When it comes to the classics, it’s sometimes easy to get bored to tears. They were, quite simply, written in a different time. The language can sometimes be tedious. The writing is much different from today’s in the sense that they weren’t meant to grip us within the first first pages or the first chapter. It can sometimes border on overwrought. And that’s okay! Any medium transforms over time.
But that doesn’t negate the fact that the stories are good. Think of how the other day was Pride & Prejudice Day and how Jane Austen’s classics have endured over time. But sometimes the original language and setting need a bit of an update. This is where the retellings come in.
Over the last few decades, perhaps this last one most specifically, retellings of classic novels have become all the rage. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is Pridge & Prejudice, Great by Sara Benincasa is The Great Gatsby, Megan Shepherd’s The Madman’s Daughter is a modern retelling of The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells and The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White is a play on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These are, of course, a few of hundreds of retellings.
However, it’s rare to see Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights be taken into the modern world. Thanks to author Mary O’Connell, we can no longer say that! Rewriting the story of Cathy and Heathcliff for the YA community, O’Connell tells the story of Flannery Fields and the wild adventure she finds herself on trying to save her lovesick and mentally unstable teacher, Caitlin Sweeney, after discovering a book telling her Caitlin’s movements in real time. The parallels to Emily Bronte’s iconic novel are evident as the story unfolds.
We were lucky enough to get the chance to talk to Mary and pick her brain about why she chose Wuthering Heights, bringing the classics to today and so much more!
Congratulations on the success of Dear, Reader! How does it feel?
Thank you! It was the most formally challenging book I’ve written, so I’m happy I was able to see it through.
Let’s just jump right on in. For many readers, finding a book that writes itself in real time is like a dream. Was that the catalyst for the story of Flannery and Caitlin?
I knew I wanted to write a story with a bit of magical realism, told over the course of one day, so it was kind of a natural progression. Also I wanted Flannery to have access to Caitlin’s past, even as her own day was unfolding.
In terms of retellings, Wuthering Heights isn’t usually the first classic people run to. Did you choose Wuthering Heights to sort of mimic the story or did your story seem like an echo, allowing it to tie in perfectly?
Wuthering Heights was more of a map of sorts, in terms of the parallels of Caitlin and Brandon and Cathy and Heathcliff. And I wanted a character to love the novel obsessively, and that character was Flannery Fields.
We want to talk a lot about the mental health presented in this story. More specifically the level of obsession we see. For instance, Flannery is constantly hearing Miss Sweeney’s voice in her head correcting her as if she needs that approval. Why is that?
I wanted the red-pen thoughts scrolling through Flannery’s mind to reflect how much she’d thought about Caitlin Sweeney’s life, and just how much she considered her opinions, real or imagined. Flannery’s a little obsessive, as we all are, I suppose, but basically doing pretty well on her journey.
Then we also learn that Miss Sweeney’s disappearance is a combination of grief over losing the love of her life and withdrawal from antidepressants. Was that meant as a modernization of Cathy and Heathcliff or did you want to showcase how easily unexpected loss can mess with one’s mental health?
Both. Miss Sweeney had previous mental health issues, and the loss of Brandon compounded by her grief and guilt over his fate intensifies her difficulties. The biggest problem, though, is that Caitlin has gone off her medication instead of tapering off, and she’s done this without any medical supervision, which is so dangerous.
Now here’s the tricky part. We’re unsure whether or not Heath is real. Though it’s a book, it seems almost too perfect to find a British boy with a similar name hailing from that very area that Wuthering Heights is set in. It feels like she dreamed him up, especially when she’s explaining to the officer that characters in books can help you. Is he real or just a delusion?
There’s a passage from the Denis Johnson short story “Emergency” that I just love: “That World! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?”
With Heath, I wanted to make him part of that world that doesn’t fit the narrative of your life in any logical way, a time so wonderful or terrible or dangerous or intense or beautiful that you can only look back and wonder if it even happened: Where’s the scroll? Can you unroll it and look at the details for proof? But you can’t; that lost world was solely present tense, ephemeral.
Let’s switch directions. Religion plays heavily into the story with Flannery and Miss Sweeney crossing paths at a catholic school, Caitlin heavily discussing her religious upbringing, and ultimately what happens at the end. It almost seems that Flannery worships at the altar of Caitlin Sweeney. There’s almost a religious undertone to it. Why else would she go on this quest? Was that parallel intentional?
“It almost seems that Flannery worships at the altar of Caitlin Sweeney.” Well, thank you for such an amazing question, dream reader! The parallel was not quite intentional but I did want to explore the relationship of a student who worships her teacher, while also fully seeing her shortcomings.
Going further on that, what made you choose the cathedral for Caitlin’s ending? Was there a specific reason that that should be where that happened?
I love the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. When I lived in Manhattan—many years ago—I spent one long summer afternoon there. It was boiling in my apartment and so beautiful and cool in the cathedral. I guess that’s one nice thing about being a writer: everything is research.
We want to talk more about Miss Sweeney’s mental health. She mentioned that she had gone on medication in college. Do you think this was the first time Caitlin had considered her outcome? Or was the idea of living without her Heathcliff just too much for her to bear and pushed her mental state over the edge?
Going off her medication suddenly was her turning point. Even though she was merely a college student who had broken up with her high school boyfriend–a pretty common experience—her thought process made Caitlin Sweeney feel like a killer.
Readers only see Miss Sweeney’s more unlikeable traits such as snobbery, arrogance and a tendency to unfairly stereotype everyone around her. We eventually learn that there is much more to her story and where those traits come from. Why do you think Flannery was still so drawn to her despite learning all of these unlikeable qualities?
I wanted to create a character that possessed all the characteristics of Cathy Earnshaw, as well as her complexity. Miss Sweeney is certainly a snob, but she also has her redeeming qualities. She gave Flannery the confidence that she would find her people, that the world would crack open and she would find her place in it.
As lovers of classics, we want to know if you were hoping to inspire young readers to see the classics as so much more than just assigned reading you have to sludge through?
I didn’t write the book specifically as YA, so no. But I hope it might make readers want to read (or re-read) Wuthering Heights. Line by line, it’s pretty perfect.
Okay, now to the fun part! What’s your writing process like?
Generally full of interruptions! I don’t really have a set schedule, but I do like to read poetry while I’m writing.
If Dear, Reader were to be optioned, who would you want in your dream cast?
Hmmm.. not sure! Maybe people who aren’t already known, who would get their break and find their people!
What are you reading right now?
I recently finished a beautiful book by Mercedes Lucero, Stereometry. A truly innovating stunning read.
Are you writing anything new? We’d love to know!
I’m working on an essay collection, and a novel about the last week of Ann Lovett, the 15- year- old Irish school girl who died giving birth in a grotto in 1984.
(Well, that surely sounds interesting!)
We would love to thank Mary O’Connell for allowing us to pick her brain about her book Dear, Reader! The book is a modern retelling of the classic Wuthering Heights and focuses heavily on mental health. It’s a thought-provoking read that will stick with you for days afterwards!
Find Mary on Instagram!