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Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Reader’s Guide: EIGHTY DAYS by Matthew Goodman

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Goodman_Eighty Days “A fun, fast, page-turning action-adventure . . . the exhilarating journey of two pioneering women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, as they race around the globe.”—Karen Abbott, author of American Rose

Random House Readers Circle: How did the idea for Eighty Days originate?

Matthew Goodman: My previous book, The Sun and the Moon, had featured only male characters, so when I began looking around for a new book topic I knew that I wanted the next one to be about a woman. Then one day, during my book explorations, I stumbled across a reference to Nellie Bly; I recognized that name (in part because there used to be a Nellie Bly Amusement Park not far from where I live in Brooklyn), but I didn’t know much about her beyond the fact that she had been a journalist. I began to read more about her, and as I did, I discovered that she wasn’t just any journalist—she was this amazing journalist, who had feigned madness to expose the inner workings of an insane asylum, and so forth. I mean, in an era when the vast majority of female journalists were writing for the women’s pages of newspapers, she was an undercover investigative reporter for the most widely read newspaper of her time.

So I kept on reading, and when I read about how Nellie Bly had undertaken a race around the world in 1889, I knew right away that this was the story I wanted to tell. I thought it was absolutely remarkable that a young woman, unaccompanied and carrying only a single bag, would be daring enough to race around the world, through Europe and the Middle East and Far East, during the Victorian era—and do it faster than anyone ever had before her. (Frankly, I found it almost equally remarkable that no one had written a book about the race before.) I was thrilled to have found such a compelling main character, but as a writer, I was also thrilled by the prospect of being able to write about all those exotic locales. But then, as I continued my research, I discovered something even more astonishing: that in fact Nellie Bly was competing against another young female journalist, by the name of Elizabeth Bisland—a detail that is almost never included in the historical record. I was captivated by the notion of these two young women racing each other around the world, one traveling east, the other west.

RHRC: What was the most fun in writing the story of this incredible journey? What do you hope readers take away from the book?

MG: To be honest, I don’t often experience writing as “fun” (usually there’s too much worry, doubt, and plain old hard work wrapped up in it for me to think of it in quite that way!), but certain scenes in Eighty Days were in fact a great deal of fun to write. I loved writing the story of Elizabeth Bisland’s wild train ride across Utah with Cyclone Bill Downing, for instance; and the scene where Nellie Bly gets to meet Jules and Honorine Verne in their Amiens estate was really fun, because they were all having so much fun with each other. And I took a lot of satisfaction from the pages that described the stokers shoveling coal down in their sweltering fire room; that was a section that I knew I wanted to write from the very beginning, because it was material that I felt very strongly about and hadn’t ever seen described in quite that way before.

Much of the fun that I had with Eighty Days came from the research for the book, from discovering things that I hadn’t known before (who could have ever guessed that Wisconsin used to have thirty-eight time zones?) and which I felt confident would help to make a better story. As you would expect, a lot of this research involved the lives of the two main characters, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, both of which proved to be more complicated and surprising than I had originally anticipated. Lots had already been written about Nellie Bly, of course—much of it, as it turns out, not entirely accurate—but very little was known about Elizabeth Bisland (no one had ever written a book about her before), and I very much enjoyed the process of ferreting out old books and other documents that contained odd bits of information that could add a piece to the puzzle, and help me come to know her across the decades. After the book was published I got an e-mail from Elizabeth Bisland’s grandnephew that said, in part, “Thank you so much for sharing Elizabeth with the public, since she was indeed so reticent to do that herself.” I found that incredibly gratifying.

And I guess—and this is a long way around to answering your question—what I most hope that readers take away from this book is a deeper understanding of these two remarkable women. Though they were very different from each other in many ways, they were both independent and committed to their work, and they were able to support themselves as writers at a time when that was very unusual for women. If by writing Eighty Days I can introduce a new generation of readers to Elizabeth Bisland, and reintroduce them to Nellie Bly, then I’ll be very pleased.

RHRC: As you unraveled their story, did you find yourself relating to (or rooting for!) either woman in particular?

MG: This is actually a question I hear a lot from readers—who was I rooting for to win the race? The thing is, unlike readers (or most of them, anyway), I knew right from the beginning who had won! So for me, it wasn’t really a question of rooting for either Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland to win the race; rather, when I began work on the book I was rooting for them to turn out to be characters as complex and as compelling as possible. And in that respect, both women ably fulfilled my wishes for them.

