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A Conversation with Matthew Goodman

Random House Readers Circle
: How did the idea for Eighty Days originate?

Matthew Goodman: My previous book, The Sun and the Moon, had featured only male characters, so when I began looking around for a new book topic I knew that I wanted the next one to be about a woman. Then one day, during my book explorations, I stumbled across a reference to Nellie Bly; I recognized that name (in part because there used to be a Nellie Bly Amusement Park not far from where I live in Brooklyn), but I didn’t know much about her beyond the fact that she had been a journalist. I began to read more about her, and as I did, I discovered that she wasn’t just any journalist—she was this amazing journalist, who had feigned madness to expose the inner workings of an insane asylum, and so forth. I mean, in an era when the vast majority of female journalists were writing for the women’s pages of newspapers, she was an undercover investigative reporter for the most widely read newspaper of her time.

So I kept on reading, and when I read about how Nellie Bly had undertaken a race around the world in 1889, I knew right away that this was the story I wanted to tell. I thought it was absolutely remarkable that a young woman, unaccompanied and carrying only a single bag, would be daring enough to race around the world, through Europe and the Middle East and Far East, during the Victorian era—and do it faster than anyone ever had before her. (Frankly, I found it almost equally remarkable that no one had written a book about the race before.) I was thrilled to have found such a compelling main character, but as a writer, I was also thrilled by the prospect of being able to write about all those exotic locales. But then, as I continued my research, I discovered something even more astonishing: that in fact Nellie Bly was competing against another young female journalist, by the name of Elizabeth Bisland—a detail that is almost never included in the historical record. I was captivated by the notion of these two young women racing each other around the world, one traveling east, the other west.

RHRC: What was the most fun in writing the story of this incredible journey? What do you hope readers take away from the book?

MG: To be honest, I don’t often experience writing as “fun” (usually there’s too much worry, doubt, and plain old hard work wrapped up in it for me to think of it in quite that way!), but certain scenes in Eighty Days were in fact a great deal of fun to write. I loved writing the story of Elizabeth Bisland’s wild train ride across Utah with Cyclone Bill Downing, for instance; and the scene where Nellie Bly gets to meet Jules and Honorine Verne in their Amiens estate was really fun, because they were all having so much fun with each other. And I took a lot of satisfaction from the pages that described the stokers shoveling coal down in their sweltering fire room; that was a section that I knew I wanted to write from the very beginning, because it was material that I felt very strongly about and hadn’t ever seen described in quite that way before.

Much of the fun that I had with Eighty Days came from the research for the book, from discovering things that I hadn’t known before (who could have ever guessed that Wisconsin used to have thirty-eight time zones?) and which I felt confident would help to make a better story. As you would expect, a lot of this research involved the lives of the two main characters, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, both of which proved to be more complicated and surprising than I had originally anticipated. Lots had already been written about Nellie Bly, of course—much of it, as it turns out, not entirely accurate—but very little was known about Elizabeth Bisland (no one had ever written a book about her before), and I very much enjoyed the process of ferreting out old books and other documents that contained odd bits of information that could add a piece to the puzzle, and help me come to know her across the decades. After the book was published I got an e-mail from Elizabeth Bisland’s grandnephew that said, in part, “Thank you so much for sharing Elizabeth with the public, since she was indeed so reticent to do that herself.” I found that incredibly gratifying.

And I guess—and this is a long way around to answering your question—what I most hope that readers take away from this book is a deeper understanding of these two remarkable women. Though they were very different from each other in many ways, they were both independent and committed to their work, and they were able to support themselves as writers at a time when that was very unusual for women. If by writing Eighty Days I can introduce a new generation of readers to Elizabeth Bisland, and reintroduce them to Nellie Bly, then I’ll be very pleased.

RHRC: As you unraveled their story, did you find yourself relating to (or rooting for!) either woman in particular?

MG: This is actually a question I hear a lot from readers—who was I rooting for to win the race? The thing is, unlike readers (or most of them, anyway), I knew right from the beginning who had won! So for me, it wasn’t really a question of rooting for either Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland to win the race; rather, when I began work on the book I was rooting for them to turn out to be characters as complex and as compelling as possible. And in that respect, both women ably fulfilled my wishes for them.

