Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?
LEARNING TO SEE is historical fiction based on the life of pioneering artist Dorothea Lange. This novel tells the story of her transformation from San Francisco’s most successful society portraitist in the 1920s to a documentary photographer determined to show the truth of what was happening to America’s poor and disenfranchised in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?
Dorothea captivated me from the beginning because of the idealism that inspired her work, but she was a complicated woman who had to make difficult choices that placed many stresses on her personal life. I wanted to provide context for her work and life’s decisions so readers could draw their own conclusions.
I also enjoyed fleshing out painter Maynard Dixon, Dorothea’s first husband, because he cut a colorful figure, romantic and talented, but he was not necessarily what you would call a great husband.
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.
An important source for me when learning about Dorothea Lange was an oral history she had done for the University of California. I had downloaded the more than 300-page transcript from the online library and used it often. When I visited Lange’s archives at the Museum of California in Oakland, I realized the interview that I had been relying upon was abridged and the original was spread out over nine binders. I experienced momentary panic that I’d missed important information, but once I started reading through the binders, I saw that the unabridged version contained every word that was said. Every word, all the ummms, the nonsequiters, everything. So, whew, I realized everything was okay!
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Write what you would want to read.
My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
As I wrote this novel between 2015 – 2017, the political climate of our country shifted in a way that felt very relevant to Dorothea Lange. She was a figure who experienced a major awakening during the 1930s and her work reflected her activism.
As I took part in the Women’s March in 2016, I couldn’t help but think that Dorothea would have loved to have seen so many women taking to the streets and raising their voices to support marginalized Americans. I also found myself surprised (and disheartened) that so many of our current day issues are similar to what was happening in the 1930s and ‘40s, but Dorothea’s belief in the power of helping people through storytelling inspired me and kept me uplifted. Her storytelling took the form of creating images, but storytelling can come through many different creative forms and it’s more important now than ever to keep talking and learning from each other.
How did you find the title of your book?
The working title of this book was LANGE for a long time, but I came across an interview with one of Dorothea’s grandchildren in which the she described how Dorothea always told the kids that “seeing” was a learned skill and that it was important to “learn to see.” My editor and I thought this idea captured the book so we went with it.
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
Ha, I think Depression-Era food is best left alone.
READ MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR: http://www.elisehooper.com
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