Dickinson, with its heady mix of period trappings, trippy fantasy, and distinctively contemporary dialogue, is unlike anything else on television. And largely, that's thanks to its creator, Alena Smith.
Smith got her start as a playwright, spending years in the New York theater world before moving to L.A. to try her hand at TV. Then, it would take six years of brainstorming, researching, and writing—as well as some experience as a writer on The Affair and The Newsroom—to hone Dickinson's singular tone.
Her journey was well worth the time. The show became something of a surprise hit for Apple TV+ after its first season debuted in 2019, delighting English nerds and former angsty teens with its its deep-cut historical references and gleeful anachronisms. Now, with a second season of Dickinson airing, and a third on the way, Smith has an overall deal with Apple to develop more TV projects.
Below, the showrunner discusses the pitfalls of fame, using the past to talk about the present, and what it was like to find herself writing about a famous recluse during quarantine.
How do you choose which historical guest stars to feature in the show?
I think that with each of the guests, the celebrity historical cameos that we've had, they each intersect with Emily's journey in some important way. So there's some kind of question that Emily is wrestling with that these figures can contribute to giving her a new perspective on.
In season two, when Emily is really concerned about the issue of fame and being seen and what it means for an artist to seek publicity for her work, she has an encounter, for example, with Frederick Law Olmsted, who's played by Timothy Simons. Frederick Law Olmsted was basically the father of landscape architecture. He designed Central Park and Niagara Falls and Yosemite and many important places in America. But we take him in our show as a kind of Zen master, almost more in the line of a 1960s land artist, as if his work was to make sculptures with the land. And he's teaching Emily that in order to make art that lasts for centuries, you need to tune the audience out, and that you need to be kind of lost in your own sense of being in the moment with the work that you're creating.
Is that something that you've wrestled with, the idea of becoming famous or at least notable for your writing?
It's more something that I think that every human on earth is struggling with right now, because we all have this capacity that's never been so widespread before to truly broadcast all the details of our lives. We all are asking ourselves, 'What is meant for public consumption and what is better to be kept private? What is the value of amassing followers? And then, are there times when it's actually more powerful to be invisible?'
These are some of the reasons why I think Emily Dickinson is such a relevant figure for this moment, because she is somebody who basically lived one of the most intense private lives that you can imagine. And I think that right now, as a society, we kind of need to reclaim the idea of privacy. We've given so much of it away without even really thinking about it.
After the pandemic, I feel like things of self-isolation is so much something that's on our minds is that going to affect how you approach writing this going forward?
Yeah. I mean, I certainly didn't know that when I started writing a show about Emily Dickinson that we'd be living through a situation that trapped everybody in their own houses. It's just one of the reasons why she's such an iconic figure for this moment and these times. But we were writing season three over the summer and fall in the pandemic, and I would say that that experience certainly came to bear on the writing of season three.
So much of what happens in the show is working on two levels: this is happening in the 1800s, but it's also happening now. I was wondering what effect that has or what the show can do?
The thing that is really important to remember about Dickinson is that we are using period as a sort of stylized way of looking at the present. In some sense you could do that with any historical figure, but I guess the reason why it's cool to do it with Emily Dickinson is that, first of all, she wasn't very well understood in her own time. She was definitely somebody whose consciousness exceeded her own time. Also, she was somebody who was breaking the rules in her own work and really challenging formal structures.
All of which is to say that I'm just as present with these characters and what they're going through as I would be if I was writing a show set in 2020. And I'm looking for moments and experiences that blur the line between the present and the past. But ultimately, I'm trying to talk about now. I'm trying to say that our world today is constrictive in ways that might remind us of a Victorian corset. This isn't a show about what it was like to be alive in the past.
I read that a big part of what the series is addressing is a central question of why Emily never pursued to publish her poems. Is that something that's going to continue to evolve throughout the show?
Ultimately, it's an unanswerable question. There are ways of addressing it from an academic perspective that would say Emily did in fact publish, but she published only for a very private, selective group of people. Like she said, 'The soul selects its own society,' right? So, Emily's dance between hiding and being seen is, again, what this season is all about. I think that in season one, we got one answer to this question of why didn't Emily publish, which was basically, well, her father didn't approve of it, and so she kind of struck this Faustian bargain with him where she would hide in her room and write but just never show anyone.
Then in season two, we really upend that, and we propose a whole different and ultimately more complex answer, which is perhaps Emily didn't publish because she herself had very deep ambivalence about what it meant to step into the spotlight and be seen. And again, all of this comes from the actual research and the actual texts of Emily Dickinson, where she is seen to be wrestling with these questions for herself. But it's become such an important question that all of us are wrestling with in this day and age when we all have social media, and we all can like build a brand online.
Watching the show, it's obvious that you've done your research. How do you know when it's important to include historical things and when it's right to include the anachronisms?
I think people have this perception that then I feel hindered by facts when in fact I feel inspired by facts. So, for me, the goal is always to be finding the interesting details about Emily Dickinson's life and work that uncannily resonate with where we are today. I'd much rather have something be true than not true. I even have problems when people ask... Sometimes there'll be a character that I need to make up a name and I'm like, "I don't want to make up a name. I want to find a real person."
Every piece of the show is grounded in something, whether it's a biographical detail or a poetic detail can differ. But there's always some piece of research that was the jumping off point. I mean, it's funny, in some ways it's easier to work with something that's real than to have to make it all up yourself. And that's part of what's been the joy of getting to write a biopic is that the page is never blank. There's always something on the page right when you start. And the question is, what are you going to do with it?
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