Interview with Jessica Handler, author of THE MAGNETIC GIRL | Kendra Winchester



hello everyone I'm Kendra here with Jessica Handler and we are in Hub City book shop here in Spartanburg South Carolina so thanks very much to them to host for hosting us yes thank you of city and Thank You Kendra don't thank you so we are here to talk about the magnetic girl which is your first book first novel I should say normal so at which for our listeners who haven't heard about your book yet would you like to describe before then sure the magnetic girl is a novel based on the life of a real woman in the 1880s his name was Lula Hearst or Lulu Hearst and she grew up in Cedartown Georgia which is where Georgia North Carolina and Alabama all kind of convened and Lulu Hearst performed on the vaudeville stage for about 18 months in the late 1880s as the magnetic girl or the Georgia Wonder and she performed what she called tests that were basically fulcrum and lever but what it involved was the understanding of girls and physical power and misdirection or hoaxing so you talked about her as this is a historical novel was based on a real person Lulu Hearst was a real person in Georgia in the 1880s she was born in 1869 she died in 1950 and she performed on the vaudeville stage for about two years 18 months and then she stopped and she got married and raised a family and just kind of never went back to it and the book is inspired by what she did on the stage and my interpretation of why she did what she did so how did you first hear about Lou I first heard about Lulu Hearst because probably a decade ago or more my mother sent me a digital clipping on the the email just randomly here's this fascinating story and it was a digital clipping from a magazine called past Harris magazine that was an electrical engineering publication and the article was called the feats of the magnetic girl explained and my first thought was who knew there were magazines in the 1890s and my next thought was in reading this about this girl and these tricks that she did and how this magazine explained what she was doing from a physics standpoint I was just fascinated by her and I fell in love with her because this is a teenage girl who was wildly famous for 18 months and then dropped off the radar and in a time when electricity was a new science when people generally didn't understand her I don't understand how it works but it's using it right now and how she exploited people's beliefs to the benefit of herself and her family with joy she apparently didn't break the light and I just fell in love with her I said who is this kid or who was this kid and why did she do this and what kind of nerve does this take and how did she do these tricks well she would call them tests it's more scientific it sounds more serious than a trick which is something you can dismiss couldn't dismiss Lulu once her audiences saw her she had a huge following and there were some people who discounted her obviously from this article but she was wildly famous there's some research that said she earned as much as 250 dollars in 1880's money in 18 months which is good money now and is off the chain yeah Europe she supported her family her father was a tenant farmer and I think she wanted a better life I think her parents we need a better life and how are we gonna do it we're gonna do this wacky thing and oh my gosh it's working and she wrote an autobiography in the eighteen eighteen ninety seven I think she's been off the stage for about 12 years at that point and there were she was married she had kids and there was a financial reason within her married family that they needed some dollars and so she wrote this autobiography and in it the first half of the autobiography she talks about all the places she met here's where I grew up it was beautiful I had a wonderful life here's how I started doing these tests and then she talks about all the cities she went to and the tests that she did she was a parent we tested at Mercer University in Macon Georgia she I think appeared before Congress people were fascinated with her she was big in New York – she did like a week in New York and then the second half of the book though she gives diagrams where she talks about she shows how she did these tests a fulcrum Lee River and she also writes in that second half of the autobiography about I'm paraphrasing her but she says y'all fell for it y'all fell for it you're gullible you're gullibility and your willingness to believe is why I got famous so think of us think people why you fell for this and that's what interested me too is that she had enough self-awareness I think she had it as a teen and she clearly had it as a young woman as the author to say you know this is why this worked she had great deal of self-awareness so we're here talking with Jessica Handler about the magnetic girl and so we talked a little bit about how you read her biography and what that was like but you've already written some non-fiction books why did you want to turn this biography of her story into this like fictionalized narrative to fictionalized narrative the magnetic girl is historical fiction and you're right I've written two non-fiction books my memoir invisible sisters and then a craft guide called braving the fire a guide to writing about grief and loss and I've always read historical fiction I love historical fiction I think I started with ragtime when I was in high school because everybody's very ragtime and a book more recently by John Sayles called a moment in the Sun and there's all kinds of historical