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Side by Side: Emily Dickinson

Side by Side

Side by Side: Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is one of America’s most famous poets --- everyone knows her for the nearly 2,000 poems she composed, for rarely leaving her house in Amherst, Massachusetts and for all of those dashes, dashes and more dashes! But this year she’s getting even MORE famous --- three contemporary authors have written books where she makes a major appearance!

      In Jenny Hubbard’s AND WE STAY (January, 2014), boarding school student Emily Beam uses Emily Dickinson’s poetry to help her overcome a tragic event in her recent past. In Robin Herrera’s HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL (March 2014), Star starts a poetry club at her new school and learns some important life lessons from Emily’s words. In Michaela MacColl’s NOBODY’S SECRET (paperback, March 2014), 15-year-old Emily Dickinson tries to uncover the identity of a man who turned up dead in her family’s pond.

     Read on to hear Jenny, Robin and Michaela talk about the inspiration for their books, their own feelings on Emily’s poetry and what they’d talk about if they went out to dinner with the famous poet…and to read their own haikus!

Teenreads: Why did you decide to write about Emily Dickinson?

Jenny Hubbard:I’d never been a fan of Emily Dickinson’s work. I was an English teacher; I was a poet; what was wrong with me? While I respected Dickinson’s poetry, I did not love it, and I wanted to find out why. So, I decided to study her through the eyes of a character that did. What Emily Beam comes to admire most about Dickinson, I think, is her ability to transform her sea of emotions into a concrete, orderly package that still manages to validate the authenticity of the feeling. During the process of writing AND WE STAY, I became completely enamored, not only of Dickinson’s restraint but also of her spirituality, which she found not in church like the rest of her society but in nature. My favorite poems of Dickinson’s, including the one from which the book’s title comes, portray the natural world as a union of science and emotion, and in that union, there dwells a spiritual realm. Once I finished the book, I missed Dickinson. I still can’t get over her startling voice.

Robin Herrera: It was sort of by accident! In the first draft of HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL, the main character, Star, did weekly vocabulary sentences for class. They're still in the published book, but back in the first draft she had a lot more sentences. Somewhere around 100, as opposed to I think 70. It was hard to keep thinking up new words for Star to write about, so I started doing themed weeks. One of those weeks was Emily Dickinson.
     It was a lot of fun having Star riff on some of Emily Dickinson's strange and old-sounding words, and in each draft, a little bit more Dickinson came through, until the novel was about Star starting an Emily Dickinson club!
     I credit poet Julie Larios for inspiring me to include a poem written by Star in the book. (Two poems, in fact!)

Michaela MacColl:I was looking for a new project. I wanted to try a mystery with someone who was well-known but whose childhood might be surprising. Emily D. fit the bill. We all think of her as a recluse, but in fact she had a very ordinary social life as a teen in Amherst, Massachusetts.   Her family was shocked to discover almost 1800 of her poems after her death, so clearly she knew how to cook a secret.  She was a naturalist and keen observer. What an irresistible “detective.”

TRC: Did you study Emily Dickinson in school? If so, what do you remember most about that? If not, where did you first read her?

JH: I don’t recall when I first studied Emily Dickinson. If I did read her in high school, I didn’t read her carefully enough --- I can assure you of that. I didn’t know how to read poetry then --- not intelligently, not closely --- and if I did encounter her poems, I no doubt would have found them baffling. What one has to remember is that, for the most part, Dickinson’s poetry was a private affair, a conversation with herself. She wasn’t anticipating a universe of readers after she died, and, in my opinion, that’s why she didn’t elucidate. She clarified what she herself needed to clarify in the process of writing, and that was the goal.

RH: I don't remember specifically studying Emily Dickinson in school, but I knew who she was throughout junior high and high school. The poem I knew the best (like everyone else) was "I'm Nobody. Who are you?" 

MM: I discovered Emily’s poetry on my own when I was 12, and (honestly!), I liked it right away. I’ve never cared much for poetry, but something about her work was visceral. I felt a jolt of recognition --- this poet had experienced some of the same feelings I had.

TRC: Be honest: did you like her poetry, then?

JH: Here’s the thing: I taught boys for 10 years. Emily Dickinson was a tough sell. I tried to teach her poems free of any information about her life, but many of them had been introduced to her by a previous teacher and knew that she spent a lot of time alone in her room writing poems about what it felt like to be dead. Perhaps I could have done a better job of establishing a context for them, though, to be honest, I’m not sure that would have helped once they saw what she looked like. Teenage boys, even the soulful ones, have a preconceived notion of beauty. There is a scene in PAPER COVERS ROCK, my first novel, that tells you all you need to know about that!

RH:I thought she was a bit weird. BUT, back then I liked weird people. I was weird people.

MM:  I really did! And I was delighted when both my daughters enjoyed her poetry too.  While we like her work, we all dislike analyzing it.

TRC: Have you ever written your own poetry?

JH: Yes, since second grade. Both of my novels contain poems. As Emily Beam does in AND WE STAY, I sometimes walk around to the rhythm of Dickinson’s poems, silently reciting them or composing my own.

RH:I have! Poetry has always fascinated me. I wrote some particularly bad high school poetry, very angsty but still rhyming. One thing I think I'm kind of good at is writing silly songs, which is different from poetry, of course, but is what I think I was trying to do when writing my poetry. Heh. Sample song titles from my youth: "I'm Dumping You, Jared," "The Foreign Exchange Student Has a Crush On Me," and "I'm Not Drunk Enough for That (Yet)," which was featured in a musical my drama class did as a final project one year.

