One of my favorite new books about Louisa May Alcott is The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. This is not a standard biography but a flight of fancy – a historical novel based on a period in Louisa’s life where there is a notable gap in her journal writings and letters. Author Kelly O’Connor McNees took the opportunity to fabricate a plausible and wonderful story about a possible romance Louisa might have had in her early twenties – a romance that perhaps could have been one of the inspirations for her most endearing male character, Laurie from Little Women.
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is Kelly’s debut book and has done very well having been selected for Oprah’s summer reading list. The book has sold so well that it will be issued in paperback in May of 2011 (take a sneak peak here).
Kelly was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book.
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is your first novel (before that you were an English teacher). How long had you nursed the dream of writing a novel and what was it about Louisa that inspired you to write this one?
I have wanted to write novels since before I had ever even read a novel. I always wanted to be a writer, since I was very young. I can remember distinctly leafing through books in the public library, when I was about 13, and wanting to call to all the other people around me who seemed so calm, reading the newspaper–“hey, do you guys know what’s in these books?” I just couldn’t believe how much wonderfully vibrant stories and people were in books. I loved Little Women but didn’t know much about Louisa until a few years ago, when I picked up a biography on her on a whim. I was just captivated by her. I couldn’t get enough and knew I would have to answer all the unanswerable questions by writing fiction about her.
You discovered Louisa by first reading Little Women, and later, Martha Saxton’s Louisa May Alcott A Modern Biography. What was it about her life that so attracted you? (Have you ever had a chance to visit Orchard House?)
I have visited Orchard House, for the first time last spring. What a wonderful place! They need the support of Alcott fans, and American lit fans, and New England fans–that house takes a lot of work and expense to keep up, and the Alcott society is doing such important work keeping that legacy alive.
I was attracted to Louisa’s spirit and determination and pragmatism. I included a quote in the story that comes from Louisa’s own words: “I resolved to take fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.” That quote is the essence of Louisa. She was nobody’s fool, and she wasn’t going to wait for the world to come lay its riches at her doorstep. She was going to go out and get them. I love that about her.
In reading Lost Summer, you took some bold chances with the storyline considering the fact you were writing about a real person. What gave you the confidence and courage to take the story where it went?
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is a novel. Yes, it is about a real person, but the Louisa character in my story is the Louisa of my imagination–a fiction. Once I committed to the book as a piece of fiction (not a a biography or a revised history or anything else), I felt free to concentrate on the words and deeds of the characters that were authentic and logical within that fictional world.
Do you think Louisa would have liked your book?
I’m not sure. But I hope she would know that I wrote it from a place of deep admiration and a desire to tell a story about her as a real person, in all her complexity–not just as a quiet spinster writing mild tales for young girls. She was so much more than that, and I wanted people to know about it.
How has your life changed since you wrote Lost Summer? What projects are you working on currently?
My life has changed in that, for now at least, I am no longer teaching middle school. I am working on another historical novel and looking forward to seeing The Lost Summer in paperback in May 2011.
Are you aware of any other author that inspires the devotion that Louisa inspires?
I agree with you that LMA fans are ardent ones. I suppose Jane Austen has a pretty strong following. And maybe Charlotte Bronte. Lucy Maud Montgomery has quite a base in Ontario (we used to live there). But you’re right–Louisa seems to be in a class by herself!
Here’s a video I found where Kelly discusses her book in depth to a Google book group