Television

Why Dickinson Turns a Death-Obsessed Poet Into a Teenage Rebel

The Apple TV+ series’ creator explains why the time is right for a show about a 19th-century poet who twerks and does opiates.

The cast of Dickinson.
Dickinson.
Apple TV+

When the first trailer for the Apple TV+ show Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld, hit the internet this summer, it flew around Twitter trailing What?s and Why?s in its wake. The thing looked like a stunt—Emily Dickinson sticking out her tongue? Victorian teenagers dancing to hip-hop? And (we found out later) Wiz Khalifa in the role of “Death”? But the show, whose 10 episodes will all be available on Apple TV+ on Friday, turns out to be a delight—weirdly beautiful, bitingly funny, but also heartfelt, as if we’re seeing Emily’s straight-laced family and the very New England town of Amherst, Massachusetts, through the loving eyes of this teenage visionary.

I spoke with Alena Smith, the show’s creator, about the research that went into Dickinson, the value of surrealism in historical fiction, and her love for bizarre and useful Victorian details. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: I want to say first of all, even though I love history, I don’t give a crap about historical accuracy when watching a show like this! I care more about the way that the feeling of history gets remade and adapted. So I’m wondering how you found things out about Emily’s life, and how you took those things and made them into what you made.

Alena Smith: I feel like I could talk about this for hours. Most people respond to this show and are like, “OK, so you love Emily Dickinson and you love her poems, and this is a biopic of her.” Yes, of course, it is all about her, but it is also very much an examination of our kinship to this time in American history.

The show’s whole project is to make us lose track of what is present and what is past. My goal is that you binge 10 episodes of this thing, and you blink your eyes and look around and say, “Am I still in the 1850s?” And if you’re a woman or a person of color or a gender nonconforming person, that would be a very terrifying experience. Right? It’s about finding those ways in which the 19th century and everything that was going on, in terms of politics, in terms of literature, is still infusing our world.

The most fun parts of the show are the parts that are based in actual history. There’s a storyline later in the season where [Emily’s brother] Austin digs up a dead baby to make room for a grave for [his wife, Emily’s friend, and, in the show, her lover] Sue to be buried next to him. And that really happened. I was just poring through these biographies finding facts that jumped out to me as hilarious or weird, and then I’d make them into stories. And of course I also was using the poems for inspiration as well.

I always think of Emily’s life as a very internal life in some ways, and a New England village inherently seems like a very hermetic place. But it sounds like you’re trying to do in some ways what historians of New England also try to do, which is to say, Yeah, sure, New England was about village life, but they were still part of a greater world.

The way Dickinson gets received in the world is that people don’t think that she wrote about the Civil War. … They think Walt Whitman wrote about the Civil War, and he was out there being like a nurse in a Civil War hospital tending to the wounded. They say Emily didn’t write about it. But I would say, how could a sensitive gifted artist whose brain was literally on fire during these years … she’s writing hundreds of poems. How can that be distinct from her political and cultural context?

But again, I’m not ultimately going for a literal depiction of what Emily Dickinson’s relationship to the war was. I’m using her as an avatar for us in our crazy world, and what would it mean to be a young female queer artist coming of age in a privileged family, without a lot of freedom to explore the world, but everything that’s going on in the world is reaching you anyway, because you have a powerful consciousness that goes beyond your circumstances.

Even more powerful when enhanced by opium, like in the party scene in that third episode!

Ha! I do not have evidence that Emily Dickinson ever did that, but you know, every woman at that time took opium like all the time, as medicine.

Right! Laudanum in patent medicines, and so on.

Right.

One major thing that has jumped out at me is your Emily is very joyful and vivacious. I don’t think of Emily Dickinson as being the one who would prod her siblings to have a party at her house when their parents are gone, but I kind of like it! I wonder how you came up with that.  

I think she kind of was more like that when she was younger! There’s an anecdote in the biography about how George Gould, who was perhaps her suitor, a friend of Austin’s from the college, wrote on the back of a piece of paper “Come to a candy pull”—and she saved that piece of paper for decades and then wrote a poem on the back of it, which is why we know about it.

Actually, originally in that party episode, I had a candy-pulling scene that was supposed to look like a music video, everybody pulling this brightly colored taffy candy. We had to cut it because of budget. So, even when you’re with Apple, you can’t get everything you want! The candy pull remains in the ideas folder.

Tell me about your research process. Did you hire anyone or consult with anyone to do the research, or was it just you doing it?

