Actress Susan Ziegler on ‘Wild Nights with Emily’ and Love

ATM: How do you believe love is expressed through poetry vs verbally.

SZ: This is interesting. It is more thought out because it must be put down on paper and looked at. It is more of a work of art. A work of art that is not a moment like a theatre. It is more permanent than spoken. Both are beautiful in their own way.

ATM: Give an observation on Emily as a lover.

SZ: She was a very powerful woman. She was not this pathetic little wreck loose person. She was very strong in her choices. She was unafraid to express this love. It is easy to follow someone who is so strong in the way they live and chose to live. She was not hesitant with her love. She gives the other person strength. It seems opposite as to the way she was betrayed.

ATM: Give a reflection on your character Susan’s reaction to Emily’s love.

SZ: Susan needed Emily a lot more. She was a more trapped woman by circumstances. She needed to marry. She followed through with what society expected of women. Emily was her key to freedom. They were close and geographically right next door. They understood and loved each other on a level that not most couples get. They were both writers and worked together on Emily’s stuff. They were lucky with the time and place to find each other.

ATM: What is your viewpoint on the expectations put on Susan?

SZ: Think about how trapped women were during these times. You had two options. If you had money in your family, then this gave you a choice. The second choice was having some extreme beauty that brought people to their knees. It was not any other form of situation. Her older brothers were well off. She did not have any options. She could earn enough money as a teacher. Her only options were to marry and find love some other way. I still feel women still have to carry on this currency or we have been trained to do so and do not know we are doing it. She was another woman trapped in her time. She was also a prolific writer. Who knows where she would have gone in her career?

ATM: There has been some progression. During the 1900s, the happiness that maneuvered through the life of a woman compared to a man was different. Men had different options. Children had more freedom and options. When growing up it becomes the questions of, “So what are you going to do with your life? Are you going to get married?” You got married to fit in the societal standard. You got married to anyone. Susan felt trapped, but Emily also felt trapped.

SZ: In my mind, Emily felt trapped in her writing. Her ability to get published and to get heard as a woman’s writer. She chose to live she was. She chose not to get married, dressed simply, and to see people she wanted. In some ways, she was freer. This was because of her family’s standing. Susan due to finances was trapped. She had to marry. She had no other choices. I have come to see Emily who was strong in her choices. She did not say she was going to choose. She did not do what was expected.

ATM: She went against societal norms such as sexuality and how she wrote. No one was writing her like. She did not make it indirect who she was writing to. It was taboo to admit you were female writing to another female. People did not understand it. It was an emergent of new creativity.

SZ: Yes. She broke the rule of American poetry. She did not really rhyme. She broke the structural rule. A lot of her poetry was like “Woah.” She had a voice and listened to it. Abigail was kind of a villain, but Emily’s writing would have never been discovered without her. This is another example of women needed to control other women in order to elevate themselves. Unfortunately, we still a lot of this left in our gender. We should be celebrating each other.

ATM: Abigail was the mistress of Susan’s husband. Although, she never actually met Emily until her funeral. It was then she decided to publish her work. There were more writers who spoke in the same tune as Emily, but because of their sexual orientation, we do not know about them.

SZ: Just like there were a lot of female writers who wrote under male names, there were a lot of writers who switched the genders of who they were writing about because they could write about the love they felt or saw. They were writing to be heard. They had to edit it.

ATM: But this changes the narrative. It becomes a different poem when it is about a woman to another woman vs to a man. The meaning of the poem becomes a unique lens for the viewer or reader. A poet can do this, but it becomes a disservice to the reader if they do not see the cracks.

SZ: There are so many examples of straight relationships in movies, television, and writing. It is almost like this is how straight people learn ways of loving one another. When you get into two women, you have this freedom because you are not doing what is expected or what you have seen or learned. It is a whole new fresh idea. There is more of an accident way to true love. It is fresher territory because it is not something you read about. It can be more of a journey or a richer journey. The great thing about being women is us having the freedom to express our emotional lives more than men. It was always seen as a weakness, but it is really a strength to do this.

Women tend to be freer with their emotions. You do not have the burden of what your love should look like. It is a problem not seeing your love reflected. But for love, this can become interesting because you are the one creating it and the image of what it is. There could be beautiful freedom in this because you are not doing what is expected. The straight world has been given all these maps and courses. Everybody does what they think. In same-sex couples, you have not been given this is widely read literature or film.

ATM: Emily was the most expressive one. Emily became more prolific than Susie. Emily never lied to see her writings get successful, but Susan lived to see them get widely known. There are no points coming from Susan.

SZ: Susan had a husband and children. She had different gifts. She kept writing into her 70s. Her writing was not ass revolutionary in this way. She gave Emily her opinion. They sort of worked together. Emily’s situation was so different.

ATM: If Susan was single, then she would have been in the writer’s canon. Emily is in the cannon. People know who Emily is, but little realize Susan. You will only know of her with the umbrella of Emily. Then you would know Susan with the umbrella of being married. Emily was freer, a bit of married to a man, then she would have been known as the “wife of.” This would have gone with her title. The marriage title would have followed over her success. There were a lot of artists who were noticed as male. Modernly, Frida Kahlo was noticed when Diego Rivera was discussed. It took a very long while for her to be talked about when disassociated to him.  

