A prolific, ambitious and talented writer, Louisa May Alcott was a public figure who nevertheless kept much to herself—so much, in fact, that a large portion of her creative output was not credited to her until decades after her death. In recent years, biographies like Eden's Outcasts and Louisa May Alcott have shed light on Alcott's private life, mining diaries and letters to create a portrait of a passionate, conflicted woman who understood the tradeoffs necessary to pursue a creative life.
In a buzzed-about debut, former English teacher Kelly O'Connor McNees uses the author's life as the foundation for a novel. On sale tomorrow, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott (Amy Einhorn Books) is set during the summer of 1855, when the 22-year-old Louisa meets a young man who causes her to rethink her future aspirations. (Read our review of the book here.)
McNees took the time to answer a few questions about The Lost Summer from her home in Chicago.
Why Louisa May Alcott? What about her inspired you to tell this story?
While I had always loved Little Women, I never really knew much about Louisa May Alcott herself. A couple years ago I picked up the celebrated and controversial biography written by Martha Saxton, and from the first page I was completely engrossed. Louisa was complex, passionate and very surprising. So many assumptions I had made about her, based on the tone and story of Little Women, turned out to be incorrect. I had always imagined a prim and docile spinster, but Louisa was an activist, loved the theater, worked as a nurse in the Civil War. And she wrote countless stories that were nothing at all like Little Women, under pen names. There was so much more to her than I’d ever imagined, and I began to think about the question of how we should separate Louisa the woman from Louisa the historical icon. Who was she, really? That was where the story began.
As an English teacher, did you ever have the opportunity to teach Alcott?
These days, Little Women isn’t part of a typical middle-school curriculum. So no, I never taught the book. Though I often recommended it for independent reading projects!
In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Louisa's (fictional) romance with Joseph Singer ended up inspiring the Jo and Laurie romance in Little Women. Do you see other common themes between Little Women and your novel?
Little Women was intensely autobiographical and Louisa encouraged the comparisons readers made between the novel and her life. She modeled Jo on herself as a young woman and Meg, Beth and Amy on her sisters Anna, Lizzie and May. I tried to make these connections part of my story, but I also tried to examine the many aspects of Louisa’s real life that differed from the idealized world of Little Women. For example, Mr. March is virtually absent from Little Women; in the story he is an army chaplain away at war. This plot point does not parallel an experience in Louisa’s own life. Bronson Alcott was a teacher and philosopher and was very much present in the Alcott girls’ lives.
Biographers have made much of what they cast as Louisa’s choice to exclude her father from the story of her childhood. Saxton argued that Louisa felt so conflicted about her difficult relationship with him that she couldn’t grapple with it on the page. Geraldine Brooks’ magnificent novel March uses the details of Bronson’s life to imagine the missing story of Mr. March. Brooks disagreed with the view that Louisa’s authorial choice stemmed from psychological unrest; for Brooks, this decision was merely a fictional construct that forced the characters of Little Women to grow and change in ways that serviced the story.
I have no real opinion on who is right about this question, only an intense interest in the question itself. It is fascinating and problematic to try to discern 150 years later what Louisa’s intentions may have been. Little Women is a moral tale written for young women; it’s not a surprise that the story is a kinder, gentler version of the complexities of real relationships.
Can you tell us about your first encounter with Louisa May Alcott's work?
I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Little Women. Maybe 12. I think I was especially intrigued by the relationships between the sisters because I don’t have a sister and always wondered what that would have been like. The story always stayed in my mind and I reread the novel every couple of years. The most cynical person in the world can’t help but be charmed by the March family.
But I have to say that Louisa as a writer really came alive for me just a couple years ago when I first read A Long Fatal Love Chase. This is a novel that was not published in her lifetime, not even under a pseudonym, because it was deemed too sensational. (It was finally published in 1995.) It’s about a woman named Rosamond who is seduced by a man who looks and acts very much like the Devil. Soon she uncovers a lie about his past and tries to escape from him, hiding in Italy, France and Germany. He stalks her across Europe—it’s a truly captivating thriller. You can imagine Louisa writing it in one furious and exhausting session, ratcheting up the tension chapter by chapter.
Louisa loved stories of fantasy and danger. You might remember the plays Jo writes and performs with her sisters in Little Women; Jo grows out of her interest in these tales, but I think in her heart, Louisa herself never grew out of them. And something about that fact was very moving to me as I tried to understand her.
You did a lot of research for a work of fiction. What was it like reading Louisa May Alcott's letters and diaries? How did they compare to her fiction?
It was wonderful! After reading several biographies of Louisa, turning to her own words felt like the closest I was ever going to come to having dinner with her (if only!). Her voice in the letters and journals is different from her fictional voice. She is wry and friendly and casual, though still aware that a reader is listening. These documents are fascinating.
Your novel is a work of fiction, but it's based on a real person, who had her own life and her own history. Do you feel that there are certain lines one should not cross when writing this type of fiction, or a certain "code of ethics" that should be observed?
This is an important question, and I’m not sure I have the answer to it, though I’ve thought about it an awful lot. This may seem like an evasion, but it’s important to me for readers to understand that the Louisa in my novel is not the Louisa. She is the Louisa of my imagination. Another writer might have imagined her some other way. With that in mind, I think all a writer can do is try to be true to the spirit of the person who inspired this character and to write with integrity.
What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
As I worked on this novel (which, incidentally, I was sure would never see the light of day), I always told my husband that my greatest hope was just to write a good story. I had no illusion that it was going to be the kind of novel that changes a reader’s life, and I certainly had no intention of trying to compete with other novels written about the Alcotts and their contemporaries, such as March and John Pipkin’s riveting story about Thoreau, The Woodsburner.
My hope is that readers who loved Little Women will take pleasure in this story, will think about that novel in a new way, and will consider, maybe for the first time, the real woman who wrote it.
Find out more about Kelly O'Connor McNees and her debut novel by visiting her website.