Q. Like Emily’s House, your first two novels—The Flight of the Sparrow, about Mary Rowlandson, and Mr. Emerson’s Wife, about Lidian Jackson Emerson—also center on New England women from the past. What draws you to write fiction rooted in the lives of historical women of this region, do you think?
The short answer is that New England is my home in a deeply profound way. The landscape and its history have always felt intertwined to me. Maybe it’s the old stone walls that wander through the woods and the abandoned logging roads and old cellar holes, the remnants of hearths and chimneys. I think I grew up with a visceral sense that history was always around me.
I come from a long line of New Englanders and the family stories passed down to me were all from this region. The lives and deaths of my ancestors felt approachable and real in a way that the historical figures I read about in books didn’t. More importantly, they felt just as significant.
Later, I expanded the fascination with family history to a general interest in how people lived in former times. I suspect the attraction is similar to what drives re-enactors. I love to poke around old New England cemeteries and read the inscriptions on the gravestones in old cemeteries, trying to picture the people. I imagine the smells, sounds, and feelings of people who lived in the landscapes I’m familiar with.
The women I’m drawn to write about have often been obscured in the historical record, either because they’ve been overshadowed by more famous people in their circle or because other events or people in their era have attracted more interest. I like to lift them out of the historical shadows and give them their due.
Q. Emily’s House is narrated by Margaret Maher, a longtime servant in the Dickinson household. When and how did you learn about Maher? What made her feel like the right narrator for the novel?
I first encountered Margaret Maher when I was researching Dickinson and read Aífe Murray’s 2009 book Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language. Up to that point I’d been having trouble figuring out what approach to use in the novel. Early on I considered trying to present the novel from Emily’s point of view, but discovered fairly quickly that I couldn’t adequately capture the brilliance of her language use and tone.
Murray’s work presented a more complete picture of the Dickinson household, and featured Margaret’s pivotal role in the last seventeen years of Emily’s life. I was stunned when I learned that Margaret was responsible for preserving Emily’s poems. Why hadn’t I ever heard of her before? It was clear to me that, if it hadn’t been for Margaret, the world would never have had access to the literary treasure that is Dickinson’s work.
After finishing Murray’s book, I dug into Emily’s letters, looking for references to Margaret. There aren’t many, but the few I found painted a portrait of a lively, high-spirited woman whom Emily regarded with fondness and increasing respect. The more I read and reflected the more I saw Margaret as the perfect narrator for the novel. As Emily’s maid, she was privy to the most intimate details of the poet’s life. She cooked and cleaned for her, rain errands, helped her in the garden, and nursed her when she was in poor health. And the fact that Emily trusted Margaret with her poems told me worlds about their relationship.
Q. Let’s talk about your research for a moment. How much historical documentation exists about Maher’s life generally and her relationship with Dickinson in particular? What other sources did you use to help you imagine her character and perspective?
The historical documentation of Margaret Maher’s life is limited. Emily Dickinson mentions her in several letters, and her view is largely responsible for my sense of Margaret’s character. My main source of information about her was the Aífe Murray book mentioned above, Maid as Muse. That work not only inspired me to choose Margaret as a protagonist, but provided me a wealth of information. Murray has done a remarkable amount of research on Margaret Maher, from her early life in County Tipperary through the thirty years she worked as the Dickinson family maid. Using her book as a jumping-off point, I explored many of her sources, including Jay Leyda’s 1953 essay, “Miss Emily’s Maggie” and his two-volume masterpiece, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson.
Because I like to consult primary sources when possible, I also took a close look at Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s Emily Dickinson Face to Face. The book is primarily an exploration of Emily’s relationship with her sister-in-law, Sue Dickinson, but includes Martha’s eye-witness account of Margaret’s agitation over Emily’s request to burn her poems. To get a sense of what her perspective might have been, I consulted books and articles on the lives of Irish domestic workers, which eventually led me to explore other aspects of immigrant life, both social and political. It’s sometimes easy to overlook the enormous impact that the great influx of Irish people had on American culture. For example, I discovered that many phrases and word choices we think of as American actually have Irish roots. Once I started writing, though, Margaret’s voice took on its own life. I sometimes felt as if she was whispering her story in my ear and I was just writing it down.