SZ: Unfortunately, this was the way and you needed the key. Doors were shut everywhere, and men were the only one with the keys. You would hope to marry who could support you in your art. Or might encourage you. This was the fashion during this time. It was tough for anyone to take a risk in doing what is not expected. Like, “Am I going to be alone? Am I going to die alone?” There is the leap of faith. When you do art, this is the risk you take. You cannot be in it for the money.

ATM: They did not get paid for writing.

SZ: No. The idea was to get published or recognized that what you are doing has value. Everybody wants to be recognized as having value and providing something in any way. If it is what you love, then more the bonus. She wanted to be realized in this way. For Emily and Susan, because of their love and situation, it was more apparent to them the disparity of men and women – there right to do things. This affected them because of their love for each other. If you are blissfully happy in marriage to a man and have children, the lack of civil rights does not affect you as much.

ATM: So, what was so artistic and wild about the nights with Emily?

SZ: There is something very wild about their relationship. It was so unconventional. Women had very intimate friendships with each other. This was very common. They were figuring things out and they had to hide. When you are doing things on the slide, this could be wild. It is uncharted territory and assuming different angles. The letters in the poetry that Emily sent to Susan are very “Wow like this was written then.” Now the word seems more complimentary; someone who ‘goes for it’, doesn’t care what others think.

ATM: So, they were intellectually erotic.

SZ: Yes. I read it with layered meanings, and you are like, “Wow, this is intense.” She pushed the boundaries of this expression. It is wild in this way. Emily’s freedom with her writing and is dedicated to it.

ATM: It would have not been as fun or wild on the slide. The word wild has progressed into a different direction since the 1900s.

SZ: Now the word seems more complimentary; someone who ‘goes for it’, doesn’t care what others think. The word wild I think has become more sexualized. Back then it feels as though it was describing the primitive as negative.  From the outside, I would say so. The thing of starting a new relationship with someone else, while already with someone. There is a zing that happens when things need to be hidden or they might be bad. A lot of people confused this with falling in love. It is the thing that needs to be hidden or risqué. There is a thrill. Even though they lived next to each other, the intimate moments had to be stolen. This creates excitement to the relationship, well at least it would for me.

ATM: I believe it is love. It is love because it is emerging from what someone else could not give you. Its shifts your definition of love. The secret is not just fun but is the newness in love. It is fresh and authentic. Two people are coming together to create a type of love and intimacy that they had been searching for. It could be crossing the lines with the person who is already in your life.

SZ: They are not blood related. Is it right to have an affair with your brother’s wife? Technically, if you were going to have an affair, you should have it open or just end the marriage. This is the right way to go. The Dickinson’s marriage was already not good. Austin was off also having an affair. It seemed like an okay thing for men to do. In some ways, it was not even in people’s will house that this was something happening such as the relationships with two women. It is not something people thought of. In terms of the family thing, they felt it was a great way to be together and close. Everyone is going to have their own reaction to this. This is what they could do. They do not have options with women. You are forced to do other things. If Austin had been a terrific husband, then it would have been worst, but he was not that great. So, how guilty would you feel?

ATM: Often when people are having an affair, whether in secret or not, they are seeking someone who can give them something that their primary lover is not giving them. You know the saying, “It just happened. I did not plan for it.” Subconsciously and emotionally, when you see that someone else can give you a new thing, you go in this direction.

SZ: It happens for several reasons. It is the newness of another person. You are starting on a new mysterious journey. They always say, “If you treated your friends like you treat your family, then your friends would leave.” We tend to not try as hard with people we love or who we are around. When being with someone for a long period, whether this is a relationship or marriage, you made this choice to do it. It is going to be work staying with one human being for decades. You have to see what is worth it to you.  Do you want the bonuses with this long relationship? There are so many. Or do you want the zing of something new? You have to make a choice. Especially when people get married, they say, “For better or for worse.” Everybody thinks the worse is getting sick. The sick can be a simple as the annoying way they squeeze the toothpaste bottle. The worse is when you are going through the time you cannot believe they are doing this or not.

ATM: Or the worse can be them not express themselves. The decision should be the one that makes you feel most free and true.

SZ: These are the super tough times. You are thinking if you are right or should you go. Having an affair and saying your partner does not supply this for me, so often the other says they are surprised. If the person is surprised, then you have not tried with your partner. I do not think it was a surprise with Austin and Susan were in the opposite direction.

ATM: Who do you believe was the most emotional?

SZ: Emily was the most emotional. She brought out her emotions through her writing. Her writing expressed it so much. Susan was so moved with Emily’s writing. She was fierier than what she was given credit for in literature.

ATM: What narrative was created when they looked into each other’s eyes?

SZ: This is a good question. They had such a deep understanding on many levels such as female, love, passion, writing, expression of art, and sexuality. It is like looking in a mirror. You hear the saying, “You looked across the room and knew what the other person was thinking.” This is them looking into each other’s eyes.

ATM: And did this feeling stay as they looked away?

SZ: It was a confidence and comfort in knowing this was there even they were not there. This is how the relationship blossomed.

ATM: They were born in the same month and died in the same month. Emily never knew Susan died in the same month, days apart. But Susan knew because she died after.

SZ: Yes, but it also was years apart. There is always a lot of “Woah, what is that.” You had interesting questions.

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