Elise Hooper is the author of the new novel Learning to See: A Novel of Dorothea Lange, the Woman Who Revealed the Real America. She also has written the novel The Other Alcott, which focuses on Louisa May Alcott and her sister May. Hooper lives in Seattle, and she teaches history and literature.
Q: Both Louisa May Alcott and Dorothea Lange were determined to pursue their art. How would you compare the two as artists and as people?
A: Ohhh, this is such a good question that no one has asked me yet! You’re absolutely right when you describe both of these women as “determined.” Both Lange and Alcott served as breadwinners for their families during eras when women rarely had the means to do so.
Louisa had always been interested in writing gothic romances and suspense stories, but her publisher convinced her to write Little Women, assuring her there was a market for books aimed at young audiences. As we all know now, he was correct. Little Women was a runaway success.
After spending her young life teetering on financial insecurity, this newfound money provided enormous relief, so she turned to writing more books for young audiences to capitalize on her success, but she never quite felt satisfied with writing this type of work. She ended up writing several books that spoke more to her creative spirit under a pen name.
On the other hand, Dorothea’s career developed along a different trajectory. She found early financial success as a studio portrait photographer, but as the economy worsened with the Great Depression, she felt compelled to document what was happening to people on the streets of San Francisco and gave up the financial security of her studio work to become an artist and activist.
It was this type of work that she really came into her own and satisfied herself, both creatively and philosophically, while at the same, these photographs paid her bills.
Q: How did you research Dorothea's life, and did you learn anything especially surprising?
A: As I was researching her life, all kinds of surprises turned up. I read many biographies, watched documentaries, studied her photos, visited the Museum of California’s Dorothea Lange collection, and read an oral history she produced for the University California.
One of the most surprising and interesting aspects of her life was the complex relationship Lange had with Ansel Adams. They collaborated on many projects together, but their philosophies were often at odds, especially when photographing California’s internment camps during World War II.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Dorothea often spoke of the need for people to “learn to see” because she felt that most of us don’t pay attention to what’s really happening around us. I also felt that her own life’s journey represented a trajectory of her own learning to see.
Q: What do you see as Dorothea Lange's legacy today?
A: Dorothea Lange exemplifies how art can be used to raise awareness about specific social injustices and environmental issues. Her photography embodied this type of activism in the 1930s, ‘40s, and until her death in 1965, and many of these similar issues continue to confront us in 2019.
Her personal life also serves as a fascinating look at what the lives of ambitious women were like during the early 1900s. As a working mother, Dorothea had few support networks available to her, and as a result, she made choices about childcare that astonish many of today’s readers.
While it’s easy to dismiss many of her challenges as being a thing of the past, it’s important to note that safe and affordable childcare is still a struggle for many working parents today.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My new novel, Fast Girls, will be releasing in summer 2020 and it’s about several pioneering women track stars of the 1930s and follows their journey to Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. These women have amazing stories that I can’t wait to share with readers!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Follow me on Instagram (@elisehooper) to see behind-the-scenes photos for my forthcoming book. There are also pictures of my dog, knitting projects, and more!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elise Hooper.