As I’ve met readers, at book events and so forth, it’s been enjoyable for me to hear about how some of them were rooting for Nellie Bly while others were rooting for Elizabeth Bisland. That’s very much what I wanted for Eighty Days; I certainly didn’t want to be writing a book about a race between a hero and a villain—then you’re verging on melodrama—or even a book in which one of the characters is clearly more sympathetic or more interesting than the other. So I’ve been pleased to discover that the audience’s sympathies have been pretty well divided. I think that’s because each woman had certain admirable qualities that the other tended not to have. Nellie Bly was physically courageous (her stint inside the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum made that very clear), independent, ambitious, socially concerned, and fully determined that as a female journalist she could do anything her male colleagues did; Elizabeth Bisland was erudite (the number of subjects about which she could write intelligently was truly astonishing), artistically inclined, sensitive, deeply curious about the world and its inhabitants. And they each had a number of flaws as well—among those flaws, certainly, a kind of reflexive, unconscious racism that was pretty endemic in the society of the time. So I think that a reader will tend to like one or the other woman depending on the particular set of qualities he or she tends to prefer generally.

RHRC: What was your research process like in preparing to write Eighty Days?

MG: I spent eighteen months basically living in libraries before I wrote a single sentence of Eighty Days. In writing this book I wanted readers not just to know what had happened during the race, but to experience it as well—to feel like they were right there with Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland on the back of a rickshaw, or in the stateroom of a steamship during a storm, or walking along the Tanks in Aden in the moonlight. I needed the world in which they were living to be as vivid as possible in my mind, so that I could make it as vivid as possible on the page.
Not surprisingly, the first thing I did was to read the books that the two women wrote about the race: Nellie Bly’s Around the World in Seventy-two Days and Elizabeth Bisland’s A Flying Trip Around the World. It was a great boon to me that each wrote a book about the race, not only because it allowed me to hear their respective voices, but also because it gave me access to their internal worlds as well as the external world through which they were racing. From there I read everything else that they had ever written, or at least everything that I could get my hands on—books, essays, articles, reviews; this helped me to gain a clearer sense of what they cared about, how they thought, how they changed over the course of their lives. I immersed myself in the newspapers of the time. (Interestingly, I found that the most useful parts of the newspapers were not the news sections, but rather the advertisements. Advertisements, after all, give a sense of the daily life of a society—they tell what people ate and wore, and what they read and how they furnished their house; they tell how much commodities cost; they tell the kinds of things people liked to do in their spare time.) I read biographies of the other significant characters in the book, such as Jules Verne and Joseph Pulitzer; I read everything I could about all the places that the two women visited during the race, including other travelers’ accounts, histories, guidebooks. Guidebooks are especially helpful, because they’re designed to acquaint the traveler with an unfamiliar destination—and a historian is very much like a traveler, except that you’re journeying through time as well as space.

RHRC: This is your third book. Was the experience of writing Eighty Days new or different in any way? Did it present more of a challenge?

MG: Well, my first book was a cookbook, so that doesn’t count—there wasn’t much in the way of recipe testing that I had to do for Eighty Days. But my second book, The Sun and the Moon, was a narrative history as well, and that book presented its own unique challenges, because it was the first full-scale work of history that I had ever written, and I was sort of teaching myself how to do it as I went along. With Eighty Days I had a clearer understanding at the very beginning of how to write a book like this: how best to conduct research, how to structure a narrative, and so forth.

The Sun and the Moon was set a bit further back in time than Eighty Days—it tells the true story of a newspaper hoax in the year 1835, in which The Sun convinced New Yorkers that life had been discovered on the moon—and there was much less available material, especially about the author of the hoax stories, Richard Adams Locke. (It’s frankly a bit disconcerting to a narrative historian when other historical accounts always refer to your main character as “enigmatic.”) There was much more to work with for Eighty Days (even about Elizabeth Bisland, about whom not very much had been written), which in turn entailed more research, more decisions about what to keep in and what to leave out, and that sort of thing. But ultimately I found it a great boon, because it meant that I had access to enough historical detail to make Eighty Days even more novelistic in style than The Sun and the Moon had been, which is what I wanted.

For me, the central challenge with Eighty Days was not so much in writing about two female protagonists (as I had initially anticipated), but rather in finding the right structure for the book. The fact that the two women were racing in opposite directions was helpful, because it meant that while one was in London, say, the other was in San Francisco—so they weren’t constantly seeing the same places at the same time, which might have gotten tedious. But there was still the question of how to handle the sections of the race where not much was going on, like during a long ocean voyage or an extended stay in a particular location. So rather than have the book just be a kind of travelogue—this happened, then that happened—I found that I could use those sections as a kind of stepping-off place to explore larger historical questions naturally raised by that section of the race itself. So, for instance, Elizabeth Bisland’s train trip across the American West provided an opportunity to discuss the power of the railroads at the time, while Nellie Bly’s voyage across the Pacific led naturally into a discussion of the horrendous working conditions endured by the stokers who were shoveling the coal that allowed her steamship to go as fast as it did. What I was trying to create was almost a kind of symphonic structure, where the two central themes (the women’s narratives) were occasionally broken up by slower, more reflective passages that provide a bit of breathing room. Ultimately, I thought, this would both tell a more complete story and produce a more satisfying experience for the reader.

