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Inquiring Minds: Writing Stories of Trailblazing Women

Louisa Treger

Louisa Treger has worked as classical violinist, and she has a Ph.D. in English from University College London. But she is neither a musician now, nor an academic. Instead, she will soon publish her third novel. Like its predecessors, it will tell the story of a trailblazing woman from history in this case the American journalist Nellie Bly. Here Treger answers questions about the evolution of her career and her research in the Library’s collections.

Tell us a little about your background.
I trained as a classical violinist, working as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. This stage of my life came to an abrupt and traumatic end when I was in my early ‘20s: I caught a virus, which turned into chronic fatigue syndrome, and I had to take a year out. However, something incredibly positive came out of it because I realized that I wanted to work with words, not music.

I went back to studying, earning a Ph.D. in English at University College London, where I focused on the writing of Dorothy Richardson, whom Virginia Woolf considered an innovator of modernism. Soon afterward, I gave birth to twins. I would use the thick volumes of my thesis to prop up the babies’ cribs when they had colds and were more comfortable sleeping upright. I remember thinking, “Well, at least I’m using my Ph.D. for something!” But all the while, I was musing about Richardson, about what a fascinating and boundary-breaking woman she was, and about the fact that someone should tell her story. My babies grew up and went to school, and I sat down to write. This is how my first novel, “The Lodger,” based on Richardson’s life, was born.

What inspires you to write about historical women?
I seem to stumble across the subjects of my books by chance. I discovered Richardson while searching for an angle on Woolf for my Ph.D. thesis that hadn’t been written about before.

My second novel, “The Dragon Lady,” was inspired by the life of Lady Virginia Courtauld, whom I discovered through being told about a collection of paintings that she and her husband had donated to the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Courtauld was beautiful and rebellious with a scandalous past and a snake tattoo running the length of one leg, which sealed her reputation as a trailblazer. After a brief marriage to an Italian count, she wed Stephen Courtauld, a war hero, mountaineer, orchid collector and heir to a textile fortune. Ostracized for being a divorcee at the time of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Virginia and Stephen moved to Rhodesia, where their philanthropic attempts to improve the lives of all the colony’s inhabitants, black and white, led to misunderstandings, anonymous death threats and a shooting.

The more novels I write, the more it becomes apparent that a pattern is emerging. I am drawn to writing about strong women who have been forgotten by history, women who refused to conform and who struggled to find their place in the world — groundbreakers and pioneers. So maybe my accidental discoveries are not actually accidental? Maybe some inner drive is compelling me toward these women?

Nellie Bly, circa 1890

How did you decide to write about Nellie Bly?
I discovered Bly by chance. A friend in London asked me if I’d heard of her and suggested that I look her up — “She’s the sort of woman you write about,” she added. I began to research Bly on the web and was instantly hooked.

The Library of Congress was the starting point for my research for this novel. My son is currently a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (the same child whose cot I used to prop up with my Ph.D. thesis), and I combined a trip to see him with book research.

Which collections did you use at the Library?
I spent a fruitful couple of days looking at historical newspapers online. I also found a wide range of articles in the Library’s online materials, as well as every book that had been written by and about Bly. This was a huge amount of valuable material and an incredibly rich starting point.

How does your background in music influence your writing?
Music was fantastic training for being a writer, not least because it taught me the discipline to glue my bottom to a chair and spend hours alone, honing my craft. There are numerous parallels between music and writing, such as rhythm, tone, color and mood; alliteration, onomatopoeia and refrains. Also dialogue: The give-and-take between instruments in a Mozart string quartet is a perfect example of the kind of musical conversation I take inspiration from. Above all, music training is about precision. It sharpens the perception of minute acoustic differences that distinguish sounds, and this heightens one’s attention to the nuances of language.

Can you comment on your experience of the Library?
The British Library has been my favorite library ever since I can remember, but once I saw the Library of Congress, I have to say that my allegiance started to shift. I was blown away by the beauty and scale of the buildings and by the amazing research resources — it was like being able to dip into an enormous treasure trove. It was also a little bewildering to a newcomer, and I owe librarian Amber Paranick huge thanks for helping me navigate it with such patience and grace.

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