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.
But I have to say that I took a little more notice than usual when I read about another awards announcement over the weekend—for the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year, sponsored by The Bookseller, a British book industry magazine.
Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Daina Taimina is apparently the oddest book title of the year, followed by What Kind of Bean is this Chihuahua? by Tara Jansen-Meyer; Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich by James A. Yannes; and other decidedly odd titles. Read the press release here and tell us—what's your favorite odd book title? (There are some gems out there; how about The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification?)
Another weekend, another post about the Masterpiece series on PBS. This week the spotlight is on contemporary British author Bernard Cornwell, who writes several different historical fiction series. Masterpiece Classic is airing a two-part series, Sharpe's Challenge, based on Cornwell's Colonel Sharpe series. Former naval hero Richard Sharpe is sent to India in the early 1800s in search of a missing British agent. It's a tumultuous time for the country, to say the least, and during the course of his search, Sharpe faces Indians who are less than happy with their English colonizers—as well as the seductive wiles of Top Chef's Padma Lakshmi.
The first episode airs Sunday night. Will you watch, or are you more a classic, "bonnets and breeches" costume drama fan? As much as I love series set in the English countryside, those bright saris might be a welcome change of pace. Read more about the Sharpe's Challenge adaptation here.
You can also check out the BookPage review of Cornwell's latest historical novel, The Burning Land.
What posts on book blogs did you enjoy reading this week? A few of my picks are below...
John Warner Tells You What to Read Next
Posted by John Williams on The Second Pass's blog
If you haven't been following the Tournament of Books closely, this post is a good point at which to jump in. Over at online lit publication The Second Pass's blog, John Williams highlights some commentary from the Quarterfinal round, in which Wolf Hall faced off against The Anthologist. The post will make you think about how and why we choose what we read:
The last two books I finished were Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask and Next by James Hynes. I read those because I loved their previous books. Their current ones delivered much the same pleasures as their last efforts. They were every bit as good as I hoped and expected, but I’d already tasted those flavors. Should I be forcing myself to be a bit more adventurous, to turn toward the unexplored territory, to occasionally pick pistachio over mint chocolate chip at Baskin-Robbins?
Okay, so maybe it's a little weird that I'm linking to a post about coloring books, but bear with me. The Taro Gomi coloring books (and books by other artists) that this blogger writes about on Nosuch Book are way more inventive and fun than the generic princess books I used when I was a kid. And even if you don't know a little one who'd be entranced by these doodles, adults are getting in on the action, too: "Playfulness returns with the bright sun and warm breezes of spring. With lots of reminders everywhere to not forget how to be a kid. Want to color with me?"
Books Podcast #70: Books for the Plane Ride
Posted by Books on the Nightstand
Going on a trip any time soon? Michael and Ann at Books on the Nightstand chat about what makes a great airplane book, and agree that a thriller is the best way to pass time on a long flight. What is your favorite airplane book? Share your picks on their blog (and here, too!).
There are plenty of big-name author releases I'm looking forward to this fall (Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, to name one). But a lesser-known British writer, Scarlett Thomas, is also up near the top of that list. Her inventive The End of Mr. Y blended fiction, philosophy and physics to create a fascinating and memorable read. The novel was filled with ideas and had enough plot to carry you through them—I was thinking about it long after the last page was turned.
Our Tragic Universe (HMH), her next novel, seems to have a similar surrealist angle—and a similar, smart-but-down-and-out heroine in Meg Carpenter, a woman caught in a dead-end relationship who's struggling to complete an overdue manuscript. When she takes on a writing assignment to review a book by an author who claims to have discovered a way to live forever, Meg has to wonder—would anyone really want to?
Consulting cosmology and physics, tarot cards, koans (and riddles and jokes), new-age theories of everything, narrative theory, Nietzsche, Baudrillard, and knitting patterns, Meg wends her way through Our Tragic Universe, asking this and many other questions. Does she believe in fairies? In magic? Is she a superbeing? Is she living a storyless story? And what’s the connection between her off-hand suggestion to push a car into a river, a ship in a bottle, a mysterious beast loose on the moor, and the controversial author of The Science of Living Forever?Smart, entrancing, and boiling over with Thomas’s trademark big ideas, Our Tragic Universe is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, how we can rewrite our futures (if not our histories), and how stories just might save our lives.
There's a new review on our website that will appeal to people who liked Running with Scissors. . . or who are intrigued by families that have 14-bathroom apartments. Or who put hamsters in frying pans.
