Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Interrogation Room #20: KATHRYN BURAK, author of Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things

Today we're interrogating debut author Kathryn Burak!

Kathryn teaches at Boston University. She has also published stories, poems, and textbooks. EMILY'S DRESS AND OTHER MISSING THINGS  is her first novel.

Since her novel is hot off the press -- just released by Roaring Brook/Macmillan yesterday -- we thought we'd haul her in and find out all about EMILY'S DRESS AND OTHER MISSING THINGS, and find out, well, about other things too. Like her writing process, and her "Replenishing the Shelves" project.

And we hope we'll learn a thing or two about her partner in crime -- a poet who may be guilty of overusing certain punctuation marks -- and who remains a bit . . . elusive . . .  
Recognize this mug shot?
Claire has been through so much that she’s pared her life down to one goal–to get out of high school (finally)–until the night she wanders into Emily Dickinson’s house and finds everything suddenly changing. Claire, new to Amherst and desperate to get out of high school, vows she’ll try to be invisible. She retreats deep into thee poetry of Emily Dickinson to help her understand her mother’s suicide and best friend’s disappearance, until one night, when she finds herself running through the woods in the poet’s dress. The next morning she starts a different life, one with totally new complications.

Here's Diana Renn's interview with Kathryn Burak!

DR: I love how this novel revolves around not one but TWO mysteries (or crimes): a stolen dress and an unresolved missing person case from the past. It’s not a classically plotted “whodunit” or “where is it.” Yet I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a mystery. When did you realize you had a mystery on your hands, albeit an unconventional one? 

KB: I love mysteries—especially real-life mysteries--and I’m so flattered that someone would think of me as a writer of mysteries.  I’m a sucker for those TV shows like 48 Hours, that run through the clues to a crime.  And like a lot of people, I have always been intrigued Emily Dickinson. There was only one photo taken of her before she became a recluse;  she avoided people.  What was that all about?  Why did she shy away from society?  She’s become almost a cult figure.  And one day I heard a story on NPR about a Welsh, alt rock musician who disappeared without a trace from London in 1995.  There’s something irresistible about missing person stories, especially this one, about a guy who carved things into his own flesh.  In fact, the boy who is missing in my book is named Richy after this missing musician, Richey Edwards. Like Dickinson, Edwards has a kind of cult following, too.  So, I knew I wanted to have a disappearance in the story, but I wasn’t sure how it would feature into the story until I was asked to cut a 20,000-word subplot from the first draft.  Then the crime elements rose to the surface of the plot to carry the book.

DR: In addition to the mystery plot, there are so many fascinating components to this novel, including poetry and creative writing, Emily Dickinson, a father/daughter relationship, romance, friendship, and healing from a dual loss. Can you identify the earliest idea(s) you had for this novel, or a starting point for you?
KB: I knew the story I wanted to write was about survival and hope.  And, I knew I wanted a female character who could be loved because of her strength, talent, and humor, but who had also lost someone very important to her.  And then, one day I took my son to a poetry reading by Robert Pinsky.  He was reading his translation of Dante’s Inferno to an audience of high-school teachers.  There were some young teachers in the audience, and one was a nice-looking guy who made me wonder how female students could possibly concentrate if he read them poetry. One of the lines Pinsky read was something like ‘then my hunger had power over my grief.’  And that was it—the idea that the main character in my book would feel her urge to live life--her hunger to write and love and live--was more powerful than her grief. And how could I resist that the story involve a handsome student teacher who loves poetry?

Emily's sleeve
DR: Claire feels a special connection with Emily Dickinson, and she sees the world through a poet’s eyes. I love that we see some of her own poetry, as well as Emily’s, interspersed in the narrative. Her language is beautiful. What is your background with Emily Dickinson and with poetry? Are you also a poet? 
KB: When I was in college I fell in love with poetry.  But this was influenced by my mom, who used to say, “I’m nobody.  Are you nobody too?” when I was little.  I think she gave me my first taste of the power of poetry, how it can really speak directly to a person with just a few, beautiful words. So I went to graduate school to get an MFA in poetry.  But after I graduated, I found myself gravitating to stories.  Still, I read lots of poetry because I admire the form so much. 

DR: Having lived in Amherst myself, and experienced the eerie enchantment of Emily Dickinson in that town, I loved the setting of this story. Did you live there or travel there for research?  
KB: I went to graduate school in Amherst, and I would end my morning runs at Emily Dickinson’s grave—just, you know, stop by to say good morning.  When I was getting ready to graduate and move to North Carolina for my first job, someone wrote a mystery called something like “Emily Dickinson is Dead.”  And I was so jealous.  I thought, ‘someday I’m going to write a mysterious story set in Emily’s town.” Now I get to visit because my daughter is in college in the area. The atmosphere is so charged with excitement from all the students, it’s hard not to imagine lots of great stories happening there.

