Louisa May Alcott’s biography is no stranger to fictionalization. It was Alcott herself who lowered the first veil over her life with “Little Women,” a semi-autobiographical classic and mainstream success partially forced upon her by her publisher. “I plod away,” Alcott wrote in her diary about the tedious process of creating the first chapters, in which she recreates her childhood through a warmer lens. Yet, as first-time author Chicago-based Kelly O’Connor McNees reveals in her 2010 novel—now out in paperback—”The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott,” there was a side to the popular writer other than that of “Little Women.” In subsequent years since Alcott’s death, pseudonymously published thrillers, feminist prose and philosophical satires have emerged, painting a vastly different image of her than the one that survives in popular culture. We spoke with McNees about this less tidy depiction, the trials of a first-time author, and what she’s working on next.
As a first-time author, has anything about the lifestyle of book promotion been a surprise to you?
Anyone who hadn’t been through it before would probably underestimate the amount of time that you spend blogging, connecting with readers and writers on Twitter and Facebook, and through book clubs, which I Skype into. So the challenge becomes juggling writing with this other stuff.
In the novel, Alcott is constantly struggling with the obstacles to becoming a writer. Like you, she also leaves her job as a teacher. Did you sense any connection between yourself and Alcott?
Absolutely. I didn’t set out the first day wanting to write a novel about Louisa May Alcott, but I had always loved “Little Women” and I was interested in her life. A few years ago I happened to pick up a biography of hers, which fascinated me. When I finished I wanted to read more. Somewhere along the way, as I was reading out of my own interest, I realized I wanted to write fiction about her. Part of that came from the strong connection I felt with her, just in terms of how much she struggles in her life to carve out an existence on her own terms, and not live according to the conventions she felt were suffocating her from all directions. Even though I wrote the book in 2008, I could still feel a lot of the same pressures. I just felt she was so determined and so driven. I really admired that. There was a lot there that I thought could make for good fiction.
Despite its overlaps with “Little Women,” “The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott” has avoided the categorization of YA fiction. Was that a conscious decision?
I didn’t write it to be young adult. “The Lost Summer” isn’t really concerned with “Little Women,” because it was written later in Louisa’s life. My novel takes place long before “Little Women” is even something in [Alcott’s] mind. I guess I was thinking a lot more about Louisa as a person than about her childhood as depicted in “Little Women.” Though, of course, there is overlap. It was certainly intentional that I wanted to examine a part of her life separate from what’s seen in “Little Women.”
One aspect that very subtly pervades the book is a sense of historic inevitability. We know Alcott was a self-fashioned spinster, and so the story has a sense of tragedy even as it revolves around a full-blown romance. We know the story we’re reading will be effaced from history before the novel ends. Did that inform your writing process?
It did. You know how people talk about how limits can be helpful for creativity? This was a novel where I had some serious limits right from the outset. I knew how it had to end. In a way, that gave me this space to work within. I knew the beginning and I knew the end, and in between was where the fiction came in. It was very sad knowing it couldn’t have a happy ending in the traditional sense. But there’s a part in the book where [Louisa] says to her sister “We can’t always judge things by the way they end.” In that sense it’s not a sad ending because, in this imagined, fictitious version of history, this relationship [with Joseph Singer], even though it ended up being short-lived, enriched her life. So, it was hard to write. Because I admire her and because I love Louisa May Alcott, I wanted her to have a happy life. But one of the things that came out of reading and researching her, is that she had a pretty sad life in a lot of ways and a pretty lonely life in a lot of ways.
You did a book trailer [see below] for “The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott.” Do you think they’re helpful?
I think that they can definitely be one more way for people to learn about your novel. I don’t know if they really sell books. But of course, nobody really knows what sells books—or if anything sells books anymore. There’s this whole industry of book trailers now. I’m just not sure—they’re entertaining, but I’m not sure if they get people to go out and buy books.
On your website, you’ve started conducting interviews with some great writers over the past months. What inspired you to do this?
I struggle with blogging. Your editor and publicity manager tells you that you need to have an online presence and you need to blog. I think that’s great, but there comes a point when you can’t talk about yourself anymore. You get tired of your own words, and there’s only so much you can say about the book. Since I’m an avid reader, I thought about featuring books and other writers. But I didn’t want to just do a “tell me about your book” essay, because I’ve written a billion of those now in the past year and the other authors are probably tired of doing that too. I wanted it to be questions about them, who they are as people. The Proust Questionnaire—though it’s been used so many times, in Vanity Fair, “Inside the Actors Studio”— is really an interesting way to find things out about a person. They’re simple questions, but they lead to interesting answers. I’ve really learned a lot from people that way.
You’ve mentioned on your blog that Twitter and other social-networking sites manage to draw these kinds of connections between both writers and readers in the typically solitary realm of literature.
Yeah, Twitter has been really surprisingly effective. It is a huge time-suck. But there are a lot of writers and publishers, readers, book bloggers and book sellers, who are on Twitter. There’s this sense of an ongoing conversation about writing and reading, which along with the business side of everything, gives a sense of a community involving people that just love books. I think it’s energizing in a way to feel you’re part of this community, rather than reinventing the wheel by yourself. Of course, the actual writing has to be done alone. But it can be nice to pop in and out of this conversation, and be reminded of this community of people out there.
Can you give us an idea of what you’re working on next?
Something I just finished a draft of now is another historical novel that takes place just after the Civil War. It is about mail-order brides going from New York City to a town in Nebraska. Historically, this was actually going on. There were a lot of widows and spinsters who lived in the cities in the East because their husbands had died in the war. Meanwhile, there were a lot of single men living in the West because the Homestead Act had encouraged them to open up the land. A lot of bachelors were doing that. So there were people who made a living out of matchmaking. This story I’m writing describes one shipment of brides coming out to a town in the West.
“The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott”
By Kelly O’Connor McNees
Berkley Trade Paperback, 376 pages, $15