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Interviews | May 16, 2013 1 comment
Claire Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs, is fiercely intelligent and urgently intimate, written with precision, humor, and an incredible... Continue »
Lesley M. M. BlumeDescribe your latest project.
Tennyson: my new novel for children. Ghostly, evocative, and unusual. As with all of my books, tragedy is interwoven with humor. Tennyson is the least autobiographical of my books and yet feels the most intensely personal to me.
This is what it's about:
It's 1932, during the Depression. Fresh eggs are a luxury. Diamonds are a dream from another world. On the banks of the Mississippi River, Tennyson Fontaine and her sister, Hattie, play endless games of hide-and-seek and make up fantastical stories about the latest adventures of their wild dog, Jos.
But when their mother doesn't come home and their father sets off to find her, the sisters are whisked away to Aigredoux.
Aigredoux. It sounds like a kind of candy. Something that might melt on your tongue and stain it bright pink.
But Aigredoux isn't a candy; it's a house. Once one of the grandest homes in Louisiana, it is now a vine-covered ruin, run by the austere Aunt Henrietta, her bitter servant Zulma, and a peacock whose shrieks sound like the screams of a lady.
Aunt Henrietta becomes convinced that she can use Tennyson and Hattie to save the family's failing fortunes. But then Tennyson discovers the truth about Aigredoux, the secrets that have remained locked deep within its decaying walls.
Caught in a strange web of time, dreams, and history, Tennyson comes up with a plan to shine light on Aigredoux's past and bring her mother home. But like so many plans, Tennyson's plan has unexpected consequences...
I traveled all over Louisiana and Mississippi as I researched Tennyson, and in the finished book, I could only use a hundredth of the incredible material and stories I unearthed. There are few places in the world where history is more palpable than in the American South. As my character Zipporah Tweed comments in Tennyson:
"Time does follow its own rules down here, doesn't it. But that's what makes it so interesting to watch."
This is from a story collection titled The Devil's Storybook by Natalie Babbitt. In these stories, the Devil isn't scary; he's mischievous and the tales are often hilarious. Here's a favorite opening paragraph from one called "Wishes":
One day when things were dull in Hell, the Devil fished around in his bag of disguises, dressed himself as a fairy godmother, and came up into the World to find someone to bother. He wandered down the first country road he came to and before long he met a crabby farm wife stumping along with a load of switches on her back.
I love this short passage. It's premised on such a bizarre concept, but Ms. Babbitt presents the situations in such an assured, opinionated manner that it feels almost breezy which is difficult to accomplish in writing. Certain words speak volumes: "crabby," "stumping," even "switches". You understand the two characters right away. And I love the idea of things being "dull in Hell."
What was your favorite story as a child?
What do you do for relaxation?
What is your idea of bliss?
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Why do you write books for kids?
You never need to be apologetic about being fantastical or absurd in children's literature. The genre allows for a total expression of creativity.
But at the same time, when I'm writing, I treat my young audience with the same respect as an adult readership. All three of my books, Cornelia, Rusty Nail, and especially Tennyson, are meant to be read by both adults and children. I make a conscious effort to avoid any trace of condescension. Kids always know when they're being talked down to, and they hate it.
Who are your favorite characters in history?
These figures are incredible prisms through which their eras and milieus can be understood.
Most overrated "fascinators": Greta Garbo (what a pill), Coco Chanel.
If you could pick anyone to illustrate one of your books, who would it be and why?
Make a question of your own, then answer it.
There is no end.
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Lesley M. M. Blume is the critically acclaimed author of Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters and The Rising Star of Rusty Nail. She lives in New York City, New York.