Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 14, 2015

What Never Disappears

I had a good time talking about Little Woman in Blue at the Dickinson Library in Whately today. Wendy, the librarian, wore a blue sweater and spread blue cloths over the tables, and Georgia, a member of the Friends of the Library, made blueberry cake for us to have with coffee. I appreciate people who get into a theme. I saw old friends and met book club members. It was lovely to sign books for readers of Little Women, and some buying gifts for mothers, sisters, and daughters: one mom asked me to sign a copy to “another woman in blue.”

Whately Library book sale 2010 Panorama

We talked about the differences between life and art. I got a little choked up when I talked about May in Paris, which for her turned from a dream into a home. I was asked, “How does it feel to let go of people you spent so much time with?” I replied that the Alcotts still seem with me. Talking about them at the library, or visiting May’s stone in the Concord cemetery: they’re family, forever part of my life. I hope to go back to Orchard House soon, since some objects including a few of May’s drawings and a photograph of her daughter are displayed until the end of November. I’ll see the river again through her eyes. My book is finished and I don’t expect to write more about the Alcotts. I also don’t expect to ever escape their spell.


If you live nearby and couldn’t be at this event, I hope you’ll come to the Jones Library at 7:00 on Tuesday Nov. 17 to hear me talk about May in the context of nineteenth century art. I’ll show slides of her work and that of her teachers, students, and friends. Amherst Books kindly will be there selling copies of Little Woman in Blue, which I hope will be on some peoples’ holiday lists, perhaps along with a book by May’s sister?

In the meantime, it’s back to a notebook and window seat, following one detail — an old imaginary string of pearls — letting it lead me deeper into a plot.

(Whately Library photo taken at a recent library book sale by my husband: photo of me at Sleepy Hollow cemetery Melodye Shore — thank you both!)

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 12, 2015

A String of Pearls and Paint

I often feel adrift before I commit to pen and paper. Maybe that’s what some writer’s rituals are about: the pencil sharpening, coffee making, or cat petting help us make the transition from mulling to dredging up words, crafting a vision into a book. We’re about to spend time making something out of nothing, or of memory, imagination, thin air. I trust what I can touch or taste, but since I make a life with words, I chose a vocabulary that leans to the tangible.

Sometimes a small detail pulls me into a story. I can hear my heart briefly stop as I spot an object important to my character. This may rise after lots of scribbling about what she wears, where she walks, what she keeps in her handbag or drawer. More details come as I keep writing, and now that I’m in revising a manuscript, details guide me along the way. Looking for ways to show more about Edmonia Lewis, a nineteenth century sculptor who is at the center of my forthcoming book, Stone Mirrors, I envisioned her helping someone in her dormitory arrange her hair. Might the girls talk about pearls, and how Cleopatra wove them through her hair? Might one girl look for a string of pearls her father gave her, and not find them, breaking trust? Could all of this echo what’s in a statue of Cleopatra that Edmonia sculpts years later? Those missing and found pearls serve as a sort of flashlight as I get lost along the way, and try to kick up tension between those plot points. After writing a lot of bad stuff, I’m getting to see once ragged edges of scenes form tight corners. There’s the detail, then the work, then just the right place to put those details.

It’s good to work on something new, though my attention doesn’t stray too long from May Alcott, who lived around the same time. I’m having fun sorting through photos as I put together a talk about art and Little Woman in Blue at the Dickinson Library in Whately, MA this Saturday Nov. 14 at 11 a.m. I’ll be at another favorite place, Jones Library in Amherst MA on Tuesday Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. For Paintings Hung in Parlors.


I’ll show slides of May’s work as well as that of some of her teachers, such as William Rimmer, her student Daniel Chester French, and her friends Mary Cassatt. I’ll discuss the role of art for women in the nineteenth century, including May Alcott’s forward thinking in wanting a life that included both art and a family, and her feminism as shown in her book Studying Art Abroad and How to Do it Cheaply. There she comments not only on good places to buy paints (and shoes and hose) in London and Paris, but also about how the teachers in Paris charge women three times what they charge men, who get to work with more experienced models and are given more serious criticism. She suggests that women protest to make a change, which might happen, as she’s seeing excellent work by women, and instructors may want to take credit for such talented former students.

There’s so much to learn from the past, as is suggested by these chairs I photographed outside the art library at Smith College.


