Thursday, October 27, 2022

Q&A with Sarah Miller




Sarah Miller is the author of the new novel Marmee: A Novel of Little Women. Her other books include the novel Caroline: Little House, Revisited. She lives in Michigan.


Q: What inspired you to write a novel based on Marmee, the mother in Little Women?


A: Would you believe it was my editor’s idea? In the midst of a discussion about something else entirely, she came up with Marmee and I leapt at the chance.


Q: You've also written a novel based on Ma Ingalls from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. How would you compare the two characters, and did you use a similar process to writing about each of them?


A: These two women are as similar as they are different: Both are mothers of four distinctly different daughters. Both also lost an infant son. Each was the wife of an adored and idealistic yet infuriatingly impractical man. The constraints of 19th-century expectations for women impacted both of them deeply. Their devotion to family is equally strong.


Perhaps most intriguingly, Caroline Ingalls and Abba May Alcott both raised daughters whose tomboyish characters are firmly imprinted on the American consciousness — daughters who would also enshrine their mothers in beloved novels.


And yet, in temperament and outlook, the two could hardly be more different. Ma Ingalls is mild and patient, while Marmee is restless and prey to the constant vagaries of her temper. Ma Ingalls is a shining example of the traditional role of women in Victorian society, and Marmee revels in the fulfillment she finds outside the home. Ma Ingalls is 100 percent susceptible to the racism of her time, while Marmee actively rebels against it. 


As far as research is concerned, I was severely hampered by Covid-19 restrictions. In the past I’ve been able to visit the sites of my historical settings, and burrow into archives for primary sources. That wasn’t possible this time. Travel was out of the question.


Harvard University’s library, where Abba May Alcott’s letters and diaries are held, wasn’t open, even for remote research. When they did re-open, there was a six-month backup for requests.


Fortunately, Eve LaPlante, a historian and great-niece of Abba May Alcott, has written two books about the woman who inspired Marmee March — a biography, and a collection of Mrs. Alcott’s own writings. I leaned heavily on those volumes to get a sense of the woman behind Marmee. Digitized editions of antique memoirs by Alcott family friends also came to my rescue.


Eventually, after I had written two drafts, I was finally able to visit Concord, Massachusetts, and see Orchard House, the Alcott family home, in October of 2021. And finally, a human chain that began with a friend and ended with a total stranger linked together to obtain scans of the Harvard materials as soon as the library reopened in February of 2022. That gave me just enough time to squeeze in a few more details I otherwise would have missed.

Q: In writing and researching the novel, how much did you take from the fictional Marmee and how much from the life of Louisa May Alcott's actual mother?


A: Perhaps as much as half and half. Louisa May Alcott blended her own family life so readily with fiction that I felt free to do the same.


Unlike Laura Ingalls Wilder, who somewhat disingenuously insisted that “all I have written is the truth,” Alcott never claimed that her March family novels were so firmly entrenched in fact. Alcott’s more relaxed approach to her own history gave me tacit permission to include aspects of the Alcott family’s stances on social issues of the day that aren’t apparent in Little Women.


So in Marmee, Abba May Alcott’s passion for charity, humanitarianism, and the Abolitionist movement come to the forefront. The trick was in making sure that my Margaret March is still immediately recognizable as the warm and gentle Marmee that generations of readers love and admire.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Alcott's Marmee?


A: Marmee’s virtue always seems so effortless, when the truth is quite the contrary. Although she confesses to Jo in Little Women that “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” Louisa May Alcott gave us only the tiniest hints of Marmee’s interior struggle.


Perhaps if Alcott hadn’t been writing for children, she might have treated us to a more complex portrayal of her mother. But because she was writing for a young audience, she had to find some way to inject the morality that was expected of children’s books in the 1860s. Marmee became that instrument.


And perhaps, too, Louisa May Alcott took her mother’s feelings into account as she crafted Marmee March, for Abba May Alcott certainly wasn’t proud of her fearsome temper. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I’m in the midst of a young adult biography of Lorena Hickok, the Associated Press reporter whose pioneering career in journalism has been eclipsed by her romantic relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I guess just that I love digging around in these unprobed corners of literature and history. For me it’s great fun to discover what’s been overlooked in a story that seems so familiar.


Louisa May Alcott said so much that still speaks to readers 150 years later, and yet look at how much she left unsaid – there was a war on in Little Women, for heaven’s sake, and it hardly makes a dent into Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy’s consciousness. Marmee, essentially functioning as a single mother for the duration of the Civil War, certainly didn’t have that luxury.


And there’s also the whole issue of how perspective affects perception, which I find endlessly fascinating. How does Jo’s view of Marmee compare with how Margaret March sees herself, for instance? So far, those are the invisible threads connecting all of my books, despite their vastly different subjects. How else can you get from Lizzie Borden to Little Women, after all?


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sarah Miller.

No comments:

Post a Comment