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.)

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19 thoughts on “The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life (Wheee!)

  1. This looks like my sort of book. I'm reminded of books I've read or tried to read, and how many classics I have yet to digest. I tried to read The Yearling when I was ten or so and gave up. I was bored to tears. I expected to like Little Women because it had a character named Beth, but we all know what happens to Beth in the end. That made kid-me rather indignant.

  2. I enjoy the history surrounding these women but how interesting to get insight into their thoughts.I count myself among the many Jane Austen fans but Francine Rivers, a current author, is a favorite.

  3. Wheee! That's a good word too.There was a wonderful documentary about Zora on PBS a couple of months ago; she was a beautiful soul who did not let anything stand in her way. I think if I were to choose one of the twelve to share an afternoon with it would be George Sand. Although I may not be entirely comfortable with her I'll bet it would be a fascinating day.Sounds like a lovely book!

  4. I love the quote by Madeleine L'engle. I remember as a kid I was so impressed to see a real author with a name similar to mine. :)And isn't it funny how LMA had no idea of the impact LW would have on generations of girls and women. You just never know what will happen to the words you write after you send them out into the universe…

  5. Sally, you're so right about the history! I'm kind of a history geek, too, so I really enjoyed learning more about the context in which these women wrote. One thing about LMA, she wrote for money. And Harriet Beecher Stowe supported her family, too. SO interesting to hear their stories in their own words! And to hear your favorites! Thanks for dropping by, y'all.

  6. This sounds like a great book! One of my favorite female authors is Toni Morrison–I'd love to have a chat with her. And Jane Austen. And Virginia Woolf.

  7. I have always adored Laura Ingalls Wilder. I have several books on her life and picked another one up last summer when I visited the little house in the big woods in Wisconsin. It's interesting how complicated her relationship with her daughter was, especially since Rose was the editor of the Little House books.

  8. Yum! Another delicious-sounding book to add to my must-read list!!! I don't who are the 12 writers in the book, but if I had my druthers (how's that for a good ol' word) I'd love to meet and chat with Betty MacDonald. She wrote several autobiographical-memoir-esque books but I know her as the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series. Man I loved those stories! I mean, who wouldn't love a smiley woman who had been married to a pirate and had an upside down house with chadeliers coming up out of the floor???? I did my part to spread those stories to all the kids I taught in the 1970s-2000s. Good stories last through generations!Keeping my fingers crossed that I'm a winner here!

  9. Madeleine L’Engle gives me freedom…I feel like I am taking a risk every time I sit down to write and I am not a risk taker by nature… maybe just maybe that is why writing is so freeing!

  10. Thanks for all the great comments, everyone. I love to hear who others admire and/or have been influenced by. Just wanted to let you know that another stop has been added to the WOW blog tour, on Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them! [http://margodill.com/blog/2011/04/14/wow-blog-tour-writing-or-working-and-motherhood] On it is my guest post about the challenge of the work/life/motherhood balance, and what authors of the past and present have to say on the subject.And please join me on Facebook for further news and events pertaining to the Literary Ladies! – http://www.facebook.com/pages/Nava-Atlas/67621864858?ref=mf

  11. Thanks for the update, Nava. I love Margo's blog! And I'm rather fond of Facebook, too, so I'll jump over there and join you.As for MY literary ladies (and gentlemen) visitors, you can comment through the weekend for a chance to win Nava's book, so spread the word!

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