A Conversation with Jeannine Atkins

Portrait of May by Rose Peckham Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association, Orchard House, Concord, Mass.
I’ve been interested in the Alcott family since I was a girl, and my first novel published for young readers was Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands. I wrote about the time when Louisa was eleven and the family lived on a utopian farm that advocated equality for women, though Louisa’s mother did most of the cooking and washing for the men. They were vegetarian, but the soil was rocky and few of the philosophers were inclined to use shovels or hoes. When winter came, the family was in danger of starving. Louisa kept the first diary that we have of hers and the hardships may have led to her becoming a writer.

After writing Becoming Little Women, my interest in the family only grew. As I read more about women’s lives in the mid 1800’s, I realized that Louisa Alcott was not as alone in a garret as I’d thought, but took tea with other women novelists, abolitionists, civil war nurses, suffragists, and her sister, May, who eventually painted in Paris and wrote a book of her own, How to Study Art Abroad and Do it Cheaply. I love art as well as strong women, so writing about May over a period of many years became a joy.

How did you balance the needs of narration with historical fact?

Since a traditional novel calls for rising action, a climax, and resolution, I focused on the tensions between May’s desire to make art, and prove her worth to her family, and her yearning for love and marriage. I read a great deal about May, her family, and Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century and Paris at the dawn of Impressionism, and tried to keep within the framework of facts. Accounts of episodes from the past seemed like gifts. I kept their essence, while highlighting parts, putting away others, and filling in places that were silent. Choosing where to begin and end, the shape to give the past, becomes part of its meaning. I tried to keep May at the center, even as her fascinating sister sometimes threatened to take the stage. And to give a sense of the circling of many novels, even as we read front to back, I put a whiff of evergreen both on the first page and in the last chapter.

How did you stay true to history, while trying to speak to the hearts and minds of people living today?

I stayed as close as I could to the manners, clothing, furniture, and traveling methods of the past, while believing that mostly people aren’t so very different. Sisters are sisters. Love is love. And while there’s progress in women’s rights, when I was thinking of a quick way to present the climate of women’s place in art in the1800s, I thought, “People could walk through a museum and not see a single work signed by a woman.” Then I realized that can still be true today.

What were the highlights of your research? Did you visit archives or any of the places that you describe?

Many of us who write about the past do so because it allows us to read a lot, and on memorable days visit hushed libraries where we take notes with pencils and perhaps wear soft gloves so we don’t damage old paper. Archives seem holy.

And we don’t have to visit the place that we write about, but standing where someone we care about stood changes us, which can change the writing. I was glad to be able to walk through and around houses where May painted and ducked under doorways. I walked up the hill behind Orchard House and Wayside, though the view she would have seen was hidden by trees taller than the apple trees her father once planted there. I swam in Walden Pond where May and Louisa swam, though there’s now a parking lot and changing rooms, and I didn’t wind a sheet around birch trees to make a private space to put on a flannel bathing gown as they did. But I could have heard the same kinds of birds.

Jeannine in front of the National Gallery in London, where May copied Turner landscapes.

Why did you choose the title?

Titles are never easy. I spent a long time trying various titles with my writing group and across the kitchen table with my husband. I finally wanted the connection May had with her sister and her best-known novel as a way to attract readers. The beauty of all the shades of blue was important to May.

What novels inspired you, or did you enjoy?

Clearly, I’m obsessed with Little Women. Novels with historical settings that I come back to include Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Harriet Scott Chessman’s Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, and Susan Vreeland’s fiction about art, such as Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

What are you working on now?

That might be an author’s favorite question, even if superstition keeps our answers vague until a book is in hard covers. Stone Mirrors: A Life in Verse of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis is due to come out from Simon and Schuster in 2017. I’m working on a series of poems about grief, motherhood, translation, almond blossoms and art, as well as a novel for young readers in which history has a magical element. And I just had an idea for another book set in nineteenth century Concord, Massachusetts.


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