Q & A with Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
1. Q: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson is the astonishing fictional autobiography of one of America’s greatest poets. What inspired you to write a novel from the perspective of Emily Dickinson? What are you trying to reveal about her in this book?
A: I fell in love with Emily Dickinson’s poetry when I was a child. She was the first writer I had ever read. I would never have dared write a novel in her voice when I was younger, but I’m less “fearful” now. There is such a mystery about her life, about the loves she might have had—so much of her romance existed in her mind. I wanted to enter this mystery, to remove the myth of the Old Maid, and to reveal the woman who might have been there behind her many masks.
2. Q: This novel includes incredible detail about Emily Dickinson’s family, the political and social climate of nineteenth-century New England, the Mount Holyoke Seminary, where Emily went to school, and Amherst, Massachusetts. What sort of research did you need to do in order to accurately inhabit her character?
A: I read everything I could about her, but no biographer could help me crawl inside her skin. I had never read her letters until I began researching the novel I intended to write, and the letters were just as disturbing and electric as her very best poems; it was in the letters that I found the “music” I needed to write the novel.
3. Q: Much of the book is set in Amherst, where Emily Dickinson and her family spent most of their time. Indeed, the relatively bucolic, calm setting of the Amherst countryside comes in stark contrast to the gritty, crowded, mosquito-plagued streetscape of Boston, where Emily briefly relocated to consult with an eye doctor about her failing vision. What is the significance of place to the book and to the life and work of Emily Dickinson?
A: Amherst seemed to be her entire life, but she had made two very long trips to Boston (and Cambridge) during the time of the Civil War and went through a rather excruciating treatment for her eyes. In my novel, I wanted her to wander around Boston and Cambridge half-blind: a country girl in the metropolis, without her Newfoundland, Carlo, who had been her one constant companion. It gave me a chance to show Emily under great stress.
4. Q: Your portrait of the prim, pious female society within nineteenth-century Mount Holyoke differs drastically from the raucous male fraternities of Amherst College, of which Emily’s brother, Austin, was a member. If Emily Dickinson had been born a man, how do you think her poetic legacy and her prominent place within the public imagination would have been altered?
A: But the real answer to your question is that Emily often liked to imagine herself as a man. Had she actually been born a man, I doubt that we would ever have had the same marvelous poetry—as creator she was both male and female. The poems are wicked, full of snares and tricks, and sometimes filled with “violence,” but it is the violence of a woman who empowers herself in a world that gave her very little real power.
5. Q: With her many (unconsummated) love affairs with gentlemen ranging from a poor handyman to an alcoholic scholar to a man many years her senior, your Emily Dickinson is in many ways a more colorful and, some would say, scandalous figure than the reclusive woman we often think of. What led you to portray her in such a way?
A: The poems themselves are often quite “sexy,” and I wanted to crawl under the “vail” of her language, and reveal her own secret life, to show her as a subterranean creature in contrast to the prim old maid we often imagine her to be. She wasn’t prim at all.
6. Q:What is it about Emily Dickinson’s life and work that you feel continues to capture the public imagination?
A: She was an incredibly brave woman, much more “modern” than anyone around her. She lived her own imaginative life with a daring that still startles me. As a woman she was entombed in the limits of her own time, but as a poet she went very, very deep into her own well, so that we have a kind of “autobiography” written with a fierce will that helped create her own rich interior life.
7. Q: What is gained/lost/revealed by a man undertaking to write a story from the perspective of so famous a female figure?
A: I had to “reinvent” myself to write the book, to imagine myself into her own willful femininity. Perhaps in the twenty-first century our own sexuality is defined in a very different way and it’s no longer so difficult to cross that “boundary” between male and female. Perhaps in writing the book I found the “female” within myself and was able to wind my way into the “bearded creature” she often imagined herself to be. Emily loved to think of herself as male and female. The only advantage I had as a writer was the closeness I felt to her and the belief that I could fall into her own dream.
8. Q: Emily Dickinson’s schoolmate and maid, Zilpah Marsh, who succumbs to insanity, creates quite an impression as a madwoman, scrawling pictures on the wall of her asylum cell with her own blood. Bertha Rochester also makes an appearance in the book, as Emily and her friends speculate on the gender of the mysterious author of Jane Eyre. What is the significance of the madwoman to your book and to the time period?
A: Zilpah was Emily’s rival and her dream sister, and Zilpah’s madness suggests some of the power of Emily’s art. Both of them scribbled with their own blood, but Emily’s was the blood of metaphor and language, and the “spillage” wasn’t so great. Zilpha is the creature Emily might have become without the protective mask of family and “culture.” Zilpah was that wild woman in the attic, like Mrs. Rochester, and Emily was frightened of them both and drawn to them both—they existed outside the realm of culture, in the wild language of art.