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Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor
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Miss Emily

Best Seller
Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor
Jul 14, 2015 | ISBN 9780698182219

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  • Jul 14, 2015 | ISBN 9780698182219

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**An Amazon Canada and Globe & Mail Best Book of the Year**

“Nuala O’Connor’s lovely novel . . . pulls us in from its first limpid lines and then detonates with an explosion of power — much like Emily Dickinson’s poems. The novel captivates with its high emotions and rich images. Hope, Ada comments, ‘may be small and bald at first, but then it gathers feathers to itself and flies on robust wings.’ So, too, does O’Connor’s quietly soaring novel.”
–The Washington Post

“A beautifully imagined account of an unlikely bond.” 
— People Magazine

“O’Connor is a gifted writer; not only does she bring a believable sense of poetry (clay is “deathly cool around my fingers”) and self-assurance to Emily, she is also capable of conveying complex feeling succinctly, a talent shared by her historical heroine. This novel has the possibility of being a book club juggernaut.”
– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A superb novel, I was captivated from the first page. With gorgeous, compelling period detail and graceful prose, Nuala O’Connor reimagines a friendship between one of our greatest poets and her Irish maid. With uncanny insight into the expected portrayal of a servant-mistress relationship, and in keeping with the power and beauty of Dickinson’s poetry, O’Connor celebrates her women with great delicacy and exuberance.”
—KATHLEEN GRISSOM, bestselling author of The Kitchen House

“A gorgeously rendered tale about a friendship between the real-life poet Emily Dickinson and the fictional Ada Concannon, this book is a celebration of relationships and art.”
— The Globe and Mail, A Best Book of the Year

“1800s Massachusetts comes to life, awash in rich period details and scenery, complete with a trip to the circus and lugging chamber pots up and down stairs. .. O’Connor does a beautiful job giving Ada a role as witness to Emily Dickinson’s life … making Ada’s chapters as linguistically alive as Dickinson’s. They hum with Irish sayings and their own poetic cadence, even sometimes becoming a reflection of familiar Dickinson themes. Ada’s observations on nature, loneliness and hope contain echoes of Dickinson’s poetry—while remaining distinct to her own narration. This is one of the book’s great strengths, a sort of mixing and matching of language and perspective.”
—The Rumpus

“Intriguing . . this tender novel reveals [a] growing friendship. O’Connor takes readers deep inside the 19th-century Dickinson household. But she also has a bolder mission–to capture and explore the inner world of a secretive and mysterious genius.”
— Shelf Awareness

“I read this wonderful novel in a gulp. Nuala O’Connor is a gifted storyteller with a poet’s eye for detail. We are offered a tantalizing glimpse into the private life of one of America’s greatest poets, but for me, the real triumph is the character of Ada, Emily’s young Irish maid. It’s Ada who is the heart of this novel.  She’s as beautifully realized as the gingerbread she so meticulously bakes with Emily. I can’t wait to read what O’Connor writes next.”
—NATASHA SOLOMONS, New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford
“Beautifully written and utterly compelling, this vivid portrait of Emily Dickinson examines her humanity, complexity and profound relationship with words.  Told in her own eloquent voice and that of her trusted maid, Miss Emily deftly braids together the stories of two intriguing women in this highly accomplished novel.”
CATHY MARIE BUCHANAN, New York Times bestselling author of The Painted Girls
“Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily is evocative, thought-provoking, and beautifully rendered; a poignant portrait of two very different women, drawn together in unlikely friendship by a common strength of spirit and mind. Readers will delight in this richly imagined glimpse into the worlds–both inner and outer–of the immortal Emily Dickinson. I wanted to race through the novel, and yet, the language was so engrossing that I forced myself to slow down, just enough to savor each sentence.”
ALLISON PATAKI, New York Times bestselling author of The Traitor’s Wife and The Accidental Empress

“Revelatory… a moving and often engrossing tale of the bonds of friendship, the power of language, and the intricacies of the human heart.”
Irish America Magazine
“All aspects of the book—characterization, prose, setting and storyline—are in top form, setting this author apart from many who take on a rehash of a well-known and documented historical figure. Lyrical and beautifully written, this story should not be missed by fans of Emily Dickinson, or anyone simply looking for a great historical read.”
Historical Novels Review
Miss Emily is a triumph of a novel, creating an utterly human and believable Emily Dickinson through the eyes of an enchanting and complex fictional Irish woman. Their story is smart and witty and harrowing and brilliantly revelatory of the interplay of life and inspiration in a nascent great artist. And all this is done in prose that has the same condensed, particularizing power of Dickinson’s poetry. Nuala O’Connor has long been one of my favorite contemporary Irish writers. She will certainly find an ardently admiring American audience with this extraordinary novel.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author ROBERT OLEN BUTLER

