Eliza Goodpasture talks to acclaimed author Emily Midorikawa about her latest book, Out of the Shadows, the fascinating Spiritualist women who inspired it, writing a book during the pandemic and the literary female friendships narrated in the award-winning book, A Secret Sisterhood.
Emily Midorikawa’s writing interrogates and challenges our existing narratives of nineteenth-century women, offering new ways of understanding this tumultuous century from the perspective of the half of society that is often seen but not heard. Her latest book, Out of the Shadows (Counterpoint), explores the lives of six Victorian women who found fame through Spiritualism. The book is a vividly written exploration of the many ways in which women used Spiritualism to find a public voice, and opened my eyes to a side of Victorian society that I had always overlooked. Emily’s first book, A Secret Sisterhood (Aurum Press), co-written with Emma Claire Sweeney, also focused on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women, in this case friendships between writers. I study friendships between artists, so Emily’s book has particular resonance and relevance for me. Her work is vigorously researched and a pleasure to read. It was a delight to sit down with her (virtually) to discuss her books, her career, and the experience of writing a book during the pandemic.
I loved reading both your books, they were really wonderful. Before we talk about them in detail, I wanted to ask about your career more broadly and what led you to make the decision to write these books. As a PhD student, I’ve been thinking about the tension between seeking a larger audience for my writing or staying within the academic sphere. I wondered what your journey had been on that front.
I do work in academia, but I teach writing within academia. I teach at New York University on their writing program. So I guess my role is slightly different to that of a more traditional academic in the sense that I run quite craft-based classes. Obviously there’s an academic element to it – we look at essays and literary works by writers, be that novels, poems, short stories, whatever, but it’s all from quite a practical point of view. So I see myself as a writer who works in academia, rather than an academic who also produces writing. I think with both A Secret Sisterhood and Out of the Shadows there would have been a way of doing those books for a more academic audience and taking a slightly different approach. But I think both Emma [Claire Sweeney, co-author of A Secret Sisterhood] and I already had a background of writing fiction, memoir, and other kinds of writing that is not seen as traditionally academic. That is the kind of writing we enjoy reading as well as writing ourselves. So with A Secret Sisterhood, we always wanted to reach a wider audience and also bring in some of our skills from our fiction writing to tell stories with a more obvious narrative-driven focus than you might get in a typical academic book. Having done that in A Secret Sisterhood, I felt that it was an approach that would work well for Out of the Shadows as well. I think you always have to be quite guided by the material you’ve got, but I felt that it was also the kind of book that could work in that way.
It definitely does, and I think that makes the amount of research you did for both of these books even more impressive. I am really curious about your approach to archival work, because both of these books seem so incredibly driven by first-hand accounts from the women themselves, which is part of what makes them really powerful. Could you talk about your approach to digging into the archives? It really feels like you read everything from start to finish – did you really do that, or did you have a more targeted approach?
So I think you can never literally read everything; you always think, oh I could have spent more time on this or that. But with A Secret Sisterhood and then with Out of the Shadows as well, it was important to me that, although I wanted to make these books quite narrative-driven and accessible to a wider audience, I also wanted them to be very much grounded in solid academic research. I didn’t want to be making up dialogue, for instance. The dialogue that appears in the book is all recorded in sources. It was important to me that I spent a lot of time in the archives, and it was the same when I was working with Emma. Apart from anything, to get a good sense of the women we were writing about as characters, as well as writers on a page, you feel like you need to spend a lot of time with them. Obviously you can’t go and interview them, so spending time in the archives reading their words, looking at materials associated with them that have been left behind, really is the best way to get to know them as characters.
That makes sense, and they do really come through as characters. I want to talk about Out of the Shadows, but first I want to ask a bit more about A Secret Sisterhood. It’s very close to my research, which is on artist friendships, and of course you write about literary friendships. What were you looking for in selecting the pairs you chose?
