Way back in October, we posted about Fall of Giants, the first in Ken Follett's Century Trilogy, which sold for big bucks at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The novel is still set for a worldwide, one-day laydown on September 28, 2010.
At 1,000 pages, this is another big book for Follett fans. And the price tag of $36 is almost as hefty. Though we know retailers will probably be discounting this one, how much for a hardcover is too much? Would you pay $36 for a new release from your favorite author?
Related in BookPage: a Q&A with Follett about World Without End, the sequel to Pillars of the Earth
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.
Happy President's Day! Has the holiday (whether observed with a day off of work or not) influenced your reading choices?
If you're looking for a presidential read, we have some suggestions. His Excellency, by Joseph J. Ellis, just might be the definitive look at George Washington, as BookPage contributor Alden Mudge said in an interview with Ellis about the book. For kids, What Presidents Are Made Of by Hanoch Piven is pure fun. And last year, in honor of Lincoln's 200th birthday, BookPage published a great roundup of Lincoln books that should be out in paperback right about now, including Ronald C. White's A. Lincoln, as well as a feature on Lincoln books for the younger set.
But the Lincoln story that stands out in my mind isn't actually about the president at all--it's a fictionalized account of the life of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, that was published in 2006. As I said in my review of Janis Cooke Newman's Mary, it's a sympathetic account that paints Mary as "a deeply passionate, intelligent woman in a time when these qualities in women were discouraged and feared."
Do you have a favorite book with a presidential link?
A new release from Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley is always a big deal, and Private Life, her first novel since 2007's Ten Days in the Hills, is no exception. The book, which will be published by Knopf on May 4, is a departure from Smiley's previous work—it's historical, a sweeping saga that spans the life of an American woman, from the 1880s to World War II.
Margaret Mayfield marries late, but she also marries up: Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early is an influential person in their small Missouri town, one who is a military officer and a brilliant scientist/astronomer. Though Margaret realizes soon after their marriage that Andrew is more interested in his work than his wife, they stay together—until the start of World War II reveals a dark side to her husband's scientific work.
Will you be reading?
For Outlander fans, this week brought good news and bad news. First, the good news: Last week, Diana Gabaldon sold the 8th book in the saga to her current publisher Delacorte. Bad news: The new book won't be published until 2013. But then, Gabaldon fans are used to waiting four years for a new installment. 600 pages weren't written in a day, after all. In an interview last fall, Gabaldon gave BookPage a peek into her writing process:
“I don’t write with an outline. In fact, I don’t write in a straight line. I write when I can see things happening. What I need on any given day to start writing is what I call a kernel. A line of dialogue, an emotional ambience, anything I can sense very concretely. I write very painstakingly in these little disconnected bits. But as I write these disconnected pieces, and I continue doing research and of course thinking about the book all the time, they begin to stick together. They develop little connections." (read the rest of the interview)
Author photo © Jennifer Watkins
One of the first big releases of January 2010 is Elizabeth Kostova's follow-up to her hit debut, The Historian, a literary vampire story that topped bestseller lists in the summer of 2005. Her new novel, The Swan Thieves, is a tale of love, obsession and art that, like The Historian, goes backward and forward in time to unravel a mystery. We asked Kostova a few questions about the book as a teaser for fans--and a preview of our full-length BookPage interview coming in January.
What elements in The Swan Thieves will most appeal to fans of The Historian?
I think readers who enjoyed The Historian will probably enjoy the mix of historical and contemporary settings in The Swan Thieves, as well as the travel to France and through time.
Impressionist art is frequently referenced in books (yours!) and films (Amelie), and probably adorns 8 out of 10 dorm room walls. What is it about these artists that continues to speak to people today?
I think we still look at and love the Impressionists because they capture something about nature that is both vivid and idealized. As we watch the destruction of natural beauty in our world, we probably value these images in a new and piercing way. I think it's also important to note that many people are understandably sick of Impressionist art from sheer over-exposure to it, and because in reproduction it radiates a certain prettiness. Looking closely at an original Impressionist masterwork is still a radical experience, and very different from looking at a notecard or tote bag.
The mystery of The Swan Thieves revolves around a 19th-century female artist, and the sacrifices women in particular must make to pursue art. Is there a real-life artist who inspired this character?
Beatrice de Clerval is not based on a single real artist, but in developing her I was inspired by the life of Berthe Morisot, one of the six original exhibiting Impressionists, a dedicated and very gifted painter who also protected the conventions of her social and family life.