“Beautifully and convincingly evokes the startling, luminous world captured in Dickinson’s poems in the alternating voices of Emily and Ada, who share a passionate nature at odds with proper Amherst society.”
—Library Journal

“O’Connor breathes new life into reclusive poet Emily Dickinson in her mesmerizing U.S. debut. Like one of Dickinson’s poems, the deceptively simple narrative packs a powerful punch… The dual perspectives add an Upstairs, Downstairs depth to the novel.”
— Booklist 

“In this gem of a novel, Emily Dickinson befriends Ada Concannon, who was hired as the family’s kitchen girl almost immediately after she arrived from Ireland. Later, an act of raw violence will ripple outward, resulting in consequences that neither Ada nor Emily could have imagined.”
– Christopher Rose of Andover Bookstore, for the Boston Globe “Pick of the Week”
“This is not your grandmother’s genteel historical novel. In its own way, there’s as much intrigue and excitement in Miss Emily as one finds in any thriller. O’Connor’s facility with both language and the nuances of character rewards the reader with two feisty, vivid heroines with very different experiences and social positions, yet who form a friendship across class lines. An excellent novel from Nuala O’Connor, and one that should make her name in America.”
A Trip to Ireland blog

 “A jewel of a novel, Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor is a fascinating, heartfelt, and captivating glimpse into the mind and heart of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most beloved poets, interwoven with the story of her spirited, witty, and devoted Irish maid, Ada. With its luminous prose and sympathetic, realistically drawn characters, you will feel yourself irresistibly drawn into Emily’s and Ada’s private worlds with every turn of the page.”
—SYRIE JAMES, bestselling author of Jane Austen’s First Love and The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

“This beautifully-crafted biographical novel vividly evokes Emily Dickinson and her world: her obsessive solitude, her sensual relationship with her sister-in-law, her conflicted relationship with her brother, and, most central, her companionable friendship with Ada, a spunky and superstitious Irish maid. Alternating between the stories of Emily and Ada, the novel brims with the charming details of their domestic life, the unfolding of a sweet romance, yet also, ultimately, brings to light the tragic effects of a violent reality that most often goes unmentioned, even today. This is an intensely engaging, emotional and important story, exquisitely rendered. Brilliant!”
—SANDRA GULLAND, author of the internationally bestselling Josephine B. Trilogy 

“Miss Emily presents its readers with a version of Emily Dickinson for the twenty-first century: an intensely private and reclusive woman who was as determined to live according to her own idiosyncratic rules, as she was to engage on her own terms with the world outside her Amherst home. In the spirit of her beloved Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot, this fictionalized Dickinson crosses class, national, and religious lines to reach out to her Irish maid Ada with compassion, empathy, and humanity. In eloquent prose, O’Connor has depicted a life-changing encounter between two very different women that celebrates their complexity, passion, and strength.”
—DR. PARAIC FINNERTY, Professor of American Literature, University of Portsmouth and author of Emily Dickinson’s Shakespeare 

“Like a Dickinson poem, Miss Emily seems at first a simple story of friendship, but gradually reveals itself as a profound meditation on the human condition. O’Connor accomplishes this unfolding, just as Dickinson did, with her exquisite use of language.  I lost myself in the beautiful detail of 1860s Amherst, a cast of characters that leapt off the page with life, and the constant reminder that words, properly wielded, can transcend time, transmit love, and, above all, inspire hope.”
—CHARLIE LOVETT, New York Times bestselling author of The Bookman’s Tale

“The structure of the book is reminiscent of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, a lyrical dialogue between two distinct voices.  Ada and Emily are divided by class, ethnicity, learning, circumstance; but a deep empathy and shared humanity unite them as women.  This is a bittersweet story of repressed passion, thwarted opportunity, and the selflessness that is the essence of love.”
—STEPHANIE BARRON, bestselling author of the Being A Jane Austen Mystery series

“An absorbing and provocative take on the inner life of a brilliant poet and her increasingly shrinking universe. The Dickinson household of Amherst, Massachusetts is complex and very odd indeed and the  tension builds towards shocking consequences for all involved.  Nuala O’Connor’s prose skillfully and lyrically creates Emily Dickinson’s voice and that of her young Irish housekeeper who chronicles the poet’s harrowing struggle to find the freedom to write while living a cloistered life at home.  A novel you won’t want to put down.”
—JENNIFER KAUFMAN and KAREN MACK, authors of Freud’s Mistress

