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Erin Blakemore: What I learned from Jane Austen and Laura Ingalls Wilder

Erin Blakemore answers questions about her new book, "The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder."

By Nora Dunne / November 18, 2010

Author Erin Blakemore turns to her favorite books for comfort, calling them "a nonconfiding way of getting advice."

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There are quite a few reasons readers go back to literary classics again and again and again. Erin Blakemore turns to them in times of struggle.

In her debut book “The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder” (Harper 224 pp., $19.99), Blakemore studies 12 of the plucky heroines who help her persevere and the women who created them.

Last week I talked to the new author about parallel character-writer lives, what they teach us, and the inherent comfort of a good book.

How can characters like Lizzy Bennett or Jo March, who lived hundreds of years ago, inspire readers facing modern-day problems?

It’s the characteristics of a heroine, be it a really strong sense of self or an internal drive, I connect to modern day living.

None of us has been to a 19th-century country dance, but the situation can easily be extrapolated to a social event fraught with the tensions and anxieties that will always exist. For me, the way that Lizzy Bennett looks beyond those social pressures and remains herself throughout gives me a touch point for the next time I’m in one of those situations.

Several of your heroines (Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls) are from children’s lit. How do their stories remain relevant as you get older?

Jane Eyre” is actually a good example. I read it when I was far too young. When I was little it was a story about a little girl being oppressed by authoritative people. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had my own romances and relationships and struggles, and I have come to see the book as the story of a young woman sticking to what’s important to her in really extraordinary and terrible places.

All of the children’s books I write about were written for the girl I was then, when I first encountered them, but they were also written for the women I am now, and hopefully the woman I will be as I age.

All of the authors you profiled had very difficult lives. Do you think that hardship breeds creativity?

Not necessarily, but like the truism says, “the best preparation for a writer’s life is a terrible childhood.” It really can’t hurt to have a juicy, scandalous, terrible incident in your life to draw from. A lot of the greatest writers I write about really did translate their grief into something worthwhile.

But it surprised me as I was writing that an author’s story isn’t necessarily a straight line from her life’s hardships to the lives of her characters. For example Harper Lee: She didn’t experience tense racism herself during her life. But she saw it around her and had to struggle to differentiate herself as a white woman in a southern family. The way she translated that into “To Kill A Mockingbird” I find really fascinating.

What about Betty Smith, author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” From what we know of her life, it seems her book was autobiographical.

Yes, I think it was really cathartic for her to go back to a hard period in her life. In interviews, and even in her own letters, she was never forthcoming about what had happened to her as a child, but we can only assume that her book is at least colored by what she went through.

You write that it’s in “moments of stress when we need books the most.” Why do you think books provide such comfort?

They’re unchanging. You may come to [the book] as a changed person, but the physical object of the book remains the same over time. I think that’s really important in terms of comfort. It’s also a kind of a nonconfiding way of getting advice. When you’re in a stressful life situation, you don’t always have someone to confide in, someone who gets it, who you want to tell. I think reading someone else’s experiences in a book kind of serves the same purpose. Someone left her nugget of wisdom inside the book, and I just have to go find it. If it suits me I can use it, if it doesn’t, I can move along.

But not all books provide that kind of advice-giving comfort.

True. I certainly don’t think every book needs to be redeeming in a meaningful way. I’m a huge fan of trashy pleasure reading. It’s an escape – it’s not the immediate situation. When you pick up a book, you’ve made a decision to press pause on some part of your life. Even if you’re only reading a couple pages as you’re on the subway.

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Nora Dunne is a Monitor contributor.

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