Emma and I had been running a literary blog called Something Rhymed for a while before we put together a proposal for the book and ultimately managed to sell it. We had covered quite a lot of literary friendships on the blog, only in very short detail, just small blog posts. Quite a number of the friendships we covered on the blog were ones we could have gone into more detail, so initially we were imagining a book with 14 or 15 friendships, which would have been a different sort of book. Eventually, feedback from agents and literary editors we approached seemed to be that we should try and focus on a smaller number of women friends. Obviously it meant that there were people that we would have quite liked to include in the book that didn’t quite make it or that we mentioned a little bit in the book’s conclusion, but that was our thinking in terms of selection.
And did you purposefully choose friendships that were less well-known?
One of the reasons we set up the blog in the first place was that we felt the subject of female writing friendships was one which was quite under explored. There’s a few male literary friendships that have become quite legendary over the years – Hemingway and Fitzgerald, or Byron and Shelley. There were not so many well known female friendships. There was the odd exception, like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell’s friendship, and Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby would be another example. But a lot of really interesting friendships had been overlooked. We did end up including details of the Gaskell-Brontë friendship in the book, but ultimately we thought because that had been focused on to some extent already, we wanted to focus on a different friendship, the one between Mary Taylor and Charlotte Brontë. We were interested in showing different types of friendships in the book, and this was one that had begun between schoolgirls and lasted into later life, which distinguished it from the other friendships we were covering. Also because of Mary Taylor’s very important role in encouraging Charlotte Brontë to become a professional writer in the first place, again that seemed very crucial to us in terms of looking at her career.
I was really struck by how all the friendships that you chose seemed to be very productive friendships for the writers, almost collaborative, even if they didn’t actually produce a collaborative work. And speaking of collaboration, I would love to hear about the experience of writing a book collaboratively. It’s obviously so fitting for the subject matter – what was your writing process like with Emma?
When you tell people that you’ve written a book with someone else, often they get the impression that perhaps you’re the sort of person that would love to collaborate on any book, and I don’t know if that’s actually true. As you say, this was a book that worked quite well, as it was about female writing friendship, so it felt fitting to write it with a female writer friend. Writing a book with someone is quite a big undertaking. On the plus side, Emma and I had written quite a bit together before, both for the blog and feature articles and things like that. We had a long history of collaborating in other ways too, giving each other feedback on our work. We knew we could work together, but whether we could write a whole book together was a bit of a leap of faith. Basically, we worked on the proposal for the book together, and then we found a publisher for it, which tends to be how things go with non-fiction books for a mass-market – you tend to try and find a publisher before you write the whole thing. Then we divided up the initial research and writing, so Emma did the bulk of research for half and I did the bulk for the other half, and the same with the initial writing. Of course, once we had done that, we were sharing notes the whole time and revising everything together. And then drafts just went back and forth between us for ages; there was lots of rewriting, and sometimes we had disagreements as well. Once we had a book with a beginning, middle, and end, we sat down together at a single computer and just hammered it out over many long days and late nights, which was quite an intense experience. There were times when you’d been working on it for hours and would see the sky start to get light outside the window and you’d sort of think, this is so laborious. If I was working on this on my own, I could just make a decision on this sentence – it might not be the right one, but at least we could move on. But instead we’re arguing over this very small point. Looking back on it, though, I feel like everything in that book had been very rigorously tested through those discussions between us, and we were both very happy with the final version that was sent off. Obviously when you look at a final version, you think, that could have been done slightly differently, but everything had been through a very collaborative process of decision making which was very beneficial. It didn’t feel like any parts of the book were more hers or mine. Funnily enough with Out of the Shadows, I did sometimes miss having Emma there to talk out those things because writing can sometimes be quite a lonely business.
I was going to ask what that shift was like, to take on this most recent project independently.
There are some things that are nice about working independently. You can make your own decisions on things entirely, but you don’t have this ready made person there who is as invested in the project as you, who you can sit with and talk through ideas. You know, Emma’s still been helping me with this book in the sense that I showed her drafts of it and she gave feedback, but obviously she has her own projects as well and it’s not quite the same. So, it was a big change in a way, and I really did feel like I benefited a lot from some of the lessons I learnt from working with Emma. I was able to carry them into working on Out of the Shadows on my own.
I read in one of your articles about Out of the Shadows, which said you first became interested in these women while you were doing research for A Secret Sisterhood. Could you talk more about how that first exposure to the Fox sisters led to the book?
I was in the New York Public Library reading letters from Harriet Beecher Stowe to George Eliot. Stowe’s letters are often quite long and her handwriting is not always that easy to read, and I was only in New York City for a short amount of time. I needed to get through many letters while I was there, so I was very aware that I needed to be focused. But when I was reading these letters from Stowe to Eliot, I came across this reference to the youngest Fox sister, Kate. It was a description of a seance that Stowe had attended. She was quite a keen Spiritualist participant herself, though not a medium or anything. She wrote to Eliot to tell her about this seance at which Kate Fox was running the show, as it were, which was quite interesting in itself, particularly since I knew that Eliot was quite skeptical about these sorts of things, so I was imagining how she was reacting to these sorts of descriptions. I was also struck by the way Kate Fox came across as quite an unusual presence. She was described as this sort of otherworldly, sprite-like person. Stowe talks about how she managed to get phosphorescent lights to glow in the room in which they were sitting, a striking visual description. The other thing that really struck me was that she seemed to just assume that Eliot would know who Kate Fox was. Eliot was a British woman on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, so that kind of gives a sense of the fame of the Fox sisters. Later, I returned to those letters with a view to finding out more about the Foxes, and as I did, this whole world of spirit mediums kind of opened up to me and I started to think then that perhaps there is enough to write a book on this subject.
And there clearly was enough, and more. What led you to choose the six women you did end up including? I’m sure there were many others you had to leave out.
There were many women – quite early on I decided I wanted to focus largely, and in the end exclusively, on women in the book. There were well-known male spirit mediums as well, but I felt like I wanted to focus on women. In the end I realised what I was really interested in as a theme were women who had used their spiritualism as a kind of springboard to find a public voice, to make themselves heard on a public stage in a way that they wouldn’t have been heard were it not for these apparent talents they were supposed to have. All the women in the book did this in slightly different ways and came to it from different backgrounds, but that was the link between them I was most interested in and felt was strong enough to hold the book together.
I find that aspect of these women really interesting; the way that they gained a voice by theoretically speaking through someone else’s. I wonder if you could talk a bit more about that paradox between having such a loud voice and a big platform, but also not always being able to use their own voices.
I think some of the women were able to move beyond that to a greater extent than others. In the case of the Fox sisters, their fame was always tied into their ability to channel the thoughts of dead spirits, often dead male spirits. That was what gave what they were saying credibility. With some of the other women, they started out that way and managed to move beyond it, but you’re absolutely right that this was the way into being heard. I think it’s one of the things that makes the women complicated figures who don’t really fit very obviously into a straigthtforward feminist reading of history. These women don’t fit neatly into stories about the great journey towards female empowerment because there’s this issue of how they were presenting their words, saying they were channeling the words of other people. Also, there’s the fact that many would say they were using trickery in what they were doing. That makes it harder to see them as completely straightforward admirable figures, but for me that was one of the things that made them interesting. Although there were all these contradictions, they collectively did many interesting and worthwhile things for women’s rights, but the motivation was sometimes quite complicated. That was one of the things that I thought made them worth writing about and made them interesting characters, the fact that they weren’t straightforward heroines.
I agree. I think we are often limited to reading about women in history who are straightforward heroines and who did fit into that narrative of feminism and women’s empowerment, but I think that the complicated and contradictory women are also extremely important. Even if their intentions or motivations weren’t with the advancement of women as much as the advancement of themselves, I feel like they still opened doors for people to follow in their footsteps. I think the contradictions do make them really interesting.
For me, too.
I was really interested to read the New Yorker article that mentioned your book recently, which discussed growing interest in the Spiritualism movement right now. I wondered what you thought about why people are becoming more interested in it, and what you think it can tell us about our present moment?
It shows that, while in many ways our world today feels a million miles away from the late nineteenth century, in other ways there are still very marked similarities. A few key ones would be that people are still interested in exploring new ideas, maintaining links with departed loved ones, and also leaving part of themselves behind after their life comes to an end. One of the things that propelled the women in my book to positions of such influence was the fact that they arrived on the scene at a time when mass media was growing in the United States and Britain. There were many newspapers being published and advances in technology like the telegraph machine or better transport options. Bringing newspapers from one side of the Atlantic to the other meant that news could be spread at a faster rate. Obviously, what seemed like progress to them has now been eclipsed by 24 hour news and being able to stick something on the internet and have it be everywhere around the world in seconds. I guess this is another period when there have been such advances in technology that unusual ideas can be spread quickly around the world, particularly via the internet. Perhaps also, during a pandemic we’ve had lots of people who’ve been able to be at home on their own a lot – obviously that doesn’t include everyone. But being in a position of physical isolation whilst having the world at your fingertips through your smartphone or your computer certainly means that if you are interested in pursuing any unusual ideas, it’s all there for you, so I wonder if that’s played into it as well.
Interesting. Has the pandemic impacted your experience of writing this book at all?
This is something I was so thankful for. I pitched the book to publishers well before the start of the pandemic, and I was able to get the vast bulk of the research done before all the libraries started shutting down throughout each lockdown. There were things that were slightly difficult during the last months of revising the book when I did need to look at sources, and I’m very grateful to archivists and librarians all over the world who helped me by sending me things via email. There were occasionally small things I wasn’t able to look at because even the possibility of sending them via email was impossible because nobody was going into the archives at all. If I had been at a different stage with the research then I just would’ve had to ask my publisher for a big extension, because libraries and museums as you know have been shut through much of lockdown, and obviously travel – I didn’t only do research in my own country and my own city, I was travelling around to different places to do it. That was also halted. I really feel for people who had books on the go as the pandemic started, because it’s obviously been very disruptive for researchers.
It really has. But I’m glad you had good timing! How has it been to have the book come out in these times?
With my last book I did a lot of live events and that sort of thing. I had a live book launch, which I could invite friends to, so in a way when I realized it would be impossible this time I felt sad. But on the other hand, I was able to have an online launch event which people from all over the world could come to if they wanted to, so people who would never have been able to come to London were able to tune in which was really nice. In that sense, it’s been a good thing, but having said that, it’s always nice when bookshops are actually open. In terms of your own book but also as a keen reader, it’s nice to go in and immerse yourself in the environment of a bookshop. I’m glad that things are starting to open up again now.
Me too. It is nice to have space collapse that way sometimes, and have people from all over the world in a Zoom meeting.
The other thing that has affected the writing of Out of the Shadows is that I’ve been through two pregnancies while working on it. I started working on the book, then got pregnant, had a first baby, and then worked on it a bit more, and am now eight months pregnant. When I look back on it in the future, I’ll think of the book itself, but also, in the same way that I think of A Secret Sisterhood as being very much intertwined with my friendship with Emma, this book will always be intertwined with the pandemic and the experience of becoming a mother while working on it. Balancing pregnancies and child care with hopes for the book and that coming to fruition has all been interlinked in my mind. As a writer, when you look at your own books, there is the book that everyone else experiences but also the book that is tied in with your own personal circumstances at the time.
Two births, a book and a baby, back to back!
That’s how I think of it!
Emily Midorikawa’s Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice is published by Counterpoint and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now. Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyMidorikawa, Instagram @midorikawaemily or visit her website here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Sincere thanks to Emily Midorikawa for her time and participation in this interview.
The feature photograph is by Rosalind Hobley.