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  1. Book ImageThe Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel

    Jerome Charyn

    "In this brilliant and hilarious jailbreak of a novel, Charyn channels the genius poet and her great leaps of the imagination."—Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review

An Interview with Jerome Charyn

What attracted you to Emily Dickinson as a subject? 

I’ve been in love with Emily Dickinson all my life. I first discovered her as a bumbling boy at junior high. I’d never read a poet before, didn’t even know what a poet was. And there was Emily, talking about the defeated, the dying, and “Pain” with a capital P. Perhaps I discovered literature itself through reading her. But one thing was certain: she was my secret sister. She nourished me and set my skull ablaze with her words. I felt that both of us were on fire. She had her own strength without the least bit of bluster. She also had her own alchemy—words came together in ways I had never seen before. Suddenly language wasn’t a utensil, and could be used without any purpose other than to wound or amaze. Where did she ever get such fury?

The nimble outline of her life had always fascinated me—the old maid who went around in white, the living ghost who rarely left her father’s house. Suppose these were only shibboleths and masks that obscured the Poet and the adventurer in her? I sensed a wildness in Emily that I wanted to write about. I didn’t really know what form the novel would take. Perhaps I would fail and never capture Emily. But it was worth the risk.

Why did you feel compelled to give her a secret life—and a scandalous one at that? 

Don’t we all have secret lives? And isn’t that one of the novelist’s quests, to reveal the secret lives of his characters? But after reading her letters, I discovered such wit, such naughtiness, and such a sense of imagination that I felt I was dealing with Scheherazade rather than the meekest of spinsters. What really has been denied to Emily is her own sexual life, as if she were a wraith who had a secret correspondence with a married minister from Philadelphia but had to wait until she was almost fifty to have her first kiss. Weren’t we all shocked when scholars first revealed that she had a liaison with a judge who had once been a friend of her father’s, as if we couldn’t bear to have our Poet sullied by any man?

She was a complicated creature, with her own primitive heartbeat. If I had her fall in love with a handyman at Mount Holyoke, it wasn’t to provoke the reader or to lend the Poet a bit of artificial spice. The book opens in the snow, with Emily watching Tom the Handyman rescue a baby deer from a snow bank while she dreams of the Tattoo on his arm. That image of Tom wading in the snow with the baby deer in his arms will haunt her entire life. Tom will later morph into a burglar, a draft dodger, and a circus clown. She will meet him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she wanders about half-blind during one of the Civil War riots and becomes his “Mouse.” But what is so scandalous about that? Couldn’t Emily Dickinson, the maid of Amherst, have been a bit of a voluptuary? Why not?

What were your goals for the voice of the novel? How did you create it?

I could have played it safe and written the novel with a kind of Tolstoyan distance, or else inhabited the voice of Sister Sue and had her examine Emily and all the Dickinsons with her own slant, her own regard, but I didn’t want to do that. As demonic as Sue was, she never had Emily’s own demons or Emily’s wit. I wasn’t interested in the “unreliability” of Sue’s narration. I wanted the playfulness and the hunger of Emily’s voice, or what I imagined that voice to be.

I discovered that in her letters she was writing her own kind of “novel.” Of course we only have the chaotic bits and pieces of her correspondence that have come down to us—hundreds of her letters have been lost, perhaps even many more than that. But we can witness the modulations in her voice as she moves from Mount Holyoke student to subterranean Poet and homemaker in her father’s house, who scribbled many of her poems on the backs of recipes. I wanted not to steal Emily’s own miraculous thunder but to learn from her, and to render her own voice as I imagined it, to reinvent Emily Dickinson within the limits of whatever thunder I had.

It wasn’t easy. There were always false notes, a lilt that was neither hers nor mine but a mocking nineteenth-century mask, and I had to “modernize” Emily, to meld my music with hers until I felt I had found a lilt that could carry me right through the novel—from Holyoke to her final dreams.

How do you view the relationship between biography and fiction?

