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February 13, 2019

Becoming Emily – Author Q & A


Read below to hear from author Krystyna Poray Goddu on her inspiration for writing her newest book and what she hopes young readers take away from reading Becoming Emily: The Life of Emily Dickinson, which Booklist calls “a charming biography of the Belle of Amherst” and “a winner for middle-grade readers.”

Becoming Emily


What most attracted you to the idea of writing a middle-grade biography on Emily Dickinson?

When I finished my book on Edna St. Vincent Millay, I didn’t plan to write about another American female poet. I did know that I wanted to write about another creative woman in the arts. My then-editor, Lisa Reardon, and I explored a few good ideas but, for some reason, Emily was always in the back of my mind. Although I didn’t have the same passion for her work as I did for Vincent’s, I did love many of her poems. And then I have had an affinity for her since childhood because we share the same birthday: December 10. Whenever I would see those lists of “Who Was Born on YOUR Birthday,” Emily Dickinson was always at the top. So I believed from early on, in the way children do, that she and I had some kind of important connection.

Because she kept popping up in my head, I finally decided to do a little research—and was surprised by several things. First of all, contrary to what I had assumed, she hadn’t been written about much for a middle-grade audience. And second, even more surprisingly, I came to learn that the stereotypical image of Emily as a drab, somber recluse who led a dull and quiet life in New England was completely off-base. Once I began exploring the website of the Emily Dickinson Museum (a gold mine of information) and made my way to some of her girlhood letters, I realized what a vibrant and compelling person she had been. I knew then that I wanted to tell her true story—or at least as much of it as I could uncover. So much about Emily’s later life is still a mystery.

How did the writing process of Becoming Emily differ from that of your other books, A Girl Called Vincent and Krysia?

The biggest difference was in the research process. Krysia is really my cousin’s personal story, although my mother and grandmother are important characters in it. There was very little actual research to do, because everything came from my cousin’s memory. I did check on dates and other background material that was part of her story. But for that book, my main work was helping my cousin tell her story in as clear and moving a way as possible. I asked a lot of questions that led to further writing and greater details, then helped smooth the writing since English was not her first language.

For A Girl Called Vincent, I had to travel to work with the primary sources that are at the heart of the book. The hundreds and hundreds of letters, photographs, diaries and other memorabilia that the Millay family saved are in several locations. Most of what I needed was at the Library of Congress, so I made several trips to Washington, DC, to work with that material. I also made a few trips to Vassar College, which she attended and where more material is held. And then I visited Rockland, Maine, where she was born, Camden, Maine, where she grew up and Steepletop, in Austerlitz, New York, where she lived for the last 25 years of her life. The amount of material I had to work with for Vincent was truly overwhelming, and selecting what to use and what to leave out was a very difficult process.

When it came to Becoming Emily, there was also far more primary source material than I could fit into the book. But it was all in her letters, which have been collected into a three-volume set edited by Thomas S. Johnson. Emily did not keep a diary. The letters other people wrote to her were destroyed, at her request, upon her death. So I relied heavily on her letters for shaping my book, looking for the material that portrayed what her daily life was like over the years, her interactions with the important people in her life and then her explorations into poetry writing. I spent a great deal of time working with the volumes of her letters that are held at the New York Public Library, taking notes there and then photocopying many of the letters for my further examination and reflection. And then, since Emily lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, all her life, I only made one trip—to Amherst to visit her home and the Evergreens, where her brother Austin lived with his family, on the same property.

In both Becoming Emily and A Girl Called Vincent, I tried as much as possible to make the books resound with the poets’ voices. Wherever possible, I wanted the reader to experience Emily’s and Vincent’s own voices, both in prose and in poetry. The challenge in writing both books was to select the words that most richly reflected their truest selves—in my judgment, of course.

What’s your favorite Emily Dickinson poem and why?

This never feels like a fair question! How can a person ever choose one favorite poem? I’m going to offer three.

First, #314: “Hope is the thing with Feathers,” because that is the one that I always associated with Dickinson before I ever dreamed of writing about her. We spend so much of our lives living in hope—at least I always have. I love her description of hope as something omnipresent, yet something we cannot really touch or hear, something that demands nothing of us but promises to always be part of us.

Then #982: “If I can stop one Heart from breaking,” because it reflects on the importance of compassion even at the smallest level.

And #466: “I dwell in Possibility,” because who doesn’t want to always believe in the possibilities of the future?

What do you hope young readers will take away from reading Becoming Emily?

First of all, I hope they come away with a feeling for Emily as a real person—a warm and lively, intelligent and quick-witted girl who loved flowers and music, her family and friends, who grew into a singularly strong and complicated woman. I hope they also develop an understanding of what life was like for intelligent girls and women in the mid-1800s. And then, of course, I hope the book brings them to her poetry and that they puzzle over and appreciate (and maybe even memorize) the poems they are drawn to.

What five people—living, dead, fictional or nonfictional—would you have over for you dream dinner and why?

There are so many ways to go with this question!  It’s tempting to pick five good friends from different walks of my life because I know I would have the best time seeing various strands of my life weave together. Or to name five fictional characters I always love to return to. But the first names that came to mind when I saw this question were female writers whose lives and work I admire, and whom I’d love to get in the same room. The two poets I’ve spent so much time with, of course: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson. While vastly different in so many ways, they shared certain passions: first and foremost, nature and music. I’d love to see what they would make of one other.

And then the French writer Colette and the British Rumer Godden, both of whose books have brought me much reading pleasure. And finally, one of my favorite contemporary novelists, Gail Godwin, who always tells compelling stories peopled by characters I wish were in my life. I’ve been lucky enough to hear Gail read and speak several times, and so I know what a terrific conversationalist she would be at a dinner party.

The only problem with this dream gathering is that I would be in such awe I would not dare to utter a word myself.


Buy the book here!


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