Please introduce the character in terms of job, relationships, family etc. …
Beatrice Alexander is a character in my latest novel, a fictional biography of journalist Nellie Bly. For those who don’t know Nellie, the short version of her story is that she took New York’s male-dominated newspaper industry by storm in 1887. Aged twenty-three, she feigned madness to report from inside an insane asylum, and two years later she travelled solo around the world to beat Phineas Fogg, Jules Verne’s fictional hero’s, record of circumnavigating the globe in eighty days. Nellie changed the face of journalism for women, ran her own manufacturing business, promoted equal rights and pay for women, and supported many causes throughout her busy working and writing life.
In The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly, Beatrice is Nellie’s secretary. At this point, Nellie is in her fifties, and Beatrice, thirty years younger, is rather in awe of her famous employer. When Nellie asks Beatrice to type up a secret manuscript about Nellie’s early days in New York, Beatrice believes she’s been given the key to understanding one of the most innovative and daring figures of the age.
When did you create her?
Although this is very much a novel about Nellie Bly, I wanted to show her as an older woman, as well as when she was younger. Nellie always wrote in the first person, often interjecting her thoughts and opinions into her articles. Her voice is strong, and I didn’t want to just imitate her, so it seemed like a good idea to show her through someone else’s eyes. Nellie was a complex person – sometimes contradictory and cross, at other times incredibly generous. Beatrice is in the perfect position to see the good and the bad in Nellie, and she narrates the fore-story, set in New York in 1919, where Nellie Bly is busy making unregulated adoption arrangements for orphan children (true story!), as well as typing up the other 1887 timeline where young Nellie gets committed to a lunatic asylum.
Did you write the book to accommodate the character or the character to accommodate the book?
Beatrice exists to accommodate the book, but in some ways, she is what makes the whole thing work. I did a huge amount of research about Nellie Bly, but it wasn’t until Beatrice appeared in my mind that The Girl Puzzle, as a novel, began to take shape. Beatrice’s experience mirrors the readers and, in many ways, my own experience, of getting to know the amazing person that Nellie Bly was.
What do you like most about her?
Beatrice is a young working woman, enjoying post World War I, New York City. I like that’s she’s comfortable in her own skin. She’s not overly ambitious or vain. She has a love interest: she’s young and interested in finding a partner, but that’s not the be-all-and-end-all for her. I like that she’s not a push-over, but also that although she has her own views, she’s the kind of person who knows she doesn’t know what’s best for everyone else. Her instincts are good. She’s honest. She has a strong inner sense of right and wrong.
What do you like least about her?
She is a little bit ordinary – but that’s quite deliberate! In many ways, she acts as a foil to Nellie Bly who is anything but ordinary. Although Beatrice has her own journey in the book, she’s not the star. That’s definitely Nellie Bly.
Did your early readers/editorial team like her to start with or did you have to change her in any way?
I think everyone liked Beatrice. She is young and a little naïve, but she grows as the story progresses. When Nellie “kidnaps” a young orphan girl, Dorothy, from a New York orphanage, Beatrice has decisions to make about what happens next and what the best care for Dorothy looks like. Working out how Beatrice makes these choices, and what that meant, took a bit of writing and re-writing – mostly just to make sure she was given enough time in the novel to be a fully-realized character in her own right.
Does she have any similarities with anyone real?
Nellie Bly really did have a secretary called Beatrice Alexander and I was able to get hold of an unpublished thesis by someone who had interviewed her about her famous employer. But although that was my starting point, her character is entirely fictional. If Beatrice is based on anyone, she is based on me – or at least on my experience of learning about Nellie Bly. Like me, Beatrice is a fan and admirer. But she also sees the contradictions in Nellie’s opinions, and the danger in her blind sense that she is always right. Beatrice, as I have been, is trying to puzzle Nellie Bly out, and that’s one of several reasons why the book is called The Girl Puzzle.
What are your plans for her?
None! I could outline what I imagine happens to Beatrice after the book ends, but then I’d have to give away the story and I can’t do that! It’s a stand-alone novel so let’s just say I’ve left Beatrice to her fictional future and readers can have their own ideas of what that might or might not involve.
Would you be friends in real life?
I think so! I like her honesty. We’d certainly be able to have a good chat about Nellie Bly together. I think we’d probably go for cocktails and talk for hours.
Huge thanks for joining me and sharing this, Kate. This Beatrice sounds amazing!
If you think so too, bookworms, here’s the book blurb …
Her published story is well known. But did she tell the whole truth about her ten days in the madhouse?
Down to her last dime and offered the chance of a job of a lifetime at The New York World, twenty-three-year old Elizabeth Cochrane agrees to get herself admitted to Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum and report on conditions from the inside. But what happened to her poor friend, Tilly Mayard? Was there more to her high praise of Dr Frank Ingram than everyone knew?
Thirty years later, Elizabeth, known as Nellie Bly, is no longer a celebrated trailblazer and the toast of Newspaper Row. Instead, she lives in a suite in the Hotel McAlpin, writes a column for The New York Journal and runs an informal adoption agency for the city’s orphans.
Beatrice Alexander is her secretary, fascinated by Miss Bly and her causes and crusades. Asked to type up a manuscript revisiting her employer’s experiences in the asylum in 1887, Beatrice believes she’s been given the key to understanding one of the most innovative and daring figures of the age.
About the author …
Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but now lives with her family in the Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania. Her daughter doesn’t think Kate should describe herself as a history nerd, but that’s exactly what she is. Always on the hunt for lesser known stories from the past, Kate’s books have strong female characters, rich settings and dark secrets. The Girl Puzzle is her third novel.