RHRC: Aside from Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland, who among the characters in Eighty Days would you have most liked to meet?

MG: Well, as your question indicates, I’d of course most like to have met Bly and Bisland. After spending years thinking so intently about some historical figure, you can’t help but wish that you could somehow meet that person in real life: hear her actual voice, watch her gestures, listen to her talk about subjects beyond those in the materials you’ve already read. It’s a kind of perpetually unfulfilled longing, and one that I’d guess is shared by pretty much any historian. Beyond those two, though, my research for Eighty Days leads me to think that Joseph Pulitzer would have made a pretty fascinating dinner companion. He adored the novels of George Eliot, read widely in history, was interested in all the current political debates, loved music and the arts, and could recite long passages of his favorite works from memory. Plus, he had a yacht.

RHRC: Nellie Bly carried only a single handbag for her trip around the world. How would you pack for such a trip? What would you consider the essentials to be brought along?

MG: I have to say, every time I packed a bag in preparation for an Eighty Days book event, and then schlepped it aboard a plane or train, I thought about Nellie Bly! Invariably, even if I were going only for a single night, my bag would be far larger than the one Bly brought along for a trip lasting two and a half months. (By the way, Bly’s leather gripsack—the actual one that she brought with her on the race around the world—is on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. I’ve seen it, and I found it incredibly moving and poignant; that bag is tiny.) So I’m hardly a model of Blylike efficient packing. But if I could take only a single bag for a trip around the world (assuming that it’s a trip of some duration, involving some sightseeing in various cities along the way), I think I’d be sure to bring along an extra pair of comfortable walking shoes, a pair of khakis, and a lightweight sports jacket that could be rolled up in the bag. And while I only ever read printed books—that’s just my preference—I think that for a trip around the world I’d probably spring for an e-reader of some sort. You can read a lot of books while you’re traveling around the world, and I’d just as soon not have them weighing down the bag—the ones I love I’d buy in hard copy upon my return.

RHRC: What’s the longest journey you’ve ever taken?

MG: Many years ago I was fortunate enough to be part of an American delegation invited to China by the Chinese government. We spent a couple of weeks there, visiting Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. (The train on which we traveled from Hangzhou to Shanghai, with its wood paneling and lace curtains and afternoon tea served in porcelain cups, reminds me now of the ones on which Bly and Bisland rode across the United States.) Coming back, we flew from Beijing to San Francisco on China Air. In those days you could still smoke inside a plane—at least you could on China Air—and it seemed that just about everybody on board, other than me, was a smoker. We crossed the Pacific Ocean in a thick blue haze. That was the longest journey I’ve ever taken!

RHRC: Who are your writing influences? What are you currently reading?

MG: To the extent that I have any “training” as a writer, it’s as a fiction writer. (I got an MFA in fiction writing, though now, when I teach, it’s in creative nonfiction.) And even now I still find that I tend to divide my reading up pretty evenly between fiction and nonfiction. For instance, I’ve just finished rereading Janet Malcolm’s books of reportage In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, and before that I read Steven Millhauser’s amazing novel Martin Dressler; and right now on my desk I’ve got Matthew Pearl’s novel The Dante Club, Tony Horwitz’s narrative history Midnight Rising (about John Brown), and Russ & Daughters, a memoir by my buddy, the New York herring maven Mark Russ Federman. So it’s pretty eclectic—though I guess these books do tend to share a sense of engagement with American history and politics, as I hope my own work does as well.

My writing influences also tend to be pretty evenly divided between fiction and nonfiction. Right off the bat I’d mention James Agee’s astonishing and beautiful Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Agee was, as one critic memorably said, “a born, sovereign prince of the English language”); almost anything by Joan Didion (though especially her nonfiction, and perhaps most especially Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her exhilarating takedown of the excesses and false promises of the American Dream); Grace Paley’s wonderfully funny and big-hearted short stories; E. L. Doctorow’s historical novel Ragtime (I learned a great deal from him about the establishment of tone, and how one puts large observations into short sentences); and Robert Caro’s magisterial The Power Broker, which presents the sort of scholarship to which all historians should aspire.

