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Finding the music: An Interview with Jerome Charyn on The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

Richard PHELAN et Sophie VALLAS

Notes de la rédaction

The interview that follows was recorded on September 28th, 2010, when Jerome Charyn visited the LERMA (Laboratoire d’Etudes et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone) at the Université de Provence, to evoke his recent The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.

Texte intégral

Foreword by Sophie Vallas: Borrowing Lives, Stealing Voices

  • 1  Blue Eyes (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1974), Marilyn the Wild (New York, Arbor House, 1976), Th (...)
  • 2  The first volumes of the Isaac series were published in France in 1977.
  • 3  See, for instance, La femme du magicien, with François Boucq (Paris, Casterman, 1981), Bouche du d (...)
  • 4  Metropolis. New York as Myth, Markeplace and Magical Land (New York, Putnam, 1986), New York. Chro (...)
  • 5  Movieland. Hollywood and the Great American Dream Culture (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989), Ga (...)

1Jerome Charyn’s books have always been happily welcomed in France, ever since the French met Isaac Sidel in the mid-1970s. The legend has it that Blue Eyes, Great Isaac and Marilyn the Wild1 jauntily entered the Série Noire as Marcel Duhamel’s last enthusiastic discovery.2 But in the following years, Jerome Charyn did not content himself with developing Isaac’s dark saga in a New York gone crazy. While the bandes dessinées he co-wrote with some of the best European graphic artists3 enchanted new readers, he also made his name as a reliable and inspired expert on the history of New York City4 and on American culture,5 especially that of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, in which he grew up.

  • 6  Hemingway. Portrait de l’artiste en guerrier blessé (Paris, Découvertes Gallimard, 1999).
  • 7  Marilyn. The Last Goddess (New York, Abrams [Discoveries], 2008).
  • 8  Raised by Wolves. The Turbulent Art and Times of Quentin Tarentino (New York, Thunder’s Mouth Pres (...)
  • 9  See, for instance, some of the texts published in The Man Who Grew Younger and Other Stories (New (...)
  • 10  All volumes published by St Martin’s Press, New York (1997, 2000 and 2002).
  • 11  New York, Random House, 2005.

2In the past few years, Jerome Charyn added a few stories to Isaac Sidel’s chronicle. He continued to explore the icons of his youth, publishing a short book on Hemingway,6 for instance, and another one on Marilyn Monroe,7 and he also showed his knowledge of contemporary American cinema by devoting an essay to Quentin Tarantino.8 But above all, after spending years playing with autobiographical material in various stories and novels,9 he published what could be called his Bronx Trilogy, three volumes which are presented as autobiographical but which are in fact more autofictional. While The Dark Lady from Belorusse. A Memoir explicitly focuses on Charyn’s mother and turns the beautiful but uneducated, inarticulate and ill-married emigrant that she was in the pre-war Bronx into the fiery, mesmerizing seductress she should have been in her son’s dreamy, enchanted opinion, The Black Swan. A Memoir of the Bronx and Bronx Boy. A Memoir10give a larger picture of Charyn’s childhood in a dilapidated, ethnically divided, gang-ridden Bronx. In line with this exploration of intimate and referential material to which he gives the playful touch of a B movie, Charyn published a strange biographical essay on Isaac Babel whom he presents as an early, determining influence on his own writing: Savage Shorthand. The Life and Death of Isaac Babel11 evokes one of the most mysterious writers of the revolutionary and Stalinist USSR, a most ambiguous man who kept falsifying his own life and inventing his own legend, and produced raw, violent, moving stories. A Jew under cover riding among the anti-Semitic Cossacks of the famous Red Cavalry ransacking Poland at the end of the 1910s, Babel sang both the beauty and horror of the revolution and never allowed anyone to easily pinpoint him either on the political or the literary map of those troubled decades. Stalin finally had him secretly murdered in 1940 while the NKVD pretended Babel had been sent to a camp, thus fostering yet another legend about this plain-looking, round-headed little man who could neither really live in the USSR nor outside of Russia. Jerome Charyn’s love for Babel, whose books he has never stopped reading over and over again, resonates on every single page. Savage Shorthand is as autobiographical as it is biographical, Babel and Charyn meeting in a brilliant essay about what it means for a writer to carry another writer on his back, to invite him into most of his books, to create landscapes, places and characters that echo his, to listen to him yell and laugh in paragraphs that are being written, to ride with him on fiery horses through devastated, unknown territories.

  • 12  New York, Norton, 2010.

3 In 2010 Jerome Charyn published The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.12 The book is not an essay but a novel, and yet the Charyn reader cannot read it without hearing Savage Shorthand in the back of their mind. It is difficult to a priori conceive of two writers that are more dissimilar than Babel and Dickinson, and yet in Charyn’s imagination they seem to be holding hands. Both were exiles, not so much in their respective hostile societies as in themselves. Both invented languages that had never been heard before, used images no other mind had ever dared to give birth to, made words clash in unprecedented battles orchestrated by wild, imperious dashes; they tormented ordinary, mortal syntax and grammar, and developed their respective “savage shorthand”—new instruments no-one had ever played, the only suitable resonance chambers for their original voices. In both Savage Shorthand and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson Charyn launches into a quest for those voices and tries to imagine the frail and yet tense and tough bodies that sheltered them. The choice of the biographical shell or of the novelistic frame is irrelevant: the frontier between fiction and non-fiction does not mean much in Charyn’s world, a world increasingly governed by echoes between his own voice and others’, his own life and others’.