Q. In the course of depicting how the relationship between Maher and Dickinson deepened over time, you dramatize differences and commonalities, moments of intimacy and moments of confusion and misunderstanding. Could you give those who haven’t yet read Emily’s House a bit of a preview of the way you see their complex bond?
Domestic servants have rarely been the focus of interest for those studying American history. But they’ve been there from the beginning for the wealthy and upper-middle-class. It’s only relatively recently, with the development of labor-saving devices for the home, that they’re no longer prevalent. A hundred years ago it was very difficult for women to manage a household and children without some help. Sometimes that was provided by sisters and maiden aunts and grandmothers, but when a family could afford it, a servant was usually hired to lighten the work load. A live-in maid was considered a near-necessity.
Household servants are privy to a family’s secrets, whether or not their employers confide in them. They have eyes and ears and sensibilities—they pick up on nuances in speech and behavior. In fact, their job security often depends on their ability to skillfully navigate such nuances and anticipate unspoken expectations.
The social boundaries between the two women were very clear. Not only was Emily the employer and Margaret the employee, but they were living in a time when anti-Irish prejudice was widespread and often cruel. They surely saw the world in very different ways.
Yet I believe there were important commonalities. Both Margaret and Emily were single women, living in a time when everyone expected that women would marry and raise children. They spent many hours working together in the kitchen. They shared a mutual interest in religion and spiritual matters. And they both had a fascination with words. Emily, with her insatiable curiosity, must have found Margaret’s word choices delightful.
Margaret worked in the Dickinson household for the last seventeen years of Emily’s life. It takes time for people to understand and successfully relate to each other. In Emily’s House, I tried to portray the gradual development of a trusting, emotionally intimate relationship. Along the way, there are missteps and micro-aggressions. The two women came from very different backgrounds so their trust in each other must have developed slowly. But there are strong hints in the historical record that by the end of Emily’s life the two were remarkably close. The fact that Emily trusted Margaret with her poems makes that very clear.
Q. Maher’s relationships with most of the Dickinsons are warm ones. Yet there are reminders throughout—in Maher’s frustration over the way Emily nicknames her, in a painful scene with Emily’s father about Margaret’s future—that while Maher is the Dickinsons’ equal in terms of force of character, she is not their equal in social, class or economic power. Was this a thread that you consciously built into the novel, or something more intuitive?
Yes, it was a conscious choice on my part as the author. It was very important to me to highlight the challenges faced by immigrant domestic servants in this book. Once I learned of Margaret’s pivotal role in preserving Emily’s poems, I was determined to place her at the center of the story.
I took a hard look at why she never received recognition for her influence and impact on Emily’s life and poetry until very recently. Why does Lavinia get credit for discovering the poems? Why is Mabel Loomis Todd noted for sharing them with the world? The simple answer is that Margaret, as a servant and an immigrant, wasn’t considered worthy of recognition. She was—like so many laborers over the centuries—expendable from the point of view of those who wrote the histories. No matter what she did in life, her legacy was superfluous.
So I set out to show the profound influence that people of low social status often have on those in positions of authority and control. A similar theme ungirds my novel Mr. Emerson’s Wife, in which a brilliant, forward-thinking woman who is eclipsed by her famous husband, nonetheless has a profound impact on his far-reaching philosophical work.
Q. The Amherst of the novel’s period comes vividly to life in your book. How did you build a sense of what it was like both physically and socially?
I’ve known Amherst since I was a child. My paternal grandmother lived in nearby Northampton and when our family stayed with her, we often visited Amherst College campus, my father’s alma mater. He was an enthusiastic alumnus and plainly had a love for the town of Amherst. At that time the Dickinson house wasn’t a museum and was rarely open to the public. But my parents pointed out the house and it always struck me as a lovely home, a sort of quiet presence in the town, shadowed by tall trees and set back a bit from the road in a stately way. So early on I had a general knowledge of Amherst’s physical contours. The town has a distinctly historical flavor to it since so many of its houses and buildings date back to the mid-19th century.
