By Lucy Shardlow.
We are very happy to welcome Amanda Sellet to The Reading Corner to discuss her upcoming release Belittled Women, out November 29th!
Lit’s about to hit the fan. Jo Porter has had enough Little Women to last a lifetime. As if being named after the sappiest family in literature wasn’t sufficiently humiliating, Jo’s mom, ahem Marmee, leveled up her Alcott obsession by turning their rambling old house into a sad-sack tourist attraction.
Now Jo, along with her siblings, Meg and Bethamy (yes, that’s two March sisters in one), spends all summer acting out sentimental moments at Little Women Live!, where she can feel her soul slowly dying.
So when a famed photojournalist arrives to document the show, Jo seizes on the glimpse of another life: artsy, worldly, and fast-paced. It doesn’t hurt that the reporter’s teenage son is also eager to get up close and personal with Jo–to the annoyance of her best friend, aka the boy next door (who is definitely not called Laurie). All Jo wants is for someone to see the person behind the prickliness and pinafores.
But when she gets a little too real about her frustration with the family biz, Jo will have to make peace with kitsch and kin before their livelihood suffers a fate worse than Beth.
Hi Amanda! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some of my questions on your novel Belittled Women. A spin on one of the biggest books in literature! I want to start this off by saying that as an avid Alcott fan, I was so incredibly excited to hear about your novel and could not wait to get stuck in.
Thank you! I’m delighted to have the opportunity to discuss all things Alcott with a fellow fan!
Like myself, I’m sure many of the readers would have read Alcott’s classic or in fact would be familiar with the story. Whilst there are so many similarities between your work and the classic, there are quite a few significant differences as well. Where did your concept come from? What inspired you to put a twist on such a well-known classic?
I was drawn to the comedic potential of turning something familiar on its head. You start with one thing – a sweet and sentimental ode to family values – and wind up someplace very different, in this case a sardonic and borderline satirical take on Little Women. There’s a fish-out-of-water feeling in contrasting the old-fashioned vibe of the original and the far less decorous tone of BELITTLED WOMEN.
It also seemed to me that because so many retellings and adaptations of this story already exist, it was ripe for a more tongue-in-cheek approach. The characters in my book are very aware of Alcott’s novel – they act out scenes from it for a living, not to mention being named after the characters – but there are other layers of connection. Even as Jo is complaining about Little Women, moments in her life echo plot points from the original. And the underlying themes of family and duty and figuring out how to live are very similar. In a way it doubles back on itself, going from meta send-up to a more sincere homage.
My hope was that Jo’s experiences would have enough of the universal drama and emotion of adolescence to engage someone unfamiliar with Alcott’s novel, while offering an added frisson of amusement for hardcore fans.
One element of your novel that I was especially captured by was your inclusion of quotes from Little Women at the beginning of each chapter? Do these quotes hold a particular purpose throughout your novel?
It was a lot of fun choosing the pithiest lines to pair with each chapter. In some places, the epigraphs serve as foreshadowing; elsewhere, they’re used more ironically. In several instances, they offer a window into Jo’s emotional state, since she is not the most forthcoming character even on those occasions when she is aware of what she’s feeling.
More generally, quoting Little Women was a reminder for the reader of the plot and themes of the original. I thought of the epigraphs almost as a thread dipping in and out of the fabric of the book, stitching it more closely to the source material.
Let’s talk about your protagonist, Jo – desperate to seek a life outside of Little Women, yet she remains trapped in the stigmas and stereotypes of the March sisters. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot seem to be separated from her ‘fictional alter ego’. What was the inspiration behind your Jo? Do you ever consider yourself to be a Jo March?
When I was writing my Jo, I drew on both the namesake character from Little Women and Louisa May Alcott herself, as transposed to the modern world. Instead of getting in trouble for being too rambunctious, my Jo runs cross-country. Louisa May allegedly had a crush on Henry David Thoreau; my Jo is fond of boy-next-door David, who also loves the outdoors – and has memorable adventures at a pond. Most of all, I wanted to capture the sense that both Alcott and her Jo had of being trapped by familial obligations, emotional and financial. How would a young person today grapple with the expectation of self-sacrifice that was so much a part of conventional morality in Alcott’s time – at least for women!
As for whether I’m a Jo, I think there are very few female-identifying future novelists who don’t see something of themselves in Jo March. Beyond the literary ambitions, I also connect with the sense of bearing the weight of a family’s needs and expectations, first as an oldest daughter and now as a mother. I’d say that I’m a Jo with a side of Me: a stubborn writer with a temper, only not particularly athletic, and (like Meg) fond of quiet domesticity and creature comforts. Although I’ve never tried my hand at jam-making, I am familiar with shopping regret!
Despite the significance of Jo, out of all the characters, I was particularly intrigued by Meg. The antithesis to Alcott’s character Meg – she seems to have a lot of trouble with finding her way in life. What role did you intend for Meg to play in Belittled Women? Why was it so important for Meg to be different from the original?
In many ways, Meg is there to contrast with Jo. You have two very different approaches to family life: Jo complains but does what she’s told, while Meg smiles and does whatever she wants.
It should also be noted that Jo is not an entirely reliable narrator, and we see her sisters through her eyes. Jo values hard work, so to her, Meg is the worst. But Meg also achieves what Jo can’t, which is to carve out a certain independence. Her methods are not particularly admirable, but the situation is more nuanced than the chip on Jo’s shoulder allows her to see.
On some level, it also felt like opening a cage and letting the character of Meg run free. Going back to that idea of how the values of 1868 look to us today, maybe there are worse things in the world than enjoying pretty things. My Meg is a little like Bartleby, the Scrivener, from the short story by Herman Melville (another Alcott contemporary). When someone tries to move her in a direction she doesn’t want to go, she simply refuses. It may be lazy and self-indulgent, but it’s also a form of resistance. Amy likes to think she’s the bold one in the family, but Meg is the real rebel.
Commonly referred to as ‘No Big Deal’, Beth seems to have little significance in your story. Did you always know that the character of Beth would not be included in your story or was this a decision that came more naturally during the writing process?
I decided early on that no one was going to die or fall seriously ill in BELITTLED WOMEN, because tragedy would be incompatible with the frivolous tone of the book. So, then it became a question of finding a metaphorical take on Beth’s character arc. Instead of hovering on the fringes of the family due to poor health and shyness, my Beth is an outside cast member who leaves at the end of the season for the simple reason that this is a summer job; no weepy deathbed farewell required.
I hope people find the chapter in which they audition that year’s would-be Beths as amusing to read as it was for me to write.
Throughout the course of the novel, the characters of Andrea and Hudson appear to be almost figures of guidance for the Porter family, helping them in their success with Little Women Live! However, their position in the novel later becomes twisted. What was your inspiration behind causing a shift with these two characters?
For Jo, Andrea and Hudson represent that classic growing-up moment of “who do I admire and why?” Is it how they look, what they say, their social position, etc.? It’s a natural part of becoming an independent being, to seek role models outside our family of origin.
One of the things we all (hopefully) learn as we get older is that appearance and reality don’t always align. Jo immediately places Andrea and Hudson on a pedestal, assuming that because they are clever and worldly, they know more than she does about how to live. I wanted to capture the squirmy, uncomfortable experience of trying to impress a person we see as impossibly cool. We can get so desperate for approval that we don’t look beyond the surface and consider how that person’s actions stack up against their words.
In Jo’s eyes, Andrea starts out as the opposite of her mother: sophisticated, sharp-tongued, professionally successful. Part of Jo’s journey is deciding for herself what she values – how she wants to treat other people and be treated by them – rather than accepting what someone else tells her to think.
It is commonly known that after reading Little Women individuals can take away some valuable life lessons surrounding forgiveness, jealousy and most importantly love. What do you hope your readers will learn from this book?
One of the main lessons Jo learns in BELITTLED WOMEN is that your anger isn’t the whole story. It’s easy to get so caught up in our sense of being aggrieved that we lose perspective, especially about the people around us. Jo assumes she knows why everyone in her family behaves the way they do, and heartily disapproves. Over the course of the story, she gains some understanding of her mother and sisters. They may not be on the same wavelength, but their choices are less opaque – and in recognizing her own capacity to make mistakes, Jo finds empathy for her family.
In that sense, I think forgiveness still applies, as well as the importance of developing your own moral code, in a time where there are fewer easy answers. What kind of person do you want to be, and what sort of life do you intend to live? What does it mean to be good?
These are the same essential questions Alcott was asking in Little Women, with the added complications of a modern society in which we struggle to come to a consensus about right and wrong. We have so much more freedom these days, but it doesn’t necessarily simplify our lives.
It is also a book about love. Some readers take the sisterly bickering at face value, as either “everyone is so mean to Jo!” or “Jo is so mean to everyone!” I suppose they must not have grown up with a family as rowdy and sarcastic as mine, where the surface ribbing is never the whole story. I hope others will recognize the complexity of those sibling and parent dynamics, where feelings shift with the wind, and emotions run high. You can be annoyed by your family and still love them fiercely – even if you don’t express it in the style of a Hallmark card.
Have you considered putting a twist on any other well-known classics? If so, which one do you think you would next take inspiration from?
I just finished drafting my next book, which is a loose retelling of a cinematic classic. It hasn’t been officially announced yet, so that’s all I can say about it for now!
And lastly, where will readers be able to access Belittled Women once it has been released?
Supply chain permitting, it should be available from major book retail sites and brick-and-mortar locations as of November 29, which also happens to be Louisa May Alcott’s birthday. As always, if you’re in a position to support small businesses in your community, please do so! And for anyone looking for a signed copy, The Raven Book Store, my local independent bookshop, welcomes online orders at www.ravenbookstore.com/
Amanda Sellet (pronounced Sell-ay) is a former journalist who has written book reviews for The Washington Post, personal essays for NPR, and music and movie coverage for VH1. She has an M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU. After a mostly coastal childhood, she now lives in Kansas with her husband, daughter, and cats.
Amanda’s Instagram: amandajsellet
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