As I’ve met readers, at book events and so forth, it’s been enjoyable for me to hear about how some of them were rooting for Nellie Bly while others were rooting for Elizabeth Bisland. That’s very much what I wanted for Eighty Days; I certainly didn’t want to be writing a book about a race between a hero and a villain—then you’re verging on melodrama—or even a book in which one of the characters is clearly more sympathetic or more interesting than the other. So I’ve been pleased to discover that the audience’s sympathies have been pretty well divided. I think that’s because each woman had certain admirable qualities that the other tended not to have. Nellie Bly was physically courageous (her stint inside the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum made that very clear), independent, ambitious, socially concerned, and fully determined that as a female journalist she could do anything her male colleagues did; Elizabeth Bisland was erudite (the number of subjects about which she could write intelligently was truly astonishing), artistically inclined, sensitive, deeply curious about the world and its inhabitants. And they each had a number of flaws as well—among those flaws, certainly, a kind of reflexive, unconscious racism that was pretty endemic in the society of the time. So I think that a reader will tend to like one or the other woman depending on the particular set of qualities he or she tends to prefer generally.

RHRC: What was your research process like in preparing to write Eighty Days?

MG: I spent eighteen months basically living in libraries before I wrote a single sentence of Eighty Days. In writing this book I wanted readers not just to know what had happened during the race, but to experience it as well—to feel like they were right there with Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland on the back of a rickshaw, or in the stateroom of a steamship during a storm, or walking along the Tanks in Aden in the moonlight. I needed the world in which they were living to be as vivid as possible in my mind, so that I could make it as vivid as possible on the page.

Not surprisingly, the first thing I did was to read the books that the two women wrote about the race: Nellie Bly’s Around the World in Seventy-two Days and Elizabeth Bisland’s A Flying Trip Around the World. It was a great boon to me that each wrote a book about the race, not only because it allowed me to hear their respective voices, but also because it gave me access to their internal worlds as well as the external world through which they were racing. From there I read everything else that they had ever written, or at least everything that I could get my hands on—books, essays, articles, reviews; this helped me to gain a clearer sense of what they cared about, how they thought, how they changed over the course of their lives. I immersed myself in the newspapers of the time. (Interestingly, I found that the most useful parts of the newspapers were not the news sections, but rather the advertisements.

Advertisements, after all, give a sense of the daily life of a society—they tell what people ate and wore, and what they read and how they furnished their house; they tell how much commodities cost; they tell the kinds of things people liked to do in their spare time.) I read biographies of the other significant characters in the book, such as Jules Verne and Joseph Pulitzer; I read everything I could about all the places that the two women visited during the race, including other travelers’ accounts, histories, guidebooks. Guidebooks are especially helpful, because they’re designed to acquaint the traveler with an unfamiliar destination—and a historian is very much like a traveler, except that you’re journeying through time as well as space.

For more of this Q&A plus questions and topics for your book club discussion, check out the paperback of EIGHTY DAYS by Matthew Goodman.

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Reader’s Guide: WE BAND OF ANGELS by Elizabeth Norman

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Norman_WeBandofAngels “Gripping . . . a war story in which the main characters never kill one of the enemy, or even shoot at him, but are nevertheless heroes . . . Americans today should thank God we had such women.”—Stephen E. Ambrose

In We Band of Angels, Elizabeth Norman tells the untold story of the American nurses trapped on Bataan during World War II. The author tells us about her inspiration and interest in the story below and provides you with exclusive book club questions to get your discussions going.

A Letter from the Author

Women writing about women, especially in the modern age, more often than not have political themes, and there’s a reason for this. Look around the world, or around your own community, and you’ll see evidence everywhere that emancipation is still a work in progress.

With We Band of Angels, I wanted to work on a different kind of book, a story rather than a policy, how-to, or political volume, so I chased after seventy-seven military nurses captured by the Japanese in the first days of World War II. I wanted to get to know to a small group of women who went against the tide long before it was popular or politic.

To put it plainly, I was interested in risk. Women taking risks before it was socially acceptable. I wanted to know what moved them to break with convention, to set aside marriage and a family, and seek adventure in a tropical paradise, a part of the world that was already at war with itself. Different from the women of their time – that’s for sure.

I ultimately discovered how these women were ahead of their time, and that appealed to me most. They weren’t headstrong, stubborn, or a bunch of misfits. On the contrary, they were all too ordinary. But each one saw possibilities for herself, and they were determined to explore those possibilities no matter what the cost.