  • 13  The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, “Author’s Note,” 11.
  • 14  David Seed, “An Interview with Jerome Charyn” (Over Here, vol. 15. 1-2, Summer-Winter 1995, 115).
  • 15  Savage Shorthand, 42.
  • 16  The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, “Author’s Note,” 11.
  • 17  Savage Shorthand, 7.
  • 18  David Seed, “An Interview with Jerome Charyn” (Over Here, op. cit., 116).
  • 19  Savage Shorthand, 7.

4To Jerome Charyn, writing is “all about music,” the music the novelist writes and the music the reader listens to. The music must come first, for the writer and the reader alike, or the pen stops running on the page, and the hand closes the book. Dickinson and Babel belong to the category of writers who create their very own personal music that grasps the reader from the start. Whenever Charyn tries to define the way he listens to them, the sentences he carefully creates for each one of them mirror one another: Dickinson’s language can “stun, delight, and kill ‘with Dirks of Melody’”13; Babel’s “stories are warm and killing at the same time”14 and his language is composed of “swift, saberlike sentences [that] seem prepared to destroy the very syntax and grammar of traditional Russian.”15 As a child, when Charyn read his very first poem which happened to be one of Dickinson’s, he remembers discovering a vocation: “I, too, wanted to create ‘[a] perfect—paralyzing Bliss,’ to have my sentences explode ‘like a Maelstrom, with a notch,’”16 a memory which echoes another one, when, as a very young writer, he read Babel for the first time and was enthralled by texts that “were about creating volcanoes with each sentence, about conjunctions on the page that are closer to jazz riffs than to any writer.”17 When Charyn writes of “Babel’s modernity—his insistence that language is an instrument of pain,”18 doesn’t the phrase apply perfectly to Dickinson? When he evokes Babel’s texts as composing “a strange autobiographical journey […],”19 can’t the phrase sum up Dickinson’s whole poetry?

5Both Babel and Dickinson have been singing to Jerome Charyn’s ear for years, and Savage Shorthand as well as The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson testify to the way their music has been echoing in Charyn’s own writing ever since. The recent novel in which Emily Dickinson tells her own life is as historically accurate and as wildly imaginary as the essay in which Charyn superimposes his life on that of Isaac Babel. In both cases, although differently, Charyn fictionalizes a referential material by injecting his own presence into his narratives. He is on horseback with the masked Babel, he is strolling along with the mischievous Emily and her giant dog, Carlo. Their music becomes his, and his voice is forever theirs.


6Sophie Vallas: Recently, you seem to have moved to non-fiction more and more. In a few interviews, you said that from the moment when you decided to write about your mother in The Dark Lady from Belorusse, you were more and more interested in writing non-fiction, although as you often underline it, it’s not that easy to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction…

  • 20  Joe DiMaggio. The Long Vigil (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2011).

7Jerome Charyn: Well I write non-fiction in a very particular way. It’s fictionalized non-fiction. I’ve just finished a book on the baseball player Joe DiMaggio20, which again is a very personal book. You try to do it in a way that no one else could do it, you know, you personalize it. It doesn’t mean it’s better, I’m not saying that, I mean it’s…

8Sophie Vallas: It’s yours.

9Jerome Charyn: Yes, you leave your imprint on it.

10Sophie Vallas: Savage Shorthand. The Life and Death of Isaac Babel, was published in 2005. It is a biographical essay, but it’s also autobiographical…

11Jerome Charyn: It’s an autobiographical biographical essay.

12Sophie Vallas: In your most recent books you work with historical, referential material (Isaac Babel, your mother and, more largely, your family, Emily Dickinson…) but also on an autobiographical integration of this material.

  • 21  Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Ne (...)

