The Debs are happy to welcome guest author Kelly O’Connor McNees today, whose debut novel, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, is a fantastic mix of fact and fiction. Kelly studied Louisa’s letters and journals and wove together the story of a summer that would change the course of Louisa’s writing career and inspire the famous love story in Alcott’s masterpiece, Little Women. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott has won rave reviews from the Washington Post and from the likes of author Meg Waite Clayton, who called it “a wonderfully imagined, lively novel of first love.” Kelly is a former editorial assistant and English teacher. Raised in Michigan, she now lives with her husband in Chicago. Please make sure to check out the terrific trailer for the book here! And welcome, Kelly.
History was never my favorite subject in school. It seemed completely dead to me: a succession of discrete events, names, and dates that had no connection to my life. In one high school history class, we painstakingly copied outlines off overhead transparencies written in wax pencil. Dozens of transparencies each day. The teacher—let’s call him Mr. Gusto–would drone, “Everybody done?” before he placed the next plastic sheet on the hot glass. Sometimes he’d find a mistake or misspelling, lick a tissue, and smear the erroneous text out. Ew.
As the clock ticked at a glacial pace I would entertain an elaborate fantasy that I might somehow slyly fashion a rope ladder from the shoelaces of nearby students and a few of the sweatshirts hanging over the backs of chairs. Then, when beleaguered Mr. Gusto’s wax pencil broke and he turned his back to grind away at it in the wall-mounted sharpener, I’d make my move, leaping out the window to freedom. I never actually did this, of course, but it was so clear in my imagination that it was almost as if I had.
Now, wait a minute, you might be thinking. Didn’t you write a historical novel? Yes, I did. Because, thanks to some more reading and some better teachers, I realized something that stopped my past-loathing self in her tracks: History is about people. History is about individuals, their relationships, their choices, and the way they collide with circumstance.
Which means that history is about stories.
This changed everything. If history was about stories, it could have drama and suspense and comedy and tragedy and plenty of the unexpected. There would be blood and guts, love and betrayal–and lots of great clothes. Why hadn’t Mr. Gusto told us about any of this? Who knows. Maybe he didn’t know.
A couple years ago I started reading biographies of Louisa May Alcott with an eye toward writing a novel about her. I had always loved Little Women, and I knew Louisa also had a life as a suffragette and abolitionist, alongside her philosopher father Bronson Alcott. The more I read about Louisa–what she dreamed of and how those dreams were complicated and thwarted and sometimes fulfilled by circumstance and choice–the more I wanted to build a story around her life.
I kept reading, but I felt my imagination stalling out. I couldn’t find an entry point into the story. It was kind of like being back in Mr. Gusto’s class, copying down the dates. I was reading about her, but I wasn’t getting to the heart of who she was. I had lots of information, but I didn’t have a story.
What I needed, I could see, were Louisa’s own words. So I checked her collected letters and journals out of the library and combed through to find her voice. I wanted to know: What was the Louisa-ness of Louisa? Boy, did I find out! Here I was, reading the very words she wrote in the long, difficult years before she had any success as a writer, reading about her true and deep devotion to her sisters, her sadness at Elizabeth’s death, her loneliness after Anna’s marriage. She became a real person to me, a person with a story. And that was where my novel about her came from—not from her history but from her story, the story she told about herself.
Here is the passage I love more than all the rest, from a letter she wrote to her sister Anna in 1858:
I’m disgruntled with this letter; for I always begin trying to be proper and neat; but my pen will not keep in order, and ink has a tendency to splash . . . I have to be so moral and so dignified nowadays that the jocosity of my nature will gush out when it gets the chance, and the consequences are, as you see, rubbish. But you like it; so let’s be merry while we may, for tomorrow is Monday, and the weekly grind begins again.
A lot of the scenes in my novel and many of its characters are fictional, but the one aspect of the story I hope adheres to historical fact is Louisa’s own voice. Nothing I invented could possibly compete with the true spirit of this remarkable woman.