I could imagine myself in their white shoes or green U.S. Army Air Corps coveralls because I, too, was a nurse. They represented the kind of woman I hope I was and wanted to be. They were exemplars – bold, adventurous, professional, resourceful, and smart.
I hope you’ll like them as much as I enjoyed writing about them. Thank you for reading We Band of Angels.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The ninety-nine women who were serving in the Philippines in 1941 all volunteered for their overseas duty. One woman smiled and told the author, “I sure got more adventure than I ever bargained for.” Have you ever thrown caution to the wind and volunteered overseas or someplace exotic? If so, how did your family and friends react to this decision?

2. When the bombs fell on December 7th, the women were forced to spring into action. Have you ever had everything change in a slit second? If so, how did you deal with this change?

3. What were some of the changes these women had to make to their clothing, daily routines, and the way they treated each other?

4. On Bataan, right before General King surrendered the men, he ordered the women off the jungle peninsula to Corregidor. These nurses had to leave their work and walk past thousands of sick and wounded American men. Would you have done the same? How would you have felt about it?

5. On Corregidor, all the Americans knew they were going to surrender. General Wainwright found spots on airplanes and a submarine to evacuate some of the nurses. Would you have accepted a chance to leave? Why?

6. How important was camaraderie to the women when they were POWs? What role did their two leaders, Maude Davison and Laura Cobb, play in keeping their groups alive and well?

7. Would you encourage women today to join the military and seek combat roles?

8. Discuss why you think these women and their heroism were ignored for so long.

9. How do you think you would have survived the battles, the surrender, and the prison camp?

10. If you could, what is the one question you would like to ask these women?

Giveaway Opportunity: WE BAND OF ANGELS by Elizabeth Norman

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Norman_WeBandofAngels “Gripping . . . a war story in which the main characters never kill one of the enemy, or even shoot at him, but are nevertheless heroes . . . Americans today should thank God we had such women.”—Stephen E. Ambrose

In the fall of 1941, the Philippines was a gardenia-scented paradise for the American Army and Navy nurses stationed there. War was a distant rumor, life a routine of easy shifts and dinners under the stars. On December 8 all that changed, as Japanese bombs began raining down on American bases in Luzon, and this paradise became a fiery hell. Caught in the raging battle, the nurses set up field hospitals in the jungles of Bataan and the tunnels of Corregidor, where they tended to the most devastating injuries of war, and suffered the terrors of shells and shrapnel.

But the worst was yet to come. After Bataan and Corregidor fell, the nurses were herded into internment camps where they would endure three years of fear, brutality, and starvation. Once liberated, they returned to an America that at first celebrated them, but later refused to honor their leaders with the medals they clearly deserved. Here, in letters, diaries, and riveting firsthand accounts, is the story of what really happened during those dark days, woven together in a deeply affecting saga of women in war.

Sally Bedell Smith and the World of Queen Elizabeth II

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Bedell Smith_Elizabeth the Queen_TP
It was a surprising first encounter that piqued my interest in Queen Elizabeth II, who until that moment had been a regal and distant icon. My husband and I were introduced to her at a garden party at the British Ambassador’s residence in Washington during her state visit in 2007, and she and my husband had a strikingly spirited conversation about the Kentucky Derby, which she had seen for the first time the previous weekend. Street Sense, the winning horse, had come from 19th to first in a thrilling finish, which prompted the Queen and my husband to replay the entire race, going back and forth. I was transfixed by her animated gestures, sparkling blue eyes, and flashing smile that are familiar to her friends but rare in public. As I watched, I remembered what British artist Howard Morgan had told me years earlier after painting her portrait: “Her private side took my totally by surprise,” he said. “She talks like an Italian! She waves her hands about!”

Nine months later when Random House asked me to write a biography of the Queen, that revelatory memory sprang to mind, and I leapt at the chance to discover the woman behind the image of diamonds, velvet and ermine. I knew that that the Queen had spent her long life in her very own remarkable world, and that penetrating the royal bubble would be challenging, especially since she has had a policy for her entire reign of not granting interviews.

When I began my research, I returned to a group of key sources who had helped me when I was reporting my book about Princess Diana in the late 1990s. They not only agreed to assist me again by introducing me to more people close to the royal family, they served as my advocates in getting cooperation from Buckingham Palace. The senior staff at the Palace briefed the Queen and gave me the green light, opening access to her inner circle of friends and advisers who could describe the humanizing traits we can all relate to: her kindness, humor, spontaneity, and even coziness.

With the assistance of the Palace, I was able to watch the Queen and Prince Philip in many different settings over the course of a year, and I accumulated impressions that helped me understand how she carries out her role, and how earnestly she does her job, with great discipline and concentration in every situation.