If I had to name just one single book as the most influential to me, though, I think I’d choose a book I first read a long, long time ago: Jean Merrill’s novel for young people The Pushcart War. Set in the then far-off year of 1986, it describes the war between pushcarts and trucks for control of the streets of New York; along the way Merrill creates such unforgettable characters as Maxie Hammerman, the “Pushcart King”; movie star Wenda Gambling; and Mayor Emmet P. Cudd, who in his famous “Peanut Butter Speech” declaimed that as his opponent was against trucks he was against progress, and if he was against progress he might even be against peanut butter. In this book Jean Merrill pulled off the trick of being at once uproariously funny and deeply wise about life in New York. When I was in sixth grade I loved The Pushcart War so much that my wonderful teacher, Maureen Miletta, suggested I adapt it into a play, which my class performed for the entire school; it remains to this day the most unalloyed pleasure I have ever gotten from a piece of writing.

RHRC: What are you working on next?

MG: Tough question! At the moment, I haven’t actually figured out my next book project. I know that I want to do another book of narrative history, like Eighty Days, and it’s been my experience (and this has been confirmed for me by other narrative historians) that finding a book topic is in some ways the hardest, most harrowing part of the entire process. Before anything else, of course, it has to be a great story—something with drama, tension, excitement, what have you—and ideally it’s one that has a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. And it should feature a compelling, fascinating main character or characters, someone who will maintain a reader’s interest over the course of the book. Because I’m telling the story novelistically, with as much richness and vivid detail as possible, there has to be a lot of historical material available on the subject. (Diaries and letters are invaluable for any historian, but especially for the narrative historian.) But even as one requires a lot of available material to tell the story, one also requires a story that hasn’t been told before, or at least not told in this way before—and that’s a tricky combination. And as if that’s not hard enough, I’d also like the story to be about something more than just itself—that is to say, to reveal something larger about the politics or culture of the time.

So that’s what I’m looking for: a story as good as that of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, and that’s a tall order indeed.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In the book’s prologue Matthew Goodman writes, “Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were not only racing around the world; they were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age.” What do you think he meant by this? In what way did Bly and Bisland’s race illustrate some of the larger social issues of the time?

2. In what ways were Elizabeth and Nellie similar, and in what ways were they dissimilar? Did they have differing views of themselves as women, as writers, as Americans? How might this have colored their attitudes about the around-the-world race?

3. Almost every story of the time mentioned the fact that Nellie Bly carried only a single handbag for her trip around the world. How do you think you would pack for such a trip? What would you consider the essentials to bring along?

4. How might other female journalists of the time have viewed Bly and Bisland’s race around the world? Do you think they would have been supportive or critical?

5. Throughout the book Goodman intersperses the narrative of the race with discussions of historical issues—such as the hardships faced by women journalists, the power of the railroads, and the working conditions of stokers on the steamships. Why do you think he did this? Did you feel that this added to or detracted from the book as a whole?

6. Did you find yourself rooting for one of the women to win the race? Which of the women would you rather have as a traveling companion? In what ways would you say each of the women changed over the course of the race?

7. How do you think that Nellie Bly’s difficult childhood might have helped to shape some of the choices she made as an adult?

8. Eighty Days is an example of the genre called “narrative history”—that is to say, a work of history that adopts some of the techniques generally associated with fiction writing. In what ways does this book read like a novel? How was Matthew Goodman able to accomplish this? Did you ever find yourself momentarily forgetting that it was a true story?

9. Visiting the Tanks of Aden in the moonlight, Elizabeth Bisland has a profound moment in which she comes to understand what the trip has given her: “the vividness of a new world, where one was for the first time, as Tennyson had written, Lord of the senses five, where the light of night and day had a new meaning, where years of indifference could fall away like a dried-up husk and every sense respond with the keenness of faculties newborn.” Have you ever had an experience like that while traveling? Which of the places described in the book would you most like to visit?

10. The very first story that Bly proposed to The World was to sail across the Atlantic in steerage, so that she could report firsthand on the conditions endured by the passengers there. Yet during her around-the-world race, when she had the opportunity, she did not write about steerage passengers. Why do you think this was? Do you think that she had changed as a journalist, and if so, in what ways?

11. Might Eighty Days be viewed as a kind of cautionary tale about celebrity? How so?

12. The book’s epilogue describes the very different lives led by Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland in the decades after the race. Were you surprised by the way that things turned out for them? Why or why not? How would you answer the question posed about Nellie Bly at the end of the final chapter: “She had outraced Elizabeth Bisland; but now, looking back, it was not entirely clear which of them had won.”

13. The story told in Eighty Days took place more than 120 years ago. An around-the-world trip that once required two and a half months to complete could be accomplished today in a matter of days. Are there other ways in which society has changed far less dramatically since 1889?

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