Welcome Nuala, this is a few questions in one! Emily Dickinson had a fierce attachment to home, as a place of refuge, and a place to write. She was on our syllabus in school (1980's) and much was made of her hermit like existence, her rejection of society - as if this were odd, almost laughable, behaviour - as if dedicating your life to poetry was only heroic if you were male. For me, she was heroic, and (till now) her home represented a necessary fortress, somewhere that functioned to protect the time, space and silence she needed to write. I had visualised it as quite a sterile place, so I was surprised and delighted with the warmth and complexity of the household you depict in Miss Emily. The descriptions of the daily routines, the baking, Ada touching the eggs with her tongue... are so alive - I really felt like I was there. Did you enjoy recreating this household? Was it a challenge? Did the book Ada consults The Frugal Housewife really exist? And, I know you visited Emily’s home, so I'm very curious to know, how did that feel? Did you sense her there?
I loved the whole business of recreating the Dickinson world in Emily’s house, The Homestead, and her brother Austin’s house, The Evergreens, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Emily’s letters have some domestic detail and I read widely around the subject, including The Frugal Housewife, which is a book Emily’s father gifted to his wife before their marriage. You can read it online, but I also bought a facsimile copy to get a real feel for how the Dickinson's and Ada would have consumed it.
The two houses are now the Emily Dickinson Museum and, when I had a first draft written, I went to Amherst and walked the rooms of both. As well as the town itself, and various libraries there and in Cambridge, to see Emily’s belongings: desk, white dress, lock of hair, jewellery, delft etc. The research was totally absorbing – I loved every minute of it, whether from books or on the spot.
It certainly felt audacious to tackle Emily and her world – she’s an American icon. But I did it with love and good intentions; she’s been a companion poet to me for a long time and I stayed as faithful to her life and personality as fiction allows. I was respectful.
I expected a backlash; Dickinson scholars are notoriously protective of Emily, which I understand; I feel that way myself. One Dickinson scholar refused to blurb the book because of ‘inaccuracies’ (which were very minor and, in fact, had nothing to do with Emily).
Last month I read at the Emily Dickinson International Society annual meeting in Amherst as part of my US book tour. People were incredibly warm about the book; only one person asked a snarky question at the Q&A. And I understood their POV, anyway.
No book escapes criticism and personal reaction from readers. There was a bit of a hoo-hah on Facebook about the UK cover (the headless woman trope) and the person who started it didn’t seem to realise they were friends with me. I joined the conversation! I’m as irritated by headless women on book covers as the next person, but I just loved the cover when Sandstone showed it to me.
What’s next for you, Nuala?I hope to rest and breathe a bit soon, when the Miss Emily PR train slows down, though I find it hard to say no to gigs, for a variety of reasons.
I have the first draft of another Victorian novel written - this one set between London, Hong Kong, Australia and Ballinasloe in County Galway (where I live). I have to go back to it soon and knock it into good enough shape for my agent. In the meantime, I hope to write some short stories set firmly in the 21st century.
About the author -
Nuala O'Connor is a fiction writer and poet. Writing as Nuala Ní Chonchúir she has published two novels, four collections of short fiction, a chapbook of flash fiction and three full poetry collections - one in an anthology. Nuala holds a BA in Irish from Trinity College Dublin and a Masters in Translation Studies (Irish/English) from Dublin City University. She has worked as an arts administrator in theatre and in a writers' centre; as a translator, as a bookseller and also in a university library. She teaches occasional creative writing courses. For the last four years she has been fiction mentor to third year students on the BA in Writing at NUI Galway. She lives in County Galway with her husband and three children.