Kim Todd Q&A

June 22, 2022
Kim Todd is not afraid of a staggering amount of research.

“I love research, whether it is digging through old letters between Nellie Bly and her mother, reading San Francisco Examiner articles from a hundred years ago, or conducting interviews. If I didn’t have deadlines, I would probably never get to the writing. There is a great pleasure in having written, though, in going back and seeing how you managed a specific paragraph or in sharing your work with an audience. The satisfaction of having found the words to say exactly what you meant is unparalleled.”

I knew about Ida Wells and Nellie Bly but you introduced me to so many other remarkable reporters. The story of Victoria Matthews jumped off the page for me. When did you know you had a book on this topic?

I was intrigued by the fact that so many women followed in Bly’s wake and that their work hadn’t been just forgotten; it was actively disparaged even today. I also had, for a long time, been interested in the anonymous Girl Reporter for the Chicago Times who wrote about the availability of abortion in that city in 1889. When I realized that she was working in the genre that Bly created, the idea for the project started to come together. The very things that made writing by these women so popular made them open to criticism, and that was interesting. I wrote a piece for Smithsonian magazine about it, then realized that I still had a lot left to say.

Not only are these figures great reporters they’re daring investigative reporters. What Bly did in immersing herself in an asylum is legendary. In writing this book did you ever find yourself questioning their methods?

I think questioning is unavoidable, looking back on the 19th century through 21st-century eyes. The Girl Reporter, for example, shamed the doctors who, to me, seemed most sympathetic to the plight of a young woman in trouble. But it was a time before the code of ethics that governs journalism today, and I don’t think it’s fair to hold these writers to standards that didn’t yet exist. The profession was very much a free-for-all with William Randolph Hearst, for example, sending out reporters to interfere in criminal investigations. Also, the women mostly went undercover to expose those in positions of power whose corruption might not have been revealed without these techniques.

You’ve said that the legacy of these reporters can be seen in pop culture in many ways, including Lois Lane and Harriet the Spy. Are young women today choosing journalism as much as a generation ago?

I don’t know the numbers but, compared to the flush years of the mid-1890s or the 1960s, traditional journalism jobs are in short supply and are notably low paying. One of the bleaker discoveries while researching this book was coming across a letter from a magazine editor to a writer that indicated the pay for an article in the early 1900s was not much different than it is today. But there is always going to be the need for people to go hard-to-access places—whether that is a war zone or a prison or a conference for TikTok influencers—and report back what they find. Those writers will always have readers; we just need to figure out how to support them.

You’ve spoken about the need to write women back into science history. Who is a figure we should all know but don’t?

One of my previous books was about Maria Sibylla Merian, a 17th-century artist and field naturalist, who devoted her life to studying metamorphosis. In a time when little was understood about beetles and moths, she wrote four books, complete with beautiful illustrations, about the relationships of insects to their food plants, the weather, their parasitoids. She was an early ecologist. I constantly marvel at the strength of will it took to follow her intellectual interests when her culture actively discouraged women from those pursuits.

You’ve written four books. Which do you enjoy more: the research or the writing?

I love research, whether it is digging through old letters between Nellie Bly and her mother, reading San Francisco Examiner articles from a hundred years ago, or conducting interviews. If I didn’t have deadlines, I would probably never get to the writing. There is a great pleasure in having written, though, in going back and seeing how you managed a specific paragraph or in sharing your work with an audience. The satisfaction of having found the words to say exactly what you meant is unparalleled.

What is next for you?

Sensational is a departure from much of the rest of my writing, which focuses on science and the environment. I am returning to those subjects with a project on Americans’ relationship to wild animal predators, particularly now that—after a century of persecution—they are staging a comeback. Coyotes, cougars, bears, wolves, and foxes are all carving out homes in cities and suburbs. Are we any more prepared to co-exist with them than we were before?