Nuala, congratulations, Miss Emily is a powerfully absorbing novel. You create a compelling, vivid impression of 19th century Amherst, the Dickinson household and the interior world of Ada, their Irish servant. And just when a reader thinks they know where the story is going, it veers off in a different direction. I don’t want to give too much away but as a reader I appreciated the extra layer of credibility and depth this gave to the novel. I love the writing, as in: your writing, but also how you express Emily’s sense of herself in writing. And I love that Ada has her own area of skill, one she shares with Emily on equal terms, in baking.
Can you talk about your research?
I love research – there is such joy in it; I tend to do it as I write, rather than before. At the last count I have around thirty books about and by Emily Dickinson: her letters, biographies, poetry, critical essays. (I have continued to buy books long after the novel is done with because she still intrigues me). Naturally, I wanted to stick to certain facts about Emily’s life (her withdrawal, her humour, her clothing, family situation etc.) but I also needed to create a fictional world where Ada would fit in seamlessly. So I chose the year 1866, when the Dickinsons didn’t have a maid, and built my created world around that year.
Once I had a first draft of the novel written, I went to Emily’s hometown of Amherst in Massachusetts and visited her house, the local libraries and her grave, to touch base with the physical landscape. I also went to Harvard University where certain Dickinson artefacts her held – her original desk, for example. So I do a combination of reading, writing and on-the-spot colour-gathering. Concrete, unusual details appeal to my love of minutiae.
How do you feel about changing your name from Ní Chonchúir to O’Connor for an international audience?
O’Connor is the name I was born with, I became Ní Chonchúir at the age of four when I entered a Gaelscoil in Dublin. Few people can spell, say or remember Ní Chonchúir, unfortunately (in Ireland or elsewhere) so there was no point in using it in a worldwide market. If O’Connor sells more books, then I’m happy with that.
There was a recent row in Irish media about the status of book reviewing in Ireland – do you have anything to add?
I gave my tuppence worth in the article. To add to that, there have been some nasty reviews from established writers of new writers and I think that displays arrogance. As a reviewer you need to remember that every book is flawed but every book also has beauties. I am always impressed by something in every book I read, if not by the whole. If you – as reviewer – genuinely can’t find anything good to say about a book, don’t review it.
A couple of weeks ago an early letter from Elena Ferrante was posted online, where she states her clear determination not to engage with book promotion. You are the uncrowned queen of writerly blogging in Ireland – what do you think about Ferrante’s position?
Well, I think Ferrante is lucky to have such forgiving publishers and, also, to have scored hits with her books. How lovely not to have to do things you don’t want to do! I am naturally a quiet person: introverted, shy, a loner. Crowds do my head in and I hate being the centre of attention. That’s why writing suits me and also blogging – I get to write and talk about the writing world where I am most comfortable: home, alone, at my keyboard. I find the travelling enjoyable in small doses but when I have two or three gigs a week, I get stressed out. I’m not sure there’s a solution to this – I love meeting readers and other writers but I’m not always up to the hoopla, at the same time. But I get on with it because, unlike Ferrante in her unique position, I have to.
We’re all dying to know what difference there are in editorial style between editors in Ireland, the UK and the US – can you talk about that?
In my experience, editing in Ireland and the UK has been light – a few suggestions, a good copy edit. Penguin USA and Penguin Canada bought Miss Emily together, so my New York and my Toronto editor consulted with each other before sending me suggestions (lots of them!). We then had a long conference call to discuss them, before I launched into implementing (or not) what they had brought up. They were extremely thorough, very engaged with the book. They were also efficient re. deadlines, which suited me. When I had edited the book to their satisfaction it was passed to a copyeditor who gave it another nitty-gritty go-through – she was amazing and questioned all sorts of inaccuracies in language and facts. I felt great care was taken to make it the best book it could be and it was a very satisfying experience.
Can you tell us where the idea came from? Were you nervous about tackling the subject? (I love how ambitious it is).
Yes, it felt audacious to take on an American icon and I danced around the topic for a bit, writing a poem about Emily’s love of baking for example, before committing properly to the novel. It was a collision, really, of poetry, baking and my interest in the Irish immigrant story. I’m also very interested in cross-generational friendships; a lot of my own friends are much older than me and they are very enriching relationships.
You suggest that the character of Susan held an erotic attraction for Emily. Can you talk about that?
I’m not sure that that was the case – I think they had one of those ardent Victorian female friendships: fulsome declarations of love, bed-sharing etc. Emily expressed a wish to be buried with Sue also. (She wasn’t). Emily was quite intense with her friends, very devoted and a little demanding. Sue was her dearest friend, she was cultured and Emily appreciated her as an editor/guide with her poetry, as much as a companion and sister-in-law.
Do you think that Miss Emily will change your writing?
It depends what you’re getting at. If you mean whether I will write more historical fiction then, yes. I have the first draft of another 19th C novel completed, set mostly in London and in Ballinasloe, where I live. If you mean will it change my writing world then, also, yes. I’ve become a much busier person since Penguin bought Miss Emily in late January 2014.
Did you read much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry while writing the novel and if you did, how did that affect the story?
I read her poetry obsessively – a poem a night while I wrote the book. Apart from her letters, it’s the best way to access her mind, passions and obsessions. I used words from the poems that people who know the poetry will find – they are little markers. Mostly, though, I wrote a new language for Emily, based on hers.
Could you separate yourself from Emily? I found it intriguing that each of the two main characters shares a fundamental quality with you: being Irish (Ada) and being a poet/writer (Emily) – do you still see yourself as a poet/still write poetry? Did writing this novel make you want to return to poetry or bring you further down the road of fiction? Can you talk about the differences/similarities between them? Sorry, that’s a load of questions all at once!
I still find the word ‘poet’ with reference to myself and, sometimes, others a bit ghastly. (Mind you ‘poetess’ is even worse.) I prefer ‘writer’. Even ‘author’ smacks of things ard-nósach. I write the odd poem but it’s difficult when you are immersed in a long project like a novel to have time for other creative things. I have lost my poetry mojo a bit (pojo?) and would love to get it back but, at the same time, am I willing, in my working day, to give up fiction hours for poetry hours? I’m not sure. I am a fiction writer, first and foremost. But I also love language, as both reader and writer, and it’s important to me that all writing has a poetic quality to it.
I didn’t ‘become’ Emily as I wrote – there is always that distance between yourself as writer and the character you are manipulating. But when I wrote about writing (in her voice) I was using both my own experience and what we know of hers. Time is the only thing for the writer – we crave more of it, no matter how much we have.
When the Miss Emily PR round quietens, I plan to go back to the first draft of that 19th C novel I mentioned earlier and attempt to get it into a good enough shape to show my agent and cross fingers that she likes it.
Thanks for taking the time to answere these questions, Nuala, and very best of luck with the novel.
Nuala O’Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland, she 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; it was shortlisted for the Kerry Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015. In summer 2015, Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. www.nualanoconnor.com