Here’s a book about adventure travel that I thoroughly enjoyed — terrific read, thrilling trip, adventurous women — what more could one want! Eighty Days takes its title from Jules Verne‘s serialized novel Around the World in Eighty Days, published in book form in 1873.
But — this Eighty Days is fact, not fiction.
I interviewed Matthew Goodman, the author of Eighty Days, which was published in paperback a few days ago. The interview starts below, after a brief look at the traveling journalists, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland.
On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, a 25-year-old newspaper reporter, waves farewell to chilly, wet New York City from the deck of the steamship Augusta Victoria. She’s off on her biggest story ever, a solo global circuit against time trying to beat the fictional 80 day world trip by Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s fictional hero. Bly will head eastward across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and Asia. Nellie Bly was not a novice traveler; she’d lived in Mexico. Her pioneering reporting included posing as a factory worker to show harsh conditions, attempts to bribe a corrupt politician, and acting as a mentally disturbed streetwalker. She was locked up in an asylum for the insane for nearly two weeks, then her story about it sparked a grand jury investigation of cruel conditions in public hospitals. For the global circuit, she packed ultra-light and carried one small handbag.
Meanwhile, a competing publication sweet-talked another woman journalist to race around the globe in the other direction, westward across the continental USA and the Pacific Ocean, and onward across Asia and Europe, to return to New York City before Bly. Elizabeth Bisland was a gently-bred Louisianan, an accomplished literary essayist and 28 years old in 1889 when the world trip began. In New York City, Bisland was stylish and well-dressed, the toast of the city’s literary scene at that time, but she hadn’t traveled beyond the southern and eastern states. For the race around the world, she traveled with several trunks filled with clothes and accessories for various climates.
Newspapers and magazines sponsored sensational stories and investigative first-person accounts to expose institutional fraud and mistreatment of the poor, sick and especially of women and children. The stories boosted circulation. Then, as today, journalists reported stories that affect ordinary people – worker safety, wage equity, public services, health care and protection of children, the aged and the poor.
The amazing race featuring Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland turned into a publicity windfall for the publishers and a fateful turning point in the life path of each woman.
Read more about Eighty Days at World Reader, the book review blog.
ATW: Who was your favorite of the two journalists?
MG: It’s been a pleasure to discover that about half of the readers are rooting for Elizabeth Bisland and half for Nellie Bly. I wanted to create a narrative with no heroine or villain. I wanted two characters equally sympathetic, to compete for the reader’s affection. Of course, the sympathy will depend on which traits you prefer. If you like a feisty, no-nonsense hard-hitting investigative reporter — a go-getter — that would be Nellie. If you prefer a cool, elegant, poet-essayist, Elizabeth will appeal.
ATW: You’ve showed the women so clearly by using their journals and their books about the voyages.
MG: For me as the writer, I wanted the women to be as interesting and complex and fascinating as they could be. And they were that.
MG: If I had to chose one or the other, perhaps Elizabeth, only because she was less well known, the “underdog” in terms of not yet being introduced to today’s readers. I felt a responsibility as the first person to write about her in book form, to present her as complex and fully as I could. In her own time, she was an esteemed essayist and reporter. All of her work highly regarded, including the novel based on her Louisiana upbringing. Her essay collections are really wonderful. Yet she has pretty much been forgotten by history.
ATW: In the Notes section of the book, you state emphatically “This is a work of non-fiction”. Bravo to you for making it clear that Eighty Days is a work of history and biography based on facts. How did you discover these women from almost 125 years ago?
MG: During my research for The Sun and the Moon… book (The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York), set in 1835, I explored newspapers and journalists of the time, but the book featured males mostly. After that, I felt that I wanted to write a book about a woman or about several women that were interesting to me. Artistically it would be a challenge, a new experience.
While looking around for interesting women to write about, in the course of my reading, I stumbled across a reference to Nellie Bly. Also, I live in Brooklyn and there used to be an amusement park here, the Nellie Bly Amusement Park. So, I knew the name, sort of knew that she was a journalist, and I was interested in reading about her. I discovered that she was not just a journalist, but a remarkable journalist who was willing to pursue the story through all kinds of difficulties.
ATW: I noticed the structure of alternating progress on Nellie’s trip with Elizabeth’s trip serves as a great technique to keep readers engaged with the story.