MM:  I’m afraid not.  Writing poetry has never interested me. I love plot and character ---  and frankly, the length to explore a story. I admire poets, but I’m not one.

TRC: What’s the most interesting thing you learned about Emily Dickinson during your research?

JH: I learned so many interesting things about Dickinson as I researched her. I’d never before considered how her confinement (both societal and self-imposed) affected the size and form of her poems. Writers who live in America are so free now. Emily Dickinson sewed a big pocket on her dress to house scraps of paper and a pencil stub. And she had auburn hair. I’d always thought it was dark brown.

RH: For some reason I always thought Emily Dickinson was this enormously lonely person, and then I found out she had a sister! And that they were very close. Also, that she wrote nearly 2,000 poems. So prolific!

MM:  The details about Emily were so prosaic --- it was surprising how ordinary her life was considering how exciting her poetry was. One detail I particularly liked was how she would use any scrap of paper available to write on --- some of her drafts are written on the back of bills or advertising circulars. I think any writer can sympathize.

TRC: Emily Dickinson is famous for writing in solitude. How and where did you write your novels?

JH: When I write, I move about the house with my laptop: from my desk to the chair by the fireplace to the front porch --- my favorite place to write --- with Oliver, my dog, by my side. We listen to classical music, or, if we’re outside, to birds.

RH: Emily Dickinson and I are very similar in that way! I don't really like going to coffee shops to write, and for a very long time, since I lived in such a tiny apartment, I wrote in bed. Now that I have a designated office space in my new apartment, I've got a cheap Ikea desk and everything, so I've started writing there.
     I've met a few people I can write with, but it's rare. Also, my schedule never seems to work with any other writer's, since I work a full-time job on top of writing. ALAS.

MM:  This past winter I’ve written in front of a roaring fire in my living room. But my husband works from home a few days a week and when he’s here, I use my office.  Twenty years ago we picked this house because there were two home offices!  I write alone but I have a critique group. We’ve been meeting weekly since 2004 --- because of them, writing isn’t lonely!

TRC: If you went out to dinner with Emily Dickinson, what do you think you’d talk about?

JH: Gardening. Emily Dickinson was devoted to her garden, as am I. I believe she preferred her garden to any other place, including her little desk.

RH: We'd spend a lot of time talking about her poetry and what it meant, what she was thinking at the time she wrote it. (I'm interested in that sort of "what inspired you" stuff.) Then we'd trade dirty jokes and I'd eat the rest of her sushi. (I'd take her out to sushi. I think she'd like it.) 

MM: I think we would talk about ordinary things --- maybe details about her day, a little gossip about shared acquaintances --- but because it’s Emily, she would have an unusual take on things.  She said to “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.”

TRC: Emily spent much of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is deeply associated with that town. How did you choose the settings for your books? Is setting is a major part of your story?

JH: In both of my novels, the setting contributes in a big way to the development of the characters. Both novels take place at a boarding school, which is a microcosm. In PAPER COVERS ROCK, it’s a boys’ school in the mountains of North Carolina, isolated and confining. What’s curious about the boarding school in AND WE STAY is that although it also has strict rules and schedules, the regulations provide an unexpected security for Emily Beam. Amherst School for Girls is (guess where!) in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the town, where the spirit of Emily Dickinson presides, plays a major role in Emily Beam’s recovery and discovery.

RH: Like Emily, I'm pretty deeply associated with my hometown of Eureka, California, where I lived for about 22 years. HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL is set in a Eureka-like town that's never actually named, so that people can maybe still consider it to be Eureka. The thing I like about Eureka is that it has this strange duality --- a lot of the teenagers who live there hate it, because it's gray and cold and very boring. It feels very much like being cut off from the rest of the world, so it has that feel of isolation. However, there are a lot of people I went to school with who ended up staying in Eureka. For whatever reason, it's their home. It's mine, too.

MM:  Emily rarely left Amherst, particularly in her teens. She went away to Mount Holyoke Seminary College but came home after a less than a year (it was only a few miles from home). So to be true to her life, I really didn’t have a choice but to set my story in Amherst. I enjoyed exploring the town and thinking about Amherst from Emily’s perspective.  For instance, the house she spent her teen years in is now a gas station, but the cemetery she could see from her bedroom is still there. And looking at town records gave me the perfect murder --- in 1846 the most common cause of death in Amherst was drowning. I had Emily discover my victim in a pond… but did he drown or not?

TRC: In celebration of Emily, can you write a short poem (no more than five lines!) about your high school experience?

JH: “Ode to a Clarinet”

At halftime, in the marching band,
I let you speak for me.
In class, I never raise my hand.
In music, I’m a we.

RH: Goofy skirts, see-through boots,
Purple hair with dark brown roots.
Couldn't drive, always walked.
Never kept my locker locked.

MM: Emily, I tried. I really did. But my poetry is embarrassingly bad!  Can I close with a fragment of one of Emily’s poems about school instead? 

I went to School
But was not wiser
Globe did not teach it
Nor Logarithm Show

"How to forget"!
Ah, to be erudite
Enough to know!

Thanks, Emily!