Emily's Swag Pack #1! Giveaway details below...
DR: Tell us about the Replenishing the Shelves Project and how people can help.
KB: When I visited the Dickinson museum in Amherst, Emily Dickinson’s house, I found out that all of the books owned by the family had been gifted to Harvard and Brown Universities, so the shelves of the libraries are bare.  The museum started a project to buy the original editions to fill the shelves back up.  Since a lot of my book takes place at the museum, I found myself wanting to give something back.  I said to the director, Jane Wald, “Will you allow me to use my book to help buy Emily’s books?”  She thought it was a great idea, and we are teaming up.  I have a couple of projects over at my website (Emily’s Missing Books) and you can find out more about how you might contribute directly at

DR: The concept of time in this novel is complex, and you handle it so well. Past tragedies and mysteries encroach on the present. Claire’s memories are easily triggered by a line of verse, or an image with symbolic weight. Yet we don’t get bogged down in the past; it’s deftly woven into the narrative. You also move us forward in time very effectively, writing a page-turning mystery that unfolds over the course of an entire school year – an unusual breadth of time in a mystery, and even in a YA novel, I might argue. How did you handle these various time frames when you wrote? Did you outline events or did the writing happen more organically? 
KB: When I knew I was going to have a student teacher involved with a student—although she is only 2 years younger than he is, I also knew I would have to deal with how the relationship is  still a little unexpected, just a tad taboo. A relationship like this was going to take time to develop, time to work out and make convincing, especially since I wanted the reader to root for them, to understand they are good together.  I decided it would take at least 9 months to earn that kind of connection, so I had to pace the story.  I didn’t outline, but I knew it would take a whole school year for the story to happen.  The tension of their pairing—will they meet again?—was what I wanted to focus on.

Emily's Swag Pack #2 (Giveaway details below...)
DR: I see you’ve been previously published in literary magazines, and your writing feels quite literary for me. It’s wonderful to see literary fiction for young adults. Did you always plan to write a novel for teens? How conscious were you of audience as you wrote this book? 
KB: I have published in literary magazines, but my stories always involved children, teens, or young adults.  I love reading literary fiction for young adults because it feels so hopeful and full of possibility.  I published a story years ago about a 10-year-old Japanese girl whose mother dies of breast cancer and she has to figure out how to get to know her very distant father.  After that story came out, a publisher approached me and asked me if I’d like to write a novel for young adults.  This was a little before Harry Potter came around and made YA and Middle Grade novels so high-profile. I said, what is a YA novel?  Honestly, I get confused when people make fun of adults reading YA novels.  I think good writing is good writing and it doesn’t need any label.  At the same time, I consciously wanted to speak to teens about hope and self-worth.

DR: What writing secret will you reveal only under the harsh light of this interrogation room?
KB: Sometimes you have to let your characters do what they feel like doing—you have to listen to them.  They’ll really surprise you when you do that—let them tell you what they want to do rather than you always planning what they are going to do.  Put them in a scene and let them run the show.  I can’t tell you how surprised I was the day my main character, Claire, ended up in a cemetery wearing Emily Dickinson’s dress.  I was like, what just happened?  But you know what had just happened?  I found my story’s fulcrum--because I let Claire have a say.

Thanks, Kathryn!

I can't find Emily Dickinson's dress, but here's where to find Kathryn Burak online:
Her website
The Class of 2K12
Twitter: @DressWriter

GIVEAWAY! Would you like to WIN a signed, finished copy of EMILY'S DRESS (first prize!) or some cool Emily Dickinson swag? Click on the Rafflecopter thingie below to enter! Winners of the three prizes (book, swag pack #1, and swag pack #2) will be announced here next week.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. I hadn't heard of this book before but am psyched now to read it! And I adore your bookmarks. How clever :)

  2. I'm fascinated by the sound of this book! Really looking forward to reading it.

  3. I was fortunate enough to read Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things in its ARC form and fell in love with it! I'm so excited that the release date is finally here!

  4. I can't wait to read this book! I should be getting it in the mail soon :)

  5. I've actually never read Emily Dickinson, shame on me, I know! I've always been a huge Robert Frost fan, love reading his stuff! I'm definitely inspired to pick up some of Emily Dickinson's work now, though :0)

  6. Great interview! I love learning how little pieces of the story come together.


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