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Interview: February 26, 2010

February 26, 2010

Jerome Charyn is the author of nearly 40 titles, including three memoirs and the novels DARLIN’ BILL, BLUE EYES and CITIZEN SIDEL. His latest book, THE SECRET LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON, uncovers the vast but little-known private life of the famously reclusive 19th-century American poet. In this interview with’s Melanie Smith, Charyn explains what initially appealed to him about this literary and historical figure, and describes how he seamlessly incorporated elements of fiction into her biography in this account. He also recalls his reaction to seeing her home during a visit to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Massachusetts, reflects on her mass appeal over 120 years after her death, and shares details about his upcoming novel that takes place in 1940s Germany. You mention that Emily Dickinson hypnotized you with her love for language and gave you the courage to become a writer. What made you eventually decide to write a novel about one of the greats?

Jerome Charyn: I fell in love with Emily and her writing while I was still in junior high. She had an amazing appeal for someone who felt out of place, growing up in the wild lands of the South Bronx, without language, without culture. It was like having your own secret sister. I wouldn’t have dared write a novel about Emily when I first started out as a writer --- it would have been like chasing a white whale. But I’m no longer that afraid of white whales. I loved her, and I wanted to inhabit her world for a few years, to conjure my way back to Amherst in the 19th century.

BRC: You've expressed a lack of interest in writing about "a recluse and a saint," stating openly your intent to "delight and disturb." And what follows is a life story that does indeed delight and disturb, but more than that, it truly moved me! What perceptions of Emily, as a person, do you want readers to take away from your book?

JC: I was touched by her boldness, her ability to live in a world of silence, where the only voice was the voice inside her head. She really understood the art of being alone, even when she was surrounded by other creatures. She remains for me one of the great heroines of the 19th century. There has never been anyone else quite like her --- the Poet who scribbled some of her best lines on the backs of envelopes, who lived in stealth, and had her own real sense of eroticism.

BRC: How much of this account is fictional versus factual?

JC: All of us have hidden lives, so why couldn’t Emily have one of her own? Most critics and biographers have downplayed the eight or nine months she spent at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847-48. But it was her first extended stay beyond the reach of Amherst. And Mount Holyoke helped shape her persona and crystallize some of her longings. It was here, at Holyoke, that she first became a Poet. The novel begins in the snow, as Emily watches Tom the Handyman from her window, as he rescues a baby deer from a snow bank. She recalls the color of the tattoo on the handyman’s arm. It excites her, as if it were some forbidden thing. She will also meet Miss Rebecca, the vice-principal, who writes verse in her spare time and is in love with Zilpah Marsh, one of Emily’s fellow seminarians. These three fictional characters are almost like rogue demons that will pursue and “bother” Emily throughout the novel. They could be the underside of her own imagination. I weave Tom, Zilpah and Miss Rebecca into the fabric and the strict factual line of Emily’s life. I seldom stray from this factual line.

BRC: As a part of the project, you toured the Emily Dickinson Museum and the Homestead. That must have been quite the experience. Did it change your views about her or alter your planned storyline in any way? Were there any surprises there? Did you take photos?

JC: Visiting Emily Dickinson’s room didn’t alter the trajectory of the novel. But it provided me with an intimacy I never could have had without having seen the stark details of her room --- that tiny, tiny desk, the washstand, the bureau, and her bed that had all the barrenness of a soldier’s bunk. I was startled, bewildered and almost suffered an attack of vertigo. But I was lucky enough to inhabit her room without being part of some impersonal tour. I could feel Emily in my bones, hear her music and conjure my way into her own imagination.

BRC: Of Emily's poems, which are your favorites?

JC: The first poem I ever read in my life was “Success is counted sweetest.” It is also the one poem I was ever able to memorize. It’s a poem about defeat, and the necessity of defeat. It’s only the defeated who can “comprehend a nectar,” who can hear the music around us. What a credo it was for a boy in the Bronx!

But my favorite poem of Emily’s is “Because I could not stop for Death.” I was certain that I was on that carriage ride with her into the unknown. And it is the one poem that most influenced my novel. The last pages deal with Emily’s dreamlike ride toward the eternity of her father’s barn, and I could not have found the rhythm of these lines without have been on that carriage with Emily.

BRC: Reading the book, I often felt that Emily was confiding in me and even trying to cajole me. In this, there seemed some unusual significance in the connection with the reader. What are your thoughts about choosing to write in Emily's voice and with this particular style?

JC: It was Emily’s own letters that convinced me to write the novel in a “voice” that I had imagined for her and for 21st-century readers. She was so various in her letters, so filled with playful masks --- she could flirt as well as scold --- that I decided to wear some of these masks, and invent others of my own. The letters themselves do compose a kind of “novel,” even if many of them have been lost. But these tattered edges of her world emboldened me to step right into the void and reconstruct her own imaginings. It also catapulted the reader right into this same void, so that each of us becomes Emily as we read the book!

