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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CM: Did she have any actual love affairs?

JC: We do know that she had a literal love affair with her father’s friend, Judge Otis Lord, at the end of her life. The poems to Judge Lord are very sexual. She talks about her moss, her garden. They’re profoundly erotic.

CM: It bridles against the image of the lovelorn recluse.

JC: She wasn’t as reclusive as we like to think. She became much more so only after her father died, and as I try to show in the novel, her relationship with Edward Dickinson was the most important bond in her life. Her father both loved her and couldn’t really comprehend her. He didn’t know how to deal with her.

CM: She’s known for sticking close to home. How important is travel for a writer?

JC: I quote her in the epigram of the book: “To shut our eyes is Travel.” She did travel. She traveled in an extraordinary way. Much of her mythology is embodied in the idea of this woman in white sitting at her desk writing these poems, but let’s look at her from a different angle — as an incredible adventuress, as a very sexy, ambivalent woman. I did not fictionalize the kind of person she was. I invented a narrative around that person.

CM: And it’s a narrative of language as much as events.

JC: Language is a weapon, it’s very cruel, and Dickinson uses it in a profoundly cruel way, as great writers do. She’s the most modern of all our writers; we still don’t understand some of the poems. She was outside of history, and I identify totally with her without any distance whatsoever.

CM: In preparing to write the book, did you make any pilgrimages?

JC: I did visit Amherst several times. The Emily Dickinson Museum was kind enough to take me on a private tour. Just being in her room was absolutely incredible. What struck me when I visited the homestead was the light, particularly the light in her room. I don’t think I could have dreamt of writing this book without being in Emily’s room. I had to possess it in some way, make it my own.

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