13Jerome Charyn: Yes, of course. If you look at The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, I’m not trying to write a 19th century novel. I’m trying to write a novel about Emily Dickinson as if she were in the 21st century. I’m not trying to mimic, to evaluate, I’m seeing her, basically, as a 21st century creature trapped in her own time, and this was a means of getting her out of her time. One of the predicaments I had was that most scholars, when they talk about Emily Dickinson, really see her as someone who was very deprived, never left home, had no sexuality whatsoever. But it’s a complete lie. She had a love affair in the last ten years of her life with her father’s best friend, she wrote very sexual letters about this love affair. They’re profoundly sexual. She wrote three letters to what she calls “the Master,” which are very playful and very sexual at the same time. We have not only to re-evaluate what her life was about, but to see her as a woman who lived a very profoundly rich life and was deprived of very, very little. The problem was, like most women, she wasn’t able to work, she couldn’t become a lawyer, she couldn’t become a doctor, she couldn’t get an education. She could either become a schoolmistress or get married. People ask: “Why didn’t she marry?” There are no definite events that explain why she didn’t marry. But the fact is that she was a huntress of language, she hunted in language in a way for which no other 19th century writer in all of the English language was able to find any equivalent. She was so universally new in the way she saw language, in the way she played with language, that it’s only now that we can really interpret what she was writing. It’s so difficult to write about her. There’s a dreadful play about Emily Dickinson called The Belle of Amherst, filled with clichés even though it’s from her own voice. It’s about this Emily Dickinson who supposedly never kissed a man, who was locked away in a kind of imprisonment. But she had an incredibly rich life! That’s the distortion of historians. It’s only now, in the last two or three years, that there have been interesting books where she’s been reinterpreted in a very, very different way. Historians lie. The closer they remain to the truth, the more they lie because they cannot interpret with any kind of imagination. And the greatest sin of all: they have no language. And how can you write about someone who was all about language when you, yourself, have no language? There’s a recent book by Brenda Wineapple which is a wonderful study about Emily Dickinson,21 written very beautifully. There have been other studies in the last five years, which move closer to the way I have interpreted Emily Dickinson. And I’m going to try to do the same for Abraham Lincoln.

14Richard Phelan: From her poetry it’s easy enough to imagine the erotic dimension of her life. Was there an element of provocation in imagining the scene where she is in the tavern, for instance, or with the Judge? Were you trying in any way to provoke the reader?

15Jerome Charyn: No, no, no! As far as the tavern is concerned, remember this is sort of a dreamscape, but all the material about Judge Lord you can find in her letters. The letters about Judge Lord are incredibly sexual, so we know that she did have a love affair with him. He had a stroke near the end of his life, so we don’t know if he wanted to marry her, and I don’t think she really wanted to marry him, but they certainly did have a love affair, so there’s no imagination in that. As far as the tavern is concerned, it’s fantasizing what it must have been like for any woman who couldn’t go anywhere alone. If you went anywhere alone, you were a whore. You had to be accompanied. When we talk about Emily Dickinson being a recluse, we forget that when she had her dog, her Newfoundland, Carlo, she explored the entire town for ten years. She wasn’t a recluse then at all, she went everywhere with Carlo. And it’s only after Carlo dies, which is around 1866, that she becomes more and more reclusive, and she refers to Carlo as “my mute confederate.” Thank God he couldn’t talk back to her, I have to say!

16When I was writing the novel I was trying to paint a dreamscape, to imagine how she must have felt, living in her own time with the realization that she was much much brighter, brighter than all the men around her, brighter than anyone else in her hometown, except perhaps for her own sister-in-law, Susan. And what does a woman in the 19th century do when she is so intelligent, in a world that is so provincial? That’s really the imprisonment of her predicament, I think.

17Richard Phelan: One of the images that emerges is that of the tiny Emily flying across the Commons with her dog. We hear about the dog in the letters and in some of the poems, but in the novel they become an infamous couple. How much of that is the imagination? Did you find pleasure in giving such a large role to the dog?

18Jerome Charyn: We have to be a little bit careful here, because if you look at the historians, there are very very few mentions of Carlo. If you look at her letters, there are at least five or six mentions of Carlo. We know historically that Carlo was a dog that was given to her by her father when he was traveling, so that if she was alone, he wanted her to have a dog.  We do know that she had problems with her eyes, so in 1864-65 she made two trips to Cambridge without Carlo, and missed him very much. But it seems to me, if you understand what she says, that we can attest for the fact that she went for long walks ever day with Carlo. By calling Carlo, in one of her letters, her “mute confederate,” we can understand the role he had beside her. Remember she’s tiny, and Carlo is enormous. There’s no photograph of them together, but if you imagine them together, Carlo is probably almost as tall as she was. We don’t know exactly how tall she was, I would say she was probably no taller than five feet one. We have one of her dresses, which gives us an idea of her height.

19Richard Phelan: I had reservations in the beginning about the idea of the novel. Everybody has “their” Emily Dickinson from reading the poems, but what I found extraordinary in the novel was the voice, or the voices, since she has different voices. How did you “get” those voices?

20Jerome Charyn: The voice, of course, came through the reading and constant re-reading of her letters. And the poems, of course, which I had already read, but the letters were essential. Remember, I’m not trying to mimic or simulate; I’m taking thirty, forty essential words or phrases, and I’m trying to use them in a way that will capture her essence without imitating her. I’m not a ventriloquist, I’m not a dummy standing there. She is Emily Dickinson as I see her, through the prism of the 21st century. It’s interesting that you had qualms about writing about her in terms of a novel before reading. Why? Why would the idea of it disturb you?

21Richard Phelan: What I was more concerned about was…

22Jerome Charyn: You almost felt it was a sacrilege, I assume…

23Richard Phelan: Yes, probably!