Miss Emily is an intricate, intimate novel that, in its careful attention to language, pays homage to our most American poet’s extraordinary work. There are references to that work, rewards to true Dickinson aficionados, secreted in O’Connor’s prose, but this novel achieves a broader aim too: it tells a story of friendship that keeps us turning the pages.”
—KELLY O’CONNOR MCNEES, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott and The Island of Doves

“Secrets will always out. In the same way as Emily Dickenson’s poems were once the best kept secret in Massachusetts, Nuala O’Connor’s luminous prose has long been one of Ireland’s most treasured literary secrets. Now through her superb evocation of 19th century Amherst, an international audience is likely to be held rapt by the sparse lyricism and exactitude of O’Connor’s writing. Through a fusion of historical ventriloquism and imaginative dexterity, O’Connor vividly conjures up – in the real-life Emily Dickinson and the fictional Ada Concannon – two equally unforgettable characters who pulsate with life in this study of the slowly blossoming friendship between a delicate literary recluse and a young Irish emigrant eager to embrace the new world around her.”
—DERMOT BOLGER, playwright and author of The Journey Home and The Venice Suite, among others 

“I finished this morning and had to write to you straight away! My goodness—what a wonderful, wonderful book. I feel so privileged to have read it; I honestly cannot praise this book enough. Nuala O’Conner’s beautiful writing sings from every single page as Emily and Ada’s fascinating story unfolds. An absolute joy to read—I will be telling everyone about this book.”
—HAZEL GAYNOR, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home 

“An original portrayal of Emily Dickinson seen here not just as a lover of words, but as a heroine and friend to a plucky Irish maid who casts a new and sympathetic light on the Belle of Amherst.”
—SHEILA KOHLER, author of Becoming Jane Eyre 

“Nuala O’Connor casts a keen, compassionate eye below the veneer of domesticity to illuminate the passion, pain, and life force behind the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Quietly elegant and moving, poignantly humane, Miss Emily is a rare gift.”
—ANIA SZADO, author of Studio Saint-Ex

“O’Connor writes beautifully and manages to balance fact and fiction with a deft hand. Miss Emily should delight fans of both Emily Dickinson and creative writing. The novel is moving and, like the best fiction, feels rooted in the truth of human emotion.”
— The Greenfield Recorder

“Approaches the challenges involved in fictionalizing Emily Dickinson with sensitivity and a deft hand. . . . Well-paced . . . and evocative.” 
—The Emily Dickinson Journal


Author Q&A

Did you choose to write about Emily Dickinson because of a personal connection to her work or because of a literary interest in her life and era?

I discovered that Emily Dickinson was a baker and began to bake her recipes (her coconut cake, her gingerbread). I had studied her work at school, choosing her for my Leaving Certificate (final exams) and always enjoyed her poetry. Baking her cakes sent me back to her poems and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if she had had an Irish maid?” It turned out she did have Irish maids, but I invented a new one so that I would not be working two real lives into fiction. I needed some room to imagine.

What research did you do to prepare for the novel? Which characters were drawn from Emily’s own life? Was there a specific person who was the inspiration for Ada?

There are a lot of books written about Emily’s life and poetry and I read many of them. I tend to research as I write, so I read them in tandem with writing Miss Emily.

When I had a first draft finished I traveled to Amherst in Massachusetts, Emily’s hometown, and visited her house (very moving) and grave (ditto); also her surviving white dress in the Amherst History Museum, the libraries that hold Dickinson artifacts, including a lock of Emily’s bright red hair. I also went to the Dickinson Room at Harvard University to view more possessions, including Emily’s original cherrywood desk. I took lots of photographs and kept a journal on the trip.

The research in Amherst and at Harvard, and from books, was a joy: I researched everything from the Dickinson family’s meals to their jewelry, from shell-less eggs to gonorrhea and breastfeeding in the nineteenth century.

I traveled back to Amherst again in August 2014 to attend my first meeting of the Emily Dickinson International Society and will return in 2015. Once Emily gets a hold of you, she doesn’t want to let go.

All of Emily’s family as featured in Miss Emily are real people: Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson, Vinnie, Austin, Sue, Ned, Martha. Moody Cook and Mr. Cutler were also real people.

