On writing Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor

Emily Dickinson’s life is a life of gaps – a frustration for fans and scholars alike, but a joy for the writer who wants to fill those gaps imaginatively

Nuala O’Connor: When I decided to write a dual narrative about Dickinson and her Irish maid, I deliberately didn’t use the most well-known of her real Irish maids – Maggie Maher – but a made-up cousin of Maggie’s called Ada Concannon, whose history would be mine to concoct

Nuala O’Connor: When I decided to write a dual narrative about Dickinson and her Irish maid, I deliberately didn’t use the most well-known of her real Irish maids – Maggie Maher – but a made-up cousin of Maggie’s called Ada Concannon, whose history would be mine to concoct

 

There is a certain audacity in taking on an iconic American poet and rendering her fictionally. I am not the first to weave a novel around the life of Emily Dickinson but, in the context of my own practice, it seemed a risky undertaking. Until Miss Emily, I had published some historical short stories, but only contemporary novels.

I studied Dickinson’s poetry for my Leaving Certificate back in the mid-eighties. When I was memorising the poems, I would perform them for the amusement of my sisters, acting out gestures and reciting the words solemnly to Dickinson’s hymnal beats. So her hold on me has been a long one: 35 years or so of reading her poetry and wondering from time to time about her reclusiveness. It wasn’t until I heard she loved to bake – as I do – that I embarked on a thorough investigation of Dickinson’s life and realised what I found there was the stuff of good fiction.

The first historical novel I attempted, about the German Expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker, was consigned to a bottom drawer. When you write novels, a certain amount of ignorance, coupled with mystery, serves to keep up your interest as you write. At least as you begin, you’re better off not knowing too much and not overburdening the whole structure with facts. I learned from that failed novel that using the story of a real person’s life fictionally is tricky and that there are ways to do it that won’t make the whole house cave in. I realised that I needed to seek out the nuance behind the facts, and to leave room for imagination, otherwise the lightness and play necessary for good fiction would not exist in the final draft.

When I decided to write a dual narrative about Dickinson and her Irish maid, I deliberately didn’t use the most well-known of her real Irish maids – Maggie Maher – but a made-up cousin of Maggie’s called Ada Concannon, whose history would be mine to concoct.

When I decided to write a dual narrative about Dickinson and her Irish maid, I deliberately didn’t use the most well-known of her real Irish maids – Maggie Maher – but a made-up cousin of Maggie’s called Ada Concannon, whose history would be mine to concoct.

Emily Dickinson’s life is a life of gaps – a frustration for fans and Dickinson scholars alike, but a joy for the writer who wants to fill those gaps imaginatively. In my research into Dickinson (conducted for the most part via her poetry and letters, as well as biographies and scholarly works) I discovered a gap that suited my purposes: in 1866 the Dickinson household in Amherst, Massachusetts did not have a maid. Mrs Dickinson had trained her daughters in the domestic arts and, between them, the three women managed the house, but this meant that Emily Dickinson had little time to write. This was also around the time that Dickinson chose to dress in a white wrapper, rather than in a more standard gown, and she continued her retreat from the outside world. So, here I had a couple of moments of quiet drama with which to begin my fictional exploration of a part of her life. My invented maid fitted nicely into this gap.

Dickinson’s voice, as we read it in her letters, is fresh, wry and funny – she is not the angsty, downbeat, obsessed-with-death recluse of myth and legend. But she is also intense and sometimes cryptic in her wordiness. I toned down her voice and made her sound less loquacious and enigmatic. Emily’s real voice is clever and sometimes a little incomprehensible, but it seemed reasonable to take the spirit of her words and, for her narrative voice, refashion it into more comprehensible speech.

In the course of writing Miss Emily I was happily distracted by research on topics including breastfeeding in the 19th century; the making of quince jam; Emily’s jewellery (a pearl and garnet brooch, a woven gold bracelet); the Dickinson family’s crockery and artworks; fauna including bobolinks and cardinals; and flora such as Indian Pipes and fiddleheads. I baked Emily’s recipes for coconut cake, black cake and gingerbread. Through YouTube, I studied how to skin a hare, and I bought a glass churn and made my own butter.

I have taken two trips to Amherst to stand in Emily Dickinson’s home and marvel at being surrounded by her things. I visited her grave, and pored over more of her belongings in Harvard University, including her tiny cherrywood writing desk. At Amherst College I was shown a lock of her extraordinarily bright red hair.

You need to be haunted by characters in order to write them, but when you are dealing with an historical figure, the question arises: who owns this person’s history? And, further, who has the right to re-tell it fictionally? It certainly felt bold to me to take on Dickinson and give her a flesh-and-blood treatment. But because I loved and respected her and her poetry, I also felt I could be responsible to Dickinson’s life and true to her spirit.

In the end, though, every novel’s chief responsibility is to itself: to make the best possible story out of the set of circumstances the characters find themselves in, whether they are based on real people or not. Novels are not social anthropology nor are they social history. The novel tells the story of a piece of unsettled time for the characters involved: this happened, then that happened. That happened only because this happened. The thing that happens is an unrepeatable event – it occurs just once in the course of these characters’ lives.

Miss Emily aims to show that while Dickinson began to live a pared-back life, at a physical remove from Amherst, her engagement with the inner and outer world was enormous, emotional and important. She delighted in the natural world and in her closest allies: friends, family and servants. And, like the little stone she wrote of “that rambles in the road alone”, Emily Dickinson managed to fulfil “absolute decree/ In casual simplicity”.

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor is published today by Sandstone Press, at £8.99

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