Book Talk: A bearded lady and skinny man's love sparks novel

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - For U.S. writer Ellen Bryson it was the mental image of a group of bearded women that lured her into fiction and the extraordinary world of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City in 1865.

Bryson said it was pure coincidence that her debut novel, “The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno,” is being released around the 200th anniversary of Barnum’s birth -- July 5, 1810 -- as it was about five years in the writing.

The novel is the unlikely love story between the world’s thinnest man and the bearded lady on show at Barnum’s museum that entertained the masses with freaks and oddities from around the world such as a woman giant and a man as bendy as rubber.

The museum burned down in 1865 from a fire of unknown origin and Barnum re-established it in New York but when it burned down again he took to the road instead, setting up his famous traveling circus. He died in 1891 at the age of 80.

Bryson, who did an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University, said the American Museum proved to be a fascinating window on life in New York in the late 19th century:

Q: What sparked the book?

A: “I had an image of six bearded women standing in a circus tent yelling out their names. This image haunted me and so I started to do some research about bearded women. I found a picture of Annie Jones, a bearded woman who was shown by P.T. Barnum and that really started it.”

A: So is the book based on her?

A: “No, Annie Jones was a stepping stone to the book but for the most part the characters are made up, including the protagonist based on Isaac Sprague, Barnum’s resident skinny man who was called “the living skeleton.”

Q: What did you find so interesting about New York then?

A: “It was such a time of change, right after the civil war. There was such a murky side to life, with pigs in the streets eating the garbage. There wasn’t such a thing as popular culture. People’s amusement was so limited. There were bars and saloons and playing cards but nothing like the American Museum had existed before. Other museums were stuffy with taxidermy and old fashioned scientific items. Barnum filled his with anything he found interesting. It was really floors of madness. He brought in animals no one had seen before. He had wax figures. He brought in two white whales. He also did a lot of hoaxes and he was well know for that and people loved him for it.”

Q: Did you do much research on Barnum and this period?

A: “I am not a historian but I found as many books as I could and I read and read and tried to stay as true as I could to what I researched. I am sure there are some things that shifted over into fantasy.”

Q: Which was your favorite hoax?

A: “Well, the most famous was the FeeJee Mermaid. He hired someone to say they were a professor and found this thing in the South Sea and everyone assumed it had been alive but really it was the head and torso of a monkey and tail of a fish sewn together with paper-mache. He displayed that one for years.”

Q: Had you written much before this book?

A: “Not fiction. I used to work for a philanthropic organization and wrote a lot of their trade papers. I went to school for fiction and wanted to be a playwright but I was awful and put it aside. Fiction seemed so overwhelming to me but sometimes it is the last thing you think you can do that you will find you are best at.”

Q: What was the hardest part of the process?

A: “It was hard to find an agent. Finding a publisher came fairly easily then but we worked to get to that point. But I think the first draft is the hardest thing. Once you have a first draft you are committed and it is matter of taking something rough and tuning it into something not so rough.”

Editing by Steve Addison