In this episode, co-hosts Jennifer and Zakiya discuss the life and work of pioneering investigative journalist Nellie Bly with novelist Louisa Treger, author of Madwoman, a spellbinding historical novel based on the true story of Nellie Bly.
Nellie Bly was a journalist, inventor, charity worker and adventurer who was most famous for two things. First, her trip around the world in 72 days in homage to Jules Verne’s character Phileas Fogg. And second for her reporting from within a New York mental institution, which pioneered the practice of undercover investigative journalism.
In 1887, young Nellie Bly sets out for New York and a career in journalism, determined to make her way as a serious reporter, whatever that may take. But life in the city is tougher than she imagined. Down to her last dime and desperate to prove her worth, she comes up with a dangerous plan: to fake insanity and have herself committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island. There, she will work undercover to expose the asylum’s wretched conditions. But when the asylum door swings shut behind her, she finds herself in a place of horrors, governed by a cruelty she could never have imagined. Cold, isolated and starving, her days of terror reawaken the traumatic events of her childhood. She entered the asylum of her own free will – but will she ever get out?
An extraordinary portrait of a woman ahead of her time, Madwoman is the story of a quest for the truth that changed the world.
Louisa Treger has worked as a classical violinist. She studied at the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. Treger subsequently turned to literature, gaining a First Class degree and a Ph.D. in English at University College London, where she focused on early 20th century women’s writing and was awarded the West Scholarship and the Rosa Morison Scholarship “for distinguished work in the study of English Language and Literature.” She is the author of The Lodger (2014), The Dragon Lady (2019), Madwoman (2022), and she is currently working on her fourth novel.
About the hosts: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of the New York Times bestseller Seinfeldia and her new book When Women Invented Television. Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel, The Other Black Girl, is a New York Times bestseller and is available from Atria Books in the US, and Bloomsbury Books in the UK.