Author, blogger, and amateur gardener extraordinaire Shannon Yarbrough has written about OCD baristas (Stealing Wishes), dysfunctional families (Are You Sitting Down?) and the difficulites of coming out in a small town (The Other Side of What), and for his fourth novel, Yarbrough has taken on the audacious task of mashing up Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Emily Dickinson in Dickinstein: Emily Dickinson, Mad Scientist. Yarbrough put down his trowel and his laptop long enough to answer some questions for Out in Print regarding Dickinstein as well as some other subjects.
Out in Print: How did the idea of mashing up “Frankenstein” and Emily Dickinson come about?
Shannon Yarbrough: It happened last year on opening day for the movie of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I was driving to work and some local radio station was talking about it. I had read and enjoyed the book the year before and was anxious to see the film. I started wondering what inspired the author Seth Grahame-Smith to write it, so when I got to work I did what anyone would do. I Googled it! Like any writer, this led me to thinking about what kind of mash-up I’d do if I dabbled in this genre. I immediately thought of Frankenstein. Vampires and werewolves have gotten plenty of attention in book, films, and pop culture, so I had to be different. But Frankenstein usually gets thrown into the zombie genre that’s all the rage these days since he was “undead.” I couldn’t get the classic Boris Karloff Hollywood image out of my head though and I wanted to pay homage to him. Given the themes of mortality in Frankenstein, I got to contemplating Emily Dickinson’s poetry which has similar themes, and slowly the two blended together in my head. I knew it was a stretch but once I started my research and began to form a plot in my head, it just worked!
OiP: What kind of research did you do and how much?
SY: My research was quite extensive actually. I did a lot of it before writing a single word, and continued my research during my writing. Though the book is fiction, I wanted it to feel real to the reader, as if it could have actually happened, and since Emily was my main character, I wanted her to be as real as possible. All of the background information I wrote on Emily and any secondary characters she interacts with is based on real history and real people. I had actually never read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so I had to start there obviously. I was amazed at how different it was from what I thought I knew just based on pop culture or Hollywood. I’d read all of Emily’s poems before, but I read them again. Her poems introduce each chapter and there are pieces of poems throughout the story. I also picked up some other older volumes of her poems that contained historical information and letters. Next, I had to research quite a bit about her life, family, and home. Since I wasn’t able to visit, I purchased a spectacular coffee table book filled with pictures of her home and gardens which was quite helpful.
OiP: Was it tempting to write this first person and actually put yourself in her head? Or is there a reason you shied away from that?
SY: I admit I write better in first person at times. It certainly would have been exciting to be in Emily’s head, but I didn’t want to restrict myself there. I think the book would have certainly had a different tone. I needed that third person narrator who knew all mostly because of Emily’s relationship with others in the book: her best friend, her sister, brother, the maid, her biology teacher, her mother and father, etc. Their influence on Emily and on the storyline was just as important, so I had to make them multidimensional, instead of the reader only seeing them through Emily’s eyes.
OiP: This is such a different book than Stealing Wishes or Are You Sitting Down? Did it call for a different process in the writing?
SY: Yes indeed! Most of that involved the research. Anything from electricity in the 1800’s, to the school Emily attended, dialogue or even clothing all had to be researched to make my story feel accurate and historical. I’d always drawn from my own life and personal experience when writing my previous books.
OiP: What was the most difficult part about writing this book? The most enjoyable?
SY: The most difficult part was the dreaded middle, where most writers get stuck. When I sat down to start writing it, the story came pouring out. But I got to a certain point where I started losing steam. I knew how I wanted the book to end. I just didn’t know how to get there. So, I actually skipped ahead and wrote the ending which was definitely the most enjoyable. After I’d finished it and had my ending, I backed up and had a better understanding how to tie it all together.
OiP: I’m always interested in how writers write. Do you do extensive first drafts with little revision, or do you write quickly and revise later? Paper and pencil or computer? Morning, afternoon or anytime?
SY: Stealing Wishes and Are You Sitting Down? were both written in sequential order, meaning I started right at the beginning and I wrote straight through to the end. As I already stated, that didn’t happen with Dickinstein though I did attempt it. I typically like to write one or two chapters a day, always on the computer. I step away, and then go back and reread them the next day before I start writing again. I fix any obvious errors, add or delete, and then start writing the next chapter. Once I’m done with the first draft, I print it out on paper. I let it sit for one week and then I pick it up and reread it with a red ink pen and a yellow highlighter in hand. I mark it up, fix things, make notes in the margin, and then I use it to construct the second draft. Once I’m done, I print again and repeat. After my third draft, I send it off to my editor. I’m typically a morning person when it comes to creativity. Through the week, I have an hour in the morning once my partner leaves for work and before I have to get ready for the day. I call it my magic hour because I’ve always been able to get so much writing done during that time. But with Dickinstein I actually wrote quite a bit at night too. After my partner went to bed, I’d spend an hour or two researching, reading, or writing and then pick up where I left off again in the morning. I wrote the first draft of Dickinstein in just eight weeks, averaging about 10,000 words a week!
OiP: Would you do another mashup?
SY: Definitely! And it’s already been churning in my head for months. I’ve even been doing some light research. I don’t want to give it away but I will say it involves our beloved Truman Capote!
OiP: What’s the next project?
SY: If the Truman mash-up doesn’t come into fruition, I have a historical novel that I’ve been writing off and on for almost eight years. It takes place during present day and the Civil War. It’s a ghost story centered around a retired famous piano player and her page turner. I’ve completely started over from the beginning numerous times and only recently I changed the lead character from male to female. If I never write another book after it, I am determined to at least finish this one some day!
OiP: What would you like people to take away from Dickinstein?
SY: If anything, I hope that readers will develop a newfound respect or at least an interest in Emily Dickinson. I took great care in keeping true to Emily and her life. I’ve admired her ever since I was in college, so writing her in a somewhat historically accurate manner was very important to me. My tagline for the book is, “What was Emily really doing all that time up in her room?” I’ve always had an interest in conspiracy theories or alternative history, so it was fun to create this unconventional world for Emily in order to answer that question, and in turn I challenged myself as a writer. I’ve never wanted to plug myself into one genre or subject. That’s why all of my books are so different. Writing Dickinstein has definitely been my biggest challenge as a writer, so I just hope readers are inspired and enlightened by it.
© 2013 Jerry L. Wheeler