By the Book: A magnetic force

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Author Jessica Handler explores the history and magic behind Georgia’s real-life ‘magnetic girl’ in her latest book.

It takes a magnetic author to capture the charisma of Lulu Hurst, Georgia’s own “magnetic girl,” and Jessica Handler brings her rich imagination and deep research to the telling of this compelling tale in her newest book.

Handler is a nominee for the 2020 Townsend Prize, the state’s oldest and most prestigious literary award. Her 2019 book, “The Magnetic Girl,” was a Wall Street Journal Spring 2019 pick, an Indie Next Selection, and a Southern Independent Booksellers Association Okra pick.

Here, Handler shares insights into “The Magnetic Girl” with Georgia Writers Musuem board member Chip Bell.

Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire and Invisible Sisters and alecturer in English at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. She lectures internationally on the craft of writing and will be teaching a writing workshop on April 11 at the Georgia Writers Museum in Eatonton. Contact www.georgiawritersmuseum.com for details.

Who was Lulu Hurst? 

Lulu Hurst was a real person, a teenaged girl in Cedartown, Georgia, who, in the 1880s, toured America for about eighteen months as “The Georgia Wonder” or “The Magnetic Girl.” 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. Using the principle of fulcrum and lever, combined with her volunteers’ willingness to believe, and her own power of persuasion, she convinced a lot of people that she was lifting them in their chairs, or “throwing” them across the floor when they held the cane.

How did you first learn about Lulu?  

More than a decade ago, my mother emailed me a clipping called “The Feats of the Magnetic Girl Explained,” from an engineering publication from the late 19th century. I was drawn to stories of women and girls who defied physical or cultural expectations. I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

Before settling into a quiet family life in Madison at the turn of the century, Lulu Hurst Atkinson toured the country as The Magnetic Girl, captivating audiences with mysterious feats that seemingly stemmed from an ability to harness and control electricity and magnetism.

You open the book with Lulu describing her small acts of petty theft.  Was this a metaphor for Lulu’s professional life – highly-convincing magical acts ultimately explained by science?  

Wow! No, I hadn’t consciously intended the “small acts of petty theft” as metaphor, but this is why I love interacting with readers. Good readers come up with great insights. The taking of the playing card, the other things that as I have her say, “jump,” into her pockets, were a way for me to demonstrate her restlessness, her desire for something more in life.

You did a lot of unique research for this book.  What were unusual findings you discovered?  

One of my favorite research moments took place in the Madison cemetery, where she is buried. Lulu Hurst married Paul Atkinson and lived in Madison until she died in 1950. She and Paul raised two sons and were active and well-respected members of their community. Before that, though, when she was at the height of her stage fame, she was rumored to have stopped a train with her strength, which of course she didn’t actually do. I was walking in the cemetery, looking for her marker, and a train track bisects the cemetery. A train came through. I stopped and waited, and when it was gone and I crossed the tracks, guess whose grave was in my path? Lulu Hurst Atkinson!   

Her public appearances ran only two years before she retired at sixteen. Why did she “retire?” 

She would tell you that she left the stage because of some public sentiment that what she was doing was unseemly, or un-Christian, but there was in fact nothing “inappropriate” about her act. She left the stage, studied at Shorter College in Rome, and came home and married. The majority of her life was spent as a wife and mother.

Your fiction reads like someone who personally knew the subject.  How were you able to make Lulu come alive?  

I wish I had known her! I fell in love with her when I first learned about her, and the more research I did, the more I was intrigued by her. I remember what it was like to be a teenager; the desire to be more powerful than the people who might disregard me.  In that way, Lulu mirrors my experience, and perhaps many of my readers.

“Techniques for Writing Fiction and Non-Fiction Works,” led by Jessica Handler, will be held from 9 a.m. to noon on April 11 at the Georgia Writers Museum in downtown Eatonton. The first 10 to register get a free copy of ‘The Magnetic Girl.’ The workshop will be followed by a luncheon, which is included in the class fee. Visit georgiawritersmuseum.com for more information.

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