By Ryan O’Connell
Nearly 5-and-a-half miles south of Framingham State University, green plains begin to open up either side of Chestnut Street in Ashland - fields which border the Warren Conference Center.
Just inside is Helen Heineman, the 14th president of Framingham State, sitting at a folding table. She is surrounded by friends, family, alumni, and current faculty. Above her, on a gray marble mantle, are two dozen copies of her novel - “Emma Redux: Happily Ever After.”
Heineman had the opportunity to sign copies of her novel - one of four books continuing the stories of Jane Austen’s characters in her novel “Emma” Sept. 30.
Prior to the signing, Heineman spoke on her process of writing the “Emma Redux” series, highlighting the help her family has been and providing background on the project.
She said she taught “Emma” to her Adventures in Lifelong Learning class, something which keeps her attached to her love of teaching, and considers the novel Austen’s masterpiece.
This passion, she said, was the first step toward writing the “Emma Redux” series alongside the outbreak of COVID-19, which forced her to stay inside.
“I was immediately sequestered,” she said.
“My children told me ‘You can’t go out, stay home, mask if you have to.’ And so there I was, home alone, and one morning I woke up with this thought - ‘I wonder what happened after Emma and Mr. Knightley got married?’”
Heineman named the four novels in the “Emma Redux” series - “Emma Redux: Happily Ever After,” “Emma Redux: Full Circle,” “Emma Redux: Family Secrets,” and “Emma Redux: Matchmaking Magic,” and explained only the first two have been published so far.
She then read a poem, a medium new to her, that she wrote for Alan Feldman’s poetry seminar - Feldman is a retired English professor at FSU and close friend of Heineman.
The poem is a reflection on the existence of Heineman’s novels, written from Emma’s perspective.
After reading a poem and an excerpt from “Happily Ever After,” Heineman fielded questions on her writing process, thanked her family - who were instrumental in her process, and signed copies purchased by former and current faculty, students, and friends.
In an interview after the event, Heineman shared her history with the University and writing.
Heineman said she began teaching at FSU as a part-time evening faculty member in 1974.
When she received the offer she had been working on her first book, she said - “Mrs. Trollope: The Triumphant Feminine in the Nineteenth Century” - a biography, and drawing unemployment after the closure of Cardinal Christian College left her without a job.
The book, she added, was something she believed she needed to write in order to teach again.
“I realized that I could never get another job as a professor in a college unless I had a book,” she said. “In some senses, as an academic book, it’s the best one I ever did. I fell in love with her. I think when you’re a biographer you’ve got to love your subject.
“On the strength of that, probably, I got the job at Framingham,” she added.
Heineman said the job wouldn’t do her any favors - it was difficult to be recognized as a good teacher in the evening program, and only teaching one course offered very little income.
“I remember my husband saying to me, ‘You know Helen, you get more money from unemployment than teaching one course.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t care, because I want to teach,’” she said.
Heineman said when she was hired, she realized the chances of advancing were slim - but she still wanted to teach.
She said she was eventually asked by the chair of the English department if he could observe, and he was impressed with her performance and hired her as a tenured-track professor in the English department.
She added she eventually became a full-time professor, and then the chair of the English department - a position she remained in for around seven years - before becoming the academic vice president.
“That year the academic vice president took a job elsewhere in the month of August. And so very late in August, the president - who was Paul Weller - called on me and said ‘I’d like to offer you the job of acting academic vice president,’” she said.
Heineman said the next year, she was selected to remain in the position, beating over 100 other candidates. She remained the academic vice president until Paul Weller’s retirement, when she was asked to become acting president of the University.
She said while she wanted to accept the role, becoming acting president meant she couldn’t be considered for the position permanently, and struggled with accepting the acting role.
She added, “Finally, a very knowledgeable member of the Board of Trustees said to me, ‘You know Helen, if the chair of the board doesn’t want you, you’re not going to get the position, even if you’re one of the three finalists.’
“So I gave in, I took the acting job, and ran the college for eight months,” she said.
Heineman said a new president was eventually chosen, but left the college after two years, after which the Board of Trustees appointed her to the role.
She said she eventually left the position after seven years to join her husband in retirement, although she never got sick of being the president.
“I loved the job,” she added.
Heineman also shared some of the changes she made to campus during her presidency - specifically regarding the restoration of the Heineman Ecumenical Center, dedicated to her.
She said during her presidency, the structure was practically falling apart and she received a lot of advice suggesting she just tear it down.
“I went over myself, I walked around - one of the first things that attracted me were the stained-glass windows. I thought they were absolutely gorgeous. I thought, this could be something - this could be a special place,” she said.
Heineman said she received money from the Massachusetts State College Building Authority for a restoration project - turning the building into a space for performing arts, even hosting professional opera singers from Boston.
She even convinced the BOSE Corporation, headquartered in Framingham, to donate a $15,000 sound system, she said.
