Miss Emily: Q&A with Nuala O’Connor

Miss Emily UK/Ireland Cover

Want a signed copy of Miss Emily delivered to you? Then read on, comment on the blog and the draw will take place at 9am on 28th August, the official launch date!

I start this blog post with a confession. I have always considered my tastes to reside in the modern. Miss Emily, set in the late nineteenth century however, is written in O’Connor’s beautiful lyrical prose with feminist leanings. The novel not only brings us into the world of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, but also Ada Concannon, a feisty Dubliner who follows in the footsteps of her aunt and uncle in the hope of better prospects in Amherst, Massachusetts.

I raise my hands, humbly, and declare that I was hooked from the first page with the complex characters of Emily and Ada, the lush imagery and bountiful senses, and a story that, from the start, gets you asking questions, and reading on. As a fan of Dickinson’s poetry, Miss Emily gave me a unique glimpse into her sense of self as a writer. Many of Emily’s sections are poetic in themselves, beautiful prose. Consider these musings, for example:

“I write by night now, when nothing thrums but my lamp…The house sleeps; Amherst sleeps. Only I endure. And when my pencil tires of flicking word arrows onto the page, there is the moon to admire, full-faced and lovely, a bright coin…”

Miss Emily, however, could also be enjoyed and relished by readers not familiar with – or even interested in – Dickinson as a writer. Here’s quite an accomplishment: O’Connor manages to hook you into this well-paced story while also providing convincing and fascinating glimpses into the life – imagined – of such a known poet.

Miss Emily - in Asturias, Spain
Miss Emily – in Asturias, Spain

Thank you, Nuala, for a wonderful read – on a northern Spanish beach (as per above photo!). I’m delighted to be part of Miss Emily Blog Tour!

READ ON – and post a comment to be in with a chance to win a copy of Miss Emily!

There is a wonderful sense of place in Miss Emily from the Dublin Liffey and life as a maid downstairs to the workings of the kitchen, the stables, and herb garden in the Dickinson household in Amherst.

“The goddess Pomona has been around the orchard scattering her goodness: everything is floral and abundant, while the apple maggots and cabbage worm do their best to undo it all.”

The sense of place – and the atmosphere throughout the novel – seems to me to be as connected to the characters – Ada and Miss Emily – as it is to their respective countries – Ireland and America. In some way, Ada echoes Emily’s attachment to the indoors, how rushes of homesickness hit her at times. It strikes me that Miss Emily is not just about Emily Dickinson.

NUALA: Ada, the young maid, is the active character in the story, given Emily’s reclusiveness, which is beginning to be her preferred state by 1866, when the novel is set. The novel is about cross-generational friendship, the maid-mistress relationship, emigration and loyalty. It’s also about what it means to be a female maverick in the nineteenth century and what the consequences of that can be. And, yes, it’s about place – setting is important to me in fiction. For my own sake I need to inhabit the places I write about and really feel the setting loom large around me. The research for that – flora, fauna, architecture – is part of the thrill of writing for me.

I was enthralled by the day-to-day detail of living, and working – of course reflected in the beautiful covers of the US and UK editions, and in the novel from the instructional gift Ada receives from Mrs Dickinson (The Frugal Housewife by Mrs Child) and all the advice it gives, to the vision of Emily Dickinson lowering a basket full of delicious gingerbread for the children. Did you have fun researching and playing around with historical details such as these?

 NUALA: The research was a joy. I research as I write, mostly, and unearthing new and interesting details about domestic life in the nineteenth century was always a pleasure. I baked Emily’s recipes, I bought myself an old glass churn and made butter, I (squeamishly) watched YouTube videos on how to skin hares. I studied The Frugal Housewife and made it, as Mrs Dickinson suggested, Ada’s second Bible. I read close on thirty books by or about Emily in the course of the research – about her relationships, her poetry, her life in general. I wanted to get things right, to be loyal to her; I fell deeply for her warmth and wit while writing the book.

