Tuesday, September 6, 2011

To Emily Dickinson, With Regrets

Writing biography, including the pen-and-trowel variety I prefer, requires transference.  This is a literary schizophrenia in which the author inhabits the mind of the subject, walks in her shoes, digs in her garden.  The difficulty arises when the subject changes.

For 12 years it has been Emily Dickinson, not exclusively, but steadily.  Articles, interviews, lectures, a book, an exhibit -- all on Amherst's talented and quirky Belle.  But step aside, Miss Dickinson, Beatrix Potter has arrived.

Changing subjects is exhilarating but painful, like leaving a relationship for a new lover.  In my world, the change is first manifested physically. Dickinson books relocated to the guest room, making room for Potter in the office.  Great files of Dickinsoniana migrated to the attic, now nestled between Christmas decoration and other jetsam.  Emily Dickinson was even demoted on the computer, now a subfolder in "Writing."

This is not without guilt.  So here is an apology to Emily.

I am not abandoning you entirely, Miss Dickinson, but Miss Potter has such charms.  She shares your eccentricity and love of language.  You inhabit the same world of talented children-who-have-never-grown-up.  In one of those games of "if you could have dinner with any two people in history" I would choose you both.  Your fathers both practiced law; you had similar upbringing and education; you both loved Shakespeare and dogs, were opinionated and in later life displayed a certain eccentricity in your manner of dress.  You would enjoy one another's company if we could find that wrinkle in time.

Meanwhile, Miss Dickinson, I must sit at my New Jersey desk and return to the South Kensington of 1860s and '70s, Potter's London home.  Perhaps my penance is that compared to Amherst, Massachusetts, it is a tougher commute to Beatrix Potter's gardens.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Truth About Me and Beatrix Potter

Time for rejoicing!  My agent-niece, a literary rep of brilliance and renown, has closed a deal with Timber Press for my book about Beatrix Potter's gardening pursuits.  To read more about this see:  Bent on Books: When Even Nepotism Isn't Enough.

Time for true confessions.  Childhood memories can be a fraud.  I always remembered Peter Rabbit fondly. As I started researching Beatrix Potter, it was with that cozy feeling that I had learned to read partly with the help of this bunny-behaving-badly.  Enter my sister Kay, five years older and equally wiser who broke the news, "We had some book called "Little Peter Cottontail."  Warm, fuzzy bubble burst.  My introduction to Peter Rabbit was a knockoff.

There's an "Importance of Copyright" lesson here, as Potter's publishers failed to register the Peter Rabbit copyright in America, resulting in a spate of piracies including this by Thornton W. Burgess.  But there is also some sort of lesson in following your interests wherever they come from, whether authentic or contrived.  All writing is falling down a rabbit hole, and even if the rabbit hole was dug by a slightly different bunny.

Beatrix Potter for Adults

In April I spoke at the Los Angeles Arboretum in the appropriately named Arcadia, CA.  Whoever created the publicity on their website christened my talk "Beatrix Potter for Adults."  Here's a link, for as long as it stays active:

The title is hilarious, as Beatrix Potter was far from X-rated.  And of course, the Arboretum was differentiating this program from the next day's family-oriented activities.

The memory of my first visit to Hill Top Farm, her first garden, is golden.  It was a sunny afternoon when, with a new husband and two aged parents, I walked up the flagstone path.  (We had spent a week in Scotland with non-stop rain.)  The cottage borders embrace the path, creating a long axis to the farmhouse.   Beatrix Potter’s garden interests have a long axis as well, through her life story and through the legacy of British gardening.

Miss Potter, I salute you.