IFOA: How did you first encounter Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, and what made you want to tell their story?
Goodman: I knew the name Nellie Bly because of the old “Nellie Bly Amusement Park” near my home in Brooklyn, New York, but I didn’t know much about her or why she was important. Then one day I stumbled across a brief reference to her race around the world in 1889; I thought it was remarkable that a young woman (she was only 25), unaccompanied and carrying only a single bag, would be daring enough to try to do such a thing in the Victorian era. Then I discovered that Bly was in fact competing against another young female journalist, Elizabeth Bisland. I was captivated by the notion of these two young women racing each other around the world—one traveling east, the other west.
IFOA: Is there anything you learned from these pioneering journalists that you’ve been able to apply to your own career?
Goodman: These women were very different from each other, but each was fascinating and complicated in her own right. Nellie Bly was scrappy, hard-driving, funny, socially conscious; Bisland was erudite, literary, charming, quietly courageous. Each one was a writer’s dream subject, and from them I tried to learn, as best I could, how to make a real-life character come alive on the page—and I’m very grateful to them for that.
Goodman: Many years ago I was fortunate enough to take a weeks-long trip to China, visiting Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. Coming back, we flew from Beijing to San Francisco on China Air. In those days, at least on China Air, you could still smoke in the plane—and it seemed that just about everybody on board was a smoker. We flew over the Pacific Ocean in a thick blue haze. That was the longest journey I’ve ever taken.
IFOA: If you could have lunch with one writer, dead or alive, who would you choose?
Goodman: This guy wasn’t a writer so much as a newspaper publisher (though he did write many of his paper’s editorials), but my research for Eighty Days leads me to believe that Joseph Pulitzer would have been a fascinating lunch companion. He adored the works of George Eliot, read widely in politics and history, loved music and the arts, and could recite long passages of his favorite works from memory. One of his biographers described how “his talk poured forth seamlessly, moving with ease from a discourse on philosophy to the merits of a particular piano virtuoso to an analysis of local politics.” Plus he had a yacht.
IFOA: We hear this will be your first visit to Toronto. What are you most looking forward to? (Besides your event, of course!)
Goodman: A peameal bacon sandwich at the St. Lawrence Market!
Goodman will appear at Authors at Harbourfront Centre as part of the Ben McNally Travellers Series on March 13.