24Jerome Charyn: Yes. Voilà. You see, this is what I’m left with, it happens with most people. The people who attacked me for doing the very same thing, not one of them had read the letters. Because once you read the letters, you see that there’s a tremendous proximity between… And as a matter of fact, the professor who teaches the course on Emily Dickinson in Mount Holyoke (where she went for one year), said that my book was now his bible. Because it really allows him to understand what it must have been like for her to be at Mount Holyoke. Many people said “How dare you take our precious Emily Dickinson in such a way?” Interestingly enough, very few of the poets could even read the book, they felt it was a violation. Even though (I have to confess that I say this with humility and arrogance at the same time) the poetry in my book is better than any of the poetry they’ve ever written in their books, it didn’t make any difference, they felt threatened by someone writing a novel in her voice. And I find it very strange because if someone had said to me the same thing, I would be fascinated, I would be the first one to want to read it, to see the possibilities…

25Richard Phelan: I was enthralled once I read the book. What was the reception of the novel like? Critical because you transgressed taboos?

26Jerome Charyn: Half the people I expected would react violently indeed hated it, and half the people just as violently loved it. And now, we have our own page on Facebook, it’s enormously successful and we’re getting more and more readers. It’s a page that presents Emily Dickinson in the 21st century. People, of course, don’t have to like the book. It’s perfectly legitimate not to like it, but the arguments they used are completely silly, because it’s a hundred per cent accurate to her life; everything that occurs in the book is accurate. Now, as to her visiting these inns, she probably wouldn’t have, but other than that… In the very first page of the novel she falls in love with Tom, who’s a handyman at Mount Holyoke. Well, if you see Tom as a kind of imagined ghost who will reappear in the rest of her life, and if you see Tom as part of her imagined world, then the landscape of the novel makes sense, but not if you try to read it in strictly realistic terms—how he appears in a circus, he’s a thief in Cambridge, etc, etc. Every man she sees is an image of Tom. And even when she sees the handyman at the end of her life who isn’t Tom, a handyman who dances with a cow, she tries to re-imagine him as Tom too. I see the novel as a dream life…

27Sophie Vallas: About the critical reception, do you have the impression that the attacks were more violent maybe because you chose a woman?

28Jerome Charyn: Well, the attacks were all by women, not by men. Though those who loved it were also women. For example, Brenda Wineapple who’s written the most interesting book on Emily Dickinson absolutely loved the book. She understood what I did. Those scholars who write about Emily Dickinson also understood. It was mainly those people who really hadn’t read the letters who objected. The letters are every bit as brilliant as the poems themselves, in my opinion. They have the same genius. They’re among the greatest letters ever written. She’s playful, she wears a hundred different masks, they are extraordinary. They’re not as experimental as the poems, but they’re as brilliant.

29Student 1: My problem is not about what happens to her in the book, but that the story is told about Emily Dickinson. You take her voice, and this feels strange to me.

30Jerome Charyn: Why?

31Student 1: Because her voice is hers. How could you take it?

32Jerome Charyn: Well, what does any writer do but steal anyone else’s voice? Let’s take the logic of this argument. Whenever I deal with any character, I’m stealing this character’s voice. I’m robbing that person of his or her voice, it’s no different, so it seems a little bit strange to me that you would feel uncomfortable. You might try to feel the exact opposite: how wonderful it is for someone to dare, to try to grapple with what that voice means. I’m not suggesting how you should read the book, you’re entitled to feel any way you want, but I would argue the fact that your claim, from my point of view, is not a legitimate one because every artist, every writer steals a voice in very much the same way. It’s absolutely no different, whether the character is historical or imaginative, you’re stealing their voice. In my own interpretation, when I’m writing this book, I become Emily Dickinson. And I have the right to become her. That would be my answer to your question. Your argument is legitimate, but I would counter it by saying that every art is a kind of theft, a kind of appropriation. I can tell you, it’s not so easy to sustain a voice like that. When I say “I am Emily Dickinson,” it’s a different Emily Dickinson, of course. I’m not a ventriloquist.

Jerome Charyn signing The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson at Book in Bar bookstore, in Aix-en-Provence (September 2010)

(photo Sophie Vallas)

33Student 2: How do you relate to this young scholar who falls madly in love with Emily Dickinson in the book?

34Jerome Charyn: [Laughs]. There was an older scholar who fell in love with her, in fact. There are so many falsifications, you see. People say she was utterly unknown in her lifetime, which isn’t true. She had at least ten poems published, and the whole English department at Amherst college knew about her poems, and one of the professors knocked on her door and wanted to talk to her about her poems and she didn’t want to. I would say that I’m being playful about this scholar who wants to appropriate her life, and you could also want to see him as myself if you wanted. I wouldn’t know how to interpret that. But I think we have a very false image of what her life was like, even though I can’t say what exactly her life was, but she was in her own time and town a very well-known poet. The argument “Did she want her poetry to be published?”—no one can answer that. No one really knows. We do know that she self-published her poems, she put them in booklets. When you do that, you’re publishing your poems. There’s no getting away from that. So she self-published her own poems, and we do know that there wasn’t one single male critic, in her entire life, who had the slightest idea of what her poems were about, of what she was trying to do. And this is one of the predicaments. They said the rhythms were off, the poems were too rough, “spasmodic” was one of the words that they used. Higginson said the poems were “spasmodic.” Isn’t that what contemporary art is all about?

