Today I’m delighted to welcome Tonya Mitchell to Author Chats. Her debut historical fiction novel A Feigned Madness is garnering great reviews, and I’m eager to learn more about Tonya’s inspiration and writing background. Thanks for coming, Tonya! Let’s get started.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
The closest I’ve come to a literary pilgrimage are the trips I took for research for A Feigned Madness. The first was to Pennsylvania. In Apollo, I saw Bly’s grand childhood home and visited the historical society where the kind ladies there let me sift through a box of all things Bly. It was fun. In Pittsburgh, I was able to get my hands on Bly’s personal letters she wrote to her mentor in the late 1880s and early ‘90s. I had to make a special appointment at the Carnegie Library to view them—they reside in the sealed archives there. The letters were enclosed in plastic sleeves, but it still sent a thrill through me that I was handling something Bly had once touched.
The second trip was to New York City. There I saw Bellevue Hospital, Central Park, and what was once Newspaper Row in downtown Manhattan. The best part, though, was taking the tram over to Roosevelt Island (Blackwell’s Island in Bly’s day). It offered the most spectacular views of Manhattan, the East River, and the island itself. The asylum was torn down in the 1970’s, but the circular tower is still standing! I’m happy to say that there’s a commemorative statue going up near the asylum site in Bly’s honor in the autumn of this year. Nellie Bly is finally getting her due.
What is the first book that made you cry?
That would be Charlotte’s Web and I bawled like a baby. I was happy for Wilbur, but I kept thinking, “but Charlotte’s going to die! She’s going to DIE!” Any book that can make this arachnophobe fall in love with a spider is a winner in my book.
When you did your research, did it change your plot or your characters significantly?
Much to my surprise, I stumbled on some rather nebulous information that led me to believe that Bly had had a romantic relationship in the years leading up to, and during, her asylum exposé. The more I dug, the more convinced I was. So yes, my story is also the story of Bly romantically, beyond the asylum element. I think it adds more to the story and, I hope, rounds out her character in a way the asylum story wouldn’t have done on its own.
What was your hardest scene to write?
Probably the final scene. Everything had culminated to bring all the elements of the story together. It was somewhat synergistic, as it was my own goodbye to the story, too, as I was wrapping up the ending and saying farewell to characters I’d spent so much time with over the five years it took to write the novel.
Quick Q & A
Tea or Coffee?
Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon. Is that cheating? Can I say both?
Dark or Milk Chocolate?
Milk. Dark chocolate makes me sneeze.
When were you the happiest?
At the birth of my sons: Thomas, the eldest, and twins Christopher and Nicholas, who tried very, very hard to be born early.
Favourite Children’s Book?
Charlotte’s Web. A tear-jerker. Can anyone read that book without crying?
Favourite Adult Novel?
To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it in high school as mandatory reading. I read it again in college, and then again some years later. It will always hold a special place in my heart.
The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. —Nellie Bly
Elizabeth Cochrane has a secret.
She isn’t the madwoman with amnesia the doctors and inmates at Blackwell’s Asylum think she is.
In truth, she’s working undercover for the New York World. When the managing editor refuses to hire her because she’s a woman, Elizabeth strikes a deal: in exchange for a job, she’ll impersonate a lunatic to expose a local asylum’s abuses.
When she arrives at the asylum, Elizabeth realizes she must make a decision—is she there merely to bear witness, or to intervene on behalf of the abused inmates? Can she interfere without blowing her cover? As the superintendent of the asylum grows increasingly suspicious, Elizabeth knows her scheme—and her dream of becoming a journalist in New York—is in jeopardy.
A Feigned Madness is a meticulously researched, fictionalized account of the woman who would come to be known as daredevil reporter Nellie Bly. At a time of cutthroat journalism, when newspapers battled for readers at any cost, Bly emerged as one of the first to break through the gender barrier—a woman who would, through her daring exploits, forge a trail for women fighting for their place in the world.
Ever since reading Jane Eyre in high school, Tonya Mitchell has been drawn to dark stories of the gothic variety. Her influences include Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker. More contemporarily, she loves the work of Agatha Christie, Margaret Atwood, and Laura Purcell. When she landed on a story about a woman who feigned insanity in order to go undercover in an insane asylum, she knew she’d landed on something she was meant to write. Her short fiction has appeared in, among other publications, Glimmer and Other Stories and Poems, for which she won the Cinnamon Press award in fiction. She is a self-professed Anglophile and is obsessed with all things relating to the Victorian period. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society North America and resides in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and three wildly energetic sons. A Feigned Madness is her first novel.
Connect with Tonya:
Website • Facebook • Twitter • Instagram • Goodreads.