The novel Eighty Days dives into competing journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s pursuit to break the record for fastest journey around the world in 1889. Author Matthew Goodman creates a narrative history on the 28,000 mile quest that got the attention of the nation. KBIA’s Tony Nochim sat down with Matthew Goodman while he was in Columbia.
Tony Nochim: You previously wrote a couple of books that are also well known. Obviously this one’s different because it’s about Nellie Bly and such, but how is it also different in the way you approached it?
Matthew Goodman: You know every book is different; every book presents its own particular challenges. I would say that this one was challenging in the sense that it had two main characters. I wanted them to be equally interesting, equally compelling because I knew right from the beginning that it was going to be alternating points of view. One chapter from Nellie Bly’s point of view. One chapter from Elizabeth Bisland’s point of view. And, if for instance, Elizabeth Bisland wasn’t such an interesting character, then readers would just be skipping over her chapters to get back to the Nellie Bly story. So, they needed to be equally compelling and the challenge in that case was that a lot is known about Nellie Bly. There have been biographies are written of her, she’s fairly well known. About Elizabeth Bisland, nobody had ever written anything about Elizabeth Bisland. I’m the first person ever to write a book about Elizabeth Bisland. And in the beginning when I really didn’t know much about her, there was that great concern of, ‘what if she turns out to you know be the most boring woman alive? What am I going to do in that case?’ But, it was very gratifying for me to find out little by little that she was indeed an equally compelling character, very different from Nellie Bly, but equally compelling. Someone who had grown up in very difficult circumstances in Louisiana after the Civil War, grew up in poverty, taught herself to read, became a great poet, great lover of literature, just a beautiful writer.
TN: What would be the main point that you would want readers to just take from this book that you’ve written?
MG: I think that it was one of my prime purposes in writing this book to tell the story of these two remarkable women. Obviously what they’re doing, racing around the world, is exciting in and of itself. And of course the idea of a race is exciting. But, each of them was a woman who was challenging this male dominated industry of publishing in the late nineteenth century. Each of them was undertaking this event to go around the world by herself was challenging the conventional notions of what a woman could do or what a woman could not do. So, that was very daring, that was very courageous. Though I don’t think either of them would’ve described themselves per se as a feminist, this was a little bit before that, they were in their own way feminists and very conscious of themselves as women in a male dominated field. And I hope that readers of today will know about them, will come to learn about them, and appreciate the challenges that they faced and were able to overcome as women in the Victorian Era.
TN: Let’s say you only had one person to meet: Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland. Which one would you choose and why?
MG: Well I think that, you know as I’ve said, they’re both really interesting characters. Elizabeth
Bisland might be someone who would be more interesting to spend a lunch with because she was extremely erudite-she knew a lot about a lot of different subjects-very, very intelligent, kind of famed as a conversationalist. She was the hostess of a literary salon in her apartment in New York City where New York’s cultural elite gathered to discuss art and the issues of the day. So, I probably would choose her just for an afternoon lunch.