35Richard Phelan: You suggest that the poems were written for her father, and that the fascicles were constituted for him…

36Jerome Charyn: That’s only a theory, my point of view. I think that she had a life-long love-hate affair with her father. She had an older brother, Austin, who was very sensitive when he was young, and who sort of grew out of his sensitivity, but when Austin wrote his college papers, her father compared them to Shakespeare, and didn’t even know that his own daughter was writing those extraordinary poems. I would say that the poems, to some degree, are a kind of dialogue with her father, even though her father is invisible in this dialogue. Again, it’s only my interpretation. I would also assume that she didn’t want to have her poems published, for whatever reason. Did she imagine that they would be published after she died, could she possibly have known that she would become the great American poet, I have no idea. I think, in a strange way, she must have been very confident or she couldn’t have written those poems. They are the art of someone who is absolutely confident in the work she’s doing, and confident in the aloneness of the work she’s doing. She says, “These are my letters to the world,” but letters that are never sent. We do know that some of her correspondence was burnt, but if you go back to the 19th century, most people got rid of correspondence when the person died, so that was not unusual. The most recent scholarship seems to conclude that her maid, Maggie, knew about the poems whereas her sister did not. We don’t know how true this is, but there’s been a very brilliant book published recently about Margaret Maher, the maid of the family, claiming that Emily Dickinson’s poems were influenced by her. I would say that this is nonsense. In part they were influenced, but the argument is “Why were all these servants unknown?” and I would say Margaret Maher is only known because Emily Dickinson became a poet with a worldwide reputation, otherwise her maid would never be known! It works both ways. Her sister discovered her poems, the fascicles, in her drawer about a week after Emily died, didn’t quite know what to do with them, gave them to her sister-in-law, Susan. Susan was ambivalent in some way about the poems, wanted to publish them privately, so Emily’s sister decided not to use Susan—but the finding of the poems was a very complicated matter and I don’t want to go through it now. They were published about fifteen years after Emily Dickinson’s death and they were reprinted almost immediately. Like Melville’s works, they were only discovered as great poems in the 1920s, with the Renaissance of scholarship. In the 1920s, her profile suddenly exploded, we had all those interpretations about her life, and finally in the 21st century she becomes a cultural icon in the United States. We only have one photograph of her, taken when she was sixteen years old, a daguerreotype. She’s really a 21st century figure, she’s more known now than she was in the 20th century.

37Richard Phelan: In the writing of the novel did you discover an Emily Dickinson that you hadn’t known and that emerged from progressive imagining?

38Jerome Charyn: To put it in another way, I discovered my own female self. I wrote in a female voice. But did I discover another Emily Dickinson, I’m not sure. The real shock was reading the poems and the letters. That was the revelation. I can’t say that there was a greater revelation beyond the discovery of her writings. A novel is a novel no matter what the subject is. It has its own finite shape, it has to move forward, it has to have a kind of suspense, and things that have nothing to do with Emily Dickinson. You have to be able to capture the form. A work is always about architecture and form, and how you fit the music into this form. That was the real predicament: how do you scope her life into a novel? The greatest pleasure I had was to reconstruct the poem “Because I could not stop for Death—/ He kindly stopped for me,” how I tried to reconstruct the carriage ride in the last three pages of the novel, when she’s sort of floating her way towards the barn, which is a kind of haven. That is my favorite of all her poems, the poem I kept closest to.

39Richard Phelan: About the construction of the novel, the invention of the character Zilpah Marsh, she works as a kind of double for Emily?

40Jerome Charyn: Yes, Zilpah Marsh is a young woman who goes to Mount Holyoke with Emily, but Zilpah comes from a very poor family, so she doesn’t have a middle-class background, and therefore she suffers her entire life. I see her as a kind of shadow creature. If you look at Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, if you try to see Emily in Zilpah—Zilpah is Emily taken outside of civilization. I could not have written this novel with the same power without this character. To me, Zilpah is the most important character in the book, as important as Emily. Zilpah ends up in an insane asylum, and there’s a very long scene when Emily and her father visit her in this asylum…

41Sophie Vallas: What is the exact function of the “Author’s Note” you use as an introduction to the novel? Of course, you explain the project of the novel, what you wanted to do, and you use this expression “my Emily”…

42Jerome Charyn: You see, I’m trying to answer your questions by putting an author’s note to say that I do this with a great deal of humility, that to me if I was going to write a novel about Emily Dickinson, there was no other way but to write it in her own voice. And I’m doing the same with Lincoln now. Maybe it won’t work… I hope it will! I couldn’t have gotten into the text, because as I said music is the most critical apparatus, and I couldn’t have found the music without getting into her voice. I needed this introduction.