I’m a narrative historian and wondered where the story would go. I wasn’t going to write a straight biography as there was Brooke Kroeger’s biography of Nellie Bly written in the 1990s. I discovered Nellie had done this race around the world, against the calendar with built in adventure, excitement, and suspense. No one had written about this journey. As a writer I was thrilled at the prospect of writing about these interesting places — the Suez Canal, Hong Kong, the oceans. Subsequently, I discovered that the story was even better: it wasn’t just a race against the clock or the fictional character Phileas Fogg. In fact another young female journalist working for rival publication, set off on the same date to beat Nellie Bly. So there was not one story, but two, one going east, one going west.
ATW: You probably know that Nellie Bly’s travel bag is on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. but I don’t think she’s widely remembered for her pioneering investigations.
MG: Nellie is somewhat better known in New York City than elsewhere, because she did her best reporting here. Her name is sort of familiar as the kind of female character seen as an inspiration to girls. A women might remember a book about Nellie Bly that she read back in 4th grade. But as people get older, they forget the details.
ATW: When you discussed the project, what types of reactions did you hear?
MG: Many people knew Nellie Bly’s name, and were intrigued to know more. One of my gratifications in the writing was to reintroduce Nellie Bly to a new generation. And I was pleased to be able to bring forward Elizabeth Bisland’s life and writing.
ATW: Did you have to cut any portions of your book that you were attached to ?
MG: The Lafcadio Hearn research was important to understand Elizabeth Bisland during her time in New Orleans. I did quite a bit of research on him and his relationship with Elizabeth. Ultimately, I had to dispense with this intriguing person because is wasn’t really germane to the story. Lafcadio Hearn got Elizabeth interested in the far east during their conversations in New Orleans. Later, she edited his letters, most of which were from Japan [where he later established himself and remains a treasured literary figure]. For Elizabeth, one of the great benefits of the race, the prime benefit, was that it kindled in her a love of travel and in particular, a love of the far east.
ATW: Elizabeth traveled to Japan a couple times in her later life. I wonder if she visited Lafcadio and his family in Tokyo?
MG: Possibly, I may recall reading that Lafcadio Hearn left for Japan around the time Elizabeth was on the around-the-world race. She and her husband would have visited them years later.
ATW: The book features evocative writing about historic locations. The newspaper districts in New York City and New Orleans come alive, as do noisy ports and markets.
MG: As I mentioned earlier, the fact that I would be able to write about all of these places was so fascinating to me. I spent a lot of time researching each of the places to which they went, trying to create these places vividly in my mind so I could put them on the page. What did the Hong Kong waterfront look like in the 1880s? Or Jules Verne’s estate, or the Suez Canal? I did I all that I could to find out what these places looked and felt like at that time. I used old travel guidebooks to discover what an historian traveling in a different time would see. Those guidebooks do tell you what the buildings looked like, where the hotels were, where the restaurants were at that time, the native customs and walking tours in the old guidebooks described the local neighborhoods.
ATW: I noticed how you worked in the prejudicial attitudes of the time.
MG: I sought a granular ground level view by reading other travelers’ account from around the same time period. And I used old photos, absolutely, to get a feel for how people lived and worked in the various locations. I researched newspapers from those places — the British colonies where the papers were published in English.
ATW: I wondered about Nellie’s aversion to English people? Was she reacting to the snubs by British travelers on the Suez Canal portion of the journey?
MG: I think it dates back further than that. She was a working class Irish girl and aversion to British was very strong among Irish people in the U.S., especially in New York. She was prone to be anti-British. Nellie Bly was someone who was very proud and nationalistic. She was very proud of being an American, even chauvinistic.
ATW: During World War I, she lived in Vienna – that was a surprise.
MG: She tended to support the Germans. I write how her secretaries, during the years she was helping destitute New Yorkers and immigrants, would not send anyone upstairs to see her if they had even a hint of a British accent.
ATW: Interesting that both women pursued charitable works in their later years and both died in the 1920s.
MG: By the end of her life Nellie Bly had come back to her earlier sense of newspaper reporting and helping people through good works. And Elizabeth Bisland wrote rather wonderful essays as well as editing Lafcadio Hearn’s letters.
End of interview.