The defining perspective in octogenarian Ann L. McLaughlin’s fiction often comes from a youngster.
“A child’s voice has a kind of clarity,” the Chevy Chase author said. “The innocence and vulnerability help me tell the story.”
McLaughlin’s eighth novel, “Amy & George,” was published this month by John Daniel and Company, a small press in California. Nine-year-old Amy and her father George alternate as narrators.
As has been the case in most of McLaughlin’s work, the story had an autobiographical impetus. Amy, she said, is based on her recollection of her childhood self, although, “Amy is much nicer and brighter than I was.”
The novel also reflects McLaughlin’s fascination with father-daughter relationships. “I, too, had an absent father, even more so than George,” she said. George’s career echoes her dad’s, from serving as dean of Harvard Law School to becoming involved with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Fiction allowed the author to modify her history.
“I made this a gentler [father-daughter] relationship,” McLaughlin said, explaining that such rapport “might have helped me, and I think it’s what my father would have wanted.”
No such negative issues existed for McLaughlin’s late husband and their daughter, who “worked and wrote together.” Similarly, McLaughlin’s younger sister, with whom she continues to be close, “had it slightly easier [with our father]. She wasn’t expecting as much.”
McLaughlin also used a child’s voice in her third book, “Sunset at Rosalie,” and her fourth, “The House on Q Street.”
Writing has long been the core of McLaughlin’s life. After reading Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” at age 10, she announced to her family that she would be a writer.
“Writing was respected and encouraged in my family,” she recalled.
Perpetuating her mother’s habit, McLaughlin has kept a journal since her teenage years. “It’s depressing,” she noted about rereading old entries. “The same problems keep coming up.”
For some 25 years, McLaughlin has offered eight-week novel writing workshops at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda. This year, she is retooling the class, which will begin in late October, calling it “Transcending the Memoir.”
“I’ll ask them to bring in some personal letters, see if we can get something started,” she said.
A founding member of the 37-year-old nonprofit, McLaughlin also sits on its board.
“Despite lots of changes, the center is thriving, offering 45 courses a semester,” she said proudly. “And I feel I’m getting better as a teacher.”
“Writing is a way of thinking,” she said, noting that she tries to transmit the kind of commitment it takes to be a writer to her students. McLaughlin writes six days a week, 9 a.m. to noon — preceded by meditation and a swim. Thoroughly researching the historical context is mandatory. For “Amy & George,” her sources included C.L. Sulzberger’s “World War II,” and Marc McCutcheon’s “Everyday Life From Prohibition Through World War II.”
And, she cautions her charges, the process can be lengthy. It took 3 1/2 years to write “Amy & George,” which she said is “about average” for her.
Making predictions about her new students amuses McLaughlin.
“It’s a fascinating mystery each time, figuring out who is going to work at it, and who will be gone in two weeks,” she said.
For much of her career, McLaughlin has belonged to a writer’s group; the latest incarnation has four female members, all published, who get together for serious talk about their work for two hours every month. She meets less regularly to work with a group of women who want to write about their experiences of coming to America.
McLaughlin is in the early stages of a yet-untitled book set during the Korean War. Her protagonist is a painter, a “young woman uncertain about what to do with her life, with the war as metaphor,” but the cast of characters includes an “important” 10-year-old — “Pippa, a funny little girl who lives in the upstairs apartment. She loves to draw and joins the young woman while she paints.”
The sparkle in McLaughlin’s eye as she talks about Pippa suggests that a young girl once again may have stolen her creator’s heart and defined her tale.
McLaughlin will celebrate publication of “Amy & George” at 2 p.m. Sunday at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 202-364-1919, and at 2 p.m. Oct. 6, at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda, 301-654-8664. Mary Kay Zuravleff also will join McLaughlin at The Writer’s Center event, reading from her novel “Man Alive!”