“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under their sober gowns.” — Little Women
Kelly O’Connor McNees opens up her debut novel, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, with this epigraph. Then, she takes the reader’s hand and leads them deep within those words and along the path of an imaginative and believable tale about the life of Louisa May Alcott.
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is McNees’s first novel, but the narrative reads like one composed by a seasoned writer. Historical fiction requires hours of research and a strong passion, and McNees brings both to this story. In her “Author’s Note,” McNees talks about how she re-read Alcott’s letters and journals several times over, so that the character in her novel would sound like Alcott herself.
What results is a beautiful, heart wrenching, and genuine story about the sacrifices women must make for love, or against it.
I’m honored to host an interview with Kelly O’Connor McNees today, where she talks about the novel and her writing process. At the end of her interview, be sure to leave a comment (even your name will do), and you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a free copy of her novel. The winner will be announced next Tuesday, August 10th.
CC: In your novel, under “Author’s Note,” you write on the journey that guided you to your story, an imagined tale of Louisa May Alcott’s summer in Walpole, in 1855. Much of that journey stemmed from biographies you read on Alcott even before you wrote your first draft. Once you decided on the story you wanted to create, how much time did you devote to research? And, how did you decide which elements to weave into your novel?
KOM: Well, first, let me thank you for inviting me to have this conversation. My favorite thing about this work, besides the actual writing, of course, is talking to other writers and readers about how these stories come to be. With The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, the research and writing were a reciprocal process. It’s true that I did read a couple biographies before I started writing, but even then, I had certain scenes in my mind that I knew I would put in the novel. After I started writing, the research continued. I was always trying to learn more about Louisa’s life and work and trying to understand how she felt about her place in the world. I also went back to the library many times looking for obscure historical details–the color of the fabric in carriage’s interior, for example. When I was hunting for that one piece of information, I’d often uncover other interesting facts about day-to-day life that I added the story.
As for decisions about what to put in and what to leave out, those were constantly under revision as well. I wrote many scenes that I ultimately left out because, while interesting, they did not move the story forward. You can sense sometimes when you’re trying to shoehorn something in that doesn’t really fit, and you know you have to let it go. Those are difficult moments, but, ultimately, a compelling, tightly constructed story is what I wanted, so everything had to be subordinate to that goal.
CC: The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is your first novel. Have you always wanted to write historical fiction? And, did you find it easier or more difficult to write on a real person versus a character you make up from scratch?
KOM: I hadn’t ever really thought of writing historical fiction, although I always loved reading it. It was my specific interest in Louisa May Alcott that brought me to this novel. In fact, originally, it was a contemporary novel with historical flashbacks. Louisa’s story made up only a small portion of the novel. But somewhere along the way I realized that this was her book, and these contemporary characters piecing together her story from a distance of 150 years were just gumming up the works and diminishing the impact of Louisa’s struggle. So I cut them all–120 pages–and reworked the whole thing to be a historical novel with Louisa at the center. (Yes, that was a hard day too!)
As for writing about a real person versus a fictional character, I don’t think one is easier than the other. But they are different. With a completely fictional creation, you can do anything. But that can sometimes be the burden: limitless possibilities make it hard to choose one path. Writing about a real person, on the other hand, gives you some definite parameters right from the beginning, but the challenge there is staying true to who Louisa really was while still creating a story that works as a fiction. I always remind people that while this is Louisa, she is the Louisa of my imagination. When you are writing fiction, even fiction about real people, at a certain point you depart from the record, period. And I certainly did in my story. But that’s what makes fiction fun.
CC: On your website, you offer to speak with book clubs about your novel (via technology or in person). How does that intimate connection with your readers enrich your life as a writer, as compared to meeting your fans at a book reading?
KOM: I love going to book clubs. It is such a privilege to get to talk with readers about their experience reading my book, to share about other books we’ve loved, to answer questions when I can and ask them questions I’ve wondered about. Book club members are so gracious and excited about books–what’s not to love? It’s a good reminder that I am writing for an audience who is incredibly intelligent and insightful. I think it makes me work harder on my current project. I so want to earn those readers’ time and attention again. Bookstore events are great too, but book clubs allow for an extended conversation, and that for me is the best part.
CC: What are you reading these days?
KOM: My Name is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira, about a woman in the Civil War who wants to become a surgeon. It is such a lovely book. I also just finished Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, which I loved. I am writing right now about a woman who is interested in botany, so I really loved Elizabeth and Mary, the fossil hunters of this novel. Next up is (the goddess) Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, then Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden because a bookseller in Pawleys Island, South Carolina told me it is one of the five best books she has ever read.
CC: Do you have any final thoughts or advice for writers on the rise?
KOM: I feel too new at this to give any advice, but I will say that if you think you’d like to be a writer, write. Don’t wait. I waited a long time to get up the courage to start trying because I was so afraid of failing. Now I look back on the last ten years and think about how much joy of process I missed out on. Don’t worry about the end product or publication, though obviously that was one of my goals. The deep satisfaction comes from the practice of writing. That’s what I wish someone had told me. Come to think of it, someone probably did tell me that. I just didn’t listen!
CC: Thank you, Kelly! Remember, readers, to leave a comment below (even just your name if you’re feeling shy) to be entered into the drawing for a copy of Kelly’s novel. It’s a great read!
Kelly O’Connor McNees is a former editorial assistant and English teacher. Born and raised in Michigan, she has lived in New York, Rhode Island, and Ontario and now resides with her husband in Chicago. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is her first novel. You can read more about Kelly on her website, www.kellyoconnormcnees.com and find her on Twitter here.