Friday, March 8, 2013

Matthew Goodman’s "Eighty Days"

Matthew Goodman's nonfiction books include The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York and Jewish Food: The World at Table. The recipient of two MacDowell fellowships and one Yaddo fellowship, he has taught creative writing at numerous universities and workshops. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and children.

Goodman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World, and reported the following:
Eighty Days is the true-life story of two young female journalists, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, who each set out from New York on November 14, 1889 to try and beat the around-the-world mark of eighty days set by the fictional Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s novel. Nellie Bly sailed east across the Atlantic on the steamship Augusta Victoria; Elizabeth Bisland headed west by train to San Francisco on the New York Central railroad. The race around the world was Bly’s original idea, and she fought to convince the editors of the World newspaper, for which she worked, to let her do it. (In those days, editors didn’t even like their female reporters heading unescorted across the city, much less around the world.) Bisland, on the other hand, had been summoned that very morning to her publisher’s office, where she was summarily informed – against her strong wishes – that she was to leave that very evening on a trip around the world.

On page 99, Elizabeth Bisland is one day out of New York. Still reeling from the shock of the sudden turn her life has taken, she finds herself late at night wandering hungry and alone around the vast, gloomy Union Station in Chicago. This is how the page begins:
She felt, all at once, terribly homesick, so far from the cozy apartment where her sister had by now lit the gas jets and prepared a quiet dinner for herself; she remembered that she hadn’t eaten on the train, and realized that she was very hungry. She passed shuttered newsstands and lunch counters, a waiting room with a few sleepy-looking passengers in it; she could hear her own footsteps echoing in the cavernous hall. On a wing adjoining the main hall a telegraph office was still open: at this hour, a wire back to The Cosmopolitan would do no good. A friendly conductor took pity on her and helped her locate the departure gates for the Rock Island Road, where she would transfer to the train for Omaha, before bidding her, in Bisland’s description, “a commiserating adieu.” Near the waiting area she found a lunch hall that was open late, and she sat on a high stool at the counter and ate a solitary dinner of ham with a cup of tea. Even this seemingly ordinary act was daring in its way: in New York there was only a single restaurant at which it was considered appropriate for respectable women to sit on stools and eat at a counter on which no cloth was spread. That restaurant was located on Broadway near Twenty-first Street, and Elizabeth Bisland, who worked only a few blocks away, surely knew of it, and had likely eaten there on her way to or from the Cosmopolitan offices. Memories of New York would have only exacerbated her sense of loneliness. She was in a nearly deserted train station in a strange city late at night having dinner, unaccountably, by herself. It could not bode well for her trip, she must have pondered, that the magazine had made this mistake at the very first opportunity to do so. As she ate, her every mouthful was regarded with wan interest by the man who oversaw the lunch hall. She finished up her meal and hurried out to the train.
Eighty Days is a work of nonfiction. All of the dialogue in it – and anything else between quotation marks – was taken from a written source such as a memoir, letter, or newspaper article. None of the events described in the book was imagined, and though I worked very hard to present the internal world of the two main characters as well as the external world through which they raced, I did not ascribe any thoughts to any character that he or she did not personally claim. This passage was actually the product of several avenues of research: Elizabeth Bisland’s own account of the race, entitled A Flying Trip Around the World (both she and Bly published books about their journeys, which proved an enormous help); contemporaneous descriptions of Chicago’s Union Depot; and books about women in New York in the late nineteenth century (one of which yielded the detail about the sole restaurant in the city that allowed women to sit on stools and eat at a bare counter).

Still, though all of the details in this book are taken from life, I wanted Eighty Days to have all the suspense, immediacy, and emotional impact of a work of fiction: so that the reader would not just know what happened on that race around the world, but feel it as well. I hoped that in turning to a particular page in the book – such as, for example, page 99 – a reader might not immediately be able to tell whether she was reading a work of history or a novel.
Learn more about the book and author at Matthew Goodman's website.

My Book, The Movie: Eighty Days.

--Marshal Zeringue