Author Interview: Deborah Noyes on the Creative Life & A Hopeful Heart

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

I am excited to welcome Deborah Noyes to Cynsations to share with our readers her thoughts on the creative life, both about her own work and that which has influenced her.

Welcome, Deborah! Could you tell us about your new release?

A Hopeful Heart (Random House, 2020) is a biography of Louisa May Alcott before her break-out success with Little Women (Roberts Brothers, 1868). My book ends (spoiler) at the moment her iconic one begins.

I read Little Women later in life, so the book wasn’t formative in the way that it was for so many others, though like a lot of aspiring women writers, I strongly identified with Louisa’s alter ego, Jo Marsh.

For me it was Louisa’s unusual upbringing and the fact that she lived a literary double life that made me want to write about her. I set out to focus on her “hungry” years (and in her case we can take that literally) growing up in relative poverty in an eccentric family, constantly on the move.

Like me, Louisa grew up devouring gothic romance—in her case, alongside the elevated work of Concord neighbors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.

By 1863, Louisa had already been a professional writer for ten years with fairy tales, poetry, literary fiction, and popular fiction under her belt. She had learned a trade and was supporting herself (and often her entire family), which even established male authors of the day like Hawthorne struggled to do.

One secret of her success, a secret she kept all her life, was that she wrote sensational potboilers for a time—she called them her rubbishy stories or blood-and-thunder tales—for popular weeklies like Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, publishing under an assumed name. In letters to friends she hinted that she was a “mercenary creature” and would “illuminate the Ledger with a blood & thunder tales as they are easy to ‘compoze’ & are better paid than the moral & elaborate works of Shakespeare, so don’t be shocked if I send you a paper…[with a] title like this: ‘The Maniac Bride’ or the ‘Bath of Blood. A thrilling tale of passion.’”

The original title of my book (the publisher opted to change it for marketing reasons), in fact, was Blood and Thunder.

Louisa’s double literary life was only recently uncovered in 1942 by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern, two independent scholars and booksellers in New York—the “Holmes and Watson” of the rare book business—who discovered Louisa’s pseudonym, A. M. Barnard, and tracked down most of her anonymously published blood-and-thunder tales, which they compiled, edited, and published.

The Inheritance in Louisa May Alcott’s hand.

One of the most exciting parts of researching Louisa’s story was opening a box of the Alcott papers at Houghton Library to discover a handwritten manuscript of her first novel, The Inheritance, a gothic potboiler written in her teens and modeled on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (Smith, Elder, and Co, 1847). It really helped me see through her young eyes, and I wanted to bring the hungry, earnest, romantic, imaginative young girl who wrote it to life on the page for readers today, to show that we all have our creative beginnings, our own crooked paths, our own obstacles to surmount.

What writers have influenced your writing the most?

Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, absolutely anything ghosty. Fantasy was my refuge growing up, and if I had to choose a favorite, it would be Susan Cooper’s the Dark is Rising series (Macmillan).

I dedicated a horror anthology I edited to my mom—“who kept the dark away, but not completely.” She was a fan of gothic romance and horror and always had novels around by writers like Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, and Stephen King. I got my mitts on these at a young age.

I also loved animal stories and historical fiction, so one night I’d be reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (Harper & Brothers, 1952) or Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (Dial, 1976) and the next du Maurier’s Rebecca (Victor Gollancz, 1938) or King’s ‘Salem’s Lot (1975). I loved both strands equally well.

What are you working on now?

Next up is another middle-grade bio (Lady Icarus, Random House Studio, March 2022), in this case about French balloonist Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to make her living in the air.

Because there was so little archival material to work from, the book is more “life and times” than biography, a heavily illustrated scrapbook of early flight and the Balloonomania phenomenon that Sophie helped stoke.

After that, I have a graphic novel about the Salem Witch Trials coming, We Walked in Clouds (Little Brown) illustrated by Duffy.

Though I’ve edited many and love the form, this is my first graphic novel, and I’m excited to watch it taking shape. Even in the early sketch stage, the art looks amazing.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

For most of my life I thought of myself as an author first and foremost. I couldn’t imagine being or wanting to be anything else. I’m grateful every day that I get to do this work, but I’m a rangy beast, too, and find it harder to sit still in any one creative identity.

Whether writing, editing other writers’ work, doing nineteenth-century photography, learning to play the fiddle, cooking, or gardening—I don’t rank or distinguish anymore. It’s a current I have to keep flowing in order to feel alive, and curiosity drives it, so I’ve accepted that creative mastery just isn’t in the cards for me. I spread myself too thin.

As an idealistic young writer, I remember being baffled—mildly troubled, even—by Toni Morrison’s words in Tar Baby (Knopf, 1981): “At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.”

The older I get, the truer those words feel… like all genuine wisdom, I guess. Noticing is what counts. Paying attention in the present. Children are so good at that. Aren’t we clever, choosing this as our vocation—getting to look out through their eyes for our living?

Deborah’s fiddle.

Cynsational Notes

Deb Noyes is an author, editor, and photographer, and teaches in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Portland, Maine.

With twenty-plus years of publishing experience, in positions ranging from marketing copywriter to editor-at-large, Deb has always taken joy in supporting other writers while pursuing her own creative work. In senior and executive editor roles at Candlewick Press, she worked with award-winning and best-selling authors and illustrators, acquiring and editing in all formats—from picture books and graphic novels to “crossover” YA. She’s especially passionate about historical, literary, and speculative fiction (ghost stories, please!), narrative nonfiction, and biography, and offers developmental editing, mentoring, and professional-development support for early-career and established authors of young adult and children’s books. Please visit her website to learn more.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.