Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution named one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her latest book, The Magnetic Girl, is a historical novel that follows Lulu Hurst, a young woman who claims she can conduct electricity. Originally from rural Georgia, Lulu begins to travel, banking on this ability to “captivate” people. In this interview, Handler discusses the real-life story that inspired The Magnetic Girl, her reasons for writing that story as fiction, and how her own experience living in the South shaped the novel.
The Magnetic Girl has such an attention-grabbing premise. Can you talk a little bit about the history this novel is based on? Where did you hear about it and how did this story inspire you?
I learned about Lulu Hurst because my mother one day emailed me a digital clipping called, “The Feats of the Magnetic Girl Explained,” from an engineering publication from the late 19th century. I don’t know how or why she came across it, but we’re drawn to stories of women and girls who defied physical or cultural expectations. This is a theme in my first book, Invisible Sisters. The article my mother sent me introduced me to Lulu, and once I’d “met” her this way, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Lulu Hurst was a real person, a teenaged girl in rural north Georgia, who, in the 1880s, toured America for about 18 months as “The Georgia Wonder” or “The Magnetic Girl.” She was the first in what became a series of “magnetic” or “electric” girls, and her act was to appear to transmit electrical power (conflated at the time with magnets) into the bodies of the people on stage with her. She asked volunteers to hold a cane with her, or to sit in a chair upon which she then placed her hands.
You’re usually a non-fiction writer, and in fact, you’ve written an entire book about how difficult writing non-fiction and memoir can be. What spurred the switch to fiction, and how did writing The Magnetic Girl compare?
The story of Lulu Hurst cried out to be fiction: while there is documentation about Lulu Hurst and by her, I wanted to explore on an emotional level why she did what she did on stage and the impact that had on her life and her family’s life. I have a particular love for historical fiction because it’s an enticing hybrid of research and imagination. This probably started with my reading E.L. Doctorow’s wonderful Ragtime as a teenager, and has kept on with books like Norman Lock’s American Meteor, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, and John Sayles’s A Moment in the Sun.
Did you find historical fiction to be a good fit, considering your non-fiction background? What was the research like?
The Magnetic Girl started with research before I could write a thing. I read her autobiography and newspaper clippings about her from the era. I read books about women and spiritualism, about mesmerism, and about average daily life in the 1880s. Lulu, her father, and her mother are based on the real people they were, although I took liberties with events. Her father did get into a fight, but it was at a store, not a theater, and he did serve in the Civil War, but not in the way I have written it. She did have brothers, but I have conflated them into one brother, Leo, who is entirely a product of my imagination.
Imagination and research came together with the oddest, most enjoyable things as I wrote, like asking myself what would be on a hotel dinner menu from the era, or what the segments were called on a phrenologist’s demonstration head. This is the kind of knowledge that either gives a person the shudders, makes them laugh, or generates good cocktail party conversation. Research is a key element in nonfiction and applying that to fiction gave my imagination a wealth of material to work with.
You are from the south, and place seems very important to your work. Can you talk a little bit about how you used place in The Magnetic Girl?
I love to take what my friends and I used to call “mystery rides.” While I was writing The Magnetic Girl, sometimes I would drive the back way home, either in Atlanta proper (there are still hidden areas!) or coming home from other southern cities. This allowed me to take my time in rural places, to imagine what living in a particular house or community might be like, or to stop and take in not only the view of a field or a mountain or a valley, but the scent and touch of a place; the air on my skin, the sound of wind or birdsong, the way mowing or planting or rain smell. These are, of course, things that I already know, but putting myself mindfully in a place let me integrate the sense of place into my writing.
I am fortunate in that I often travel to speak to readers, and I happened to be at a writers’ conference in a former vaudeville theater in North Carolina. During a break, I asked a colleague to give me a tour, and I got to walk into the wings and into what had been dressing rooms, to stand on the stage and see the audience’s seats and what had once been ornate decorations, from a performer’s perspective.
Lulu’s voice comes across so strongly in the book. How did finding her voice differ from the way you approached voice in previous work?
Lulu Hurst reminded me in some ways of myself. I’d once fooled friends at an elementary school slumber party by standing in a doorway and pressing my hands against the doorframe until, when I stepped away, they floated upward seemingly of their own accord. Like Lulu, I became a tall and awkward teen, confused about love and responsibility and who I could — and should — be. I wrote drafts of the book with the character of Lulu in third person, but that felt too remote. I wanted very much to see the world through her eyes, which meant writing in first person. Her father’s sections are in third person, because I wanted the reader to know things about him before Lulu learns them.
By Jessica Handler
Hub City Press
Published April 9, 2019
Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, which was named one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read” and Atlanta Magazine’s “Best Memoir of 2009.” Jessica writes essays and nonfiction features that have appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Full Grown People, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine.