|Elise Hooper, photo by Chris Landry|
Q: You write that growing up near the Alcott family museum, you were always drawn to May Alcott. At what point did you decide to write a novel based on her life?
A: Initially I embarked on writing a novel about Louisa, but her life is already so well explored that I decided to find a new focus. Then I remembered the sister who drew on her bedroom walls and wanted to know more about her.
As I researched May’s life, I discovered the major events constituting her biography, but there was a lot of blank space and opportunity for me imagine her emotional journey and create a story.
Q: What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and historical as you wrote the novel, and what did you learn about May that especially surprised you?
A: May didn’t leave a big collection of letters and journals behind to assemble details about her daily life as an artist so I researched the lives of other women from this era studying art, both in Boston and Europe.
I was surprised by how challenging it was for a woman to become a professional painter. Unlike Louisa who was able to teach herself how to write stories by experimenting and studying other authors, it was much more complicated to become a self-taught painter.
You needed models, supplies, and to study other art, but there weren’t museums and art schools in America’s cities like there are today. May and her contemporaries had to be tenacious to secure instruction, models, and access to private collections, not to mention the money to pay for all of these things.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between May and her famous sister Louisa?
A: The historical record leaves no evidence of any long-standing dispute between the sisters, but there are whiffs of competition and frustration here and there in letters and journals.
Louisa always felt (somewhat resentfully) that life came easily to May and this led her to be dismissive of her younger sister’s hard work at times. Since Louisa paid for May’s art training for many years, I couldn’t help but imagine that must have led to some tension too.
Louisa also went through periods of frustration as a result of her poor health and she felt constrained by the creative limits of what the publishing world expected of her as a woman author, so I imagined that she couldn’t have always been easy to get along with. But overall the sisters were very dedicated to each other.
Q: What do May's experiences say about the role of women artists during her lifetime?
A: May’s experiences demonstrate that you had to be an independently-minded woman to pursue a career in art, or any career for that matter.
Artists like Mary Cassatt, Anne Whitney, and Maria Bashkirtseff had families that supported them, both emotionally and financially as they forged their paths forward. Others, like Elizabeth Jane Gardner and Helen Knowlton, persevered to support themselves despite economic and societal limitations.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on edits for a new novel about Dorothea Lange, a pioneering documentary photographer from the 1930s and ‘40s.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: When I’m not writing, I’m reading, enjoying dance parties with my daughters, or playing tennis. I’ve been accused of playing too much tennis, but really, there’s no such thing.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb