Friday, October 22, 2010

Of Scarlett and Other Heroines : An Interview with Author Erin Blakemore

Editor's Note: Here's the promised interview with author Erin Blakemore, whose first book, The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder just came out earlier this week. It was a great pleasure for us to get to chat with Erin about Scarlett, Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind in general and we think you'll find her insights  very interesting as well. Enjoy!

1. Erin, tell us a little about your book. What was your inspiration for starting this project and how did you go about selecting your material, deciding which heroines would feature in the book and which ones would have to be left out?

I've always wanted to write a book about books, but this book in particular started with a conversation with my agent about (of all things) how the Ingalls family might react to the publishing crisis of late 2008. I put together a proposal and outline and once the project sold to Harper, I finalized the character list with my editor after a long process of painful elimination.

2. Your book explores twelve very different female figures from classic literature. Of this group, who is your favorite heroine and why?

Wow...this question is almost impossible to answer. I must say I have an increased sense of appreciation for Jo March after learning more about Louisa May Alcott's struggles as a daughter, writer, and woman.

3. What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I like to think there's plenty in the book for both the hardcore book addict and the dabbling reader. Overall, I want to impart my passion for these books, characters, and authors, and encourage people to read and reread when times get tough.

4. Gone with the Wind is a story about a crisis, published in a time of economic crisis. You briefly mention the current economic situation in your preface. Is Scarlett O’Hara’s example as inspiring today as it was for readers in the ‘30s?

Honestly, I think Gone With the Wind and Scarlett's story are examples of how bad things can truly get. If you're not down to shoving your wallet in your nephew's diaper as Yankees charge up the steps of your ancestral home, you may not have hit rock bottom quite yet. Like Scarlett, most of us will make do with what we're dealt, even when it seems we can't go on. I'd say that's great solace for uncertain economic times.

5. In the book, you mention that you first read Gone with the Wind in sixth grade. What were you initial impressions of the novel and how has your relationship with Gone with Wind changed as you’ve become an adult?

Surprisingly, upon many, many rereadings the book has not grown any less compelling (though my own impressions of romance and love have changed a lot since my first reading). Now I see the relationships in the book quite differently. As a child who had a contentious relationship with many of the women and girls in my life, it was easy to dismiss the book's treatment of the relationship between Melanie and Scarlett. As I've grown up, I've come to recognize the true mastery and sensitivity of those passages. What a monumental study of female relationships and the true meaning of love-hate.

6. One of the aims of your book is to show how an author’s life and personality are reflected in the their writing. When it comes to Margaret Mitchell, you say Gone with the Wind was an episode in her “lifelong struggle to make sense of a tradition-bound world that expected her to content herself with her family name and her deft grasp of Southern customs.” Do you see Gone with the Wind as her way of criticizing that society or rather justifying it and making peace with it?

Great question. Mitchell herself acknowledged that she was born and bred to tell a Southern story, but I think she did so on her own terms. I see Gone with the Wind as her attempt to reconcile her rebellion with her birthright, just like Scarlett must reconcile her heritage as a planter's daughter with her fundamental discomfort around "good Southern women." The result is so much juicier and more complex than a one-sided treatment could ever be.

7. A puzzling aspect given how close Margaret Mitchell was to Scarlett in some aspects is that she considered Melanie to be the novel’s true heroine. Scarlett definitely overshadows her in Gone with the Wind, but is Melanie on a par with some of the other heroines you discuss in your book?

Though I can't help but think that Mitchell's Melanie remarks were her way of deflecting conversation about how what Scarlett did or didn't reflect on her own character, I have grown to appreciate Melanie much more with the years. Remember when Frank Kennedy muses that a "he had caught a tropic bird, all flame and jewel color, when a wren would have served him just as well. In fact, much better."? Melanie is the wren, the unassuming one, the steadfast woman and a definite heroine in her own right. But her flaws are never deep (or exposed) enough to string me along like Scarlett's. One knows that Melanie will always opt for good over bad, but one waits for Scarlett to choose.

8. You describe Scarlett as “literature's most lovable bitch." What do you think makes her an admirable character despite her shortcomings?

Scarlett is a fighter, a wounded warrior, and that ability to charge into battle on behalf of herself and her loved ones despite the most devastating circumstances is something to love and admire. Like every Gone with the Wind fan I long to know what Scarlett the older woman would do...would she grow into that impulse to fight or keep wounding herself with it? Would she change, or go on in perpetual denial? I guess we'll never know.

9. Would you say Scarlett O’Hara is a feminist icon?

Though she kicks ass and takes names, Scarlett is far too obsessed with the opinions of men to qualify as a feminist icon for me. But the part of the book in which she realizes she could run Frank Kennedy's store better than Frank Kennedy himself is among my favorite feminist passages in literature.

10. The heroines in your book all have different personalities and stand for different values. Which of these women do you think Scarlett O’Hara would have gotten along with, if any?

Not many, given that it would mean sharing the spotlight! I could see a grudging truce with women like Lizzie Bennet, Celie, and Jo March. Jane Eyre would cancel her out entirely, while I can see Claudine fitting in nicely in a New Orleans scene complete with enormous crawfish and two dashing husbands.

11. At one point during the proposal scene, Rhett Butler asks Scarlett “Did you ever in your novel reading come across the old situation of the disinterested wife falling in love with her own husband?” Of course, Scarlett never willingly opened a book, but if she did, do you think she could have learned something from other literary heroines? If you could choose one heroine (from any time frame) whose story could have changed Scarlett O’Hara’s life, who would it be?

Ah, but if she'd read books, would she really have learned from them? I would gladly introduce Scarlett to Katie Nolan of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, whose own gritty temperament and can-do attitude would have earned Scarlett's grudging respect and taught her a thing or two about holding your own.

12. One of the features of your book is a little section called “Literary Sisters” where you highlight other literary characters that are close to the heroine in the respective chapter. One of Scarlett’s literary sisters is Lily Bart from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, another 19th century belle that fights to maintain her social and economic status. It’s a very interesting topic of compare and contrast. What would you say are some characteristics Scarlett has and Lily doesn’t?

I'd say that Scarlett is willing to let everything go, while Lily clings to the trappings of the society she's always known. While Scarlett soon learns to rely on physical labor and grit, Lily grasps the chains that bind her to her own time (the corset strings, shall we say?) more strongly. Also, amusingly, Lily is a discreet woman despite her indiscretions, while Scarlett's inability to hold her tongue or keep her peace long gives Gone with the Wind a constant feeling of motion and peril.

13. Continuing from the previous question, you also list Maud Bailey and Christabel LaMotte from the novel Possession as Scarlett O’Hara’s literary sisters. This is a subtler choice, given the difference in time frame and intellectual background between Byatt’s heroines and Scarlett. What were the main similarities that made you choose them?

Like Scarlett, Maud and Christabel both represent vitality, sexuality, and promise. The chase for Possession, with all the word's layers and meanings, seems to parallel the many futile chases in Gone with the Wind...Scarlett's unfulfilled passion for Ashley, Rhett's desire and abhorrence of Scarlett, a society's chase for relevance and survival after the worst has happened. Finally, both books (and all three characters) are far more dense and complex than they seem at first glance!

14. You talk both about Scarlett’s qualities and her amazing struggle to survive, but also about the price she has to pay for her way of dealing with things. What do you think is the most important lesson we have to learn from her? Is her story ultimately an inspiration or a warning?

To me, Scarlett is a story of a gamble gone wrong, a woman who risks everything and then loses everything for her pains. Ultimately, she's an antiheroine and a bad example of what happens when you dump everything out with the bathwater...but one that we love to read and rediscover. As Grandma Fontaine says, "...There’s something unnatural about a woman who isn’t afraid…always save something to fear—even as you save something to love." We can take that message to heart or, like Scarlett, choose to meet that obtuse advice with a deaf ear and a frightened heart like Scarlett's. Either way, life within the struggle promises to be a hell of a ride. 
Liked what you read? You can order Erin's book here

1 comment:

  1. Great interview! She has some good insights about Scarlett.


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