July is sizzling and so is A FEIGNED MADNESS, the historical fiction debut novel of this month’s featured author Tonya Mitchell. The novel tells the story of undercover reporter Nellie Bly’s ten harrowing days inside a women’s insane asylum in 1887.
Mitchell has a degree in journalism from Indiana University. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Copperfield Review and Glimmer and Other Stories.
Our author confesses to being an Anglophile with a particular fascination for all things Victorian. She is a fan of dark stories, especially those in the Gothic vein. She resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband, three rambunctious sons, and an overweight golden doodle.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Tonya. Let’s get right to it. A Feigned Madness is, as reviewers have noted, “meticulously researched.” Almost every line requires authentication with the time in which the novel is set. How challenging was it to do the research itself?
Tonya Mitchell: I was very lucky that I had Nellie Bly’s own words to go from when I started A Feigned Madness. Her account of her days at Blackwell’s Asylum, Ten Days in a Mad-House, is still in print today, more than 130 years after she wrote it. She was my first source and the most important one. I not only learned her incredible story from her point of view, but what her writing style was like and how she spoke. I’ll probably never have that opportunity again with future books but as a debut effort, it was wonderful to rely on my main character’s own words to structure my story. From there, I read anything I could find on Nellie Bly, including a superb biography by Brooke Kroeger called Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. Thanks to Kroeger’s book, I was able to craft the backstory of her early life which appears in the novel as an earlier timeline.
I also traveled to Bly’s former home, Apollo, PA. There I saw her childhood home, met with the historical society, and visited (in Pittsburgh) the sealed archives at Carnegie Library where I viewed some of Bly’s personal letters from the 1880s. I also went to New York City to see where Newspaper Row once stood, determined where in Central Park I wanted Bly and her romantic interest to bump into one another, saw Bellevue Hospital, and of course toured Blackwell’s Island itself where the asylum once was (the island is now called Roosevelt Island). The high octagonal tower still stands, though the wings have long since been demolished. I was surprised there was no plaque honoring Bly near the asylum. However, in 2021 a monument to Nellie Bly and other groundbreaking women was installed just a stone’s throw from where she spent those ten terrible days. To add richer historical detail, I also studied elevated train routes, the language of flowers, and the fashion of the time. One of my favorite research sources was a large map of New York City from 1885.
JEI: How about some insight into your writing process? Did you put it all down and check your notes in revision, or did you spend time during the draft stage to get the facts right?
TM: I’m a total planner. I’m actually afraid to write without some sort of outline because I’m terrified my story will veer off into the unknown and I’ll end up wasting months and deleting 30,000 words. So I did most of the research before I started so I knew where I wanted to take the story. The trips to Pennsylvania and New York were somewhere in the middle of the first draft which took about a year. I was always adding more layers or adding in historical details in subsequent drafts. The process seemed to work for me, though it took me about 5 years to finish and get a book deal. A lot of that is because I never gave myself a deadline. I’d go for weeks writing every day and months without writing at all. This is not the way books get written quickly! Or the way wannabe successful commercial novelists work! So that was an important lesson—write to a deadline, even if it’s self-imposed.
JEI: That’s good advice! From inception to publication was a long slog. What kept you going?
TM: Coffee and a little sign in my office that says, “proceed as if success is inevitable.” It’s corny, but it worked. If I focused too far ahead, the task of finishing and getting it published seemed insurmountable. So I focused on small chunks at a time, even if it was writing half a chapter in a week. That way, I had small successes along the way which helped keep me motivated to finish.
I also had a local writing buddy, Melissa, who was also writing her first novel. We’d meet at coffee shops and write until we had to pick our kids up from school. We were each other’s champions in the query trenches. That’s another important lesson: find a writing accountability partner and meet often.
JEI: I’m a strong proponent of writing buddies myself! Of course, Nellie Bly is a fascinating woman. Could/would you have done what she did to earn a position at The World?
TM: Not for a minute! One of the reasons I chose to write about Nellie Bly is that she was so “not me.” She was gutsy, unsinkable, and very forward-thinking for her time. I really wanted to get inside her head and tell her story so more people knew the risks she took all her life to pave the way for other women. I majored in journalism. Not once did she come up in any of my coursework! It was a travesty. There are so many women still unrecognized today. Historical fiction is a beautiful way to honor brave women time has forgotten.
JEI: One more reason for your novel to reach a wider audience! If you would, please share a little of your next project.
TM: I’ve found another real woman from history who had a fascinating (and in this case unfortunate) life. It’s a mystery/thriller set in 1880s England. My protagonist went on trial for murdering her husband with arsenic. It was a huge case in America and England in its day. Like Bly’s story, all the stuff that makes a good read is already there—secrets, lies, infidelity, addiction. It’s my first mystery and it’s been fun plotting it out.
JEI: Can you offer some advice for anyone interested in fictionalizing the story of a real person?
TM: Do the research. Get inside their head. Get to know them as well as you know yourself. Your story will be the better for it. The flip side is to have fun. Take creative license if it makes sense. You can always come clean in your author’s note at the end about what was real and what was imagined.
JEI: Just for fun, what is your favorite activity to do with your three sons?
TM: All of my teenage boys love to go-cart race. They’re daredevils. Mom is not. They’ve asked me to race with them, but we’ve settled on one of them driving while I ride in the passenger seat and try not to have a panic attack. This is why I write—it doesn’t take a lot of adrenaline.
JEI: I’d love a picture of you in the passenger seat. 🙂 So, who/what are you reading now?
TM: I just finished Nancy Bilyeau’s The Blue. It was fantastic. It’s about the porcelain industry in the 18th century and how competitive it was (as in trade secrets and spies!). Who knew? The sequel, The Fugitive Colours is up next.
Links to Mitchell’s work: