Harriet Reisen

Harriet Reisen

Q: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's most famous work, has had a worldwide influence over generations of women since its first publication 140 years ago. What impact has Alcott and her writing had on your life? A: Like millions of girls, I saw myself as Jo March, Louisa Alcott's literary alter ego and the heroine of Little Women. Jo was passionate and brave, and like me had a tendency to get lost in thought. My mother had presented me with Little Women, ceremoniously, as if bestowing the key to a magic kingdom. The wise and funny authorial voice of Louisa May Alcott spoke like another mother to me, giving permission to be flawed, license to dream, and encouragement to do good. Soon after I moved to Boston in the 1970s I visited Orchard House in Concord, the Alcott family home for twenty years. In Louisa's bedroom, between two windows, was the semi-circular writing table Bronson Alcott had built her. From this surface, with space for no more than a piece of paper and an inkwell, Louisa had brought forth Little Women in just ten weeks. As I stood there, Louisa's spirit seemed to rise up and claim me. Her benevolent ghost has driven me through the decades, challenging me to attempt her story twice, in a documentary and in this book. I've never wanted to analyze my fascination with this woman. It's just there, and continues. Q: You and your friend, Emmy Award-winning producer Nancy Porter, joined forces to create a documentary on Louisa May Alcott which will premiere on PBS American Masters on December 28, 2009. What was your role in developing this documentary? Is it true that the idea for the biography grew out of your plans for the documentary? A: For years I had a pipe dream about writing a short, accessible biography of Louisa May Alcott, but I wasn't a trained scholar or an established author. I didn't think I could write a book, let alone have the opportunity. My friend Nancy Porter had tremendous experience making historical documentary portraits for PBS--of the Wright Brothers, Houdini, Amelia Earhart, to name just a few. Nancy and I worked as independent co-producers, trying to get our Alcott film made. Nancy would be the director, and I the writer. It took some twenty years, off and on, to do it. I decided to write the film script completely from primary sources. Louisa and all the other characters would speak only words they had written or were reported by contemporaries to have said. My choice and arrangement of scenes and dialogue, our production choices, interviews with scholars and experts, and Nancy's direction and editing were our only means to interpret Louisa's character and her life. We had no narrator to get between the viewer and the material. What the film gained in authenticity was worth the embargo on my own knowledge and opinion. The book came as a gift--with room to let Louisa's story roam, and freedom to tell it in my own words and fill it with characters without having to consider what their costumes and meals would cost. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Harriet Reisen, a former fellow in screenwriting at the American Film Institute, has written dramatic and historical documentary scripts for PBS and HBO, including the forthcoming PBS documentary of Louisa May Alcott. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Tony Kahn, and son Andrew Kahn. This is her first book.
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