BRC: Emily frequently uses the metaphor of a bird to describe herself, referring often to her "armour of feathers," though in character, she's more like a lion than a bird! For all her bravado, it's clear that Emily is actually a caged creature, unable to escape being female when women had few rights. I admire her for becoming a rebel in those times. Do you feel that Emily's life and writing identifies with modern feminists?

JC: We all are “feminists” --- male and female --- when we read Emily’s poems and project ourselves into the details of her life. She herself was a complicated creature, who was stuck in a particular time and a particular place, where women had very little to say, and where any kind of creativity in females was considered frivolous, or even worse, inspired by the Devil. But Emily still managed to create, even if she had to scribble on the backs of envelopes or on old recipes, or “entomb” some of her most poignant lines within the humdrum details of a letter. As a masked Poet, she was a child of the Devil --- and she understood the role of the Devil in all creation. And she speaks to all women in the 21st-century, who still suffer in some of the same fashion. That’s why Emily Dickinson is perhaps the most beloved poet in the English language. She thrived on anonymity, used it as a cloak to hide her original music. She liked to pose, and be playful with the reader, but she’s never pretentious --- Emily’s words are like bulletins to the heart and bullets to the brain!

BRC: Where did the various "nom de plumes" of Emily come from?

JC: Emily was a kind of Scheherazade who loved to assume other voices, other identities. To her nephew Gib she was “Uncle Emily,” to her father she was often “Dolly,” to the Master she adored she was “Daisy.” She might call herself the Kicking Kangaroo, or boast that she was “Bearded,” like a man. She was much too various and playful to pin down. Much of her joy came from the roles she assumed and the Phantoms that these roles produced. She was not the docile old maid we like to imagine. She had the fire and the willfulness of any creator. And her masked identities allowed her to journey far from Amherst. “To shut our eyes is Travel,” she wrote in 1870.

BRC: Did Emily's eye condition, called "moon blindness," greatly affect her life? Was it ever cured?

JC: Emily suffered from “moon blindness,” or an inflammation of the iris, and made two trips to Boston during the time of the Civil War to consult with an ophthalmologist. She remained “moon blind” during these periods, where she lived with two of her cousins in Cambridgeport. Direct sunlight was almost fatal to her, and Emily had to live in the dark. She could neither read letters nor write them, and it was difficult for her to scratch out the simplest lines. Though she was never really “cured,” she was able to write again after a long period of rest.

BRC: Emily's father plays a central role in the novel --- a man who seems domineering at times but who's very endearing to his family, and most particularly to Emily. He would never condone Emily publishing her poetry, yet in the mid-19th century, one must consider if this behavior was truly tyrannical or just consistent with the times. What did you aim to show readers about Edward Dickinson and Emily's unique relationship with him?

JC: Emily loved her father and secretly reveled in her own tyranny against him. The women of Amherst were not supposed to deal with the alchemy of words. They were considered as pampered, intelligent “cows,” who had to be protected at all times. Hence, Edward Dickinson would appear with his lantern to fetch Emily home, even though she lived a hundred yards away from her brother’s house. He loved her, and considered her useless, like most females. But she still must have touched him to the bone. He didn’t know what to do with his willful daughter. Her brother, Austin, called her his “wild sister,” and wild she was, and secretly Edward Dickinson must have adored this wildness. Her mother and sister did not have this wicked streak. She was frightened of “Father” and the way he stepped like Cromwell. Perhaps she loved her dog Carlo almost as much as she loved Pa-pa, but she never feared Carlo and did not have to weave a spell around him. With Carlo, her mute Confederate, she didn’t have to be Scheherazade.

BRC: Was writing in "the old literary style" a difficult task?

JC: I did not try to ape the music of the 19th century, but rather to bring my own rendering of Emily’s voice to a 21st-century reader. She never seems old-fashioned at all. She bites our hearts out with her words while she constantly plays with us. She remains the most modern poet in the English language, full of violent shifts that make us dizzy with delight. This is the voice I tried to capture.

BRC: What are your future writing plans?

JC: I am finishing a novel about Berlin in 1943 --- the heart of the Nazi empire was also a place where thousands of Jews managed to survive during the war. In fact, Berlin remained a “Jewish” town all the while Nazi Gauleiters tried to rid its streets of Jews. It had its own secret cabarets and its own Jewish Hospital in the district of Wedding, and this hospital survived the war. Jewish doctors had been stripped of their licenses, but they still had patients at the Jewish Hospital; some of these patients were the Gauleiters themselves. Berlin had a Jewish ghetto, Scheunenviertel, and this ghetto seemed filled with Jewish ghosts flying from the rooftops, like in the paintings of Chagall…

The hero of the novel is a young officer in the Abwehr, the German secret service, who is known as the Sheriff of Scheunenviertel --- he hides Jewish children from the Gestapo and the SS.

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