It was mostly just me, and then along the way there have been different people who have helped. So I have a family friendship with Alexandra Socarides, who is a leading Dickinson scholar, and Alex was one of the first people I called when I had this idea. Alex pointed me in the direction of a lot of the first research that I did. Then we hired a historical consultant for the show, Alice Fahs, of UC–Irvine, who’s not a Dickinson specialist, but she knows about the time period. Then, hilariously, I got some historical consultancy from this guy Matt Karp, a historian at Princeton who I literally met through Chapo Trap House. They did an episode about the Civil War, with him as a guest, and then I reached out to Matt and was like, “I need your help.” And so Matt has helped me a lot in understanding, like, what was up with the Whigs in the 1850s, and stuff like that.

How did you choose which poems to explore in which episodes? You have her writing poems in the course of each episode. Did she write those poems at that period of her life?

No, not per se. Each episode is titled the title of a poem and the episode explores something tangentially related to that poem. I think it is true that in the first three episodes, we do see her writing the poem, but that doesn’t always turn out to be the case in every episode. Like, we have John Mulaney playing Thoreau, and that episode is called “Alone.” Emily just wants to be alone, and she goes to find Thoreau because he represents the ideal of living in solitude, you know? She finds out it’s not true, because he’s a phony and his mom does his laundry! But that title isn’t the title of a poem, so it’s not a one-to-one relationship throughout the series.

I have a lot in store because, I mean, Emily wrote so many poems, and she was a master of the first line. She wrote those first lines as, like, hooks. I feel like we barely scratched the surface. We didn’t even get to “I dwell in Possibility— ” as an episode, you know? We don’t have “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—”. Maybe in future seasons.

What are the historically informed bits of entertainment that you think work well, that you drew from when trying to approach this project?

One example would be the movie about John Keats and Fanny Brawne by Jane Campion, Bright Star. It’s so beautiful, and the use of color is so striking; it’s just very vivid and playful, and that was something really important to me, because we see “period” in our minds in, like sepia or black and white, but it was lived in color, you know? Then there’s this movie about Edvard Munch that plays as if it’s a documentary, by Peter Watkins. It plays as if it’s completely truthful to the period. But of course it couldn’t be, because you couldn’t make a documentary about him then, because there was no film!

So the show is an exercise in surrealism, right? Surrealism depends on execution, because I never want it to become farce … it’s not supposed to be broad. It’s not supposed to be taking you out of the emotional experience that the characters are having, but because she’s a poet and because her internal life so exceeds the bounds of her external life, it is surrealism because we’re with Emily—the audience gets to see the world through Emily’s eyes.

Surrealism works so well with some of these little historical details—like when the cad character opens up his wallet, and there are the six locks of hair, tied with tiny ribbons, that he got from his romantic conquests, that he shows to his buddies.

Yeah, that is something where, you look back at it and you’re like, “Man, that Victorian thing that they did is creepy,” but it also makes me wonder if funny things like that would have happened with it at the time. Ha! It was so much fun for our props people to make that wallet.

There’s so much creepy stuff with hair in the Victorian period. For example, you know the part of the party scene where Lavinia [Emily’s sister] ties her hair around her crush’s neck? Lavinia got caught in the parlor with her hair tied around her suitor’s neck like that, for real! It was a Victorian courting ritual. They have this really long hair, and they would take it down from the pins and then tie it around the boy’s neck, and it’s just like, “Oh my God, shocking.” It’s really that weirdness of other worlds.

This may be a creepy thing to say, but I’m really interested in the fact young people experienced the death of their friends and relatives so much more frequently in the past, and I always wonder how that might have affected everyone’s day-to-day psychology. So it very much struck me how people on the show responded to the fact that Sue’s entire family died. The queen-bee mean girl is mad at Sue, whose sister has just died, for landing Austin, so she says, “She has no family. How could he marry her?” And then her lackey, who’s starting to question her servitude to this girl, goes, “Well, that’s not her fault!” I laughed out loud!

Absolutely. You know, one of the reasons why the Dickinsons were privileged is that none of them died, but it was actually very rare. Edward, her father, was a complete hypochondriac about Emily’s health, and he would keep her home from school, saying, “She’s sick,” on days when she probably wasn’t sick. At the same time, he was right to be afraid, because everyone died! There was one year of her life when Emily Dickinson lost 35 friends. That’s that presence of death and dying in the American landscape of the time, and that’s why the show has this kind of Gothic tone.

What’s your favorite Emily Dickinson biography, if you were going to recommend one to people?

Well the one that definitely has the most relevance for this season of Dickinson’s life is the Alfred Habegger biography, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books. That’s the one I read when I was in my early 20s, and it’s the one that I’ve gone back to over and over and over again. I think a lot of the biographies that get the most attention are the ones that focus on the whole story of a person’s life, but this has the texture of her years in school, her growing up with her family, and all the parts of her life that go into this season of the show.