fiction that I love him at Donahue's work and to me historical fiction is this great hybrid of fact creating a real world or real representation that is entirely believable right and the taking the emotion the truth of the character that's true of a person in 1883 that's true of me now that's true of you now and bringing that to life so that history is not this distant distant place David Mitchell in an interview once referred to bad dialogue and historical fiction as historical ease these are real people they were real people or there were real people who lived in this era so in doing my research about the magnetic girl that Lulu Hearst I read her autobiography as you said I read a fair amount of contemporary press about her she was covered in the Brooklyn Eagle the Brooklyn Eagle loved her I had bought on eBay an article or a page of an article from Frank Leslie's Illustrated about her that hangs in my office it's in mylar and it's this amazing thing I brought it to to Hub City when when we first met and you know her autobiography and the newspaper reports of the era they give me the facts they tell me she performed in this place where she did this test or here's what this newspaper reporter said about her but you know wasn't missing from that Lulu Hearst the person who's missing from that is the real girl and I can't talk to the real girl she died in 1950 and I was a teenage girl and you were teenage girl yeah and I know what it was like to be a big awkward I'm tall she was tall she was possibly 6 feet tall Wow I know what it's like to be a teenage girl who once more as you maybe doesn't feel comfortable in her body or maybe it doesn't feel comfortable in the amount of power she does or does not have so that's where that got filled in is the emotional resonance with who this kid must have been so that's why I became historical fiction so it's kind of thing what does she want what did she want in her life that she didn't want her to do this thing on the stage for 18 months okay so you have this like like connection with her and you have to bring out more of her characters this electric connection this magnetic connection right very much so I've read the more I read about her the more I realized that I liked this kid and the excellent writing about her doesn't tell me who she is as a person so I I made some stuff up I made some stuff up and then I also went to the well of what does it like to be a girl what does it like to be a girl who is wrestling with her place in the world alright so your book is the magnetic girl is set in the south and I love traveling around with Lulu going to these different towns yet I had no idea there was a vaudeville circuit in the south mmm-hmm so what was your research process of finding all those different towns and the theaters and what kind of circuit you would take in the south because I don't even know where you would start yeah I got that from Lulu her so where the the theaters the vaudeville theaters in the term from the era was Opera House regardless of if an opera ever performed there it was called an opera house because how elegant is that right yeah and so there were opera houses in Rome Georgia they were opera houses in Macon Georgia there was one in Atlanta called disease that actually had two different locations and there's the second location became the Loews theatre we're gone with the wind from America oh so where Lulu performed I mostly got that from Lulu Hearst autobiography because she writes about I performed in this city in that city and here again we have the Internet what was the vaudeville theater or the Opera House in this town sometimes I made it up but most of these towns had opera houses there were various circuits I mean the big vaudeville circuit was the Keith circuit which was not in the south and that was a little bit later than the 1880s but have you ever seen a on YouTube of vaudeville performance I haven't actually I've looked some up and I mean if you've ever seen the Marx Brothers they come from vaudeville and but vaudeville goes back to about the 1880s so I spent a little bit of time on YouTube looking up 1800s 1890s vaudeville performances and some of them are terrible they're you know it's pie in the face stuff it's some of it is there's one and I can't think of her name but she is a woman who basically beats on a cello she's sort of sitting there playing the cello but she's not yo-yo ma by any stretch of the imagination and she's sort of beating on it with her hand and yodeling and it's horrendous and fabulous so and then I also looked at vaudeville programs and these were obviously variety acts so there would be a dancing dog and then it would be the woman beating on a cello and then there might be somebody reciting a soliloquy from Shakespeare and then there's a guy riding a bicycle so it was the variety show that I grew up with on television like the Ed Sullivan Show comes from that waddlin traditions a bag of tricks right yeah and if you don't like the dancing dog wait two minutes because then you will get you know a soliloquy from Hamlet and maybe you'll like that and it's when you think about small towns and of course we would performed in New York she performed at Wallach Theatre in New York and she performed in Chicago which is not in the book but when you think about small towns in the era before radio and television and all the things we have now what are you gonna do on a Friday night what are you gonna do on a Friday night you're gonna go to the Opera House and think about the grand ole opry I think that's how