Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Author and Dickinson historian Susan Snively brings Emily Dickinson to life in her new novel The Heart Has Many Doors, based largely on the poet's own letters and centered on her mid-life romance with her neighbor and father's best friend, Judge Otis Phillips Lord.
Susan recently took time from her Dickinson-related and other activities to answer questions for Rose City Reader:
How did you come to write The Heart Has Many Doors?
I had been interested in Emily’s friendship with Judge Otis Phillips Lord for a long time, but began to see him in a new light, when I dared to think of the passionate possibilities. I went from “what if…?” to “I bet they did!”
The turning point for me was my realizing that Lord was in Amherst on Dec. 10, 1830, Emily’s birth-date. A junior at Amherst College, with an interest in the law, he would have known her father Edward. When I placed the 18-year old Lord on the snowy street near her house, I imagined a connection between them that would over time grow into a full love affair. I call it “the celestial machinery of winter stars that had brought her into his life.”
Can you recommend any other books or resources about Emily Dickinson?
Richard Sewall’s and Alfred Habegger’s biographies are essential reading, as is Polly Longsworth’s The Dickinsons of Amherst. The Emily Dickinson Museum website has a great link to resources, including Emily’s dictionary, family portraits, and biographical material. Amherst College’s digital collection was the first to offer readers a chance to read her poems and letters online, for free. My website and the Facebook page for The Heart Has Many Doors, have other goodies as well—for example, a photograph of the gold mesh bracelet Judge Lord gave to Emily around 1880. Inside the sliding clasp is engraved her nickname for him: “Little Phil.” He was described as “stately.” His nickname for the petite Emily was “Emily Jumbo.”
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I learned yet again that writing is re-writing. I think I wrote about eight drafts of the novel. I had the sense of Emily and Phil’s passion from draft one, but I had to learn to climb out of the good-girl-reporting-the-facts mode and leap into the story. As Emily said, “If your Nerve, deny you - /Go above your Nerve.” I also learned that when you have finally finished, you feel a bit weepy, as though your best friend has moved away.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?
I love Jane Austen, and re-read her to keep myself sane in the New England winter. I love Mark Twain, Dickens, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Brontë. I guess I feel most at home in the 19th c. For poetry, besides Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Kay Ryan, Tomas Tranströmer, and Richard Wilbur pay great dividends to a re-reader. But I like discovering new things, like Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which made me howl with laughter, and Mary Norris’s delightful Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.
What kind of books do you like to read?
Historical novels, crime novels, biographies, books on grammar. Cookbooks, which can read like poetry.
What are you reading now?
I’m re-reading Dickens’s Bleak House, because I like novels that feature freaky things like spontaneous combustion. Also Philip Caputo’s The Longest Road, full of sly, wise, and funny detail. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a beautifully-written book that lifts me up and drops me in France during the War.
You have a terrific website, a facebook page for the book, and an active twitter feed. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?
I think they’re very important, and I’m learning (with help from the young and the brave) how to get better at using these sites. Nowhere to go but up! I keep telling myself that Emily would have loved to tweet. I love finding things to post. The Museum is especially beautiful now, and flowers Emily knew are coming back in her garden and on various websites.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
I’ve read in Amherst, Northampton, South Hadley, and Peterborough, NH, and I have more readings coming up in Amherst (Amherst Books, May 29 at 7 p.m.); Williamsburg, MA (Meekins Library, June 3 at 7 p.m.); Wilmington, Vermont (Bartleby Bookshop, June 6 at 2 p.m.); Belchertown (Clapp Memorial Library, June 23 at 7 p.m.); Lenox, MA (The Bookstore, Housatonic St, August 11 at 7 p.m.) and Manchester, VT (Northshire Books, Sept. 18 at 6 p.m.) I’ll read anywhere, to any group, large or small. I learned that early on, when I gave lots of poetry readings, including one in the 70’s when a naked guy streaked through the audience!
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
The same advice I gave when I taught writing: re-writing is everything, and that includes reading aloud. It helps restore a flagging spirit, and encourages a sense of humor. Even a genius like Emily Dickinson wrote the occasional bow-wow, so writers need to listen to themselves, and laugh if they can.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Getting to make up stories about famous dead people, and to help them do what you imagine they wanted to do when they were alive.
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
I’ve started a new novel—very different from The Heart Has Many Doors. It’s set in contemporary Amherst, and centers on some troubling things that happen to a young girl, a lost romance that gets revived, and an old crime that remains unsolved. Of course, I don’t know what I’m doing—just feeling my way along.
I’d love to write another film script, having written and narrated two on Dickinson for the Museum’s “Angles of a Landscape” series: “Seeing New Englandly” (2010) and “My Business is to Sing” (2012.) They were the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I was writing my novel at the same time. My husband Peter Czap is a very patient man.
I’m a guide at the Dickinson Museum, and the summers are full of buzzing, blooming events. Last year, we created a new adults-only tour called “Dickinsons in Love,” for which I wrote the juicy parts about Austin Dickinson’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, and Emily’s romance with Judge Lord. This summer, we’ll offer it again. We love to see our visitors giggle and blush, and to use Emily’s own words to warm up the blood.
THANKS, SUSAN! You can find The Heart has Many Doors at amazon, of course, or ask your local bookstore to order it!