BOOK

BOOKTALK: A Rose for Emily

Interview by Paul Hond
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel
By Jerome Charyn ’59CC
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The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome CharynColumbia magazine: You often take on historical figures in your fiction. What drew you to Dickinson?

Jerome Charyn: She was the first writer I really discovered. I memorized her poems when I was younger. But the novel only became possible a few years ago, after I read her letters. They were startling, and every bit as original and great as her poems.

CM: What sort of letters were they?

JC: There are three in particular, called the “Master Letters,” in which she addresses a hidden lover in a very poignant way. Scholars don’t know who the master was, or even if these letters were sent. But they’re enormously powerful and heartbreaking. They are her poems novelized; she’s just as extravagant, she wears so many masks. I think they’re among the greatest letters ever written.

CM: When were they written?

JC: In the late 1850s and early ’60s. I quote from one of them in my introduction, in which she writes, “I’ve got a Tomahawk in my side but that dont hurt me much. Her master stabs her more.” She uses the colloquial; she has a music that’s utterly her own and that’s very different from the music of her poems. And it was when I read the letters that I realized that the novel had to be in her voice.

CM: That was a bold leap.

JC: Well, I knew I had to do it. I didn’t know whether I would succeed. You never know whether you can really capture her music and have it not be an imitation.

CM: What about the inclusion of fictive characters and situations?

JC: As it’s the secret life of Emily Dickinson, I felt I had the liberty to include fictive elements. And that’s where I think certain people will object. How dare I, for instance, bring in this caretaker from the school and make him Emily’s lover? But I think that’s the most beautiful part of the book.

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