I made Ada a cousin of Maggie Maher, the most famous of the Dickinsons’ Irish maids, but Ada herself is an invention, as are Daniel and Patrick. 

Dickinson’s poems are loved for their ability to pack so much emotion into a handful of lines. What strengths are specific to poetry that can’t be captured in fiction, and vice versa?

By their nature, poems value brevity and concision, so the writer is aware that every word must carry its weight well, in terms of meaning and aptness; the words earn their place. Fiction, particularly novel writing, is an altogether flabbier affair—it has room for many characters, subplots, and development. It takes me about a year to write the first draft of a novel, so I don’t come to it in one mood—it is written over a long period of time and so there is a lot of opportunity to think about what I am doing.

There is beauty in both approaches: the short, succinct flash of the poem, as opposed to the long, workaday haul of the novel. I love both for the different hits I get from them.

Why did you decide to give each chapter descriptive titles, such as “Miss Ada Makes a Decision”?

I’ve always been charmed by E. M. Forster and his way of naming chapters, particularly in A Room with a View, so it’s an homage to him. Each chapter title works as a doorway into the action to follow; the title doesn’t give everything away but provides hints for the reader. 

There has been much discussion about the nature of Dickinson’s relationship with her sister-in-law Susan, whether it was friendship, romance, or perhaps a blend of both. Your portrayal of their interactions offers a subtle opinion. Can you discuss why you decided to present the women in this way?

When you read Emily’s letters to Sue, they are full of emotion, respect, and love. In one letter to her Emily says “my heart is full of you,” and that they need not talk because their eyes whisper for them. But her words can also be cryptic and demanding; I imagine friends were sometimes at a loss as to her exact meaning when she wrote to them.

As a friend Emily was quite demanding—she expected a lot of those close to her, probably because she chose just a select few for company and/or to correspond with. Did she love Sue? Yes, I believe she did. Was it more than platonic? Who can say? They certainly bickered like lovers at times and Emily said once she wanted to be buried with Sue at the end (she wasn’t).

Victorian female friendships were intense and passionate; maybe we just don’t fully understand, or empathize with, the nature of those friendships today. 

Baking together is a point of emotional connection for Ada and Emily. Why was being together in the kitchen such a safe space for them?

In a sense the kitchen was both of their domains—Ada’s as maid of all work, Emily’s as a place where she could be social on her own terms. Her bedroom was probably her true domain but the kitchen afforded her a place to be active in the household in a way that pleased her. She could also still be creative there—she loved to bake. She also often wrote in the kitchen, so it was clearly a very safe space for her.

While Ada and Emily come from vastly different backgrounds, they each challenge social expectations in their own way. In what other ways do you see them as similar?

They are both gregarious, full of fun and chatter—they both absolutely love to talk. They are also deep thinkers who enjoy mulling over every stray thought that occurs to them. They are noticers—nothing escapes them. And they both love natural things—plants, insects, the changing sky. 

The Irish experienced terrible discrimination as new immigrants to the United States, during Emily’s lifetime and well into the twentieth century. Cruel comments like those made by Austin Dickinson were, unfortunately, commonplace. What was the emotional impact for you as an Irishwoman in writing these scenes?

I have no problem in portraying the Irish in the way that they were perceived. The comments might have an element of truth, anyway, but they may say more about the people in the places where the Irish landed, also. I had a twinge of guilt, though, in making Austin Dickinson such an anti-Irish character. In reality, I think he was a much more fair-minded, generous, and genteel man than I have made him in my book, but I needed to serve the plot. I am very fond of him in reality!

If Emily Dickinson were alive today, what do you think she would be like? How would she react to the issues that face women in the twenty-first century?

Emily was a maverick—she took charge of her own mind and her own situation. She did not follow conventions in religion or in what was expected of her as a daughter of a well-to-do lawyer, that is, marriage and all it entails. Emily knew herself well and she knew what was best for her—she was confident and articulate and, like many writers, extremely happy in her own company. She wouldn’t be any different if she were alive today, I suppose.

I think Emily might enjoy the Internet and the knowledge it could bring and the virtual travel aspect of it. I imagine she would have balanced and interesting opinions on the issues that twenty-first-century women and girls face: body image, work pressures, the absurd notion of “having it all,” the cult of celebrity.

Emily never wanted fame; in her poem that begins “Fame is a bee” (available to read online) she basically says that celebrity is seductive, harmful, and fleeting. I doubt she would be seduced by it, even today.

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