Interview by Carole Goldberg
When Emily Arsenault was growing up in Cheshire, a teacher told the fifth-grader she was very good at writing.
Give that teacher an A.
At age 11, Arsenault, a fan of ghost stories and books for girls, wrote her first novel, about a summer camp, with the idea of getting published. But a year later, she said in a recent telephone conversation from her home in Shelburne Falls, Mass., she realized, “This isn’t very good.”
As an adult, she tried again but also judged that young adult novel “not ready for prime time.”
This fall, however, Arsenault, now 33, has published her debut novel, “The Broken Teaglass,” and it is an accomplished work.
It is set at a staid dictionary company not unlike Merriam-Webster in Springfield, where she once worked. Peopled by quirky characters and centered on a mysterious killing - although it’s not a mystery genre novel - it is a coming-of-age story that explores the costs of keeping secrets and the challenges of revealing one’s true self.
“I’m not a big mystery reader and prefer books with literary suspense,” Arsenault says.
That’s a good description of her novel, in which she slowly and skillfully explains the puzzle of the killing as well as the personalities of those involved and those who piece together their story, employing a lot of wry dialogue and not a little poignancy in the process.
Arsenault, a ‘98 Mount Holyoke College graduate, has been a teacher at Coventry High School, a children’s librarian at the Wilton Library and, with her husband, Ross Grant, a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa.
In 1994, she was one of the high school student “Fresh Voices” at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival in Farmington.
“I was so grateful” to be chosen, she says. “It made me feel like a real writer.”
It was during her Peace Corps stint as a teacher, with no TV to distract her and long evenings to fill, that she began writing what would become “The Broken Teaglass.”
In a post on the Scribe Vibe blog, Arsenault says she had been thinking about writing a story about a dictionary company where Cold War spy secrets were hidden, an idea that was going nowhere. Then, on a walk between villages without a knife (which volunteers normally carried for protection), she began thinking about using a shard of glass if it were necessary to defend herself. Eventually, the themes of dictionary secrets and glass as weapon came together for the book.
In it, young lexicographers Billy Webb and Mona Minot begin a friendship in the quiet of the Samuelson Co. office and stumble upon mysterious citations in the card files where editors note new and unusual uses of words that, upon reaching critical mass, would support inclusion in the dictionary.
It’s soon obvious to them - yet mystifying - that they are reading a serial story, and one that appears to be set at Samuelson in the mid-1980s. Even more intriguing, it involves employees they know.
They begin an undercover perusal of the files to find more of these “cits,” each of which highlights a different word or phrase and is signed by one “Dolores Beekmim.”
The cits purport to be quotes from a book called “The Broken Teaglass,” but Mona quickly determines that no such book was ever published, and no writer by that name exists. They also learn the killing was real, but the story behind it had never been fully revealed. Until now.
That story-within-the-story, written by a woman to a male colleague and involving another editor, is told in a controlled and grimly poetic style. Cit by cit, card by card, it reveals what happened, an experience the writer vows never to discuss aloud.
Here’s a sample, purporting to show the use of the phrase “opt out”:
“So I opted for silence. Since the only other option was explicit speech, and all the inevitables that would follow: drama, crying, comforting, fingerprints, uncomfortable questions, men in matching blue shirts, photographers outside the police station. I opted out of all of that. Because his quiet beckoned me like a warm bed, a soft pillow, a good book, a hot cup of tea.”
The hidden tale was the part that came first, Arsenault says, and the Billy-and-Mona story was written around it. She enjoyed exploring the two differing mind-sets.
“Writing that voice was a release,” she says, because the mysterious author “was female and more like my voice. If I got tired of Billy, I went back to her, and if I got tired of her drama, he was more matter-of-fact.”
Mona, a graduate of Middlebrook College, a fictitious school loosely based on Mount Holyoke and Smith, is an acerbic, forceful young woman coping with some family issues. Arsenault says the character was inspired in part by a college chum.
Billy, the narrator, is a sweet and aimless young man, a philosophy major still trying to figure out who he is and what he wants from life. And, it turns out, he is harboring a secret, too, one Arsenault does not reveal until late in the story, when it casts a powerful light on his personality.
Writing in the voice of a young man was a challenge, Arsenault says.
“Why him and not Mona?”
A young female character would have been too close to her personal experience, she says, “so I wanted to make the character completely different from myself.”
But, “some of Billy’s thoughts mirror my own. [Arsenault also was a philosophy major.] And I gave him my apartment!” she adds.
Billy and Mona, whose relationship hovers tantalizingly between platonic and romantic, play off one another cleverly. They bring liveliness to the dictionary crew, who spend their days in Samuelson’s pervasive silence, research-reading material in the hunt for new words and exact definitions.
The two, Arsenault says, “need human contact. They bounce off each other. As young editors, they’re not used to that quiet.”
The Samuelson office, she says, is “pretty close to the vibe” of Merriam-Webster, where “the long, quiet days took a lot of getting used to. It was very academic. After spending the day there,” she says, “I couldn’t read books when I went home.”
Still, she makes the work sound fascinating in its own way. And powerful. As one retired editor says to Billy: “So much history there. And the idea that your work ends up in so many households, so many schools…
“…You’re a definer. Definers concern themselves primarily with usage. Current usage. The living words. … It’s capturing the current use of words, right as they’re continuing to change - that’s the real dynamic work.”
At Merriam-Webster, Arsenault says, “a big part of what they do is to educate people about what they do.”
She’s now “pretty far along” on a second book, one with a female narrator.
“It’s got suspense, but it’s not a standard mystery,” Arsenault says. “It’s sort of quirky, and nerdy.”
Quirky is a word many reviewers have used to describe “Teaglass,” and that doesn’t bother her.
“I take quirky as a compliment,” she says.
She’s considered and tried to start a novel based on her Peace Corps experience, she says, but has been stymied.
“I do like to write humor,” she says, “but it’s hard to incorporate it into a South African setting of illness and poverty.”
Still, she says, “I’m hoping to do that book at some point.”
Carole Goldberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.