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Maya Rodale: On Bringing Women’s History to Life

Journalist and author Maya Rodale discusses the stranger-than-fiction true story that inspired her new historical fiction novel, The Mad Girls of New York.

A journalist like her infamous protagonist, Maya Rodale began reading romance novels in college at her mother’s insistence. She is now the bestselling and award-winning author of funny, feminist fiction. Maya has contributed to NPR Books, Bustle, and The Huffington Post. She lives in New York City.

For more about Maya Rodale or The Mad Girls of New York, visit mayarodale.com, and find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Maya Rodale: On Bringing Women’s History to Life

Maya Rodale

In this post, Maya discusses the stranger-than-fiction true story that inspired her new historical fiction novel, The Mad Girls of New York, why she believes the main character is the heroine we need right now, and more!

Name: Maya Rodale
Literary agent: Stephanie Cabot, Susanna Lea Associates
Book title: The Mad Girls of New York
Publisher: Berkley
Release date: April 26, 2022
Genre/category: Historical Fiction
Previous titles: Many, including An Heiress to Remember, Some Like it Scandalous, Duchess By Design
Elevator pitch for the book: The Mad Girls of New York is inspired by the true story of Gilded Age stunt girl reporter Nellie Bly on her first big assignment: Feign insanity and get committed to the insane asylum at Blackwell’s Island. The novel draws on Nellie’s original reporting, and I also imagined a rich personal life for her with professional rivalries, a squad of fellow female reporters and romantic intrigues.

Maya Rodale: On Bringing Women’s History to Life

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What prompted you to write this book?

The monkey! It was deep in quarantine in 2020 when I was reading about the whirlwind, worldwide adventures of Nellie Bly, Gilded Age Stunt Girl reporter. The beats and details of her life were just asking to be a novel ... teenage girl writing for newspapers, her nickname of “Pink” and running off to New York City, and racing around the world and picking up a pet monkey along the way. And that’s just the first half of her life.

The Mad Girls of New York is based on her first big stunt: She feigned insanity, got herself committed to the women’s insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island and wrote a shocking exposé that launched her career, “Stunt Girl” journalism, and kicked opened the door for women in the newsroom.

When I discovered Nellie’s life and work in the summer of 2020, I knew she was the heroine we need right now. In an era of fake news and horrible attacks on journalists, Nellie was a reminder at how journalists put their bodies on the line to shine a light on the truth and how their reporting can lead to change. Journalists play a vital role in a free democracy and Nellie was, according to her contemporaries, “the greatest reporter in America.”

But Nellie was also a 20-something single woman in Manhattan who wrote about handsome doctors and the state of her hair at the same time as she embarked on dangerous and important stories. She’s got a sense of humor; she’s confident and unapologetic. So, she was a heroine I wanted to spend time with and share with the world.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I came up with the idea in the summer of 2020 and by that fall we had a deal with my publisher, based on a proposal and sample chapters. I spent 2021 writing and revising the novel, including copy edits and reviewing page proofs. The Mad Girls of New York will be published in April 2022, so it’s almost two years from initial idea to publication.

The idea didn’t change too much during the process—since it’s based on a true story, I was somewhat constrained by the original characters and events. However, I started by writing a screenplay version and did a few drafts of that before sitting down to write it as a novel. That gave me a quick and easy way to play around with the beats and characters, so the actual writing of the novel flowed more easily (relatively, writing a novel is always wonky and hard).

Maya Rodale: On Bringing Women’s History to Life

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I’ve published almost two dozen books in the last 15 years and most of those had been with the same publisher, so it was interesting to see how different publishers approach essentially the same process. From this book and team, I learned that it’s never too early to start thinking about promotion. Had I not been thinking about it as soon as I finished my first draft, almost a year ahead of publication, I might have missed opportunities to talk about Nellie Bly, like the 100th anniversary of her death or the opening of The Girl Puzzle, an art installation celebrating her work.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I had a pleasant surprise regarding word count! My novels are usually on the shorter side, and I have to add a lot in the subsequent drafts to reach the required word count range. But with The Mad Girls of New York, the words came easily and I comfortably wrote a longer novel. I think it comes down to having enough story to work with.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope readers fall in love with Nellie Bly. I hope they’re entertained. I hope they get a kick out of my version of Nellie and the Gilded Age New York that I created. I love bringing women’s history to life in fiction, especially the lives of radical, feminist women from days of yore, so I hope that readers also come away with a fresh perspective about women’s history they hadn’t before.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

Eyes on your own paper! It can be hard seeing other writers get deals, or finish manuscripts or make progress in their craft. But nothing matters if you don’t have words on the page.

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