Michaela MacColl is the critically acclaimed historical middle grade and young adult author of Prisoners in the Palace and Promise the Night. In her most recent novel, Nobody’s Secret, she imagines what would have happened if Emily Dickinson had a crush on an older stranger who winds up dead in her family’s pond only a few days after she met him. MacColl graciously agreed to take some time out of her busy schedule to answer several of our burning questions about the novel, her characterization of Dickinson, and some of her favorite poems and historical mysteries. Please feel free to read the following interview and let us know what you think in the comment section below.
Toronto Young Adult Fiction Examiner: Editors have come up with a standard number for each of Emily Dickinson’s poems, but I notice that you disregard these numbers in the chronology of the novel, Nobody’s Secret. How was the numbering developed and how does it relate, or not, to the order in which they were written originally? How did you decide upon the chronology for your novel?
Michaela MacColl: Emily Dickinson didn’t believe in titles or dates for her poems. She also liked to fiddle with the wording without deciding on a final version. Editors had to make their best guess as to the chronology and versions.
In Nobody’s Secret, I’ve written about a 15-year-old Emily. We don’t have any evidence that she was writing poetry then – in fact all the evidence indicates that she didn’t start writing until her 20s. But that wouldn’t be fun for me or my story. And I find it hard to believe that a poet wouldn’t feel compelled to write as soon as she could hold a pencil. So I took a liberty and began every chapter with a few lines of Emily’s poems – but the choice of poem was based on the subject of the chapter, not any chronological order.
TorontoYoungAdultFictionExaminer: Mr. Nobody and Emily Dickinson’s dialogue calls to mind some of her poems, in particular the one that begins, “I’m Mr. Nobody! Who Are You?” Did the poems help you develop Emily’s voice as a 15-year-old or did they unnecessarily constrain the writing process?
MM: The poems definitely led me to Emily’s voice, but more importantly, they helped me figure out who she was as a person. For example, she writes about death and grief in such a way that you know she has suffered loss. She knows how to mourn. Here’s a sample:
I felt a funeral in my brain,
And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.
TorontoYoungAdultFictionExaminer: The “Almost sixteen” vs. “So fifteen” exchange between Emily and Mr. Nobody made me laugh at how accurate your understanding of teen voice is. Why do you think teen girls, like Emily, want to represent themselves as being older than they really are? Do you think a male teen protagonist would do the same were the situation reversed?
MM: In the KidLit world, we always say that kids don’t want to read about kids their own age – they would prefer to read about older kids. Being just a little bit older than we are seems to hold all the answers. We’ll be smarter, have more independence, make better choices…when we’re older. In Emily’s case, whether she’ll admit it or not, she doesn’t want this attractive older boy to dismiss her because she’s too young. He, of course, isn’t worried about it all! (But he’s perspicacious enough to see through her slight fib. The sad thing is that Emily’s life will not change terribly much when she’s a year, two years or even ten years older. The freedom that comes with maturity only goes to the males.
TorontoYoungAdultFictionExaminer: Mr. Nobody is the only person in Amherst who doesn’t know who Emily is by name and possibly by sight. How does her lack of anonymity in the community complicate her ability to learn more about him after he winds up dead?
MM: It’s a blessing and a curse. Because her family is important, she is treated well. She has access to the Reverend and the Doctor because of her family connections. And she’s not averse to getting information from her father’s law office or the bank. On the other hand, she is battling people’s prejudices about her family’s success and prestige. And it’s hard to conduct a covert investigation when everyone in town knows who she is. It was only a matter of time before her mother finds out what she’s up to!
TorontoYoungAdultFictionExaminer: You’ve described your brand of MG and YA novels as “modern historical fiction.” Are the snarky comments, like “All the pestilence is swept away,” that Emily says under her breath to her mother based on historical realities or is this part of the modernization?
MM: My conception of “modern historical fiction” is to let readers see that Emily, like me and probably most of us, hated housework too. But the historical part is to show how much extra work it is to run a household back then. I found a fascinating book about Emily Dickinson’s life that shed some light on this subject called, Maid as Muse by Aife Murray. She discovered that Emily’s poetic output went up dramatically when she had domestic help. I love that kind of detail. I also loved that Emily knew how much she owed her maid. She left the bulk of her poems in the care of the maid, and it was her servants she asked to carry her coffin to the graveyard rather than her illustrious relatives.
TorontoYoungAdultFictionExaminer: Emily’s poetry, her historical life and your representation of her all point to a person who has no interest in publishing and who is even horrified by the idea of it. Could her feelings relate to her desire to have a more invisible and anonymous life or is there more to it?
MM: I definitely think that Emily shied away from publicity and any notoriety. I also believe that she hated the idea of giving up control of work. The few times her poems were published (without her consent), the editor changed some of her words and “cleaned up” her punctuation. She was furious. I think this experience showed her that once her work was out in the public realm, she couldn’t control how it was printed and who read it. The proof for that is that she often shared her work with close friends and family. It was the unknown world she didn’t trust.
TorontoYoungAdultFictionExaminer: In several interviews you’ve responded to questions about what your favorite books and authors were as a child, but now that you’ve tackled a famous American poet fictionally, I’ve got to ask, who are your favorite poets?
MM: I’m not really a poetry person – I prefer long books with lots of plotting. But as a teenager I discovered Emily. Her poetry seemed to smack me in the face. She understood what I was going through. We saw things the same way. I was really pleased when both my daughters found Emily on their own.
TorontoYoungAdultFictionExaminer: And now for part two of the above question, what’s your favorite poem by Emily Dickinson? How did you first become acquainted with her writing?
MM: I was twelve or thirteen, feeling quite alienated from the world, when I discovered the poem “This is my Letter to the World, That never wrote to me.” Who hasn’t felt like that? Now as an adult, I’m quite partial to “Hope is a Thing with Feathers.” And of course, “I’m Nobody, Who are You?” was the inspiration for Nobody’s Secret.
TorontoYoungAdultFictionExaminer: A lot of teens and adults, even those who read for fun, are uncomfortable reading poetry because of the way they were taught it in school. What advice do you have for teachers and librarians to make poetry fun? Why should fiction readers should give poetry another chance?
MM: When you write historical fiction, the key to provide context. Your reader needs to understand what conditions affect your character and why they did what they did. The best way to explore Emily’s poetry is read it in context. For example, two years ago, the New York Botanical Garden did a lovely exhibit about Emily’s gardens. They placed placards of her poems all about the gardens and demonstrated, so clearly, that she was writing about her beloved flowers. She spent so much time in her garden, it was an inspiration for her writing. In Nobody’s Secret, I’m trying to give her poems a context that relate to my plot. Of course, that’s fictional – but I’m hoping to show readers the way.
TorontoYoungAdultFictionExaminer: In an interview for The Children’s Book Review, you mentioned that you’re a big fan of historical mysteries. For readers who love Nobody’s Secret, what other historical mysteries would you recommend?
MM: I grew up on Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries about an 11th century herbalist monk. They’re great! More recently, I was pleasantly surprised to read The Cottage Mysteries (featuring Beatrix Potter) by Susan Wittig Albert. Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries are great, as are Tasha Alexander’s books.
TorontoYoungAdultFictionExaminer: Thanks so much for answering our questions about Nobody’s Secret, Michaela!
Did you like our questions and Michaela MacColl’s answers? If you did, then please subscribe to the Toronto Young Adult Examiner with the “Subscribe” button at the top of this post to make sure you never miss another post.