Who is your favorite character in the new novel, and why?
I think I'm fondest of Andrew Marlow, because he changes the most over the course of the book. I feel very close to him in his struggles to figure out who he is, and I like the way he evolves from vanity to love--rather as Professor Rossi does in The Historian.
How was writing this book different from writing The Historian?
In writing The Swan Thieves, I had to move away from using the models of Victorian literature and into something more exactly fitting my story in terms of language and structure. I also wrote it in large swathes, as different episodes became vivid for me, and then rearranged these in the editing, rather than writing straight through from beginning to end as I did with The Historian. I learned a tremendous amount from writing The Swan Thieves and it is a deeply felt book, for me.
We’ve seen fictionalized Emily Dickinson; members of the Tudor court; and more Jane Austen spin-offs than I can count (Austenland, The Jane Austen Book Club and Jane Austen Ruined My Life, for starters -- not to mention Mr. Darcy’s Daughters, Darcy’s Passions, and Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberley). I’m intrigued by a new historical novel about a character I haven’t thought about since 10th grade English class: Hester Prynne.
You may remember that at the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale had died and Hester and her daughter, Pearl, had left Boston. Many years later, Hester returns alone and Pearl (presumably) lives happily ever after as a wealthy lady (on account of her inheritance from Chillingworth). . . until now.
In Hester, by Paula Reed, the title character moves to England and falls in with Oliver Cromwell. Hester is “entangled in a web of political intrigue, espionage, and forbidden love” as she is forced to help Cromwell in his scheming – or risk a death sentence.
The novel will come out on February 16, 2010, although you can read an excerpt now on Reed’s website.
Which classic literary hero or heroine would you like to see in a contemporary novel? (Or do you think spin-offs ruin the original?)
In looking over the lineup of 2010 fiction, we have noticed an abundance of historical novels. Which ones will you be reading? What is your favorite time period to read about?
I loved Girl With a Pearl Earring, so I can’t wait for Tracy Chevalier’s January release, Remarkable Creatures. In the novel, 19th century fossil hunter Mary Anning discovers her gift to “find what on one can see.” She is barred from the British academic community, however, and falls in love with “an impossible man.” Watch an interview with Tracy Chevalier:
A few years ago BookPage reviewed a “magnificent” biography of Emily Dickinson that provided “a comprehensive portrait of the poet's life and art.” In February, you can read a fictionalized version of the Dickinson’s life, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn. Dickinson biographer Brenda Wineapple writes that Charyn imagines the poet full “of mischievousness, brilliance, desire, and wit (all which she possessed) and then boldly sets her amidst a throng of historical, fictional, and surprising characters just as hard to forget as she is.”
Historical fiction buffs will also want to look out for Karen Harper’s The Queen’s Governess, a Tudor drama told from the perspective of Elizabeth I’s governess; Ellen Horan’s 31 Bond Street, about a 19th-century murder scandal in New York City (the book will be “difficult for any reader to put down,” according to Ron Rash); and Lynn Cullen’s The Creation of Eve, about Renaissance female painter Sofonisba Anguissola.
Devil's Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
November 2009, Pantheon
Bell's novel about the Civil War experiences of General Nathan Bedford Forrest brings one of history's most gifted—and controversial—wartime leaders to life. Look for a Q&A with Madison Smartt Bell on BookPage.com later this month.
At dusk they gathered around a campfire Ginral Jerry had built in the lee of a snowbank, which did something, though not exactly enough, to cut the bitter rising wind. Forrest sat on a tripod camp stool, his long arms wrapped around his knees, reflected firelight flickering from the deep hollow of his eyes. Though he was in his shirtsleeves he didn't seem to feel the cold. Is he even human? Henri thought.
The Frankfurt Book Fair took place last week, and it's always a source for major publishing news. One of the early news items has to do with author Ken Follett, whose historical novels and thrillers have been huge hits worldwide.
In a feature in BookPage about his last novel, World Without End, Follett said he wanted to "write another book that gets this kind of enthusiastic reception." We're pretty sure rights being sold in six countries, and a worldwide one-day laydown, counts as enthusiasm!
Fall of Giants will go on sale September 28, 2010, just in time for a planned miniseries based on Pillars of the Earth. (Penguin/Dutton got the U.S. rights.) It is the first of three books planned for the "New Century Trilogy," which will cover most of the 20th century. Fall of Giants follows five families through World War I and the Russian revolution, setting the stage for the next novel, which will cover World War II.