I felt bounded by the particular arc of Emily’s life and those relationships that were crucial to her, but I didn’t want to be entombed in her biography. I felt that her relationships with her father and with Sue defined her and helped shape the Poet she would become, and I tried to render these relationships with my own sense of their sound and fury. She loved her father and she loved Sue, but she was also deviled by them and included both of them in the deviltry of her own writing. I felt less of a compulsion with some of the other “voices” in her life, except for her dog Carlo—Carlo played a critical role for Emily; he was her “mute Confederate,” as she called him. Carlo was her friend and confidant. She wasn’t the ghostly woman in white when she wandered through the streets of Amherst with an enormous dog who looked like a furry house. And I built Carlo into the novel, even though there’s barely a page about him in most Dickinson biographies.

Carlo was almost “fictional” for me, and if he hadn’t been there, I might have invented him, as I invented Tom the Handyman and Zilpah Marsh, her fellow seminarian at Mount Holyoke, who would become the Dickinsons’ housekeeper and later descend into madness. Does Zilpah intrude upon Emily’s life and detract from all the other Dickinsons? I don’t think so. I was hoping that Zilpah, the stableman’s daughter, might reveal Emily’s anger, distrust, and compassion, and help us explore some of the social injustices and cruelties of Emily’s own time. I was also hoping that my novel might create a new form of “biography” and would reveal Emily to us in a way that the objective voice of the biographer never could.

Why did you place the women writers in this novel—Charlotte Brontë, Miss Rebecca, and Emily herself—at the edge of feminine and religious respectability? 

Women in the nineteenth century were most often seen as secondary creatures who couldn’t even take care of themselves. They either married and bore children (many of whom didn’t survive), or became schoolteachers, spinsters, and maidenly aunts, or else ended up as lunatics in the attic. There were no female doctors or female lawyers in Emily’s day. But there were female writers, even if many of them hid behind a masculine cloak. One of the writers Emily most admired was George Eliot, who was as unhandsome and plain as Emily herself. Eliot suffered most of her life as the mistress of a married man. She may also have suffered as a writer, but few people could have doubted her “seriousness.” And suddenly the patriarchal society of New England was confronted by an Englishwoman who wrote as well as any man and was the greatest novelist of her era, though the majority of men, educated or not, still considered the novel a frivolous form.

It didn’t really matter. Emily had a model, even if she was concerned with poetry rather than fiction. All writing, particularly by women, was considered a rebellious act. Women were not supposed to deal with the alchemy of words—that belonged to the Devil. But the Devil, we would soon discover, was very much on the side of women, who were always treated as witches if they misbehaved. Emily did misbehave, in her very own manner. All her life was a kind of dance between God and the Devil.

Why did you decide to make Zilpah Marsh such a prominent and haunting presence in Emily’s life? 

Zilpah is Emily’s “ghost,” Emily’s double, a woman of real intellect who happened to have been born on the wrong side of the road in Amherst. Her father was a stableman, her mother a housekeeper at Amherst College. She was let into Mount Holyoke Female Seminary as an exalted kind of pauper who could never have mingled with the other highborn seminarians had it not been for the “accident” of this school.

Zilpah is wild; Zilpah is cunning. She’s not going to be a docile creature in the land of the rich. She’s the only one at the school who has her own rampant sexuality, becoming the “muse” of Miss Rebecca, Mount Holyoke’s vice principal.

Zilpah is thrown out of the seminary. Very few choices are open to her. She becomes a housekeeper, like her own mother but in the Dickinson mansion. Emily is drawn to Zilpah, a hired hand who is her own equal, but also fears her. Zilpah soon becomes the favorite of Emily’s father—Mr. Dickinson likes the idea of a housekeeper who can discuss Shakespeare.

Zilpah ends up at the Northampton Lunatic Asylum, another madwoman in the attic. Emily is still drawn to her. So is Mr. Dickinson, who is a trustee at the asylum. He helps Zilpah replicate Emily’s own little library inside her cell. She remains Emily’s phantom, a mocking reminder of what happens to creative, rebellious women who are born without privilege. And she moves Emily in a way that none of the other characters ever can.

