Remember letters? Epistles? In my entirely forgotten youth, people wrote them to each other. They used pencil or pen (fountain pens! Inkblots! Ruined items!) and paper. Later they used typewriters. Sometimes, thinking they were being ever so cool, they wrote to their camp friends on birchbark or on toilet paper. My friend Howie always signed his missives with a drawing of a banjo, just like Pete Seeger. My father signed his with a round, smiling face (Oh, my father’s letters are another story entirely). People wrote back. Mailboxes contained personal mail.
If you read my letter about the Beatles concert, you might be able to intuit what some of my own letters were like. Long, rambling, sometimes hilarious, sometimes not, and always filled with typos. Or worse: written in indecipherable longhand. People: to correct a typo one had to use something called Wite-Out (why no ‘h’?), or even little slips of paper. Carbons? Uncorrectable. It was time-consuming. Typewriters were not even electric! Fingers hurt! I kid you not.
No more, no more.
So I wish I had written an epistolary novel way back then. One with ephemera included. When done well, I adore reading them. Don’t they seem the perfect vehicle for self-obsessed adolescents? Different from first-person, even when there’s only one writer. Why? Off the top of my head: they can create an illusion of being less polished, less “I’m telling you a story now,” less shaped—all by design, of course. When the letters are lively and have a unique voice, they’re unbeatable.
Some examples I’ve read:
84, Charing Cross Road—one of the very best. Feeling Sorry for Celia. Dracula. Griffin and Sabine. The Jolly Postman. Letters From A Desperate Dog. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Daddy–Long-Legs. Flowers for Algernon. The Guernsey Literary etc. Sorcery and Cecelia. Letters from Rifka. The Company You Keep (emails). Love, Stargirl. The Color Purple. Dear Mr. Henshaw. Frankenstein. Anne of Windy Poplars.Thank you, Miss Doover. Letters From Father Christmas. And lots I’m not thinking of.
These novels still need a narrative arc and a reason for existing. Why are these characters writing to each other? Or why is one character writing to everyone else? Is the form still possible, or are emails and text message novels all we can hope for now? Oh, pooey. What’s the reason any contemporary two people would be writing long letters? That could even set a plot in motion. Historical fiction. Time travel. Or a newly-discovered cache. And etc.
Do you have a favorite? Have you tried one yourself? How might you structure one for today’s readers?
Next time, maybe: something from my father’s letters, if I can find them.
Love from Leda
PS: I’d love to hear from you!