In our new five-part globetrotting New Adventure set in 1889, you’ll join Nellie Bly as she races around the world in 72 days. We asked writer Jessica Wright Buha on why this true story is so exciting and important, and what led her to it.
I don’t remember when I first read about Nellie Bly. I know I was a kid, and it was in one of those faded hardcover children’s books–one of the ones left over from my mom’s childhood. I can vaguely recall the picture on the cover: a faded 1890s photograph of Nellie in her famous traveling coat, the black and white checkered fabric in the ocean breeze, hat in hand, waving. Maybe there was a newspaper behind her?
The specific details are fuzzy, but there are three things I DO remember about Nellie Bly – three things that are absolutely burned onto the inside wall of my skull:
Nellie Bly was:
- a woman
- a writer
- and very, very brave.
What an impossible trifecta. And in the late 1800s! Are you kidding me? And the more I read about her, the more I’m like, “Okay, yeah, this gal? Someone should be talking about her.”
Here’s a story from the Brooke Kroeger biography Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. In 1878, Nellie Bly was fourteen. Her stepfather, Jack Ford, gets drunk and pulls a loaded gun on her mother, Mary Jane. Nellie and her older brother Albert jump in front of Mary Jane to protect her. Mary Jane flees, and Albert runs after her. Neighbors, hearing the snap of a bullet, turned to see Albert and Mary Jane racing down the street.
And where was Nellie?
SHE STAYED BEHIND. Because Nellie had a younger sister, Kate, and a younger brother, Harry. Who was going to make sure the kids got out safe? Nellie did. She got her siblings, grabbed their hands, and sprinted them to safety.
And then she grew up, and she became an investigative journalist where she infiltrated an insane asylum, exposed a political bribery scandal, and decided to see how fast a person could circumnavigate the globe. And all while financially supporting her mother, sister, and niece. How did she do all this? By being fearless.
I suppose Nellie wasn’t really fearless. She was desperate, and she simply focused that desperation into thoughtful action.
I say “simply,” but being focused when desperate is pretty tricky to pull off. I, for one, tend to just panic. Take, for example, my experience with the year 2020 in Chicago, IL USA.
In January, I get an email from Six to Start saying that the Nellie Bly globetrotting script I proposed is moving to the next phase of development. Amazing! I get to write about Nellie’s attempt to circumnavigate the Earth! I start drafting the first of what would be five episodes.
By late February, I’ve got most of the first two Nellie Bly episodes written. I buy an extra bottle of hand sanitizer at the grocery store, and I just feel EMBARRASSED at how much I’m overreacting.
It all happened so quickly. Remember?
In March, my son’s preschool switches from in-person to virtual. I write long-hand on legal pads while my son uses my laptop for his Zoom meetings.
In April, my husband’s company aggressively downsizes. He is let go. We split the workday in half: I watch the kids in the morning while he applies for jobs, and he watches them in the afternoon while I write.
In May, and June, and July, I write. And write and write, and revise, and write, and I sew masks by hand, and I teach myself how to cut hair so my husband will look decent on his Zoom job interviews, and I grow a victory garden. I put all the plants in the same sunny corner, and I set a folding chair right in the center, and sometimes I just sit there, alone, and my husband tells the kids, “Mom’s with the plants, give her some space.”
My daughter builds playgrounds out of blocks. My son draws maps of imaginary cities. I write while they sleep, while my kids dream of oceans and mountains and vast green fields. Of a world unfolded.
(Except when they have nightmares. Remember the nightmares? My son’s was that the grocery store was out of food.)
I write. First draft of episode three: done. Episode four: done. The death toll in the US barrels past 100k. One day we’re watching Paw Patrol and my four-year-old son turns to me and says, “But I don’t want to die.”
And then it’s the end of July, and my Nellie Bly episode five is due in a couple days, and I realize I can’t do it.
I can’t. I can’t write it, because in order to write it, I need to have some good ideas, and I need to have them fast, and I’m suddenly realizing that I’ve never had a good idea. Ever.
“I can’t do this,” I think. “I’ll have to ask Adrian and Matt and the rest of the team for a deadline extension. But how much more time do I need? A day? A week? A year?”
And then Nellie’s voice is in my head.
“Nonsense! If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?”
(An actual Nellie Bly quote from the Kroeger biography. The quote’s been rattling around my head for a while, but I never really felt the weight of her question.)
I did want to do it.
So I did.
I wrote it, and I sent it to the team, and I’m just so excited and so nervous to share it with the world. And I hope you all feel the same way I felt when I wrote it, because golly, it’s been wonderful to be immersed in Nellie’s world. A place full of electric lights and steam trains and the rolling sea, where crowds are exciting and not terrifying. Where the future feels bright. And I feel brave.