A short piece I wrote about the ways and possible whys of Louisa’s decision to depict May in Little Women as less talented and driven than she was in life was just published on Passages to the Past. Thank you, Amy! Also, I recently answered questions about writing challenges and inspiration at Wordswimmer, where there are often interesting conversations about writing and yoga. You can click on the link for a radio interview I did for New Books in Historical Fiction with the smart and lovely-voiced C.P. Lesley. We discuss the differences between writing for children and adults, writing poetry and prose, and between the real lives of the Alcott family, those depicted in Little Women and yet again in Little Woman in Blue.

Big thanks for everyone’s interest as I get back to finding out what happened to those pearls, and a missing paint box, too.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 9, 2015

Thanking Readers

There’s some paper crunching and throwing happening on my window seat as I take a pretty good manuscript and try to add roadblocks or traps, and generally amp up the tension. I pull my turtleneck past my chin and scowl at the computer screen. But the celebratory yellow roses from my kind nephew and his wife remind me with every sweet breath of how lucky I am with relatives, friends, readers, and some who are all of those at once. Here’s a post of gratitude, including for a lovely review of Little Woman in Blue in The Recorder, which suggests May as a dream role for any actress (agreed!). Unabridged Chick (whose photo I reproduced below) notes, “Conservative New England mores combined with May’s family’s poverty means she struggles for access to materials, classes, and inspiration yet the fierce hunger we see in Louisa’s Jo (from Little Women) is just as urgent in May.” It was gratifying to see someone who didn’t like the youngest sister in Little Woman come to admire the real woman. And also to meet the hopes of some devoted Alcott fans such as the proprietress of Beth’s Book-Nook Blog who writes, “I’ve been known to stop reading a book, shout, “Hogwash!” and actually toss it away if it contains what I perceive to be Alcott sacrilege.” Yes, I’ve tossed some books myself, and am so pleased to know Beth thinks I kept on the right side of hogwash.


Most creative writing means trying to work a way into what Coleridge called the willing suspension of disbelief. Writing historical fiction always means taking care to get the food, clothing, and diction right, but while others who begin with biography play loose to good effect, I kept as close as I could to known chronology. I honored facts, while developing small episodes and filling in what isn’t known. I hoped not only not to annoy librarians and Alcott fans too much, but that they’d manage to fall under fiction’s spell and think Little Woman in Blue shows a way that things might have happened.

It’s an author’s dream to hear that people we never met are moved by our words, connecting with someone we’ve been living with alone in our rooms. It’s also lovely to hear from friends, such as Sue, who I’ve known for decades, who tells me about reading the novel to her mother, sometimes in the waiting rooms at doctors’ offices. A colleague in the English Department at UMass wrote, “To say that it sure beats Trollope does not do it or you justice.” And my daughter gave the novel five stars on Goodreads, which is one more than she gave Mindy Kaling. I’m honored.


Now I’m back to new work, fresh with inspiration from the SCBWI Eastern NY Falling Leaves conference on Lake George, a weekend of writing and critiquing with peers, and gaining wisdom from generous editors. There was a bit of down time, too, including taking a walk with Toby Speed, talking about her poetry and how I imagined my protagonist responding to the trees, cottages, and signs on the road. When we wound our way back to the porch and I stopped to take a picture of these chairs, she laughed and said, “Oh, this will be on your blog. How you heard your characters between buildings and by the lake.” Yes, and between the slats of conversation with her. Grateful.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 3, 2015

Pedestals and Ponds

I grew up in the 1950’s in a pretty house in a pretty town where we learned not to speak about heartache. As I became an adult, a revelation was how much had been hidden in other houses, too. I became a writer not to shame my family or the neighbors or blow up facades. I carried with me beauty along with hurt, and wanted to find ways to put them side by side. I looked for models in books I’d loved. I remembered the generosity and moral striving in Little Women, but when I learned about the real issues of the woman who wrote that novel and the family she based her fictional world upon, I cared about them even more. I felt sad that Louisa May Alcott thought she couldn’t tell the whole truth, or at least the sort of truth we find in novels. I wrote my book for young readers, Becoming Little Woman: Louisa May at Fruitlands, to tell more about the hard year when Louisa was twelve that might have turned her into a writer. Trouble is often inspiration. I wrote Little Woman in Blue to address some of the rivalry as well as love between the Alcott sisters.


We live in a more open era than the one I grew up in. Icons get pulled down and broken. Stuffing gets strewn, as much of it should. But sometimes I wish people would take more breaths and second looks. I just read a recent New Yorker article called “Pond Scum,” taking down Henry David Thoreau. Yeah, he wasn’t perfect. But did I ever think so? Even when I read (okay, let’s put “read” in quotes) Walden in high school, I had my doubts about him. My teacher might have told us that he brought his laundry to his mother. I might not want to have lunch with him, but he wrote good lines about bluebirds and woodchucks, and I’m happy that he was who he was. I’ve always preferred Ralph Waldo Emerson’s rolling sentences and admire his generosity to the Alcotts; but as a husband? First off, he asked his wife to change her name from Lydia to Lydian as more poetic, which it might be, but…. Let’s face it. Having heroes is a dangerous business.

Can we get rid of both pedestals and knocking them down? We don’t need to let all walls tumble to suggest everything that happens inside houses with freshly painted shutters and swept steps. Can we understand that no one is all they appear to be, and be ready to learn more? Can we enjoy a memoir that isn’t built around smashed vases and broken goblets and novels in which small revelations come with tea and scones?


We can visit graves understanding that these were humans, both imperfect and wise. Here’s Thoreau’s small stone at Sleepy Hollow in Concord and Emerson’s quartz memorial, with gifts of pens. These men made other people want to look around and inside, think and write, and maybe that’s enough.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 1, 2015

Revising While Squinting at the Calendar

Recently I savored the beginning of an editorial letter, with its welcome recap of why my manuscript was chosen, but I braced myself for the following paragraphs. My editor had noticed a problem I kind of hoped she wouldn’t. Time passed, and I took a breath. Such noticing is after all a gift. As precious as her faith that I will find a way.

Between some gallivanting this month, I got to the kind of work that doesn’t look much like work. Walking, thinking while doing child pose, daydreaming on the window seat about new paths within a work I hadn’t touched in a while. It took some discipline not to pick up that work. The answers wouldn’t be there. I opened a drawer stuffed with old drafts and notes, lots of left behind pages. Another sigh before I shut the drawer, quickly, before the scent of mothballs could escape. The answers wouldn’t be there either. Those notes had led me from nonfiction to a novel to a life told in verse, but not to the scenes I needed now. It was back to trying this and that, winding in soft layers, like a wasps nest, purposely leaving gaps, which I’ll decide whether or not to leave to readers to fill in.

Mulling and experimenting is not a bad place to be, as long as no one’s counting down the days, which is about to happen. In October, I could avoid clocks and calendars. I needed the sort of time that can’t be measured. I kicked leaves as I followed wrong paths, and picked a way through briars on my way toward a few paths I’m now exploring. Some of my revision is done with a rock music soundtrack in my head. I want a little speed to push past doubts. Some ideas come from letting myself get rattled, shaken into something new, but others want to slide in on just the sounds of wind and leaves. Sometimes there’s a little party at the desk, with coffee as choice beverage, but it’s good to switch the music. Sometimes I take down the twinkly lights and sit by a single scented candle. And sometimes that leads me to thoughts that have a bit of their own rock ‘n’ roll.


But the calendar is turning, and November has a deadline: and tell me, what trigger-happy finish-gate-obsessed person came up with that word? I’m imagining my end gate as a gentle one, more leafy than wooden. I need to sometimes squint at the due date, but not often, and keep the ticky-tocky clock under pillows. Maybe I can’t live in a cave, but a tent I can scoot in and out of is okay. I may be kind of faking a sense of spaciousness, but let’s call that pretending. Besides there comes a time to swap the spaciousness of following all those starry what-ifs and grab the edges of scenes.There’s pleasure in open chances, but also in polishing the dusty shards and putting them in lines, seeing them become something that more people than me can see.

I’m grateful for the due date, and that it’s one that left room for play before hunkering down. I’ll sometimes put dates in front of myself, but I’m pretty loose. I generally can tell I’m on my way when ideas shrug off the fog and turn to images. Or I walk, and the places where my characters live seem as real to me as the houses I pass.  I’m really in when I know those places as comfortable or as ones my characters should flee. Mostly now, I’m looking for places for the plot to clench like fist, then open again. I won’t race with the falling leaves, but let them keep me company as we all move ahead as we must.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 30, 2015

The Guerrilla Girls at Smith College

Last night a presentation by two members of the Guerilla Girls was sponsored by Smith College Museum of Art, which is showing Women’s Work: Feminist Art from the Collection until January 3, 2016. The Guerilla Girls, sometimes called “the conscience of the art world,” have been melding humor and infuriating statistics re women’s representation in museums in galleries for thirty years. They use the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and wear masks that the women explained help keeps the focus on issues, not personalities. And are useful as they plaster posters, such as this one:


Their work has expanded since 1985 to address more issues in Washington and Hollywood, and includes racial and LGBT discrimination. Also, they look more into how museums were founded and are run, largely by super rich men who may own valuable art and care more that this art stays valuable than they care that the museums represent the culture.

