fortune.

I think the switch from reporting happened for several reasons. First, the money was excellent. Second, her longing to be recognized as an author. Third, she felt she was not given proper thanks for boosting the World’s circulation higher than ever before. Joseph Pulitzer never even offered her thanks.

Possibly the most important reason, I think she was burned out. Three years of “stunt” reporting had taken a toll. By the summer of 1888 she was beginning to speak of headaches (which coincided with her first death threats). By the fall of ’89 she was telling of visiting seven doctors to try and help her past what I imagine were stress migraines. And through 1890 and into ’91 she speaks of severe, crippling depression. I think the novels were her way through. Noticeably, when she returned to reporting in ’93, she refused to do any more undercover or risky stunts. She would only ever risk her life again when she reported on World War One, over twenty years later.

As a librarian, I love hearing about discoveries made through research into primary sources. How did you stumble upon the existence of these novels?

Writing a follow-up to What Girls Are Good For, I was looking for a very small detail—how much Bly was paid for her first (non-fiction) book, Ten Days In A Madhouse. I tried looking for any contracts mentioning Munro, just to get a ballpark figure. Coming up empty, I dug deeper into Munro, and noticed in a list of books and newspapers he had published something called The London Story Paper.

Now, I knew about Bly writing for his New York Family Story Paper. Thanks to her letters, we’ve long known of two novels she wrote, Eva The Adventuress and New York By Night (which is probably her best fiction work). But only one issue has survived, containing three chapters of Eva. The rest, I knew, were lost to time.

So when I saw the London Story Paper on the list, I thought, “No, it couldn’t be. Munro didn’t make a knock-off of his own paper in London, did he?”

Turns out, he did. I plugged the name into a search engine, and found that the complete archives for the London Story Paper were available at I bought a subscription and ran a search for Nellie Bly, and hit the jackpot. Not two novels. Eleven novels. More than anyone had ever imagined she had written.

Unfortunately, nearly a third of the pages were illegible. Worse, the microfilm only existed in three locations—London, Sydney, and Toronto. So in the space between Christmas and New Year’s, 2019, I drove to the University of Toronto to get close-up scans of the faded pages. Once I was certain I had everything, I started the work of sorting and transcribing.

Your website mentions that the new versions of the novels come “complete with the articles that inspired the stories.” How did you match up the New York World articles and her stories – did she write about what her inspirations were, or did you have to do original research on your own to figure this out?

Well, her first novel was clearly based on her 1888 exposé of a serial procurer of girls in Central Park. And the Eva Hamilton story was clearly ripped from the headlines of 1889. So I knew from the start that she had drawn on her reporting to inspire her fiction.

With that in mind, I began collecting all her articles (to my amazement no one has ever done that before). With those at hand, I could easily see which articles were used for inspiration in the novels. Most often they’re fodder for a dramatic scene—a visit to the “veiled prophetess,” working in a paper-box factory, a story on women becoming doctors. Blackwell’s Island crops up several times, and in one novel she even names a cruel, murderous nurse after a real one from her stay there.

When I finished, I found myself with all of Bly’s articles for the World, so I’m also releasing them in four volumes. She wrote many, many more articles than most people realize. Most fascinating are her interviews, most often with women. We get our very best interview with Susan B. Anthony thanks to Bly. The first two volumes of Nellie Bly’s World are out now, and I’ll finish up the other two later this year.

Among the novels, are there any that you felt were especially illuminating or told a particularly compelling story?

As I mentioned earlier, I think her third novel, New York By Night, is her best. It’s a fun detective story with a genuine twist. It’s the only one where I would have liked to see the lead characters return. After that there’s much that’s interesting, but she strikes upon a formula that she adheres to pretty strictly. 

In terms of pure wildness, In Love With A Stranger takes the cake. It’s one madcap episode after another. Often her heroines are kinda passive, but not in that one! She’s stalking the millionaire she fell in love with at first sight, and is determined to win his love by any means, disguising herself as a ghost, a medium, a reporter, a boy, an opium addict, a card-sharp, and a marble statue. As I say, it’s wild.

As windows into Bly’s mind, there are two particular repeating trends worth noting. First, the idea of being orphaned. Before she took the nom de plume Nellie Bly, she first wrote under the name Lonely Orphan Girl. Her father died when she was six, and even though her mother lived on, Bly very much sympathized with orphans. She spent the last years of her life trying to find homes for orphans in New York.

The second repeating theme is suicide by drowning. In nearly every novel a despairing young woman throws herself into a river to end her sorrows. Water and drowning come up incredibly frequently, enough to make one wonder if she was grappling with that idea herself.

As an author who’s been writing fiction about Nellie Bly, what discoveries did you make about her as a writer, or as a person, from reading these long-lost works of hers?

On the humorous side, she never met a word she could not turn into an adverb. And she had a gift for names. Ruby Sharp. Dimple Darlington. Merribelle Harleigh. Amor Escandon. Christmas Cherry. I love her names.

On the serious side, I do wonder about her romantic entanglements. So often love, in her novels, is overpowering, leaving both men and women helpless. Again and again her characters justify the worst behavior for “love.” And yet very rarely does what she describe resemble actual affection. Clearly this is something I’m grappling with as I work on my next novel about her.

But that’s a joy, having a unique insight into Bly’s life. Being the only person in the world who has read all of Bly’s work, if only for a short time, is a gift that a writer can only dream of. I am very lucky to have found them—probably as close as I’ll ever come to finding a lost Shakespeare play. And I’m anxious for people to read these and discover a hidden side to one of the most amazing women in American history.


For more details on David Blixt and his work, please visit  


  1. Fascinating woman and discovery! I look forward to reading and learning more.

  2. I completely agree - she is a fascinating historical figure.

  3. I read Matthew Goodman's book about Nellie Bly, "Eighty Days" in 2019 and enjoyed it. Blixt's discovery and book sound fascinating!

  4. Nellie Bly and her work are being rediscovered, at last. Thanks for mentioning Goodman's book.
    Yesterday I read a review of a new graphic biography about her, The Incredible Nellie Bly, coming out in two weeks.

  5. David's novel Bly novel is terrific and I'm looking forward to the next one. The fact that he stumbled into this discovery is a testament to his research doggedness. Rabbit holes do sometimes lead to gold!

  6. Agreed, and I loved What Girls Are Good For, too!