When I first heard of Wendy Burden's memoir, Dead End Gene Pool, I was skeptical. I reviewed Tad Friend's Cheerful Money in the October edition of BookPage, and I wondered. . . how much is there to say about fallen WASPs? (Friend's ancestors came to America in the 17th century and his father was president of Swarthmore College. Burden's great-great-great-great grandfather was Cornelius Vanderbilt. Both memoirs address the dysfunction in later generations of privileged families.)
I think I'll have to reconsider my position. Although Dead End Gene Pool doesn't hit shelves until April 1, our review is available now online. Nonfiction editor Kate Pritchard called Burden's memoir "darkly funny," writing:
Burden herself is a delightfully strange character, especially as a child, when her fascination with all things morbid was at its peak. (In one episode, she attempts to drive off one of her mother’s suitors by dressing up like Wednesday Addams and trying to cook her pet hamster in a frying pan.)
Sounds like we're not the only ones who've taken notice of this memoir. On Wednesday there was a lengthy write-up about Burden in the New York Times, which includes a slide show of her Portland home. (Note the camel skull on her coffee table.) Penguin also released a video interview with the author which features photos of family members in the book (watch the video after jump).
What do you think—is the WASP memoir a hot genre? Will you read Dead End Gene Pool?
The Romance Writers of America announced the 2010 RITA Award finalists today, and many of the titles are recommended in BookPage by our romance columnist, Christie Ridgway.
Before I get to that, though, we want to give a shout out to Christie for getting not one but two of her own nominations—for Dirty Sexy Knitting and I Still Do. Former BookPage romance columnist Barbara O'Neal is also a finalist for The Lost Recipe for Happiness. Congratulations, ladies!
Click here to view the complete list of finalists. Among the titles covered in BookPage are Fireside by Susan Wiggs (for Contemporary Series) and Laura Lee Guhrke’s With Seduction in Mind (Historical Romance). I was also happy to see that Ally Carter got a nomination for YA romance (I interviewed her in December), and Kristan Higgins got a nod for Too Good to Be True. (We ran an interview with her in February.)
The Awards will be announced on July 31 at the RWA’s National Conference in Nashville, and you can bet there will be BookPage bloggers in attendance to report back on all the fun.
What’s your favorite romance novel?
Less than a year after the publication of South of Broad, Pat Conroy has signed a deal to write My Life in Books, a nonfiction account of the “people, writers and books that made him into the reader and writer he is today, from Tolstoy to Thomas Wolfe and beyond,” according to an announcement yesterday in Publisher’s Marketplace.
This will not be the best-selling author’s first foray into nonfiction. The Water Is Wide (1972) is based on his experiences as a schoolteacher, and in 2002, Conroy published My Losing Season, a memoir inspired by his senior year season as starting point guard on The Citadel’s basketball team. In 2004, he published The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life, which includes personal stories in addition to recipes.
No doubt My Life in Books will be eagerly anticipated; Conroy is a favorite of BookPage readers—South of Broad was our cover story in August (read a review of this “lush, remarkable new novel”), and we interviewed him in 2002 about My Losing Season.
I wonder how the book will be organized—chronologically based on what he was reading when? By author that inspired him? When Gay Talese (the husband of Conroy’s editor, coincidentally) described some of the stories and inspiration behind his books in 2006’s A Writer’s Life, I thought the result was a bit disjointed; he bounced from anecdote to anecdote, with long digressions thrown in. I hope Conroy’s book has a clearer narrative structure.
Will you read My Life in Books?
Ms. Johnson was the author of a memoir, It Is Well With My Soul: The Extraordinary Life of a 105-Year-Old Woman. Originally slated to be published on April 27, the book's publication date has now been pushed up to March 31. It tells the story of her life, from her early days in Dallas, Texas, living through segregation and the Jim Crow era, to her education (she was the oldest living black graduate of Case Western Reserve University), to her marriage and family life, to her values as a Good Samaritan, and up through her attendance at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration in January 2009.
Another remarkable African-American woman's life is celebrated in a memoir by Ann Nixon Cooper, whom Obama mentioned in his Election Day speech. Ms. Cooper's book, A Century and Some Change: My Life Before the President Called My Name, was also released mere weeks after her death. She passed away on Dec. 21, 2009, at 107 years old.
It's inspiring to read about these women and the incredible change they witnessed over the course of their lifetimes. If you're looking for a similar book, check out Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First Hundred Years, published in 1993. Although the Delany sisters, born in the 19th century, have also now passed away, we are lucky that all of these women have shared their stories with us.