43Sophie Vallas: And also at the beginning of the introduction, you briefly evoke your very first discovery of Emily Dickinson, when you were still extremely young…

44Jerome Charyn: Yes, she was the first poet that I discovered, and she was very, very important to me, as a child. When I discovered the poem “Success is counted sweetest,” I didn’t even know who the author was. It talks about failure and the right and the pride of failure, and also the necessity of failure: to succeed, one does have to fail. I couldn’t have done this novel ten years earlier. I think I wouldn’t have had the equilibrium to have done it when I was much younger. When I finally wrote the novel, I was willing to fail, I was willing to take the risk of it not working out.

45Sophie Vallas: But in a way, this introduction resembles the beginning of the book on Isaac Babel, in which you also explain that you went through a revelation when you discovered him. Babel’s short stories, Emily Dickinson’s poems…

46Jerome Charyn: Yes, it’s practically the same book!

47Sophie Vallas: Exactly.

48Jerome Charyn: Savage Shorthand is a book about Isaac Babel and this is a book about Emily Dickinson, but they are my dialogues with Babel and Emily Dickinson. My talking to them.

49Sophie Vallas: And also, Babel even today is still a very mysterious man, with a mysterious life, a mysterious death too: there was this fiction about Babel being sent to a camp for years, a fiction created by the NKVD that refused to admit they had shot him.

50Jerome Charyn: Yes, it was only in 1954, when the KGB files were opened up, that we discovered that he died in 1940 or 41, he was shot right in the Loubianka. There was no reason in the world to kill him, it was a completely satanic act which doesn’t make any sense.

51Sophie Vallas: But in a way Babel and Emily Dickinson both are— and this is perhaps why so many “specialists” attacked you in both cases—embodiments of ultimate mystery. If you had decided to write a novel about Whitman, for instance, I’m not sure the result would have been the same as far as reception is concerned.

52Jerome Charyn: But I wouldn’t have written a book about Walt Whitman…

53Sophie Vallas: [Laughs] Yes, what I mean is that in both cases you destroyed myths that people like to cling to…

54Jerome Charyn: Yes, but I also think that they’re wrong. Even though a book has to find its own reception, and I’m not going to try and say what the reception of these books will be, I still think those critics were wrong. The book on Babel tells more about Babel through telling about myself than a very very strict biography which tells you nothing. If you want to go out to the very edge, you have to be willing to suffer to be there and to stay at the edge. Many people loved the book and understood it, other people didn’t…

55Sophie Vallas: A lot of criticisms came from the fact that your voice is so mixed with Babel’s voice, or imaginary voice, or reinvented voice, that it becomes disturbing for people. It’s like one voice…

  • 22  Jerome Charyn, War Cries Over Avenue C (New York, Donald I. Fine, 1985).

56Jerome Charyn: It’s only disturbing if they’re not willing to go on that adventure. The adventure is a kind of induced schizophrenia when you don’t know where you are, where you cannot locate yourself, and to me, the greatest of all books approach a kind of madness, they don’t take you into madness, but get as close to it as possible. To derangement. You lose yourself before you find what’s in the book. At least when I read Emily Dickinson for the first time, that’s exactly how I felt. I didn’t know who I was in relation to the poems that I was reading, they were so extraordinary, so unlike anything I had ever read, that I could not locate myself in relation to them. That’s what startled me. When I read, for example, Lolita for the first time, and just the opening, “Lo-lee-ta, three tips of the tongue,” there was something so musical about that book, it’s so close to hallucination and so close to madness… The character of Quilty is the writer, Quilty is Nabokov in some way, the ventriloquist assuming all these voices. The notion of madness, of approaching madness, of getting as close to chaos as you can. In War Cries over Avenue C,22 I think I did that, I couldn’t really go beyond that point and remain sane. That’s as far as I could go, and from that point on, I began to withdraw into more conventional works because I couldn’t go any further. I would have had to lose myself in the text.

57Student 2: I find this idea of losing yourself very interesting. When you read novels, do you try and find the author behind the text?

58Jerome Charyn: No, I never search for the author, I only search for the text. It’s very hard for me to read, because I have to find the music. Writing a book is about the music, it’s about the voice. This is what predominates. The music is all, the music is total, it’s absolute, and in the case of Dickinson it’s two centuries ahead of her own time. It’s even hard to understand some of the slides that she makes with her dash even now, because she’s so far in advance of her own time. And those critics who like to tie her to her own time, don’t really understand the quality of her genius. Her genius is outside of time itself. And if you look at other writers like Melville, Shakespeare, or Dickens, that’s always the same: the music doesn’t bear any witness, even though those writers are writing about their own time; if Melville is writing about the Pequod and compares it to capitalism in the 19th century, he’s still writing about something that is so distant inside his head that even now we cannot interpret novels such as The Confidence Man, we don’t have the equipment, psychologically, to understand the way his mind was working. Maybe some of you will disagree… I find the music in Wallace Stevens, in Yeats, in James Joyce and I particularly find it in William Faulkner. In modern writers it’s very difficult for me to find any music. For example, if you look at early Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March, I do find the music there, but I don’t find the music at all in his later novels. I’m searching for the text, not the persona behind the text.