Launch Details: Miss Emily
Launch Details: Miss Emily

That joy really comes through in the novel, Nuala. Now tell me about the baking. I just adored the scenes with Emily and Ada in the kitchen, the dynamics between them and how each of their personalities seem to shine, and their friendship bloom, as they bake.

“I take dried pears from their jar; they were as pink as plums when picked, with crinoline hips and the flesh of candies. Now they curl – silenced yellow tongues – in my hand. I glance at Ada, and she is smiling roundly, forgetting now her Daniel and his saving of her from the lion. She uses her hands to mix together raisins and citron rind; the smell is glorious.”

In fact, I wished there were recipes at the back of the book – perhaps there will be on your website? 

NUALA: I love to cook and bake, and that was what drew me back to Emily later in life, having studied her poetry at school. Some of the articles I have written, for Reader’s Digest in Canada for example, featured recipes, as does the Penguin Book Club Guide to the book. Some of Emily’s recipes (tweaked by me) can also be found at my cooking blog, The Hungry Veggie Her Coconut Cake is a sweet, buttery, easy cake – I make it all the time now for visitors. My cousin Clodagh and I are going to bake some of Emily’s cakes for the launch (details below).

Miss Emily US/Canada Cover
Miss Emily US/Canada Cover


How wonderful – I’ll try those recipies out and look forward to samples at your launch! I relished the way the themes of gender and equality are peppered through the book, and with Ada as our perceptive observer, some of the expectations of women can be seen – tenderly – in the relationship between Emily and Susan, her sister-in-law, and how, through her poetry and solitude, Emily manages to escape some of these expectations.

“I simply do not feel comfortable in a throng; my head gets addled, and I long for peace. And Sue may not comprehend either the writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat, the solace of it…I put my lips to her cheek and tell the curl of ear, ‘I prefer to have you alone. That way you are all mine.’”

NUALA: Women were expected to marry in nineteenth century Amherst, so Emily and her sister Vinnie were an unusual pair of spinsters. But they were well-to-do – their father was a lawyer and when he died their lawyer brother looked after them. So, in a sense, they had the luxury of being rebels. The Dickinson family were eccentric, they were clever and good leaders, important in the town, but they did things in their own way. Emily loved her sister-in-law Sue fervently – Sue was editor, friend and confidante to her.

I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed so tenderly over the course of the book. Yet there are also strong, and complex, male characters in Miss Emily: Emily’s brother Austin is an interesting character who, I can say, without revealing the plot, grows and changes through the novel; Patrick seems to be the antithesis to Daniel yet both are believable characters who provide yet another kind of insight into the Dickinsons, and, interestingly, reveal certain views of the Irish and class.

NUALA: I made Austin Dickinson quite anti-Irish in the novel – he may not have been as racist as I portrayed him. Ada and Emily are both such sweet, decent creatures, I needed the contrast of the fiery Austin, blowing in and out with his mad red hair, negative opinions and grumpy face. He and Emily were very close as children but once he became a responsible citizen and husband, Austin became more serious.

Patrick and Daniel are two sides of the Irish emigrant: the drunken layabout and the hard-working, go-ahead type.

And a question more than a comment, will we discover, in the future, what became of Ada and Daniel?

NUALA: I was asked this question a lot on my American book tour – I think it’s a good sign because it means people like the characters, and care enough about them, to hope for a good future for them. I have no plans to return to Ada and Daniel but I feel that life went well for them in the end: deep love, happiness – the whole shebang!

Sounds great! Nuala, I’d love to hear you read from Miss Emily. I know you have already given some readings (for example at the West Cork Literary Festival), where might we next find you with Miss Emily in hand?

NUALA: I will read a little from the book at my launch in The Gutter Book Shop, Dublin, Friday 28th August, 6.30pm. (All welcome!)

