I am very excited that historical fiction author, Tonya Mitchell, is dropping by on Candlelight Reading today for a chat about her debut novel, A Feigned Madness.
Beatrice: A huge congratulations on your debut novel — A Feigned Madness. Your book follows Elizabeth Cochrane “Nellie Bly” as she goes undercover to investigate and expose the appalling treatment of the inmates at the asylum on Blackwell’s Island. What drew you towards Elizabeth’s story and why did you think it would make a good book?
Tonya Mitchell: I happened upon a short post about Nellie Bly and her stay in a madhouse.
I was fascinated. I couldn’t believe a sane person would elect to have herself shut away in an asylum, especially at a time when mental illness was so little understood. I was equally shocked I’d never heard of her, and so I did some digging. What I found was Nellie’s own account: Ten Days in a Mad-house, which is a compilation of the two installments she wrote for the New York World upon her release from the Blackwell’s Island insane asylum.
I read it from cover to cover and found it captivating. But it was only part of the story. Who was she? Why was she so desperate for a job? And why agree to be put away in an insane asylum of all places? So, I looked for the novel. Surely someone had written about this woman and her asylum stay over a hundred years ago. I found some biographies and plenty books about her around-the-world trip she did a few years after the asylum stint, but to my surprise, no one had written a fictionalized version of her asylum stay.
|Blackwells Asylum illustration.
|Blackwells Asylum illustration.
|Blackwell Tower today.
This was the end of 2014. I’d abandoned a manuscript and was looking for the subject matter to start writing another. I had always gravitated to historical fiction, and now seemed like a good time to jump in. Toni Morrison said, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” It felt like an invitation from the universe. And so I plunged in. I got lost down the rabbit hole of research and found tons of stuff that really filled in the gaps for me: who Nellie really was, why she needed the reporting job so badly, and other personal things about her life I was able to bring to life again in her story. I thought that if I was interested in Bly and her story, others would be too.
Beatrice: What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history and were there any unexpected surprises?
Tonya Mitchell: There wasn’t much, specifically, that challenged me in the way of research. Fortunately, there’s a lot of reference material that’s been written over the years about Bly. I was lucky to have at my fingertips an excellent biography written by Brooke Kroeger—Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. It was extremely thorough, starting from Bly’s birth, to her fame, to her eventual death in 1922. I found it very immersive. I was able to use much of that book as a launching pad to other research sources. One of them turned out to be a map of New York City from 1885. Using that, I was able, for instance, to plot which elevated trains Bly would have taken to get to the newspaper from her furnished apartment, and the ferry route from Bellevue Hospital to Blackwell’s Island.
As for surprises, no one could be more astonished than me that A Feigned Madness became, in part, a love story. Based on some cryptic lines in Bly’s personal letters in the sealed archives at Carnegie Library, and a few odd little details in her own account in Ten Days, I was able to read between the lines regarding her and another reporter she’d known back in Pittsburgh before she came to New York. These ambiguities really stood out to me, and I filled in the blanks. So that’s in the book too. I’ll let the reader discover that for herself, however (but it’s juicy!).
Betrice: What do you hope the reader will take away from your novel?
Tonya Mitchell: It was steely pioneers like Bly who paved the way for the women’s movement. She refused to back down in the face of adversity. ‘No’ just wasn’t in her lexicon. She kept pushing until she got hired as a reporter, and she kept right on pushing to get a byline, to get a column, and so much more. She broke through barrier after barrier. She was also a strong supporter of the women’s vote. It’s easy to forget that the freedoms women enjoy today weren’t always freedoms. We’ve fought for every one, and we have Nellie Bly and so many others to thank for that. And the fight isn’t over. There are still women out there fighting the good fight for women’s equality.
Beatrice: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
Tonya Mitchell: We owe it to our readers to get the era, the events, and the characters right. That means we have to do a lot of research. Some of it is fascinating, some of it is just plain dry. Either way, it’s got to be done. I don’t think you can write quality historical fiction by approaching research like it’s a hobby. Oftentimes, I would imagine Bly looking over my shoulder as I wrote, and I didn’t think a scene was truly done until I felt she was satisfied with what I’d written.
Beatrice: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
Tonya Mitchell: Start now and don’t quit! Keep plugging. These days, you need the tenacity of a bull terrier to keep going because it’s competitive out there. Give yourself permission to have bad days and make mistakes. Most of all, pat yourself on the back for every milestone you hit, no matter how small, because it’s those milestones that add up to a finished product you’ll be proud of one day.
A Feigned Madness
By Tonya Mitchell
The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. —Nellie Bly
Elizabeth Cochrane has a secret.
She isn’t the madwoman with amnesia the doctors and inmates at Blackwell’s Asylum think she is.
In truth, she’s working undercover for the New York World. When the managing editor refuses to hire her because she’s a woman, Elizabeth strikes a deal: in exchange for a job, she’ll impersonate a lunatic to expose a local asylum’s abuses.
When she arrives at the asylum, Elizabeth realizes she must make a decision—is she there merely to bear witness, or to intervene on behalf of the abused inmates? Can she interfere without blowing her cover? As the superintendent of the asylum grows increasingly suspicious, Elizabeth knows her scheme—and her dream of becoming a journalist in New York—is in jeopardy.
A Feigned Madness is a meticulously researched, fictionalized account of the woman who would come to be known as daredevil reporter Nellie Bly. At a time of cutthroat journalism, when newspapers battled for readers at any cost, Bly emerged as one of the first to break through the gender barrier—a woman who would, through her daring exploits, forge a trail for women fighting for their place in the world.
Publication date: 6th October 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction, Historical Thriller
Publisher: Cynren Press
Print Length: 392 pages
Ever since reading Jane Eyre in high school, Tonya Mitchell has been drawn to dark stories of the gothic variety. Her influences include Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker. More contemporarily, she loves the work of Agatha Christie, Margaret Atwood, and Laura Purcell. When she landed on a story about a woman who feigned insanity in order to go undercover in an insane asylum, she knew she’d landed on something she was meant to write. Her short fiction has appeared in, among other publications, Glimmer and Other Stories and Poems, for which she won the Cinnamon Press award in fiction. She is a self-professed Anglophile and is obsessed with all things relating to the Victorian period. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society North America and resides in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and three wildly energetic sons. A Feigned Madness is her first novel.
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