that got its name as well you're gonna go to the Opera House and you're gonna look at the stone they rely on or cry or eat popcorn and that was how communities got entertained and vaudeville performers traveled from city to city on various circuits and they would be booked for you know five days or eight days or a month and they would go from this city to that city of the next city or do two shows and a matinee I've looked at thawed contracts from that era and they're fascinating the language in the book of that there's a contract that's quoted in there and that is derived from an actual vaudeville contract from a little bit later than Lulu for maybe 1888 because the performer was responsible for travel the performer was responsible for their costuming yeah I thought that attention to detail was so interesting because I think technical writing is way more difficult when people think it is but the way that you describe the contracts and the way you described her act like the way how it works like you can it's actually very complicated process being able to describe it in such a way that I've never seen this before but I can imagine my head oh I'm so glad because one of the things that happened in editing this book with Hub City they're wonderful people at Hub City they wanted to know of when I originally written how she did some of her acts like this isn't I want to really feel it so I learned how to do it I went home and I have a cane as I have a carry a cane and I practiced I practiced on my husband I can do the cane trick I can't do the chair when the chair one is just beyond me but I've seen pictures in Frank Lesley Illustrated from 1884 of Lulu Hurst behind a chair and there's three guys on the chair and they're grown men and this isn't an era to where an attractive man was a big man right because you eat a lot means you're wealthy healthy so she is a 16 year old girl she's a big girl but she's a 16 year old girl behind a chair and I see this lithograph of these three guys in the chair and I'm looking at this I'm going I don't know how you did it but I followed her diagrams but I went and I walked those steps at one point I was doing an author event not related to this book and I was in a former vaudeville theater ugly house on Pamlico Sound I think in North Carolina and during a break I had the host walk me backstage show me where the dressing room us let me walk the number of steps from the wings out to center stage what does that feel like so again it's physical research oh it's so interesting it conveys uh apparently to the readers so yay yeah so I now know how many steps it takes to get from stage left on this particular theater to center stage I mean these are these are the details right so the details yeah so we've been talking about Lulu and her character and how you were drawn to her Rory was like this magnetism of her as a character that wanted you to that inspire you to write this novel about her what was your process like of bringing that emotion to her as a character and you mentioned that you didn't see any way you read her biography you know who as a person how did you then create the parts of her that you needed to to bring her out May for full-fledged character yeah in terms of making Lulu Hearst into a full-fledged character on the page and I love that you would relate to her or feel a connection to her and there's all kinds of mesmerism jokes you can make about that I did some research physical research I mean I went to I'm about I live about 90 minutes from the town where she lived was just Cedartown Georgia so I went to see her camp and I talked with the Historical Society and they could be aware the family home had been and I just went to it's now an empty lot a field and I stood in that field and there's a scene in the book where Lulu is talking about how she sees the mountains in one direction and a road dead-ends into their property I know this because I stood there and I stood on what would have probably been their front porch so I tried to physically walk in her footsteps as much as I could I love research and to me research is so much more than the Internet I mean the internet is great it is super super helpful it's how I found Sanborn fire maps it's how I found photos from the Library of Congress but I wanted to walk in her footsteps and that doesn't mean that I put on clothing from the 1890s although I do have a great big skirt but I try I know that I have and I never wear it because it's so heavy so doing that you know you kind of like oh my gosh can you imagine wearing this but in terms of making Lulu into a real person I thought a lot about love for a sibling because she has a little brother to my made-up but part of what drives this book is her love for and her guilt about a mishap that happens with the brother that it turns out she is not as responsible for as she thinks and I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about girls and women and how the world perceived them then and now I mean realized that in the 1880s in America and she's a rural kid she was very smart she was educated if you read her writing she was clearly very literate but she did not have a lot of opportunities right so what if you're a smart kid and you're a girl and it's the 1880s and you want more than you will ever get how does it feel and that's fiction that's a nightmare how does that feel to be boarded by your culture there's a there's a beauty to that yeah we have one of our contributors really loves the Moors account by Layla Bellamy yeah yeah in a sense that she did