59Student 2: Was Emily Dickinson an exception then?

60Jerome Charyn: No, she wasn’t an exception because first of all, when you grow up you have a certain chauvinism about males, all the writers are males, so how can a female be a writer, you know, that kind of chauvinistic clichés. So when you discover a writer like Emily Dickinson who’s greater than all the male writers that you know, suddenly your landscape has to change and after a while, you begin to read about her and her persona, but for a very long time, I didn’t know anything about her other than her poems. It’s only later that I began to really get into the discourse about her life and I didn’t find that discourse very interesting. The novel, to me, is about the celebration of her language, whether it’s in the poetry or in the letters. I’m celebrating her language in my own way, and I did the same thing with Isaac Babel, I think.

61Student 2: I find your approach to books as “adventures” very interesting. You seem to be very interested in myths, popular myths, and also in history. It evokes Ken Burns to me.

62Jerome Charyn: Yes, a little bit, and also I should say that the first book I read was Pinocchio, so that in some sense all the books I write are almost a child’s adventures in the world. If you look at some of the adventures Emily goes through in Cambridge—she could be Pinocchio in “The Land of Bad Boys.” It’s pretty much the same thing. It’s myths and history. I find it very difficult to deal with the future, to write science fiction, for example. I cannot find a science fiction text where the language holds me. There are science fiction films, Blade Runner for example, that are great films, but when I read the novel the movie is based on, I didn’t find it interesting at all. Cinema is very important in the writing of most of my books, because they could almost be seen as composed the way scenes are in a film, the cutting, you know, from scene to scene. Both comic books and cinema are very important in these texts. And also they’re texts that explode and that take you in a kind of quicksand where you don’t know where you are, at some point. Maybe that’s one reason why readers have difficulty with some of the books, because no one is holding your hand, you’re there alone. Of course that’s the way I like to read.

63Sophie Vallas: In some of your interviews you’ve often said that because you started reading comic books when you were young, in a way your reading education was based on these images and frames, and then when you started to work on bandes dessinées with different artists you could find again this way of looking at a story. When you mentioned, earlier in this discussion, the way Emily Dickinson uses dashes, which you call ‘slides,’ I was wondering whether you could make a link between this way you have of cuttting your stories and sentences, which is very special, and her writing.

  • 23  “Title Divine - is Mine.”

64Jerome Charyn: I think the dash that she uses, the ellipses when she goes from image to image would be like going from panel to panel in a comic book. Her use of the dash is very violent, very violent. She’s much more violent than any other writer, and also very wicked, very playful and very wicked. There is one line in which she talks about being married, “Born – Bridalled – Shrouded.”23 She can go through an entire life with three words. You have to be absolutely brilliant to have this kind of shorthand, and it’s the same shorthand that Isaac Babel has. To suddenly deal with language as if it was a kind of telegraph, where you just… The verbs, you know, the great writers would take the verbs and use them as adjectives. They would take the verbs and use them in a way other writers can’t, and you can see that in Dickens, and Shakespeare. How could there be such a person as Shakespeare, there are so many theories about whether he learnt Latin or not, whether he went to school or didn’t, we don’t know the first thing about him. All we know is that we have these brilliant texts and there are no equivalents in all of the English language. When Hamlet describes a cloud that looks like a camel’s back and the permutation of things, he’s not only our contemporary, he’s so far ahead of us. I feel the same way about Emily Dickinson, about Nabokov, they just understand language in ways that we don’t, that we aren’t equipped to do, it seems to me.

65Richard Phelan: I have an anecdotal question: you write a lot about her red hair, her father’s hair… It comes back all the time…

66Jerome Charyn: [laughs] I must say I was very attracted to red heads as a child ! Red hair to me was almost magical, somehow. I don’t know why, freckles and red hair. She had a freckled face with red hair. She wasn’t particularly attractive, she had an overbite. Redness in terms of flame, in terms of fire, and emotions, I wouldn’t say passion, I would say emotion, is very important. It gave me a chance to play with the word fire. Fire is very important because as you burn up, you also are renewed. In one sense, one has to die and be reborn in a text, and that’s not so easy to do. You have to go through a kind of death to go to the other side, it seems to me. In the text, I’m only talking about the text.

67Richard Phelan: It’s a very beautiful book. Did you participate in the choices that were made?

