Next month Little, Brown will add to the body of fiction based on the life of Emily Dickinson when it publishes the debut novel, Afternoons with Emily. But this book differs from predecessors such as The Diary of Emily Dickinson by Jamie Fuller (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996) and I Never Came to You in White by Judith Farr (Houghton Mifflin, 1997) in one significant way—its author passed away 10 years ago.
Amateur Emily Dickinson scholar Rose MacMurray lived a quiet existence as a wife, mother and elementary school poetry teacher in Virginia until her death at the age of 76. Toward the end of her life, she started writing a novel about the famous poet, never intending to publish it. "It was the act of creation that gave her pleasure," said her daughter, Adelaide MacMurray Aitken.
But Aitken, a financial planner who knew nothing about publishing before her mother died, thought the book deserved an audience. Working with a family friend who had publishing connections, Aitken hooked up with agent Donald Maass, who eventually sold the book to Little, Brown editor Helen Atsma.
Of course, posthumous books are fairly common; last year alone two from Knopf generated wide interest: Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française and Wendy Wasserstein’s Elements of Style. But Némirovsky and Wasserstein had proven themselves to be talented writers before they died.
To market MacMurray’s book, the house will depend on two things: the large group of amateur Dickinson scholars who have already expressed interest in the book and Aitken, who will attend events at the Dickinson Estate and the University of Virginia Library, as well as bookstores in New England, where she lives.
Atsma pointed to the success of another posthumous debut novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, which was published in 1980, 11 years after its author John Kennedy Toole committed suicide. That book, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, was published in part due to the efforts of Toole’s mother.