it something similar a voice that we hadn't heard before she kind of gives light to and that's the whole center of her novel and that's what I kept thinking about what this book is that you were giving voice to someone who really did exist but didn't have a chance to tell her story or their story may have been forgotten right and she was forgotten and the story that she ended up living and I think she's happy with it she married she had two children I've been by the house where she and her husband raised their family outside of Atlanta it's a beautiful home I mean she ended up having a very traditional and very elegant life and I know that she wanted that as well I go by that house and I look in like okay girl you got what you wanted it's so funny I get very southern what I'm talking about okay girl you got what you wanted but you know in the interview that you did with Sarah Perry when you were talking about the Essex Serpent she talked a little bit about how Victorian women we sort of think of Victorian era women as fainting and crying and not having any you know dry were brains and that really struck me in that interview because her character of course is not that way and Lulu while she wasn't Victorian it's not England but this is the American South of an 1880s she wanted more than she was going to get in you so let's honor that because some of us want more than we're gonna get or we want to know how to get right with that or we want to know how to say how am I gonna get this thing that I want where do I find that strength that's pretty cool so you're not well the magnetic girl is a coming-of-age story where Lulu is coming into her own and while she gains this fame a lot of the people around her become more controlling but I was trying to find more independence and kind of break free from that I feel like with women's stories coming-of-age novels are just so important and are so meaningful to us but what was something that you wanted to bring to that tradition through the goose story part of the coming-of-age question in the magnetic girl for Lulu Hearst and for me writing this and coming-of-age novels are so important and in the case of Lulu Hearst reading about her real life and thinking about how I wanted to create this story this is a story of power and on one level it's a story of power because what is she doing on stage she is physically evidencing power she her tricks or tests to use her language involved holding a cane and using fulcrum and lever against a man who was pushing in one directional she pulled in another or maybe power as she yanked a chair back or the guy sitting in it and his legs flew up and the thinking was oh she's been tossed into the air so on one level we have power physical power but really it's a coming-of-age story about learning to understand her father put her on the stage this is true in real life and true in the book so he's the one who has power he's the one who makes the decision you're gonna do this and make money for the family and she goes on with it because it's her dad and she loves him and when you're a teenage girl very often your guiding light is your dad if he wants this I'm gonna do it because I love him he's my first love but as the story progresses the power the issue of power and coming of age she is being seen in a way that makes her uncomfortable and it's just that she's being seen as having magical powers or magnetic powers or doing things that she actually can't do and so she starts to come of age by saying how do I want to be seen how do I want to be known what kind of power do I want to have over my own narrative which I guess is kind of ironic because I'm the one who's giving her this narrative but it's based on what I know about her so the coming-of-age element here has to do not only with I'm a grown-up now and here's the trajectory that that happened it has to do with how did I get there how do I or how does Lulu Hurst it's funny that she becomes meaning when I talk about her how does Lulu Hurst come to understand that she gets to have power over how she is seen by the world and that's what that coming-of-age element is and I think that happened in life as well as in his blog and it sounds like it's very much part of well you've gleaned from her from her biography and instilling that emotion that we talked about earlier and how and how that really just makes her feel so real and there's this moment I won't give any spoilers but there's no gear the end of the book we're like she has like this light bulb moment of oh this is what I want to do with my life yeah I didn't feel like yeah thank you they were just starting to have like babes in a well Ben yeah yeah and she's like oh this is what I want to do with my life yeah and it was such a moment of power because she responds to certain controlling elements in her life in a way and she kind of and they're not happy that she's pushing back right right and there's kind of this breaking free kind of moment where she's like I am this person I am this woman I am going to do this thing this is choice that I am making and I thought that was just a huge moment for her because she's deciding for herself and well think about power and when we were when a woman particularly takes power that she maybe had to fight for maybe she had to fight the world for it or maybe she had to fight herself in her cultural training for it nonetheless she comes to a place where it's like okay I'm gonna do this thing and there are losses involved very very often I think when a woman or a female person takes power something