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Chicago Author Spotlight: Kelly O'Connor McNees

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 8, 2010 4:00PM

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees
Little Women plays a strong role in the cannon of literature for young female readers. The book hasn't been out of print since its first publication in 1868 and has since been adapted for theater, film, opera, Broadway, and, yes, even Japanese anime.

The book's success immediately branded Louisa May Alcott as an author of stories for young readers who learned from humility and hard work. She tried her hand at writing juicier, less-wholesome stories under a pseudonym, but they didn't sell well. Little Women would always be her claim to fame.

Several biographers have tried to dig deep into Alcott's psyche, but she was extremely concerned with maintaining her image even after her death, so burned all her letters and journals. Furthermore, few biographers have explored Alcott's life before Little Women made her famous. So when writer Kelly O’Connor McNees began to read more about one of her favorite authors, she felt like something was missing. Who was this passionate and romantic author whose life had no evidence of passion and romance? What was Alcott like before Little Women changed her life forever? And so McNees set out to fill in the blanks. Her new book, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is based partly on research and is part fiction; it's a piece of historical fiction that incorporates real people and events from Alcott's life.

Kelly O’Connor McNees will discuss and sign copies of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott tonight at 7:30 p.m. She will be at the Barnes & Noble at 1441 W. Webster Ave. The event is free.

Chicagoist: You did a lot of research for The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, but it is also a work of fiction. How do feel comfortable balancing the two?
Kelly O’Connor McNees: It can be tricky, because this is a real person. You have to tread carefully. This is written from a place of respect for her, and you try to get that across and capture the essence of her. But it is a novel, and there is a point where you draw the line. It's a fun exercise to go from what we know and fill in the blanks. You do research and then draw that line and bring in the imagination.

C: What inspired you to try to craft a story about Louisa May Alcott?

KOM: I had read Little Women many times since I was younger and always loved it. And then I started to read about Louisa, and I started to get interested in her life in general. I started thinking about who she was before she became an icon. Who is this real person and what would it be like became such a staple of American girlhood? I began imagining her at a different time in her life.

C: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

KOM: It's definitely important to have short-term goals and try to meet that word count goal every day. Writing a novel is like running a marathon, you can't put out the whole 26 miles at the start. You have to have small milestones to keep yourself going. And Elizabeth Gilbert had this quotation that you have to be able to forgive yourself. Of course the goal is to be disciplined, and you are going to fail, and you have to be able to forgive that and move on a start fresh the next day. Every day you have to start again.

C: Now that you've moved to Chicago, how are you finding the writing community here?
KOM: I love the Book Cellar and the Chicago Writers Association — those people are all very great and supportive of each other. Writing is such a balance of solitude and being in communication with other people who are doing what you are doing. With everything online, it would be easy to stay at home, but it's important to remember other people are also sitting in their offices and writing.