WELLNESS
04/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Q&A With Lesley M.M. Blume, Author of Tennyson

Liesl Schillinger, book reviewer for The New York Times, interviews authorand Huffington Post columnist Lesley M. M. Blume about her critically-acclaimed new novel, Tennyson.

Set during the Depression, Tennyson is the story of the ruined, elite Fontaine family in Louisiana's sugarcane plantation country. Each Fontaine is dealing with the family's legacy as former slave-holders; some react with violent repudiation, others with wistful denial and yearning for privileges lost. Eleven-year-old Tennyson Fontaine uncovers the family's dark secrets and brings them to light in the cruelest, most public manner possible.

Officially marketed as a middle-grade novel, Tennyson's "brilliant, unusual writing" (Chicago Tribune) and timeless, tough themes make this book compelling reading for audiences of all ages. Although only just released, Tennyson has been made a spring 2008 Book Sense pick, a Kirkus Reading Groups Winning Selection, and was the subject of a lengthy piece by Good Morning America's Robin Roberts.

Below, Ms. Blume talks about the world's ongoing fascination with the old South, children's enormous capacities for surviving adversity, and why chick-lit bores her to sobs.

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LS: In Tennyson, the title character and her younger sister Hattie seek refuge with hostile relatives in a romantic ruined mansion called Aigredoux. This house is not precisely haunted, but it has a complicated Civil War history. Tennyson is privy to vivid, accurate (it turns out) visions of resonant moments in the house's glorious and inglorious past.

Did you base Aigredoux on an actual Southern mansion? Were the stories of Tennyson's ancestors inspired by any actual Louisiana plantation owners? And what kind of research into Civil-War era history did you do to make your descriptions realistic?

LMMB: Aigredoux, which means 'bittersweet' in French, was inspired by several antebellum plantation mansions along Louisiana's famous river road. While many such houses burned down or were demolished long ago, I explored quite a few of the surviving ones between New Orleans and Baton Rogue, and each is palpably haunted -- saturated, really -- by its past.

Three houses in particular were important influences as I wrote Tennyson. The first one, Nottoway, is a sixty-room behemoth lording over the levee. By day, Nottoway is a museum showcasing antebellum plantation culture. But at night I slept there, tossing and turning in a creaking, dusty 19th century bed. I had the entire house to myself. A peacock named Napoleon was my only companion; he hovered in the branches outside my window as the moon rose and screamed like a stabbed woman.

Also: Longwood in Natchez, Mississippi, which was never completed. Many of the builders had been imported from up North, and when the Civil War broke out these workers abandoned the project and their tools to go fight for the Union. The tools are still right where the workers left them, covered in nearly fifteen decades of dust. Longwood's war-impoverished owners dwelled in the basement of the unfinished, raw palace for generations.

And finally: Belle Grove, which burned to oblivion in the 1950s, I believe. Black-and-white photographs of this house in a state of advanced decay covered the table in front of me as I wrote Tennyson. Sometimes the prose is just literally description of what I saw in these pictures.

The Fontaine family in Tennyson is fictional, but I read a great deal about elite nineteenth-century slaveowners and their lives were fascinating. Appalling, but fascinating. As I got further into their records and letters, I kept hitting on family names and situations that were used in Gone with the Wind, and I wondered if I was replicating Margaret Mitchell's research.

I was a journalist before I became a novelist, and so having a high reality factor in my books is very important to me. Not just in terms of historical facts and setting details, but the mood of a setting. You have to experience a place and breathe its air to get it right in the retelling.


LS: Tennyson and her sister are left behind when their mother runs away. The mother leaves because she wants to be a writer, and thinks family life holds her back. Yet when Tennyson first puts pen to paper, she gets her stories published, exceeding her mother's gifts. Her dream is not only to write well, it's to achieve what her mother could not. Could you talk more about how mother-daughter competition feeds this book?

LMMB: In every family, each member lays claims, whether to an object, a particular place at the table -- or a talent. This usually plays out in terms of sibling rivalry. When one sibling has a particular talent and dream, such as writing or painting, it is often difficult for another sibling to express an interest in those things.

Even worse: when that tension lies between a parent and child, which I describe in Tennyson: "Writing about big things was Sadie's [the mother] dream, and she had put a barbed wire fence around it. So Tennyson stayed away."

Rivalry between parents and their offspring has been fodder for plays, novels, poems, psychological theories, etc., for thousands of years. Such competition between mother and daughter can be incredibly destructive and often plays itself out in terms of unspoken tensions. In Tennyson, I described it through means of spare understatement.

But it is my hope that readers will see the mother's side of the story in Tennyson and not bluntly despise her for leaving her children.

LS: The premise of Tennyson had echoes for me of one of my favorite children's books, Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase -- itself inspired by Shakespeare's As You Like It. What is it that's so compelling about the idea of two girls on the run, taking charge of their own fate?

LMMB: Children can incredibly resourceful in a heartbreaking way. Characters such as Mary in The Secret Garden or the young son in The Bicycle Thief serve as continual inspirations for me. Each of these characters - like real children - has great instincts for preservation and survival, and still maintains his or her imagination and sense of trust. We lose these latter instincts as we grow up.

LS: At a time when so much popular fiction for girls is ultra-modern and high tech, full of brand names and in-the-know references, your book stands apart. It could have been written decades ago - but Tennyson doesn't come across as old-fashioned. Her concerns and her voice feel contemporary, or rather, they feel as if they could belong to any time. What made you made want to set the book so long ago, instead of in the present?

LMMB: Tennyson is set in 1932, with flashbacks to the Fontaines' heyday in the years just before the Civil War. All three of my books are set in different time periods: contemporary New York, the 1950s Midwest, India in the 1940s, and so on. Yet regardless of setting, I've worked very hard to give each novel timeless content, dialogue, and mood. My publishing house, Knopf, and my wonderful editor, Erin Clarke, specialize in works with classical literary tone.

I detest literary devices that date a book, such as cataloguing setting details for the sake of doing so. Trendy chick-lit books are criminally reliant on this method ("She pulled on her Manolos and clicked down to Pastis while tapping away on her Treo"), and it's lazy, stupid, and boring.

I chose the Depression era for many reasons: firstly, because this period was close enough to the Civil War that its legacy would still feel like fresh wounds to the Fontaine family. Also, this was an era that truly dealt the final blow to the old South: even if families had been able to hold on to their grand homes after the Civil War, many were forced to desert them in the 1930s. The sugar baron houses were too enormous to maintain, and a lot of them were simply abandoned during this time and stayed empty for years. Some were even used as barns. I liked the idea of documenting a hold-out family living in this crumbling shadow world.

LS: What happens to Tennyson's father, after he goes on the hunt for her vanished mother?

LMMB: I promised my editor that I wouldn't tell. Tennyson's original manuscript contained a fictional 1950s Times-Picayune article in its appendix, disclosing the fate of Aigredoux and many of the book's characters. In the spirit of subtlety, we made the decision to ax it.

I've since lost that article in a computer crash; I think this is deliciously appropriate, because Tennyson is a study of legacies lost.

LS: Tennyson, I would say, is a historical fantasy for independent-minded children with creative ambitions. Do you have any objection to that characterization? What would you say were the benefits for kids of reading empowering wish-fulfillment fictions? And do you see any potential harms to it?

LMMB: All of my books are for independent-minded children with creative ambitions. There are often hints of fable or fantastical elements in my work as well, something that's harder to pull off in adult literature, unless you're Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There is nothing more unbelievably depressing to me than coming across an utterly literal, imagination-less person, and when I (frequently) do, I often wonder if they read as a child. I truly feel that what you read when you're young shapes your outlook on life as you get older.

One drawback to creating wish-fulfillment fictions for children (in which the protagonist wants something very badly and the plot is premised on the pursuit of that object or end): in many children's books, the central wish is happily fulfilled, and this might create unrealistic expectations for children in real life.

In all three of my books, the protagonists come up with very mixed results. If my characters get what they want, it is often not quite what they expected, or has strings attached ... or they might not get it at all. That's how real life works and it is important to me to have my fiction reflect that. The children who read my novels are extremely savvy and often grateful for the lack of condescension.