Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life (Wheee!)

Ooooh! I’ve been excited about sharing The Literary Ladies from the moment I met them!

Technically, I’ve known the literary ladies from Nava Atlas’ wonderful book, The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life, for many years. I met a few of them when I was just a gangly teenager with braces. Reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice made me feel quite elegant, and curling up with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre introduced me to gothic romance (so much more exciting than skinny, pimply boys falling off surfboards at the beach).

Still, I didn’t know the literary ladies like this, their writerly and not-so-writerly whys, and whats and hows of the women behind the books. Nava Atlas did her homework to bring us an inside look at The Literary Ladies, and I’m thrilled to be able to share some of her insights today at this, Nava’s last stop of her WOW! blog tour. So on to the questions!

With the perspectives of all these literary ladies, your book is unlike most guide-to-writing books, and yet it contains an abundance of advice and guidance! So which came first—choosing the literary ladies or finding all that brilliant writing wisdom?
It was definitely finding the wisdom first, then narrowing it down to the twelve authors. I was looking not only for wisdom, but for writings about the universal concerns and obstacles inherent in the writing life, viewed through the experiences of authors who eventually surmounted these difficulties.

It took several years of occasional delving into diaries, collections of letters, interviews, and memoirs to amass enough material for a full-length book. I’m quite a library geek so I loved having an excuse to bury myself in dusty volumes and archives.

As you researched, did you find women writers you hated to leave out? Who didn’t make the final cut, and why?
Above all, I hated to leave out Zora Neale Hurston (ca. 1891-1960). She was not only a literary pioneer with a distinctive voice (best known for Their Eyes Were Watching God), but studied anthropology in the 1920s at Barnard College, where she was the sole black student.

She seemed to be such an exuberant, courageous spirit, but her efforts were always undercut by money troubles. She died alone and forgotten, but then Alice Walker helped resurrect her legacy. Now her books have sold in droves and she is studied widely. However, I just couldn’t find enough about her writing life (other than her money woes pertaining to such) to weave through the chapters.

I almost used Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953), author of the children’s classic The Yearling, as she did leave a fair amount of writings on her life as a writer, but there was some indefinable thing about her that somehow didn’t resonate with me; she often seemed to have some axe to grind. Ultimately I thought that twelve was a better number than thirteen, and not just due to superstition!

So many interesting and surprising tidbits of these writers’ lives are included that I’d love to share all the secrets! But since my book efforts are in children’s literature, I’ll go with Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. Can you divulge a shocker or two about sweet Louisa?

Louisa May Alcott was a hard-working, strong woman. The biggest surprise for me was that she wrote lots of anonymous thrillers and gothics before her classic Little Women was published. She did them because she needed the money to support her mother and sisters. She thought of Little Women as just another job, cranking it out to make a quick buck. Both she and her publisher were surprised at its immediate success. One of the anonymous thrillers she wrote, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was republished just a few years ago with her real name. I read about 90% of it; sorry to say I didn’t think it was very good, and LMA may well have agreed with that assessment.

What I like about Alcott was her determination to earn a living from writing and not being wimpy about demanding her due. It took decades of slow but steady progress, but she did finally earn not just a living, but a tidy sum from Little Women and the books that followed. Unfortunately, she only lived to the age of 55, and was pretty well worn out by overwork and illness by then.

If you could sit down and have tea and a chat with any of these women, with whom would you choose to share an afternoon? (Goodness, reading this book has already improved my literary skills!)
I notice lately that some women with whom (see that?) I have been in touch have revived the word “whilst.” So maybe there is a trend toward better grammar and classic vocabulary!

It would be hard to choose, of course. I would have loved to meet them all and do the things they enjoyed doing—go to the opera with Willa Cather (though I found her to be a bit intimidating); stroll with Edith Wharton in Paris, visit with George Sand and all her famous literary and musical cohorts at her lovely estate in central France; and see how Edna Ferber went about transforming her novels into movies and Broadway shows.

I’ve been asked who I would like to meet if I could choose but one, and that would be Charlotte Brontë. Her use of the English language was so exquisite that I imagine she’d be a good conversationalist. She also seemed so tough and determined in persevering not only on her own behalf, but that of her literary sisters, Emily and Anne. She sometimes invoked her small stature, and as another very petite woman I would enjoy looking her in the eye!

I’m sure it’s hard to pick a favorite piece of writerly (Oops! Maybe I’m not as improved as I thought.) advice or inspiration from these literary ladies, so I’ll just ask you to leave us with the quote that resonates with you today.
You know, the word “writerly” (and even “writery”) has come up several times in conversations about this book. My word processing program doesn’t highlight it as an error, so I think we can safely use it; it’s a great word!

Since you’re interested in children’s literature, I’ll leave you with a quote by Madeleine L’Engle (1818-2007), best known for the YA classic A Wrinkle in Time. As both a writer and visual artist, I remind myself that it’s important to take risks, even though it feels like I’m constantly trying to reinvent the wheel:

“Risk is essential. It’s scary. Every time I sit down and start the first page of a novel I am risking failure … We are encouraged only to do that which we can be successful in. But things are accomplished only by our risk of failure. Writers will never do anything beyond the first thing unless they risk growing.”

—From Madeleine L’Engle Herself, 2001

You. Will. Love. This. Book. If you’re lucky, you’ll win the copy I’ve pored over. Leave me a comment about your favorite literary lady, or if you have a question for Nava, she’ll be checking in today with answers. On Monday, I’ll draw a name.

If you’re not so lucky here, don’t despair. Nava has assured me that there are plenty of copies available of The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life. So either way, make room on your shelf for this wonderful book. Seriously, you'll whee for excitement, too.

Um, you know what I mean.

(P.S. Just heard from Nava that she'll be making another WOW! blog stop, so we'll ask her to leave details in the comments. But that doesn't mean you can slack off here. A wheee in the hand is worth two wheee's in the future blog.)