• Tonya Mitchell


    A Feigned Madness

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    Tell us about your latest book.



    My historical novel, A Feigned Madness (Cynren Press, Oct 6, 2020), is about the woman who would come to be known as daredevil reporter Nellie Bly. The first story that really put her on the map, the one she wrote to be on the staff of the New York World when she was just 23-years-old, was her Ten Days in a Mad-House exposé, in which she feigned insanity in order to be sent to notorious Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) off the coast of Manhattan. Her goal: to write about what was going on inside the women’s asylum there. In the 1880s, the Victorian method of caring for the insane was more akin to imprisonment than it was rehabilitation, but Bly also found that there were women there who weren’t mad at all. They were just on the lower rungs of society—immigrants, the poor, the infirmed—who had no voice. Bly, from her beginnings as a reporter in Pittsburgh a few years before, was a champion of the downtrodden. When her story broke in 1887, she shone a light on these women, and the doctors and institution that had failed them.


    But Madness is also the story of Bly that most people didn’t know then and may not be aware of even today. Her younger years were plagued with crushing disappointments: her father’s death that plunged the family into financial difficulties for years, her mother’s remarriage a few years later to an abusive drunk, the mismanagement of her small trust by her court-appointed guardian that meant teacher training school would never become a reality. All these events would leave indelible marks on a woman who just wanted to be given the chance to succeed. Ultimately, Madness is about a woman who undergoes great personal risk to prove herself, but it’s also the story of a woman with a huge heart.


    What's your writing process?


    Tea, lots of tea. Does that count? Honestly, as a debut author, I’m still trying to figure out what my process is. For now, it’s mostly teasing out the story, and using research not only as a means to extract the details, but to see if there are any surprises to take the story in an intriguing direction. For instance, in A Feigned Madness, I stumbled on a few passages in Nellie Bly’s asylum story and in her personal letters that lead me to believe there was a romantic relationship going on behind the scenes. I ran with that, re-imagining what I think happened, with whom, and how that relationship would have played out. It was enormously fun. I’ve also stolen a terrific idea from a marvelous author I follow and purchased a large corkboard to hang above my desk in my office. I plan to decorate it with all things “next book” so materials are visible and at my fingertips. It beats the piles and clutter I accumulated over time working on my first book.


    Are there themes you like to explore in your books?


    A main theme of A Feigned Madness is women’s equality, or rather, the lack of it. Nellie Bly struggles with wanting to enter a man’s profession—journalism. In the 1880s, there were few women working on newspapers and those who did had to use pen names to disguise their identity. Closely related to equality but just as important is the notion of women seeking freedom—from limiting roles, society’s expectations, long-held biases. The proverbial glass ceiling. Bly never wanted to be granted anything because she was female. She expected to work for it; she just wanted to be given a fair chance. I’m excited to pursue more stories along the theme of freedom. There’s something redeeming and valuable in showing a woman in a confining place and watching her grow as she wins her independence, sometimes against all odds.


    Do you listen to music while you write?


    I wish I could. I understand it brings on creativity in a lot of writers. I’m not one of them. Unfortunately, it’s too distracting. I’m a noise-cancelling headphones kind of person when things (dog barking, kids playing) get loud.


    What's your favorite genre to read?


    Historical fiction, the sub-genre in which I write. I’m naturally drawn to anything Victorian and gothic. I can never get enough of it. If it’s dark and creepy, and there’s an old house in it, maybe even a brooding anti-hero, chances are I’m going to love it.


    What are you reading right now?


    I just finished The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown. It was delightful. Mary Queen of Scots, court intrigue, dastardly deeds, and a re-imagined almoner who was more than a friend to the queen but could never be her husband. When you’re up late at night reading “just one more chapter,” you know it’s good. I also just started The Woman in the Mirror by Rebecca James. It looks like it’s right up my alley, which is to say it’s appropriately creepy!


    What's the next project and when can we expect it?


    I’m at that teasing-out-the-story part where I’m just spitballing things in my head, if that makes sense. Four clues: England, nineteenth century, a woman who’s lost her memory, body snatching. As for timing, I’m praying it won’t take the five years it took to write A Feigned Madness! Surely I’ve sacrificed to the time gods already and will get a reprieve. Fingers crossed.

    Links to social media


    Tonya Mitchell received her BA in journalism from Indiana University. Her 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.