.. Shirley McClure. Congratulations, Shirley – a signed copy of Miss Emily will be on its way to you shortly.
Thank you to all who read and commented on my Q&A session with Nuala O’Connor. Don’t forget – the launch is today – so come and hear Nuala read from Miss Emily at The Gutter Bookshop, Dublin at 6.30pm, all welcome!
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.
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.
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).
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
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!
It is a moving, gripping story driven by deep and strong emotions that will stay with you long after you have turned the last page. Eithne Shorthall described it as “her finest novel yet” (The Sunday Times). Watch the trailer here.
SG: Nuala, welcome to my blog and thanks for the return visit! Having enjoyed your debut You, I was looking forward to reading The Closet of Savage Mementos. I read the novel in one sitting in a café in Wales and was really moved by both the writing and the lingering emotional weight of the story. Although the action in Book 1 takes place in 1991, the choices Lillis has to face around her unborn baby are very topical to today’s Ireland.
NNíC: Yes, it’s true. I finished writing the book three years ago but now adoption is a very current topic in Ireland. Even as late as the nineties people were still trying to take babies from young mothers. When I arrived home from Scotland pregnant, my mother sent me to Cura and I also went to counseling at the maternity hospital. I was appalled that in both places there was an element of baby-grabbing about their approach. I never went back to either – I felt totally misunderstood and angry as I had been very clear about the fact that I was having, and keeping, my baby.
SG:It is astonishing that this is still, at times, the case. I was also struck by the wonderful title, borrowed from Louise Erdrich’s ‘Advice to Myself’. How does it fit with the narrative of The Closet of Savage Mementos?
NNíC: I was using an epigraph from Miss Erdrich’s poem at the start of the novel and because the original title I had chosen for the book, Highland, didn’t excite either me or my editor at New Island, I hit upon the idea of adapting a line from the poem for the title. After months of permissions malarkey, we were told we were allowed use it, which was pretty cool. It pertains to the book in that Lillis has several secrets locked inside her.
SG:In the past, you have talked about the importance of naming characters. Everyone we meet in The Closet of Savage Mementos is carefully named, from the mother, Verity, a woman with many flaws who knows her daughter Lillis far more than her son Robin, to Scottish Margaret, the seemingly substitute mother who is, at times, too wise for Lillis.
NNíC: I love the naming part of fiction, it’s fun for me. Lillis (the main character’s name) was the name of a drapery shop in Galway (now gone) and Yourell (her surname) is also a Galway name (some Yourells have a hairdressers on Eyre Street). Lillis’s father, Anthony, is a Galwegian so the names were picked with that in mind. Verity, her mother, is a dishonest drunk, so her name has that irony. I wanted to call one of my children Robin but, when the baby was a girl, I couldn’t. Margaret is a mother earth type so she needed a good, solid, old-fashioned name.
SG:Oh that’s interesting. I hadn’t realised that the surnames also linked to place. Yet even with the strong sense of place, The Closet of Savage Mementos is as much as about identity as journey. And the emotions that drive both, here place more than time, it seems, is an enabler and a keeper of secrets. It seems to me that this novel is an emotional journey of acceptance of circumstance, or of motherhood.
NNíC: Yes, motherhood is a sticky territory for the Yourell/King women. Lillis says she comes from ‘a long line of unsuccessful mothers’ and it is a place that she fears, so she avoids it. But, naturally, there comes a time when she has to travel that landscape and accept the title of mother in whatever way she can.
SG:I loved how the sense of place in the novel echoed the emotional states of the characters – especially Lillis. The empty wilderness of the Scottish landscape around the fishing village of Kinlochbrack reaffirms her loneliness: the grief at the loss of Dónal and the unexpected homesickness. Though she forms a relationship with Struan, it strikes me that the passion isn’t deep – which, I suppose, is another thread running through the novel, truth and passion.
NNíC: Struan is another dishonest character and he is stand-offish emotionally. Lillis tries to get close to him but it may be an impossible task. There is a lot of passion between them but little else which, when it comes to thinking long term, leaves rather an empty space.
Setting is important to me in fiction – I like it to loom large and to do its own kind of work, with beauty and/or menace, whatever the story needs.
SG:One of the strongest themes running through your novel is that of grief. Margaret describes grief as ‘an active thing’. There are layers to the grief Lillis feels: she grieves for the consequences of a betrayal; she grieves for the things that cannot now be; she grieves for the loss of her self. She leaves Kinlochbrack for Glasgow: ‘I had removed myself from myself’. Glasgow becomes a ‘crevice’ she slides into and later, the house she shares with her husband also becomes a place to hide.
NNíC: I’m very interested in the ways in which grief changes people. I lost a beloved sister 12 years ago and, at times, I can’t believe how much I still miss her and how angry I feel about her death. Losing her changed me; I didn’t feel safe in the world anymore. For Lillis the death of her first love, Dónal, forces her to upend her life by moving to Scotland – she needs to get away from their homeplace. Then other events plunge her into a different grief.
SG: You’re right, grief does change people and it is something that unfortunately stays with us, always, though in different guises. You capture brilliantly the pain and love of childbirth and motherhood – the essential and contradictory loneliness of it. Coupled with this, I am thinking of the wonderful portrait of the mother/daughter relationship of Verity/Lillis.
NNíC: Childbirth is such a profound event in a woman’s life – it deserves its place in literature. I write a lot about motherhood, maybe because I have been mothering for so long (nearly 21 years); it looms large in my psyche.
Lillis and Verity have a troubled, competitive relationship – the mother is jealous of the daughter’s youth and freedom. The daughter is sick of acting as mother and minder to her mother. These are topics that interests me hugely: mother/daughter rivalry; mother/daughter role reversal – I dealt with the latter in my first novel YOU.
SG: And there are more layers to the complexities of mothers/daughters that I am sure you will explore yet again in your short and long fiction. But for now, please share with us the details of upcoming readings from The Closet of Savage Mementos.
NNíC: I haven’t got as many readings as I would like; I keep being asked to be on panels and teach classes at festivals instead. But I will be reading from the book:
4th June – at the Irish Embassy in Rome;
25th June – John J. Jennings Library, Palmerstown, Dublin 20;
26th July – Galway Fringe Festival;
23rd August at the Molly Keane Writers’ Retreat, Waterford;
5th September – Reading and interview – Nairn Book and Arts Festival, Scotland.
I will also be teaching a Short Story workshop at Listowel; Social Media one at West Cork Lit Fest; and a 4 day Short Story to Novel writing workshop at the Cork Short Story Festival from the 17th to 20th September.
SG: That’s a fantastic list of events and places where readers can catch up with you and hear you read or attend one of your workshops which are really worth going to. Thanks for such honest and insightful answers, Nuala, and congratulations again on a wonderful novel. I shall look forward to your third novel Miss Emily.