68Jerome Charyn: It’s thanks to the editor. The two books I did with them (Johnny One-Eye and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson)… I’ve done a book on Joe DiMaggio which will be out next fall, and we now have a new law in the US where the owner of the copyright also owns the copyright of the image, it doesn’t matter who is taking the photograph. In other words, if you want to publish a photograph of Marilyn Monroe, you have to get the permission of the estate to do it. They own the copyright of the image. In this case, it’s a little bit different: the owners of the images I used are generally Harvard University Press, it was very very hard to get them. The one I like best is the one of her dress. That was really curious: it was really like going through a maze. I think the Emily Dickinson museum took the photograph of her dress, but didn’t own the right to the photograph. Nobody seemed to know who owned the rights to the photograph. They said “We have the rights to the photograph but not to her dress.” Finally we published it. The publisher did a very beautiful book, which is very rare today. I was very lucky that they paid such attention to the paper, the rough paper. Still they wouldn’t do certain things. To me, colored end-papers are very important. The end-papers should be colored. When they’re not, it really bothers me. But in order to have them colored, you have to sell a lot of books! If I was able to sell a hundred thousand copies of a book, I wouldn’t negotiate in terms of money, I would be able to demand a cloth-cover and not a cardboard cover, colored end-papers, and these are things that are difficult to obtain. But I would say that they did as beautiful a book as one could possibly do in 2010 when most books look terrible. You have to fight for everything.

69Richard Phelan: Has it sold very well?

70Jerome Charyn: It sold OK. It hasn’t sold as well as they would have liked to have sold it. It’s coming out in French, Rivages will be publishing it, and it will come out in paperback also.

71Sophie Vallas: One last question about Emily Dickinson: you said you wouldn’t have been able to write the book ten years earlier, and I was wondering… I remember reading an interview dating back to the 1990s, and the question was about women in your work, and although I disagreed about what the journalist was saying, he said something about women characters in your work who were not that numerous and that developed, and you answered that you were writing a book about your mother (The Dark Lady from Belorusse), so maybe it was going to change.

72Jerome Charyn: Yes, perhaps it was after the death of my mother. It’s very difficult to write about your mother as a sexual person, it’s hard to enter your mother’s bedroom, it’s a kind of violation. But somehow, after she died, I could see her in sexual terms, which I hadn’t been able to do during her lifetime. My mother was very very beautiful when she was young. I remember walking down the street with her and people couldn’t take their eyes off her, she had this Russian look, she never smiled, she just had this power. Beauty is a kind of power, it seems to me. So it was only after she died that I was able to write about her.

73Sophie Vallas: You reinvented your mother in The Dark Lady…

74Jerome Charyn: Of course, she becomes a fictional character.

75Sophie Vallas: Yes, but I have the impression that what you did with Emily Dickinson was possible after the incredible reinvention of Fanny…

76Jerome Charyn: Yes, that’s probably true.

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1  Blue Eyes (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1974), Marilyn the Wild (New York, Arbor House, 1976), The Education of Patrick Silver (New York, Arbor House, 1976) and Secret Isaac (New York, Arbor House, 1978) compose the Isaac Quartet. Seven other volumes have been published since.

2  The first volumes of the Isaac series were published in France in 1977.

3  See, for instance, La femme du magicien, with François Boucq (Paris, Casterman, 1981), Bouche du diable, with the same artist (Paris, Casterman, 1990), Les frères Adamov, with Jacques Loustal (Paris, Casterman, 1991) or Panna Maria, with José Muñoz (Paris, Casterman, 1999).

4  Metropolis. New York as Myth, Markeplace and Magical Land (New York, Putnam, 1986), New York. Chronique d’une ville sauvage (Paris, Découvertes Gallimard, 1994).

5  Movieland. Hollywood and the Great American Dream Culture (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989), Gangsters and Gold Diggers. Old New York, the Jazz Age and the Birth of Broadway (New York, Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003).

6  Hemingway. Portrait de l’artiste en guerrier blessé (Paris, Découvertes Gallimard, 1999).

7  Marilyn. The Last Goddess (New York, Abrams [Discoveries], 2008).

8  Raised by Wolves. The Turbulent Art and Times of Quentin Tarentino (New York, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006).

9  See, for instance, some of the texts published in The Man Who Grew Younger and Other Stories (New York, Harper and Row, 1967), as well as Charyn’s autofictional novels, The Catfish Man. A Conjured Life (New York, Arbor House, 1980) and Pinocchio’s Nose (New York, Arbor House, 1983).

10  All volumes published by St Martin’s Press, New York (1997, 2000 and 2002).

11  New York, Random House, 2005.

12  New York, Norton, 2010.

13  The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, “Author’s Note,” 11.

14  David Seed, “An Interview with Jerome Charyn” (Over Here, vol. 15. 1-2, Summer-Winter 1995, 115).

15  Savage Shorthand, 42.

16  The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, “Author’s Note,” 11.

17  Savage Shorthand, 7.

18  David Seed, “An Interview with Jerome Charyn” (Over Here, op. cit., 116).

19  Savage Shorthand, 7.

20  Joe DiMaggio. The Long Vigil (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2011).

21  Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (New York, Alfred Knopf, 2008).

22  Jerome Charyn, War Cries Over Avenue C (New York, Donald I. Fine, 1985).

23  “Title Divine - is Mine.”

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Richard PHELAN et Sophie VALLAS, « Finding the music: An Interview with Jerome Charyn on The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson »E-rea [En ligne], 8.2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2011, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Richard PHELAN

Aix-Marseille Université

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