Lesley M.M. Blume's debut novel, Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, is absolutely adorable. If it had been released fifteen years ago and I had found it at my local library, it would have become one of the titles checked it out and read repeatedly. When young Cornelia Street first meets her elderly neighbor, Virginia Somerset, she has no idea what fabulous stories await her. ( Read my full review here. )
I recently got in touch with Lesley, and we talked about her story, the art of storytelling, and her favorite stories.
When you were little, did you enjoy being read to or would you rather be the storyteller? Who are the biggest storytellers in your family?
That's an interesting question. I actually loved being read to. My father read everything to me - from Winnie the Pooh to Sherlock Holmes. He also made up a ton of wonderful stories. My favorite was his version of that story about the king who wishes that everything he touched turned to gold, and then it all goes terribly wrong. Well, in my dad's version, there was a dog named Vivo, and everything that he peed on turned to gold. I've always had an insanely juvenile sense of humor, so this story went over very well.
The three main characters -- Cornelia, Lucy, and Virginia -- are all entirely made up, although many of the incidental characters are based on real people who cavorted around with my mother when I was little. My own mother was a concert pianist like Lucy, and she always had the most interesting friends. Like Cornelia, I would go with her to see our wonderfully bizarre accountant, who was always holed up in strange places like yarn factories on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And there was a 'Howling Dog' opera singer who'd come to our home to practice with my mother. I'd sit at the top of the stairs and howl whenever she sang. I was a wicked kid.
Many of the travel stories were inspired by experiences I had while traveling around the world when I grew up. I usually keep intensive travel journals that double as scrapbooks. When I wrote Cornelia, I'd go to my bookshelf and pull down the one that said 'Morocco' on the spine, for instance. That's how I found the idea for the wild wedding procession in the Djemma el-Fna (I'd seen one take place there) and the ghost story about Moulay Ismail's grisly palace (that place was quite eerie).
Would you rather read tall tales and legends or biographies?
I read absolutely everything. I'm a voracious consumer of biographies (I'm reading one on Marie Antoinette right now, which keeps me up until 3 AM every night). I just re-read Katherine Graham's bio, and before that, Jeannette Walls' book The Glass Castle, which blew me away. But I also love tall tales (I was terribly fond of the father in Big Fish) and when I was a kid, I was absolutely obsessed with Greek mythology. I still am, which is why Greek figures and myths often figure into my writing. For example, in Cornelia, the myth of the beauty contest among Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera is played out by the Somerset sisters.
I simply adore the fantastical in literature, which is probably one of the reasons I write books for children. I am also hugely affectionate toward authors of adult fiction who use magic in their stories (like Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, or all of the glorious works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez). I hope someday to write an adult book that follows in their tradition.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I think that time does too, sometimes, making memories blurrier, edges rounder, barbs softer. Did you have a childhood experience that felt horrible or embarrassing at the time but is hilarious in retrospect?
All of my childhood memories are embarrassingly hilarious, because I was so damn naughty. I mean, I was just awful. When I was really little, I hated wearing dresses. One time, my mother put me into an especially frilly dress and apparently I was really mad about it. So, when we were out shopping that day, I climbed into the front window of a fancy glassware store, took off my underwear, and had a knock-down, drag-out tantrum. My poor mother was absolutely mortified, but my dad thought it was the funniest thing ever.
Do you share Cornelia and Virginia's love for big words? (I certainly do.) If so, do you use them in your daily life?
I certainly do. Here's the thing: I love languages. I speak a smattering of several: Spanish, German, and I've studied elementary Arabic and French. But I'm not fluent in any of these languages and that bothers me. Until I have time to really devote myself to fluency in other languages, I've made it my goal to become as fluent in my own language as possible. I'm practically religious about learning new words. I subscribe to Doctor Dictionary, which emails me a new word every day, and I carry around a tiny pocket dictionary with me. Whenever I come across a word I don't know, I take the dictionary out of my bag and look it up right away. When I learn a new word, I try to use it often that day so I won't forget it.
What else do you and Cornelia have in common?
I have many things in common with my character. Privacy is extremely important to both of us. We both adore language in all of its nuances. We both grew up surrounded by talent and character, which makes us completely disinclined toward beige clique-ishness. Also, like Cornelia, I think it's very important to have friends of all ages. I only wish that I'd had a mentor like Virginia Somerset when I was Cornelia's age!
What are your top ten favorite books?
This is the kind of question that would take me a year to answer to my satisifaction. So, why don't I tell you which ones I tend to re-read on a regular basis?
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
3. Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
4. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
5. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
6. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
7. Art Lover, a biography of Peggy Guggenheim
8. Grace and Power, a biography of the Kennedy White House
9. The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary Lovell
10. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Visit Lesley M.M. Blume's official website. Make sure to visit the Absolutely Necessitous Links to follow the sisters' travels and check out a mugshot (make that a pugshot!) of the real Mister Kinyatta.
Read my reviews of Lesley's novels:
Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters
The Rising Star of Rusty Nail (review to come)