How would you characterize Emily Dickinson’s relationship with her audience? Why do you think she was so reluctant to publish? 

What kind of audience could a diabolic female Poet ever have had in nineteenth-century New England? Poetry itself was frowned upon, considered a form of possession or, even worse, the frivolous activity of females. It’s no accident that we blunder upon our Poet early in the novel as the author of a secret Valentine. How scandalous it was for a woman to write a poem to a man, even if it was only a mock Valentine verse. And when poor Emily is “outed,” she has to pay a bitter price—the unkind regard of her own father. She would remain the willing prisoner in her father’s house, a female creature who had no more worth than an intelligent cow. She could bake and tend her garden, but she could never grasp all the male mysteries of a bank or a law office. So she was condemned to her own inner life—scribbling coded messages that were sometimes love letters in disguise, with a poem often entombed in these letters. She could be a naughty, playful correspondent. Poetry itself became a kind of play.

And what audience could she ever have had? No one in her own lifetime, with the exception of Sister Sue, ever understood her poems. Her “Preceptor,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was utterly deaf to Emily’s tonalities and her daring. She was a twenty-first century poet caught in the cultural landmines and prejudices of the nineteenth century. The few poems that were published in her lifetime, without her consent, were “smoothed out” and robbed of Emily’s own violent edge—her devilish dash!—and were given titles when she never once titled her poems. She was much too modern, perhaps even too modern for us.

Discussion Questions

  1. Emily Dickinson is not the only character in this novel with a secret life. What are some other secrets that come to light? How do secrets—and their unveiling—move the novel forward?

  2. Miss Rebecca is the first woman poet whom Emily ever meets, and her yellow gloves take on an almost mythical power over the course of the novel. What do these gloves come to mean to Emily, in relation to both her self-identification as a poet and her experiences with Zilpah and Miss Rebecca?

  3. The novel opens in the midst of a religious revival, yet Emily seems much more fascinated by Satan, demons, and witches. Why do you think that she is so interested in these figures?

  4. Tom is not at all the sort of man who should attract a daughter of the “earl of Amherst.” Why do you think that Tom has such a hold over Emily’s imagination?

  5. What do Emily and Zilpah’s experiences at Holyoke reveal about women’s education at the time the novel is set? Why do you think that Emily’s father pokes fun at her for having gone to a “nuns’ school” but respects Zilpah for her learning?

  6. Why do you think that Emily becomes a recluse in this novel? Is there a single cause or several?

  7. In many respects, Emily’s relationship with her father defines the course of her life. How would you characterize this relationship? Why do you think that it becomes difficult for her to write after his death?

  8. This novel is haunted by madwomen: Evelyn O’Hare, Zilpah Marsh, and even Mr. Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre. What do the experiences of Evelyn and Zilpah teach us about nineteenth-century attitudes toward women and mental illness?

  9. Why is Lavinia so elated when she finds Emily’s secret cache of poems?

  10. What do we learn about Sue from her attitudes toward marriage and motherhood? Did your opinion of her change over the course of the novel?

  11. Why does Emily decide not to marry Judge Lord?

  12. “Somehow it was easier to scribble when I thought of myself as Daisy rather than Miss Dickinson,” Emily tells us. She enjoys having nicknames, aliases, and noms de guerre for herself—everything from “Daisy the Kangaroo” to “Jumbo.” Do you think that she is hiding behind these aliases, or are they somehow linked to her creativity?

About Jerome Charyn

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent novel is I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan.

Books by Jerome Charyn

  1. Book CoverBitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories

    Brooklyn is dead. Long live the Bronx! In Bitter Bronx, Jerome Charyn returns to his roots and leads the literary renaissance of an oft-overlooked borough in this surprising new collection.More

  2. Book CoverJohnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution

    "A rollicking tale." --Stacy Schiff, New York Times Book Review, Editors' ChoiceMore

  3. Book CoverThe Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt and His Times

    "Charyn, like Nabokov, is that most fiendish sort of writer—so seductive as to beg imitation, so singular as to make imitation impossible." —Tom BissellMore