Heineman said it has served a lot of functions over the years, from a center for the arts to a quiet non-denominational space for students to gather following the 9/11 attacks.
“When I retired I was so honored when the trustees decided to name it in my honor. It’s really a fantastic honor,” she said.
Heineman said she was also responsible for creating the campus quad in front of Dwight Hall - which was all parking area before - creating more space for students.
She said she once had a visiting parent say the campus “looked like a little New England college.”
Heineman said she responded, “It is!”
She added, being geographically surrounded by many Ivy Leagues, people have a preconception state schools like FSU must be inferior.
“I think we need to keep telling people, getting the message out, that [FSU] is not only as good, but in some senses, better, because our faculty is committed to teaching undergraduates,” she said.
Heineman said at an institution like Harvard, students aren’t taught by a professor until they are upperclassmen, and would likely spend most of an undergraduate career being taught by graduate students.
“It always was a message I tried to get out, and I’m not sure it’s out yet - but I hope so,” she added.
Heineman said she has always loved novels, and that love allowed her to start writing her own.
She said her favorite aspect of any novel is its characters.
With her first project, “Happily Ever After” - her first novel and fifth book - she began by borrowing Austen’s characters, and was “a little shocked” to find out she was just as capable of making up her own, she said.
“They became people I could live with every day, even if I had to stay home,” she said. “That’s why I love novels, they’re full of people - interesting people.”
Heineman said creating characters for the “Emma Redux” series has even bled out of fiction, and led her to write a new biography.
She said while she was writing the second book, “Full Circle,” she researched 19th century doctors in order to write one accurate to the time period.
This led her to an account of the first female doctor in Britain, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who she is currently writing a biography on, she added.
She said she was impressed with Anderson for her will to break gender norms in the 1840s, but was particularly interested in Anderson’s healthy marriage - which is a recurring subject in her novels.
Heineman said she has sent the biography to publishers a few times, but it hasn’t yet been accepted.
“Rejections are something you live with when you’re a writer, and you must learn to take it and say, ‘OK,’” she said.
“You do have to send it out again, you cannot take the rejection, but you need to go through it again and think about how you could possibly improve it,” she added.
Heineman said criticism is the hardest thing for her to deal with as a writer, but it’s a necessity.
“It is hard for me to take criticism. And it’s very hard to take criticism from, let’s say, your husband, someone you love, or from a family member, or a good friend,” she said.
She said although difficult, it’s important to hold in emotional responses to critiques, and she didn’t do that very often with her husband’s criticism. She added it’s easier to handle criticism when authors approach with the idea “There must be something wrong with this.
“Maybe it’s not what the person said - that person may not have identified really what’s wrong with it, but I need to take a look at this again,” she said.
Heineman said it’s difficult to be able to “think critically about yourself,” and that’s why it’s helpful to have good readers - readers who will tell the truth.
She said she always teaches a novel in her Lifelong Learning classes, and her favorite author is actually Charles Dickens - not Austen.
She said she admired Dickens’ serialized approach to writing novels, alongside his skill and the length of his writing. “Dickens is my favorite. Absolute favorite. And they’re all big - I love big novels.”
Heineman said she loves 19th century fiction as a whole, including the work of the Brontës, Austen, and Trollope. “These were the greats,” she added.
Heineman said when she began writing her first novel, after many years of teaching them, she felt at home.
“It was for me a blend of my life as an academic, with research, … and my creative side - I hope - in which I can make things up. I like that blend of a world that has to be created through research,” she said.
She said she can’t see herself ever writing a modern fiction due to her attraction to the 19th century and a sense of displacement in the present.
“In some respects I don’t feel that I really inhabit this world,” she said.
Heineman said although she uses technology, for example, she isn’t comfortable with it, and thinks some of her beliefs are against modern consensus - particularly on marriage, which she writes about often in the “Emma Redux” series.
“One of the reasons I took up the subject of marriage is I really believe in it, and I think it can make people happy. And I don’t think everybody quite believes that anymore, … so that’s why I stick to that period for my fiction,” she said.
Heineman said her advice for aspiring authors is it’s never too late to start, and it requires commitment.
“I think there’s no way to find out except to do it,” she said.
She said she was reminded of Dickens, who spent every day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in his study, writing, with no interference.
She said he was once asked, “What if you don’t think of anything?” Dickens replied, “I sit there all the same,” she said.
Heineman said finding a regular time is the most important part.
“And you’ll never do it if you wait for inspiration to come,” she said. “Put a piece of sealing wax on your seat, stay there, and don’t be distracted.”
Heineman said she was “riding high” from the book signing, and was happy to see so many people - current President Nancy Niemi, Dale Hamel, Eric Gustafson, former and current students, friends, and family at the Warren Conference Center.
She said, “It was just an absolutely wonderful day.
“I will never forget it.”