Other confirmed appearances:

  • Thursday 3rd September: Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna, Co. Galway
  • Saturday 19th September: Spirit of Folk Festival, Co. Meath
  • Sunday 18th October: Kildare Reader’s Festival, Riverside Arts Centre, Newbridge, Co. Kildare
  • Thursday 29th October: Blackbird Books, Navan, Co. Meath
  • Wednesday 25th November: Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast

I’ll be there on Friday 28th! And of course, we can keep up to date with your blog and website. Thanks again, Nuala, and I wish you continued and further success with the wonderful Miss Emily.

Readers – please post a comment to be in with a chance to win a copy of Miss Emily. The draw will take place a week from today – on the launch date – and the winner will receive their signed copy through the post! 

Nuala O'Connor
Nuala O’Connor

28 Replies to “Miss Emily: Q&A with Nuala O’Connor”

    1. Thanks for the comment, Derbhile. I’m sure Miss Emily will open up new aspects of Dickinson to you! You’re in the draw for a copy – good luck!

  1. I have just finished reading Longbourne which is written from the house servants perspective who cared for the Bennett household from Pride & Prejudice. ..excellent read..Miss Emily however sounds like it brings the reader into both worlds with the relationships will Miss Emily & Ada. I very much look forward to reading Miss Emily

  2. Hi Shauna, I really enjoyed your interview, so interesting to hear about the process of writing about such an iconic character and the crafting of some less well known characters. I am so looking forward to reading this novel – even more now after all that baking talk! I would love to win a copy.

    1. So glad you enjoyed the interview – Nuala was so generous with her answers. You’re in the draw for a signed copy of Miss Emily – good luck!

  3. It is strange to admit , however in the 70’s a very poor English teacher trying to cram 14 ( yes there were only 14 of us in the class) through a leaving cert managed to generate a hatred of Patrick Kavanagh as well as Emily Dickinson . I am, slowly, recovering from that position .

    1. Thanks for your comment,D. I think ‘Miss Emily’ will help bring back a love of Dickinson! Good luck in the draw.

  4. Fascinating interview, thank-you Shauna. And good luck, Nuala, with the book. Our book Club is reading ‘Eliza’s Babes’, 4 centuries of women’s poetry in English, tomorrow, and of course Emily Dickenson features strongly:

    Wild nights – Wild nights!
    Were I with thee
    Wild nights should be
    Our luxury!

  5. I never studied Emily Dickinson at school and feel her appeal has passed me by. I do love a good historical novel though and Nuala’s last book was a great read.

    1. Hi Rachel, thanks for the comment, glad to hear you enjoy Nuala’s writing. You’re in the draw – and you’ll love ‘Miss Emily’!

  6. Historical fiction and about Emily Dickinson–two of my favourites! Can’t wait to read and enjoy this!

  7. I have to say I loved studying Emily dickinsons poetry at secondary school. she always fascinated me as her poems were quite dark. This novel sounds stunning really would love to read it. I’m
    A huge historical fiction fan.

    1. Hi Lizzie, thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. You’ll love ‘Miss Emily’ – best of luck in the draw!

  8. Great interview, Shauna & Nuala! I’m very much looking forward to the launch tonight & reading the book! Nuala’s a hard-working brilliant writer. I see great things ahead for her!

    1. Hi Barbara, Thanks for the comment. I’m looking forward to the launch as well. You’re in the draw – good luck!

  9. I have been interested in Miss Emily for a long time. I am trying to interest my 13 year old granddaughter too although Fantasy books are getting in the way. I am reading “Lives Like Loaded Guns” now and cannot wait to read “Miss Emily”. My new granddaughter – Miss Emily – may be an easier target to get interested in Emily Dickinson. Great luck with your book.

    1. Thanks, Marguerite, for the comment – I’m sure your 13 year old granddaughter will grow to love Dickinson when the time is right for her, and, as you say, your new granddaughter Miss Emily might just love her too!

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