Tuesday, March 5, 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.

Here Goodman dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World:
Eighty Days tells the true story of two young female journalists who in the year 1889 set out from New York – one heading east, the other heading west – each of them determined to break the around-the-world mark of eighty days set by the fictional character Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s popular novel of the time.

Right from the very beginning I recognized that this was a highly cinematic tale, and pretty much everyone I tell about it immediately asks if I’ve yet sold the movie rights. (I haven’t!) The story has all the makings of a great film. The lead characters are two strong and complex young women, very different from each other but each one independent and attractive in her own way. It’s got exotic locations – such as, for instance, the crowded streets of Hong Kong and Canton, a moonlit Suez Canal, Jules Verne’s walled French estate – and physical danger, including a storm-tossed Atlantic Ocean crossing, a night-time ski expedition across Sierra Nevada mountains blockaded by snow, and a railroad train careening wildly through the Italian Alps. And of course, it’s got the thrill of the race itself, which is neck-and-neck right up to the very end.

One of the two central characters is Nellie Bly, the legendary undercover reporter of New York’s World newspaper. New York had never seen a female reporter quite like Nellie Bly, someone so audacious, so willing to risk personal safety in pursuit of a story. (In her first exposé Bly went undercover, feigning insanity so that she might report first-hand on the mistreatment of the female patients of the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.) Bly was scrappy, courageous, ambitious, tough-talking, a regular patron of O’Rourke’s saloon on the Bowery. She came from the coal country of western Pennsylvania; she was attractive but not in a glamorous way; and she was twenty-five years old when she set out around the world, though she claimed to be younger. I could easily see Nellie Bly being played by one of today’s most talented young actresses, Jennifer Lawrence.

Elizabeth Bisland, on the other hand, had grown up on a Louisiana sugar-cane plantation ruined by the Civil War. With only fifty dollars in her purse she moved to New York, where she contributed poetry and essays to a variety of magazines; she was tall, erudite, genteel, soft-spoken, and was commonly referred to as “the most beautiful woman in New York journalism.” (Rudyard Kipling was among her many male admirers.) At the time of the race Bisland was twenty-eight years old. Assuming that she could handle a soft Southern accent – and I have every confidence that she could – Keira Knightley would make a perfect Elizabeth Bisland.

To play the part of Nellie Bly’s employer, World publisher Joseph Pulitzer – thin, cerebral, cultured, bedeviled by a nervous disorder that made all sounds physically painful – who better than my Brooklyn neighbor John Turturro?

And as for Elizabeth Bisland’s employer, Cosmopolitan publisher John Brisben Walker – middle-aged but physically vigorous, with a barrel chest and a handlebar mustache, with a genius for making money and finding free publicity – I think that one of my very favorite actors, Kevin Kline, would have a delightful time with that role.
Learn more about the book and author at Matthew Goodman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue