Dickinson tickles both the imagination and tackles the seriousness of social issues through a bounty of memorable characters, world-building, and extremely well-executed writing. Creator/showrunner/executive producer Alena Smith has crafted a seriously funny series, through a well-thought-out historical lens.
I had the great opportunity to speak with Alena about her appreciation of what Emily Dickinson represented, writing for a purpose and creating a small but mighty writer's room.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: There's just such a deep respect to the power of words and the writer, I really appreciated that. Was that the ultimate goal or maybe your agenda when you first set out in creating this overall world?
Alena Smith: Well, yeah, I think that does seem like a pretty mandatory stance to have if you're writing about Emily Dickinson. [laughs] But thank you so much for saying that. I definitely have poured tremendous amounts of care into every word that ended up on screen. And with paying homage to the words of Dickinson herself, yeah, for sure. And I think wanting to write about a writer and find the ways of doing that, that make it really come alive in a dramatic sense, as opposed to maybe like the cliche of just seeing somebody struggling at their desk, you know?
Sadie: Yeah, totally. And the show is modernized to a certain extent, and you're not shying away from it. But it still lends to the development of the story and the characters. The way you've handled it, it's masterful. There are other shows or other movies where it's a little bit too much or overhyped. How did you manage that? Is that just something that naturally comes through your writing?
Alena: No, I think it is about the questions that the show wants to ask. And the whole reason why we are playing with this uncanny juxtaposition of the present and the past, there's always a purpose behind it. And it is because we are trying to shine a light on the ways in which the past is still with us in the present and the ways that our present experience of ourselves as women, as artists, as queer people, as marginalized people, or even as privileged people, you know, the way that that those experiences transpire, because our history is our history as Americans is still with us, right? And that we're not entirely free of these old expectations and patterns. And so, it's a really delicate balance.
There's also the balance of like how to always be telling a grounded story about these people in the world and that their world functions in ways that for them are just as reliable and predictable as ours is for us, right? Like, the whole show itself is like a stylization of our world in a way, it's like using the period as a stylized version of the present.
Sadie: With Emily Dickinson, for you as a writer and a storyteller, what initially drew you to her as a person and then as a writer?
Alena: Well, so many things I would say. Basically, I was drawn to these sort of central paradoxes or ironies that define Dickinson's life and work. So, the irony in that she lived her whole life on this mission of writing and wrote almost 2000 poems, just an unbelievable amount of poetry that is mind-bending and world pushing and stands among the greatest bodies of work ever created. And yet, shared it with practically no one while she lived and never published it in any way that we would recognize as typical publishing.
And then relatedly, the way that her life and her external world was so seemingly mundane. She lived in one house for her whole life, she never really left the small town that she lived in Massachusetts, she never got married, she never had kids. And yet, the absolute sort of infinitude and expanse of what is contained in these poems. And Emily is really a philosopher, that's the thing, her poems are deeply existential reflections about our place in the universe. And so, they all have these dramatic twists and turns in them and images that are so powerful, and ideas that are so powerful. Each of her poems is like this little magical box that you can open up and find things and I think that's what I've done, in terms of each of our episodes, it has its own little special treat inside of it. And has the sense ideally of the kind of compression and density of one of her poems, as well as like the elegance and beauty, too. And I mean, yeah, l I wanted to make a period piece. But I also wanted to make something surreal. And I think it's that contrast between Emily's wild in her life and her boring confined outer life that lends itself to this surrealism.
Additionally, to that, I grew up in the Hudson Valley, where if you glance outside the window, it still looks a little bit like the 19th century. There's farms and horses and barns and so in some ways, this is also just the story of my own coming of age and using Emily as a stand-in for myself. That's why I don't say that I'm telling the real Emily Dickinson. I'm more connecting to something in Emily's writing that opens up some truth for me about what it felt like to be a young female writer struggling to come of age in a world that still felt like really regressive when it came to gender, even though we were supposedly in the modern era.
Sadie: That's incredible, your connection to that. The overall season two arc and her character arc ends on such a hopeful note, but then again, as a viewer, and I'm like this with a lot of my favorite artists, where I selfishly don't want them to feel better, because I like the art they're putting out.
Alena: [laughs] Well, don't worry, because the Civil War is coming. No one's feeling better.
Sadie: [laughs] Great! Now, with picking a poem as your theme for an episode, like in your series Bible, assuming that you put one together, how did you dwindle that down out of 2000 poems to structure a season or even an episode or character arc around a single poem?
Alena: Well, we definitely don't have a series Bible. I've been working on Dickinson for years now. I started having the idea in 2013, I wrote the pilot in 2015, and it's basically been one long, continuous process that whole time. We are now just over halfway done shooting season three. And the whole time, I’ve had my book of Dickinson poems by my side, as well as her biography, as well as like a bunch of other books about the time and place and sort of associated material. And so, in terms of choosing the specific poems that we feature in the episodes, it can happen in a bunch of different ways. I'm always keeping lists of poems that really strike me. I definitely have a lot of her poems memorized at this point, although certainly nowhere near all of them. And there are still poems of hers that I haven't read, because there's so many. But there's some that I'm just so in love with that I want to feature in an episode. Then there's also poems that can get chosen after the fact because we have an episode that is about something and so then we have to go and find a poem that matches it. There are so many great Emily Dickinson poems, and there's so many that we haven't even gotten to use. It’s always a wealth there to be discovered. There's real treasure there.
Sadie: Well, I hope you get to do all the poems.
Alena: [laughs] 2000 episodes of Dickinson.
Sadie: And then we can have a special of you doing slam poetry of just Emily Dickinson poems.
Alena: That would be awesome. [laughs]
Sadie: You have an incredible wealth of talent in front of and behind the screen, especially on your writing team. What were you looking for in a writer when you were putting together your writer’s room?
Alena: I think that it's a really unique process with Dickinson because the story is so personal for me, and also the material is so obscure, that it's really about finding a group of minds and perspectives and senses of humor that can support me in my ongoing journey to discover this material and to balance and thread all these needles. And so, it's really just like, anyone who is turned on by the ideas of the show and basically gets the sensibility of it. But I've tended to have a writer's room that's made up largely of pretty much younger, less experienced writers because I'm kind of shouldering most of the writing myself anyway. And so, a younger writer is happy to be there, getting the experience.
I've been really lucky to have Darlene Hunt, who plays Maggie on the show, and is a super experienced showrunner, who is always there helping with the bigger structural things. As well as Sophie Zucker, who plays Abby on the show is also in my writer’s room. And we had Ayo Edebiri who's also on the show, in the writer’s room. And now coming up in season three, we have even more people who are both in front of and behind the camera in that way. I also think a nice thing is if you're in the show as an actor, you probably also like get it to some extent.
I have just small rooms. I try to have, quite a lot of female writers, queer people, people of color, trans writers, trying to have huge diversity and perspectives, which is sort of who the show is both about and for. It's always a small intimate group that is kind of there to help me for a period of time and then the writer’s room always ends after a couple of months, and then I spend literally, like years more with the episodes. So yeah, it's not a traditional room in any sense.
Sadie: You kind of embrace that sense of discovery through yourself and your writers and letting them explore that and share their voice. I think that definitely pops on screen. Well, Alena thank you so much. I'm looking forward to season three and bingeing that as well.
Alena: Thank you for bingeing, I really appreciate it. [laughs] So great to talk to you.
Dickinson is available to stream on AppleTV+.