EMILY’S DRESS AND OTHER MISSING THINGS – Kathryn Burak
setting: Amherst, MA
age range: young adult
First-time novelist Kathryn Burak shares a tense, emotional story that never once veers into the overly sentimental. Teens who have fallen in love with a poet or writer will relate to the comfort and passion Claire finds in Dickinson’s poetry. All teens who have experienced some loss—and maybe even some lies—in their lives will appreciate the deep emotional catharsis this story provides. Though it deals with entirely different issues, this book will appeal to fans of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls
…It’s what is missing from this superb debut novel that makes it so rich. Like Dickinson’s poems, the first-person narration doesn’t worry about stage direction or backstory, preferring to highlight poignant moments that elicit emotion or deepen character, challenging the reader to fill in the blanks and read between the lines of Claire’s writing, conversations, and musings. What remains at the end is a complete portrait of loss, longing, redemption, and love.
— Booklist, starred review
Nominated for the Edgar award
Please tell us about your book.
Claire has just moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, with her father, so she can try for a second time to finish her senior year of high school. Claire has a lot of secret baggage she’s carrying with her. Her mother’s suicide four years before and her best friend’s disappearance six months earlier has left her shattered, but stuck together—“like rock candy”—as she puts it. As Claire’s hunger for life—and for love — starts to battle with her grief and isolation, she turns to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and to Dickinson’s house, which is a museum in Amherst. She begins visiting—at night—when the museum is closed. One night she is surprised by someone who followed her there, and she runs into the night wearing the poet’s famous white dress, followed by the police and a past that won’t stop haunting her. This is just the beginning of her journey from loneliness — through the mystery of her missing friend — toward redemption and love.
What inspired you to write this story?
Of the many things that came together to inspire me—two things come to mind. First, a quote from Dante’s Inferno that I heard at a poetry reading for high school English teachers. “And then the hunger had even more power than sorrow had over me.” That was my guiding light—I would write a story about a girl who wants to choose happiness, choose life, friendship and love over immense and crushing sorrow. I wanted to tell a story about hope, where you find it and how you hold onto it. “Hope is a thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson says. And around the time I was first writing the story I had heard a story about a missing punk-rock musician in England—an unsolved disappearance. That was on my mind, too. Also, I lived in Amherst during graduate school and have always been in love with the presence of Emily Dickinson there. Even the grocery store walls have photos of her.
Could you share with readers how you ended up combining poetry with storytelling in this book?
In my earliest drafts, Claire was writing a fictional story that mirrored her mother’s life—a mother who chose death over life. It was a story about how Emily Dickinson was a vampire (!)—that she chose death over life. According to Claire, there is plenty of evidence in Dickisnon’s poetry and in her biography to make a case for this theory.
It was hard to tell two stories at the same time, though, and my editor and other readers kept getting lost in the gap between the two stories. So my editor asked me to cut the sub-story and replace it with something else. She suggested poetry because of Claire’s obsession with Emily Dickinson. At first I thought, “Cut 20,000 words!?!?!” But then I started enjoying writing poetry through Claire’s voice. I have an MFA in poetry, but I haven’t written poetry since I left graduate school and switched to fiction. This was an enormous treat, but an equally enormous challenge—to write poetry from a character’s point of view: How would Claire write a poem?
What are some challenges of writing a story that takes place over the span of a year?
I knew my story needed time. My characters’ changes were so big that they needed to occur incrementally in order to be convincing. I knew I wanted to write a story about love—but many different kinds of love: love that gets redeemed, love that makes forgiveness possible, love that grows from friendship. These themes would require time. So I had to reveal the passage of time through things like weather. Lucky for me, the New England setting is perfect for showing the passing of time through the change of season. I also needed to build suspense into the story in order to keep it moving over so much time. The mystery subplot came as a response to that need.
How would your book fit into a classroom?
My book shows students how the reader inside us might blend in with the writer inside us and how you might fall in love with words. Claire falls for poetry—not just Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She also loves William Carlos Williams and Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, to name a few. As she writes, she joins the community of other writers—she celebrates these words she falls in love with through her own writing. And her friends love her because of the way she uses words, among other reasons. (One character tells her: “I understand your magic. . . words.”) Claire reads great works—and makes them her own.
As a teacher, myself, I’ve always believed in the importance of playfulness with words, in taking risks with language, and in taking the texts we love into ourselves—breathing them in one way and breathing them out another way—through our own writing. What better message to send language arts students than to tell them the texts they read are theirs to own, to love, to cherish—to inspire their own creativity?
Tell us about your connection to Emily Dickinson’s missing books.
I’m trying to use my book about the museum to help bring back Emily’s missing books. The Dickinson museum includes a room that used to be the family’s library. The family owned something like 2,000 books. These were beloved family treasures, but they were donated to university libraries. Now the shelves of the Dickinson library are bare. The museum has a project called Replenishing the Shelves. It’s a chance for donors to buy a copy of book—or help buy a copy– that replaces one of the missing books. I’m trying to raise some money by selling buttons and things I have created. You can find more about the project at http://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/books.
Faith E. Hough says
I’ve heard of this before, but somehow never knew the connection with the poet! Now I can’t wait to read it… I’ve been in Amherst a few times and wanted to visit the museum, but I was always there during the wrong season–so I parked in front of the house and just stared at it!
Caroline Starr Rose says
Maybe it was here? I quoted a few lines a couple of months ago when I ran the post about my commonplace book. I have NEVER been to Amherst but would love to go. For now, I think I’ll have to satisfy myself by baking that Emily Dickinson coconut cake I linked to in my writing links recently!
Sonia Gensler says
I really loved this book! (Perfect for someone as Emily D-obsessed as I am.) So wonderful to learn more about the evolution of the story. And right now I am going to investigate this Replenishing the Shelves project. Thank you, Kathryn and Caroline!
Caroline Starr Rose says
Sonia, I thought you’d like it. Glad to know you’ve already read. So glad Kate shared about the Replenishing the Shelves project.
Melissa Sarno says
Ohhh, I must read this. Thank you for sharing : )
Caroline Starr Rose says
Happy to do so!
This book sounds wonderful. I definitely want to read it!