I came across Jessica Handler’s book The Magnetic Girl in a bookstore and was captivated by the first few lines:
Objects had always jumped into my pockets, which is why I didn’t think of what I did as stealing. Whatever I took from one place to another was merely my attempt to help a lost thing find the right home.
The mystery of objects jumping into pockets, the hint of trickery, the desire for home, I had to read on.
The Magnetic Girl tells the story of thirteen-year-old Lulu Hurst, who lives in rural Georgia two decades after the Civil War. Lulu discovers a book on mesmerism and comes to believe she has special powers that might help her heal her disabled baby brother Leo. After Lulu convinces a cousin she conducts electricity with her touch, her father decides to take The Magnetic Girl act on the road.
The book, published by Hub City Press in Spartanburg, South Carolina, is the first in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain Series.
Based on a true story, Handler learned about Lulu Hurst when her mother sent her an e-mail that included an old clipping debunking the feats of a girl known as The Magnetic Girl.
“My mom and I had a shared interest in stories about women who are deemed strange because of their bodies or their intellect. Who was this kid? I started looking into it and fell in love with her,” said Handler.
She pursued her interest in Hurst by reading news coverage from the era and Barry Wiley’s book The Georgia Wonder: Lulu Hurst and the Secret that Shook America, which contained a reprint of Hurst’s autobiography.
Handler is the author of Invisible Sisters: A Memoir and Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief, which she wrote while working on The Magnetic Girl. Her background in nonfiction aided her in writing a novel in that she looked for a connection with the character that was emotionally resonant to her and used first person to “more effectively inhabit Lulu’s person and frame of mind.”
Her first writing about Hurst was in an essay for Tin House talking about Hurst’s history and why Handler related to her. It took her ten years of working intermittently to finish the book.
Why did a nonfiction author decide to write a fictionalized portrait of Hurst?
“Writing it as nonfiction didn’t captivate me.”
“Writing it as nonfiction didn’t captivate me. I had the facts, the dates she toured, the tricks she did, what she wore, but I didn’t have her motivation. Why did she do it? What did it mean to her?” said Handler.
So, she set about building an emotional life for Hurst, which led to the creation of Leo, the disabled brother with whom Hurst shares a deep, telepathic bond, and who she hopes to heal. Handler also made up aspects of the father’s military service and his relationship with his own mother, and Lulu’s love interest Arden.
Handler looked to historical fiction including Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder and Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels, Norman Lock’s American Meteor, and John Sayles’ A Moment in the Sun when writing The Magnetic Girl.
Letters home to Leo are incorporated into the first person telling of the story. Handler said the letters to Leo document not only the closeness of the siblings but also Lulu’s self-discovery as she operates in the world.
“They are a narration to herself about what she is thinking and who she is becoming.”
“They are a narration to herself about what she is thinking and who she is becoming. The letters are also an opportunity to tell more about her travels and to explain what she hears others saying about her.”
Handler took a hands-on approach to research, wanting to get a feel for what life was like on a “granular level” for Hurst. She toured a small southern theater that was similar to the kinds of places Hurst would perform. Handler went to Cedartown and stood on the road where Hurst lived. She used early maps to get the lay of the land in the town where Hurst lived. Hurst also performed in a theater in the 1880s that was close to the office where Handler’s father worked nearly 100 years later.
“It was a Venn diagram of how our lives overlapped. We were both awkward teenage girls wondering how the world saw us and how we could change that,” said Handler.
She also tried Hurst’s tricks, which included lifting grown men in parlor chairs and throwing them across the stage with her “electrical charge” and making cane’s fly out of people’s hands. “I got a sense of what it felt like for her to coordinate those tricks, how rapidly and forcefully she moved.” She could do the cane trick but failed to pull off the chair lift.
Handler had no problem taking on the supernatural, in part, because of how it matched the sensibility of the era. People were suspicious of electricity and were living in an age when spiritualism and mesmerism still captured the popular imagination. “Lulu convinces herself that her lucky break with an animal and her Sunday school teacher gives her power. She is a rural girl in the 1880s; she’ll take her power where she can get it,” said Handler.
“My guiding light for finding the truth in the story was the emotional resonance…”
Her greatest challenge in writing the book was making the transition from nonfiction to fiction. “This was complicated by the fact that she was a real person. What do I make up? My guiding light for finding the truth in the story was the emotional resonance of what it means to be a woman or girl facing the challenge of how the world sees us and how we want to be seen,” said Handler.
She worked with Editor Meg Reid to increase the pacing of the book. “I think it was a little soft in the middle,” said Handler. She took scissors to the pages, cutting sections into strips and rearranging them until she could see how to fix the problems.
She teaches undergraduate creative writing classes in Atlanta and advises her students to find a “supportive but clear-eyed” group of peers weigh in on their work. She also urges them to dive into new work. “Just because a book starts at the beginning doesn’t mean you have to start there. Write scenes, eventually, the arc of the narrative will become evident.”
Handler is following her own advice and starting to work on a project based on family myths and legends. She’s not sure if it will be a historical novel or collection of essays, but she is working off of a photograph of a child (either her grandfather or great uncle) who is on his father’s lap in a Siberian prison, where her great grandfather was imprisoned for being a Jewish radical.
About the Author: 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.