FullSizeRender (20)

At the end of the presentation, one mentioned that the number of guerilla girls is limited, but there is plenty of advocacy anyone can do. For example, we can remind people what’s missing in museums, and suggest how galleries would be more interesting with a wider range of art. Take women’s art out of storage! “If everyone went to the information desk and said, ‘Where are the women artists,’ they’d put them on the walls.” Complain, but be creative about it. Don’t just blame and nag, but open minds with humor.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 28, 2015

Women Writers at Brookline Booksmith

Passing kids speeding on scooters, people carrying groceries, a woman in a purple coat leaning on a cane, and students pressing cell phones to their ears, I entered Brookline Booksmith. Even on a Tuesday night the shop bustled, with some people garbling titles that the knowledgeable staff still managed to find. One had an arm cradling books as she climbed a ladder, giving it a gentle shove to glide past long, full shelves.

A panel arranged by the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association met downstairs. Amaryah Orenstein gave us a warm introduction, and congratulations to Alysia Abbott, winner of the Dorothy O’Connor Writing Contest for her article about autism and advocacy.


Lisa Borders asked our panel great questions about characters, structure, obstacles, and research. We began with comments on the role of place in our novels. Lauren Acampora spoke about wanting to know the hidden and often astonishing lives of people in the suburbs as she wrote The Wonder Garden, and the ways characters and houses merge. Of course setting was vital for Virginia Pye, whose novel, based on her grandmother’s life, takes place in China before WW II. Heidi Pitlor, who mentioned the constraints of time with its ticking clock as being important to her, said that she usually begins with a sense of plot, works through character, and only then really considers setting. For my historical fiction, I find the particulars of place to be a way to stitch together the past and the present. And it’s a good way for me to get outside of peoples’ heads.

We talked about the need to write a lot of pages before we knew the ones we needed. Heidi spoke a little wistfully about having to let go of a character whose general niceness seemed to clash with the tone of The Daylight Marriage. She said, “She was a portal, but not needed in the end.” Lauren nodded. “A midwife.” She talked about whittling a novel into a short story. Someone mentioned that it was a great story, and Lauren thanked her, but said it’s hard not to wish she knew 250 pages before that a story was what it needed to be. Before we all got too maudlin about words lost along the way – I mentioned the 150 pages I cut from Little Woman in Blue as some scenes didn’t add enough to the theme – Virginia mentioned the delight of sometimes being able to add writing that had been put aside earlier. She said that she wove in bits of poems or stories she’d written but hadn’t published, and felt they added to the texture of Dreams of the Red Phoenix.


All the people here and their books were new to me, but by the end of the evening I felt as if I were among friends. I’m glad to have new novels to read as I drink tea on a drizzly but still golden day.

And I’m grateful to brookline booksmith for including my novel on their shelves. May I mention it’s fun to see my name briefly hover over Jane Austen’s?


Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 25, 2015

WNBA Panel at brookline booksmith

Massachusetts is getting colder, but on Saturday it was still lovely to stroll with my daughter among booths at the Boston Book Festival. Emily took this picture of me in front of the Women’s National Book Association booth. I’m afraid that despite layers and coffee refills, it was chillier for those passing out information. I’m grateful for their work getting women’s words to readers.


The Boston chapter of the WNBA is also hosting a panel on Tuesday at 7. p.m. at brookline booksmith. Full information is available at the link. With author Lisa Borders moderating, I’ll be talking about LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE with novelists, Lauren Acampora, author of THE WONDER GARDEN, Heidi Pitlor, author of THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE, and Virginia Pye, author of DREAMS OF THE RED PHOENIX. That will conclude most of my out-and-aboutness for a while. I’ll rake some leaves, give the tea kettle a workout, and settle in with some editorial notes on a forthcoming book. And I’ll also be doing some kicking up of literary dust, stocking up piles of wayward words to slowly tidy. 

Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 20, 2015

Art and Archives: Reading with Anne Emerson at Porter Square Books

This Friday October 23 at 7 p.m. at Porter Square Books I’ll be discussing Little Woman in Blue, showing slides of some of May Alcott’s artwork, and reading a bit from my novel.

I’ll be joined by Anne Emerson, who will speak about Letters from Erastus: Field Notes on Grace, a memoir that explores how she came to look back at the life of her great-great-grandfather, through letters Erastus Hopkins wrote in Northampton, MA shortly before the Civil War. She shows the ways his letters to his children came to seem like letters to her as the past and present merged, with themes recurring through generations. Her family is a big one, full of reunions with aunts, uncles, and lots of cousins, some of whom have poignant struggles. A recurring motif in Anne’s present is her cautious and kind attempt to connect with a young man who’s like a nephew and in solitary confinement in prison.


She also writes of traveling in Italy or around New England and New York. Art as well as history and family are often what calls her from home. Anne brings up her husband’s involvement with music and the role of painting in the lives of her children and herself as she paints landscapes after a fifty year hiatus. This will be good company for May Alcott as an artist. Anne and I also share a love of archives. I liked her description of approaching the collections of Historic Northampton: “I walk up the curved brick pathway planted with early spring perennials. The sun is beating down, the bees are drowsily feeding and I feel time unwinding. I am being anointed with that slow spirit of patience that is required in the deciphering of handwriting and old letters.”

Her ancestors seem so alive to her as she reads old letters that she dreads reaching the end of the collection. Yet neither the letters nor the book seem to entirely close, but keep inviting, with final notes of continuing quests. I like the way Anne resists summing up, but lets conversations or descriptions stand, meeting the next, as happens in real life. Often beauty shows in this simplicity and lack of conclusions.

I look forward to hearing more on Friday at Porter Square Books 25 White Street Cambridge, MA. I hope to see some friends there or at a panel put together by the Women’s National Book Association, where I’ll join three other fiction writers to talk about inspiration and challenges, at Brookline Booksmith, at 7 p.m. on October 27. It’s a busy-for-me month of gallivanting, but I’m doing my best to spend time on foot and admire every leaf I can.

oct18leaves onmhcpond

Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 19, 2015

Bringing May Alcott Back Home to Concord

On a beautiful fall afternoon, my friend Melodye Shore, who flew in from California, and I took in some Concord, Massachusetts sites. We shivered a little at Walden Pond, where many people admired bright leaves and two hardly folks swam. We didn’t have time to tour Orchard House, but walked by. We visited Author’s Ledge at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and I left sunflowers at May Alcott’s gravestone.


Then we headed over to the Barrow Bookstore, decked out with blue balloons and welcoming signs. Here I am with Aladdine, who manages the amazing collection of used books within the building that has Alcott connections.

alladine lightened


Her sister, Jaimee, also greeted me warmly, saying how they felt as if May Alcott was coming home. I think we all felt a bit of May’s presence as I talked about her in the lovely book lined room filled with good friends, my daughter, and readers of all sorts, including members of a book club who’d spent their day doing Alcott-y things and seemed happy to shift their gaze from Louisa more onto May. There might have been a few Bronson Alcott jokes, or was it historic fact or memory? I read a line or two from a collection of the writings of Rose Hawthorne, daughter of writer Nathaniel and painter Sophia, which I’d bought in the shop a while ago. Rose recalled that her father’s retiring habits were never more evident than when Bronson Alcott approached the house. “I remember that my observation was attracted to him curiously from the fact that my mother’s eyes changed to a darker gray at Mr. Alcott’s advents, as they did only when she was silently sacrificing herself.”


After talking and book signing, here I am happy to sit with writers Carol Peacock, Pat Lowery Collins, and Sarah Lamstein.


Aladdine and Jaimee set me off with some sweet gifts: sachets printed with Alcott quotes and a trusty water bottle printed with that barrow. But I already had treasures in stories from the books and each other, moving in and out among us.

I hope eastern Mass. friends who couldn’t make this reading might come to one this Friday at Porter Square Books. I was told that it’s not unknown for a small book tour to go from Barrow Bookstore’s purple and yellow walls to stand among the shinier books in this also-welcoming store. I look forward to seeing more friends and readers in Cambridge!

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