Thursday, July 30, 2015

Guest author Nuala O'Connor: Finding Emily Dickinson

Nuala O'Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland and lives in East Galway. Already well-known under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, she has published four short story collections; the most recent, Mother America, appeared from New Island in 2012. Her third poetry collection, The Juno Charm, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011 and Nuala’s critically acclaimed second novel, The Closet of Savage Mementos, appeared April 2014, also from New Island. Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, is out now from Penguin USA and Penguin Canada; Sandstone (UK) will publish it in August. Nuala has worked as a bookseller, a librarian, and in a writers’ center. She was shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature, and her short story “Peach” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

Nuala O'Connor
I am standing in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. Her bed is here but the wallpaper is patchy, mostly absent. My guide – a tall, distinguished, well-spoken man – tells me about the ongoing renovation. I can barely take in what he says because my mind repeats: Emily’s bedroom. I am inside Emily’s bedroom! I can imagine Emily here, fingers speckled with ink, black crescents of garden soil under her fingernails. She soaks in the light from the windows, while sitting at her cherrywood desk, her head a chatter of thoughts.

I have spent much of the previous year in this room, and all over the Dickinson house, if only in my mind. The writing of my novel, Miss Emily, about the poet and her Irish maid, brought me into The Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, over and over. As a girl, I recited ‘A Bird came down the Walk’ with actions, to amuse my sisters. Now I stand in the very bedroom of the very poet I loved – so much so that I specialised in her incisive, explosive poems for my final exams. Poetry brought me here. And a hunger to know how the reclusive poet conducted her seclusion. And baking too, as it happens.

Emily Dickinson was not truly the downbeat, morbidity-obsessed recluse of myth. Yes, as she grew older she secluded herself, but she was a devoted friend, and she took part in the domestic scene of The Homestead. Emily loved to bake, particularly cakes, and she would send them with a verse or recipe to her friends. She said to one: ‘People must have puddings.’

As part of the research for Miss Emily, I baked some of the poet’s recipes: Coconut Cake (now a favourite in my house); the gingerbread she famously made for local children and lowered in a basket from her upstairs window; and her gigantic Black Cake, a rich fruitcake that uses nineteen eggs and five pounds of raisins. As I baked I thought about Emily’s sassy, amusing voice in her letters, her commitment to her friends, and her need for solitary space in which to write. I wondered about her relationship with her various Irish maids – Maggie Maher, Margaret O’Brien, Rosina Mack – and, soon, I was writing a novel about baking, friendship, writing, and the mistress-servant relationship, featuring a fictional Irish maid called Ada Concannon.

Emily’s life is reasonably well documented – there are many books about her and I read a lot of them. But, for the sake of my own writing practice, I had to counterbalance her with a fictional character; I needed that novelistic freedom. It was more satisfying to me to invent a new Irish maid to slot into the year I had chosen to concentrate on – 1866 – a year where in fact the Dickinsons had no maid at all.

My research took many forms: reading the poetry and biographies, poring over pictures of Emily’s belongings in online archives – the family’s white, gold-rimmed china; Emily’s garnet and pearl brooch; her gold and citrine letter seal; the blue shawl she wore. I researched many topics including how to make butter (I bought a glass churn and made some); the use of remedies such as sarsaparilla, calomel and tansy; and Irish superstitions (Ada believes in signs and portents).

When I had a first draft of Miss Emily completed, I visited Amherst and went to the poet’s house and her brother’s next door, both of which make up the Emily Dickinson Museum. I saw her white dress in the Amherst History Museum and I went to Harvard University, to view Emily’s original cherrywood desk. I joined the Emily Dickinson International Society (EDIS) and met fellow fans at my first meeting which, coincidentally, took place in Amherst.

And although Miss Emily is published now, and I’m busy writing and editing my fourth novel, I am not finished with Emily Dickinson at all – once you fall hard for her, she will not let you go. As part of my US book tour, I return to Amherst for the third time this August to read from my novel at the EDIS conference. And I am still buying books about Emily, still obsessively reading her poetry and finding new things there. I even got a tattoo in her honour. Because it is so easy, when you immerse yourself in Emily’s company, to simply ‘gather Paradise’ and dwell there.


Liane Spicer said...

Welcome back, Nuala! This sounds like a fascinating book and I'm going to get it. I'm in the middle of researching Emily Dickinson's biography for a personal project so I'm eager to read all things 'Emily' right now.

All the best with this new release. It's exciting stuff!

Marissa Monteilh said...

Pleased to meet you on Novel Spaces. Ms. Emily looks very interesting, I will check it out. And best with your 4th title. Welcome, and thanks for being our guest, fellow sister-in-pen!

KeVin K. said...

Fascinating look into the bond between writer and a person who is both the inspiration of and a character in one's work. Much to think about. And of course I'll be tracking down a copy of Miss Emily. Glad to have you here.

Jewel Amethyst said...

It's great to have you on Novelspaces. I love this post. Sometimes doing research makes you fall in love with the subject of research you really can't get enough of it. I've had that experience (not with Emily of course). I definitely look forward to reading Ms Emily.