Jessica Handler and The Magnetic Girl

Jessica Handler, author of newly released The Magnetic Girl, said she’s always narrated her life, whether through journals she writes in extensively or the very involved and informative letters she used to write her friends when they were away at summer camp. Her first books, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir and Braving the Fire, are based on her experiences and are powerful works told with raw emotion and insight.

But The Magnetic Girl is different. It’s a work of historical fiction based on the life story of Lulu Hurst, a young vaudeville performer in the early 20th century whose “tests” of mysterious magnetic capabilities left people captivated…and conned. This is part of the reason Handler was drawn to her story.

“This really is a story about women in power,” said Handler. “Lulu traveled around the country performing for 18 months, and she was amazing. And this was an era when electricity was new and generally conflated with magnetic fields and spirits, so she was essentially taking advantage of the situation.”

For Handler, one of the most surprising things about writing Lulu’s story was the freedom of writing fiction, even fiction based on a real person.

“I was surprised by how exhilarating is to make up things about a person,” she said. “It took me a lot of tries to sort of inhabit this girl and once I understood that, it was very joyful.”

The flip side of that, she added, was coming from non-fiction where authors work with facts and speculation is identified as such. Whenever she got stuck, she explained, her first instinct was to turn to research; it took her awhile to develop the confidence to go with her gut. But she found inspiration from another female writer extraordinaire.

“Joan Didion said, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’,” Handler told me.

Thank goodness we do.