Author On the Bookcase: Kate Alcott
Please welcome Kater Alcott, author of The Dressmaker, to On the Bookcase! She tells us about her personal attachment to Pinky—a character in her novel—as well as some undercover work she has done as a journalist.
An Inside Look at Pinky Wade
By Kate Alcott
As I wrote The Dressmaker, Pinky—the spirited female reporter who befriends Tess while covering the Titanic for the New York Times—was the only fictional character who jumped out of my head first almost fully formed. At the end, I was a bit startled to realize almost all of Pinky’s story was derived not from historical record, (like Lady Lucile Duff Gordon) nor inspired by an individual who was actually involved in the Titanic, (like Tess, who was modeled after Lucile’s secretary) but from my own life. I guess that’s not totally a surprise. I am a reporter, and Pinky, more than any other character, reflects my own traits and career ambitions.
Pinky, you were my pal. I know how it feels to clutch a notebook and write as fast as possible while I’m quizzing a source. I’ve found myself getting snarled in a story—most memorably, getting caught between demonstrators hurling rocks and a phalanx of cops in full riot gear (I escaped by crawling out between the legs of one cop who took pity on me). I know how it feels to muster bravado and argue my way into places I’m not supposed to be, and to write furiously to make newspaper deadlines and to love it all—except when it comes to asking for a raise. That’s when women, to this day, have a hard time demanding to be paid what they’re worth.
There’s a scene in the novel where Pinky confronts her editor and stubbornly insists on being paid equally with the male reporters. With great pleasure, I gave her lines I wish I’d had the courage (years ago) to speak myself. Go, Pinky!
Of course, I may have also been subconsciously inspired by Nellie Bly, the wonderfully brave and feisty reporter most famous for retracing the path of Jules Vernes’ Around the World in 80 Days. How any woman could make her way in journalism at that time amazes me. It was hard enough to get serious political assignments when I was starting out in 1966, but Nellie laid out a template that—I like to think—inspired women like Pinky to dream their own versions of going round the world in eighty days. (Nellie did it in a little over 72 days.)
But, she did more than that. Nellie, (whose real name was Elizabeth Cochran) actually faked insanity so she could be incarcerated in the New York insane asylum on Blackwell Island for a story. I too once went undercover to expose abuses in a mental hospital, but as a hospital aide, not by getting myself institutionalized. I remember looking out through a barred hospital window one grim afternoon, admiring the courage Nellie must have had to do it her way.
After creating Pinky, I was curious whether there were any real-life women who covered this hugely important disaster. There was one, a Canadian reporter named Mary Adelaide Snider of the Toronto Evening Telegram. I couldn’t find any stories with her byline. But I was even more pleased to have set Pinky elbowing her way forward from my imagination to the printed page, her satchel flopping against her side, determined to show she could do the job too.
Kate Alcott was a reporter covering politics in Washington D.C., where she and her husband still live.