I’ve been reading a novel of the life of Emily Dickinson by Patricia Sierra, who’s a lively member of The Indie Spot forum, always good for a giggle. I was reading with the Cerf Hypothesis in the back of my mind, to see if you can project an observed personality, and the social presumptions consequent on it, onto an unread book-length narrative, spot a good writer before you read her.
Sierra puts you in Emily’s world tres immédiatement (it sounds faster in stage French!). There’s no buggering around, no establishment, no setup. Emily is just there, fully realized, and you, the god’s eye viewer, full perving privileges, are inside her family with her, gliding effortlessly between the child and the adult, not even realizing until I was already writing this that the whole thing is a deathbed flashback. That’s a special skill not to lose track of time, in this Sierra/Dickinson case decades of it on the turn of a few sentences. It is not for nothing that John Braine, the only better advisor a young writer can have than me (unfortunately, he’s dead), advised aspirants not to attempt a time span longer than one year in their early novels. The hell with being rude about a lady’s age: Sierra either was a child genius of literature or she wasn’t hatched yesterday. Sierra gives a masterclass in grabbing the reader and waltzing him back and forth across the divides of time: I have this image of a gliding dancing-mistress of time called Eliding Ellipsis. Look it up. With a Merce Cunningham headkerchief to hold her hair from flying into her eyes. Freeze the image there.
I’ve known pimps on the dock at Alexandria who took a less firm grip on the sailor.
A writer as smoothly insidious as Sierra doesn’t gather dust on the shelf, something I suspected already from reading her on the forum; Sierra stands out among the indies. So I looked up Sierra. And right enough, there she is at the House that Bennett found, Random. How apt! Bennett Cerf, for those too young to remember, was the publisher and owner of a school for writers who was embarrassed when the pinkocommiefellowtraveller Unity Mitford betrayed his confidence that “We all know who can be a writer,” in one of the most notorious backstabbing articles in modern cultural history.
You only have to watch Sierra in action on a semi-social board, and you know who can be a writer. Maybe Cerf was right after all.
I’m no Dickinson expert but I have no difficulty believing that Sierra’s facts of the poet’s life are beyond reproach; Sierra was a research assistant to Richard Sewall when he was writing his definitive biography of Emily Dickinson. Sierra’s novel of Emily Dickinson’s life is a fine by-product of that collaboration.
Emily Dickinson: Beyond the Myth, a Novel by Patricia Sierra is a must-have book if you’re fascinated by Dickinson’s fine poems.