Traveling with the Queen was particularly valuable, especially the overseas royal tour I took to Bermuda and Trinidad. She was 83 years old at the time, and her program called for long days of meeting and greeting. Her stamina was impressive, matched only by 88-year-old Prince Philip. I got a real sense of how much in sync they are, with expert choreography honed over many years in the public eye. During these trips I was also able to see the Buckingham Palace machinery on the road, get to know the Queen’s senior officials, and develop a feel for the atmosphere around her and the way her household has changed from the early days when it was run entirely by aristocrats. Her advisers include savvy young women who learned their skills in the private sector; even some of the footmen have master’s degrees.

Getting to know all the places important to the Queen further deepened my understanding: the rolling hills where she spends hours watching her racehorses work out; the countryside around Balmoral, her estate in Scotland where she escapes on long walks and rides on horseback; the stud farm where she oversees the breeding of her thoroughbreds; the modest cottage near Windsor Castle where she visits her elderly first cousin Margaret Rhodes most Sundays after church to drink a gin and Dubonnet while chatting about friends and family.

I was also fortunate to attend several dinners at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Prince of Wales Foundation. Sitting at a table decorated with George III silver gilt candelabra and sculpted centerpieces, I could immerse myself in the experience of being served by footmen in royal livery in rooms where the Queen entertains heads of state.

But the best moments were my two social encounters with the Queen at private gatherings while I was doing my research. After I had been working on the book for a year, I met her at a reception at St. James’s Palace. When I mentioned that my daughter was getting married to an Englishman in London she asked, “When is the wedding?” “The Fourth of July,” I replied. “Oh,” she said, “that’s a little dangerous.” Once more I saw the smile and the twinkle that had been so captivating on our first meeting in Washington.

A month before the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, we met again in St. James’s Palace, this time at a party given by one of the Queen’s cousins. I knew the Queen would be there, but I didn’t expect her to stay for 90 minutes, which was unusual. She was in high spirits, and she was making her way happily on her own, without any attendants running interference for her. What struck me was that here she was in her own grand palace, but she was merely another guest, which was a measure of her unexpected humility. As Margaret Rhodes explained it, the Queen can “uphold her identity o f herself as Queen and still be humble. Her inner modesty stops her from getting spoiled.”

Even as she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee marking 60 years on the throne in 2012, that “inner modesty” was always evident. In a message on radio and television, she thanked everyone involved in the “massive challenge” of organizing the celebrations, describing them as a “humbling experience” that “has touched me deeply.”

Her unaffected joy was striking, matched by her genuine surprise. “After all these years, she is still overwhelmed by the response, which is a lovely thing,” one of her top advisers told me. At the end of my journey of discovery about the Queen, I realized that the more I had learned about her, the more I had found to admire, which made her life story inspiring for me to write.

Sally Bedell Smith is the author of bestselling biographies of William S. Paley; Pamela Harriman; Diana, Princess of Wales; John and Jacqueline Kennedy; and Bill and Hillary Clinton. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair since 1996, she previously worked at Time and The New York Times, where she was a cultural news reporter. She is the mother of three children and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Stephen G. Smith.

Enter for your chance to win THE WINTER PALACE by Eva Stachniak

Friday, November 16th, 2012

Stachniak_The Winter Palace “Awash in period details and as gripping and suspenseful as any thriller, The Winter Palace gives us a unique look at the making of a queen. Eva Stachniak allows us to peep through keyholes and overhear whispers as we navigate the intrigues of Imperialist Russia along with Sophie, the princess who became Catherine the Great. I loved this book, and this glimpse into a world of silk and shadows, grandeur and gossip.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

From award-winning author Eva Stachniak comes this passionate novel that tells the epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.

Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has loftier, more dangerous ambitions. What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power.

Enter below for your chance to win.

Alexandra Fuller on writing her African childhood: “I am African by accident”

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Don't Let's Go to the Dogsfuller_alexandraThis week memoirist Alexandra Fuller publishes Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, where she returns to sub-Saharan Africa and the story of her unforgettable family that she first introduced to readers ten years ago in her stunning memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a book The New Yorker called “By turns mischievous and openhearted, earthy and soaring…hair-raising, horrific, and thrilling.” Below is an essay she wrote upon the publication of that book.