In order to build a detailed sense of the physical and social worlds of Emily Dickinson’s day I did a lot of research. I immersed myself in local anecdotes of the time, studied old maps, consulted newspaper reports from the time. And of course I read lots and lots of books. Jay Leyda’s The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson is a researcher’s dream—a remarkable multi-sourced treasure of information about the poet and her world. Daniel Lombardo's A Hedge Away is an informal town history that highlights some of the more interesting (and sometimes scandalous) events in Amherst during Emily’s lifetime. Emily’s letters provide wonderful details about the townspeople. I learned about the social stratifications in Amherst and how they differed from Boston society. I learned where the Irish immigrants lived and where they went to Mass and who their priests were. I learned who the doctors were in town and where people shopped and gathered for concerts and lectures. I learned about Amherst College’s impact on the town’s social life. I learned where the trains ran and when the town festivals took place. And much, much more. I do research more or less continuously from the time I decide on a novel’s setting until very late in my process. My aim is to bring the nineteenth-century town alive in my mind. I’ve found that, over time, the details and information I’ve gathered along the way become so familiar they sometimes seem like a part of my own life experience.
Q. You structured the novel with a frame story that takes place in 1916, when the Dickinson homestead is up for sale. Was this a part of your vision of the book from the beginning? Can you talk a bit about why and how you developed this element in the novel?
No, it actually wasn’t part of the novel from the beginning. I’m a slow writer and I do a lot of research. I write many drafts of a novel before I’m ready to submit it. In one of my first drafts of Emily’s House, I began with Margaret as a child in Ireland and followed her life, event by event, in chronological order. Very little of that draft remains in the novel, but it gave me an intimate understanding of what Margaret had lived through by the time she was employed by the Dickinsons.
In a later draft, I explored the possibility of framing chapters—beginning the novel with a chapter set near the end of Margaret’s life, and then segue into the past for the bulk of the story, and return to her old age at the end of the book. Gradually I developed the idea of having periodic chapters from the point of view of Margaret in old age, then returning to the younger Margaret. Initially I had set the frame in 1924, a few months before Margaret died. But my wonderful editor encouraged me to focus the framing chapters on a time when Margaret was still able to be active and independent. So I chose the year 1916, which was not only the year the Homestead was put up for sale, but also the year of the Easter Rising in Ireland. It seemed to me that both events would likely have had a notable impact on Margaret.
Q. Where there any particular challenges you faced while writing Emily’s House?
Two things come to mind.
In my first vision of Emily’s House I imagined I might be able to write it from Emily’s point of view. Like many, I’ve long been enchanted by the way she uses language. But after delving deep into her poems and letters, I realized there was no way I could hope to capture her quick wit and brilliant and unusual word choices. So I began hunting for another point-of-view character—someone close enough to Emily to witness her day-to-day life within the confines of the Homestead. I was delighted when I came upon Margaret Maher. However, I still found it challenging to paint a portrait of Emily. She’s elusive and mysterious even in her own writing. I discovered that, as a character, Margaret could only know Emily partially—that a full understanding of the poet was beyond her reach. Emily was—and remains for me—still somewhat hidden, yet dazzling in her brightness.
Another challenge came when I realized there are two conflicting narratives that inform the biographies of Emily Dickinson. One comes from Susan Dickinson, Emily’s close friend and sister-in-law and her daughter, Martha. The second echoes Mabel Loomis Todd’s take on the poet and her family. Some scholars have called this a “war between the houses,” and it tragically culminated in the housing of Dickinson artifacts and archives in two separate academic institutions—Amherst College and Harvard University. As I researched I struggled to reconcile these differing viewpoints, but often found I had to choose one over the other. I chose Martha Dickinson’s portrayal of Emily because it seemed more in line with how Margaret would have perceived her. I also learned that Todd made public comments disparaging Margaret and suspected the adversarial feeling was probably mutual.
Q. What are you currently working on?
I’ve just begun work on a new novel set in Vermont during the American Revolution. It’s a time period I haven’t used as a setting for a novel yet, so I’m learning a lot as I go. Vermont was the locus of land disputes between New Hampshire and New York at the time the Revolution started, and an independent republic by the time it ended. This project is in the very early stages at this point—I’m mostly researching and exploring structure and point of view and playing with character development. For me this is the most enjoyable part of writing a novel—while it’s still the dream of a fresh idea and before I get bogged down and discouraged in mid-novel.