By Roz DeKett
Nuala O’Connor’s third novel, Miss Emily, alternates perspectives between the American 19th century poet Emily Dickinson and a fictional Irish maid, Ada Concannon.
“I wanted to explode the myth about Emily being the complete recluse,” Nuala O’Connor says. “And to show that she was really friendly, really gregarious, loved to bake. And so, within the confines of her small world, she was actually very active.”
Piece by piece, Nuala assimilated Emily’s life, her writing, and her surroundings, so that she could create a character who springs fully formed, brilliant and warm, from the pages of her novel.
She stood in Emily’s bedroom as renovation revealed what might have been scraps of her wallpaper. She baked her Black Cake, coconut cake, and gingerbread from her recipes. She read everything she could find on her (“I must have bought about thirty books about Emily” she says). She pulled clues from Emily’s writing and followed them into 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts.
“I think that a lot of Emily Dickinson scholars are very protective of Emily and don’t want crazy fiction being written about her,” Nuala says.
“What I tried to do was be very faithful to who Emily was as a person, but show people that she was more than this angsty, downbeat recluse who stayed locked in her room — to show that she was a fully functioning friend to a lot of people.”
Finding deep connections
“I wrote the book first, so I had a first draft by the time I went to Massachusetts,” Nuala says.
“So going to her house, which is now the museum, was really kind of emotional. The guide was standing talking to me, and I was trying to fight back tears because I felt really connected to this place that I had been in – in my head – for over a year.”
As much as anything, this is because Emily Dickinson deeply loved her house: a place she chose to be her world. She said of it: “They say that ‘home is where the heart is.’ I think it is where the house is, and the adjacent buildings.”
Nuala finds such connections so direct that they are almost visceral, to use her word; from the well-known, rather severe black and white photo of Emily (her hair was actually red) to her “little sleigh bed.”
“That’s there, absolutely beautiful,” Nuala says. “I’m a real objects person so connecting with all that stuff was very important to me. I have a little statue of Emily above my desk and I have a photo of her as well, a picture postcard.”
Then she laughs at herself. But this immersion in detail is what helped her find her way into Emily’s personality and dreams, to understand Emily as a writer and introvert herself. She theorizes that Emily may have chosen not to marry, chosen not to have children, because of what burned inside her: the need to write.
“The writer’s biggest need is time,” Nuala says. “That’s the only crucial thing, time to actually get the words down.”
And for Emily, time was precious and not her own. The family frequently didn’t have a maid — Nuala uses 1866 as the year for her novel and fictional maid Ada, a year in which the Dickinson household was without household help in reality. “So nobody could accuse me of ‘cross-maiding’,” Nuala says, laughing.
But what this meant was that Emily and her sister did the household work, leaving her scraping for time when she could to write. She stayed up late, she wrote on scraps of paper, she wrote letters that included poems; and astonishingly, she left behind eighteen hundred other poems that nobody knew she’d written.
“They knew how to do everything [to run the house] but Emily didn’t want to do everything,” Nuala says. “She wanted to write.”
The challenge of writing historical fiction
Nuala’s first two published novels are contemporary fiction; Miss Emily is her first published foray into historical fiction. But involving herself in another’s life and trying to write their story is something she’s tried before, working on a novel about a German artist that she eventually, brokenhearted about it, set aside as unworkable.
“I definitely feel that writing historical fiction is a different challenge to writing contemporary fiction,” Nuala says. “When I research these people I fall in love with them deeply.”
“So I was terrified, taking on Emily Dickinson.”
Yet what she learned in trying to write that first historical novel stood her in good stead when she came to Miss Emily. The first time around, she says, she didn’t allow herself room for the fiction.
“The architecture of the story collapsed under the weight of all the facts,” Nuala says. “I learned that to introduce a fictional character, whom you have control over and can say whatever you want her to say, is a good thing as a writer.”
With Emily herself so well known, set in history and with a great deal of research and writing existing on her – her little cherry wood desk in an honored place at Harvard – Nuala turned to her fierce and charming fictional maid, Ada, to help pull the reader into Emily’s world.
“Ada is the active character,” Nuala says. “She gets to leave the house. Emily doesn’t really; she leaves it twice, I think, in the entire book. So Ada gets to go and explore Amherst and we get to go with her.”
From purple prose to plot
Fiction being fiction, Emily is also drawn into Ada’s world, and has to face some challenging and shocking events because of her friendship with her maid. The deft handling of the story is the more impressive when you learn that constructing a plot doesn’t come naturally to Nuala.
“I write the novel to tell a story to myself, and I don’t know what that story will be,” Nuala says. “I’ve very little interest in plot, as a novel writer or as a short story writer. So it’s something I have to think about a lot as I write. What is going to happen? And then what happens?”
“I have to stop just having fun writing the beautiful descriptions and start telling the story.”
In this, she’s helped along by her editors – who sent her something like seventeen pages of suggestions for Miss Emily.
“This was after they bought the book,” Nuala says. “It would be things like Emily needs more internal musing at this point, or, we need another meeting between Ada and Daniel here to connect the reader more deeply to them. That’s the sort of stuff as the writer you don’t really see yourself. It’s very difficult to be objective about the thing as a whole, whereas the editors can pinpoint exactly where it needs to be.
“I have a huge fondness for purple prose, so I would be rambling on for pages of lovely descriptions, and they would suggest cutting chunks of that, which they did, and it was fine.”
Nuala works from home, as does her husband. They meet in the kitchen at ten-thirty each morning for a cup of tea and some brainstorming.
“I will just talk at him about the book,” Nuala says. “The first rule of fiction is something has to happen.
“And so my husband had to listen to me trying to figure out Emily Dickinson and Ada, and what was the thing that was going to happen, and how was it going to happen and where was it going to happen.
“The fun part, I suppose, is figuring out what the story is.”
© Roz DeKett
Miss Emily was published in July 2015 by Penguin USA and Penguin Canada, and in the UK in August 2015 by Sandstone Press.
About the Author
Nuala O’Connor has worked as a bookseller, a librarian, and in a writer’s center. She was shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature, and her short story Peach was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her two previous novels are Closet of Savage Mementos and You. She lives in East Galway, Ireland, with her husband and three children.