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My Africa

I am African by accident, not by birth. So while soul, heart, and the bent of my mind are African, my skin blaringly begs to differ and is resolutely white. And while I insist on my Africanness (if such a singular thing can exist on such a vast and varied continent), I am forced to acknowledge that almost half my life in Africa was realized in a bubble of Anglocentricity, as if black Africans had no culture worth noticing and as if they did not exist except as servants and (more dangerously) as terrorists.

My mother—hard-living, glamorous, intemperate, intelligent, racist—introduced my siblings and me to Shakespeare before we could walk (my sister maintains that her existing horror of reading stems from having Troilus and Cressida recited to her when she was still in utero). My father—taciturn and capable—sat outside on hot summer nights with a glass of brandy and sang us Bizet’s Carmen and explained to us the story of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The cannons of the piece (crackling on vinyl records over the throb of a diesel generator) blasted into the heat-thick night and Dad raised his brandy to the sky. “Bloody marvelous,” he shouted, and far away beyond the river the hyenas shrieked their reply. Vanessa, my sister, taught me the survival skill of self- reliance. We occasionally pottered away the long hours of a yellow summer afternoon pasting old magazine pictures of the British royal family into scrapbooks or holding pretend (if very proper) tea parties for the dogs.

Fuller title page photoWe were poor and we had a knack for picking bad-luck patches of land on which to farm, but (and this was supposedly to our advantage) we were of very particular British stock. My maternal grandmother maintained that we held a better pedigree than the English queen (who is German, after all, while we were part highland Scot), and my mother frequently reminded my sister and me that we were “well bred.” “Well bred” ensured buckled noses, high-arched feet, a predisposition to madness, and an innate knowledge that it is more polite to say “napkin” than “serviette.” “Well bred” assumed a working knowledge of the construction of a decent Irish coffee, the appropriate handling of difficult horses, and a pathological love of dogs. “Well bred” meant, most specifically,an innate belief in our own unquestioning superiority. This archaic way of thinking coupled with Africa’s tumultuous history may make for wonderful literature, but it also made for chaotic living.

By the time I came to Rhodesia in 1972, Africa—Kenya, in particular—had been home to three generations of my family. With the exception of a great-uncle who had shocked his relations and scandalized the European community by going to live with the Nandi people of Kenya (and who became the first person to document their language in the written form), my people were the sort of European stock who brandished their culture before them like some devastating scythe.

In spite of this, Africa—as an idea—dawned on me gradually. I appreciated that we, as whites, could not own a piece of Africa, but I knew, with startling clarity, that Africa owned me. As the land and people around me began to make sense, I was like a snake itching off the excess of an extra skin in the dry season and finding myself milky-eyed, and dangerously blind, in the rarefied, free air of the new order in Africa. From Ghana to Mozambique to Angola, independence had rippled down Africa’s spine, and now it had come to us—to Rhodesia. Whatever happened next, I knew that I had to be either a part of this new world—a working, active, feature of it—or forever apart from it. I could either celebrate the new opportunity we as Africans had been given at independence, at the birth of Zimbabwe, or forever lament the loss of Empire. I would either fight for a new world of political equality or become a servant to the regimes that had assumed the strangling mantle of colonialism.

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When I was in my early twenties, I fell in love with an American (he had come to Zambia as a river guide), and I went with him to live in North America after our marriage and the birth of our first child. I mourned Africa daily (I still do) with something like a physical ache even while I luxuriated in the relative security and peace of a Rocky Mountain life. And it was here, in the high bright air of a Wyoming winter, that the need to write my life became overwhelming for me.

At the start, I tried to write my life as fiction. I wrote eight or nine spectacularly unsuccessful novels. I felt as if I needed to find a way to explain the racism I had grown up around, to justify the hard living of whites in Africa, to expunge my guilt over the injustice I had witnessed in my youth. I wrote and rewrote the characters of my childhood and I wrote the landscape I loved over and over again until the smells of the place burned on my palate. But the novels still felt like lies because in them I had tried to soften the voices of the whites I had known and to write into full life the voices of the black men, women, and children who had been silenced by years of oppression. These works of fiction, I eventually realized, were the writings of a woman who was scared to look the world in the face, and if there was one thing Africa had taught me, it was to shout above the sting of a dry-season wind loud enough to be heard from one end of a farm to another.

I made the decision, then, to write my life exactly as it had been: passionate, wonderful, troubled, oppressive, chaotic, beautiful. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is the story that was born of that decision. It is not a political story or the story of Empire. It is the story of how one African came to terms with her family’s troubled history; it is a love story for the continent.

Alexandra Fuller
Jackson Hole
, Wyoming
August 2002

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