that's a good thing but there is a decision there's a loss there's a choice that's gonna come from that so she has to wrestle look at it's not an easy place for her to get to and she knows when and if she does the thing that we're not telling people she does it may not go a hundred percent well but it's still she knows it's the right thing to do and I loved when that happened on age because I was kind of going you go girl to to her under my fingers on my oh my laptop so yeah it seemed right so like we've talked about the magnetic girl is set in the south and it's very much a part of the southern landscape people can't remove it from the south and it still be the same story and so we were talking a little bit before your recording about southern literature in your experience being a writer based in the south and what that has been like so what are some of your feelings on being a writer from the south yeah I am absolutely southern I grew up in Atlanta and we moved to Atlanta when I was in the first grade my father was an attorney for the International ladies garment workers union and so I grew up in the south during a civil rights movement my father was somewhat involved in that and I love the south to me I'm very proud to be from the south I think of the way kudzu smells which to me is like grape gum and you know it's a hundred degrees out right now and my favorite and you like it you know but that being said being from the South has a lot of weight and a lot of baggage and it's sort of like when you love a place and I love it because I am from here and I have memories here and I have language that comes from here I love southern syntax I might good I might good like southern syntax but that being said being from the south comes with a lot of weight because there was obviously and of course a great deal of difficulty in the southern history and some of that is touched on a little bit in the magnetic ago not to a great extent but I think I do have a point in there where she really pushes her accent because she's trying to convince somebody of something so I feel like I am a southerner I feel like I am a writer and I feel like everything I've written takes place in or has something to do with how I reckon with being a southerner being a southerner from a particular era and I'm from the urban South I grew up in Atlanta I live in Atlanta now but there are Southern writers who I love and we were talking about them obviously Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty I love you tour well too but sometimes I teach writing the south try to bring invoices that might not be heard or that aren't necessarily part of the canon so immigrant voices women voices LGBTQ voices because this is the contemporary South and it actually was the South before as well so you know we're talking about what gets heard voices that get heard stories that get heard so some of the other reading that I do in the south certainly the bitter southerner is a wonderful online publication publishers like hub C then bring us books from the South with contemporary southern voices and southern points of view other authors who I read from the South Jessamine Ward we've talked about Jessamine Ward yeah Terry Jones there's a SAS whose work I admire hugely named Anjali enginee so I really like to be in touch with how all of us are reckoning with what it means to be southern yeah well we've been talking about your book the magnetic girl and I'm always excited to ask authors what books by women would you recommend for our listeners I there's so many on my TBR list my TBR list is a book called the in-betweens by Meera Taysom and I hope I'm not mispronouncing her name but it looks fabulous and it's very much up my alley because we're talking about spiritualism and mesmerism and women's voices literal and figurative so I'm really looking forward to the in-betweens also on my to be read list these have come out long live the child fatherless girls me about that what we do yeah and that's Taylor Madden and that's on my list and Carol unfortunate what you have heard is true because my first love is memoir and particularly social activism and memoir so this is probably gonna be in my life next weekend recently this just came out in paperback it came out a year ago and hardback the electric woman bite and also a memoir but it's about dealing with grief and trauma by learning to become a fire-eater in a carnival and she did do that and it's a great book he has a wonderful book and then we also have because poetry is something I read every day Tracie case Smith and this is wade in the water she is currently a part poet laureate and our next poet laureate will also be a woman and that's joy Harjo who I believe is the first Native American and the First Nation person to be poet laureates and that's a big deal and I love her work yeah I love left Tracy Smith and I will make sure to link all of these books down in the description of this video that you're watching so you can go check those out we also have an interview with both T caret Madden and an interview with this upon tain so I'll make sure to link those yeah so if you any more convincing that you need those books in your life you're like yeah get them anyway well thank you so much Jessica for coming on today we really appreciate that you've done this and shared and stories really with us thank you so much for having me I love this podcast and I will continue to listen and thank you for doing what you do thank you so much hi guys you

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