I’ve found a new appreciation for the Epistolary novel, a novel written in a series of documents. Whether these documents include diary entries, letters or newspaper clippings, it is how the author uses them to their advantage that fascinates me. In this blog post I will be focusing on the power of letters, what a reader can gain from what is being left unsaid, what I’ve learned from other authors who incorporate letters in their novels and how I’ve applied my findings to my work.
The letter not only gives the character something to hold on to, but the reader as well. Something to grasp, read over and over again, always finding something new about character. It forces the reader to focus on syntax, every word having substance and meaning.I’ve always loved the segments on the news where elderly couples share the love letters they received from their dashing soldiers overseas. They cling to them, pressing them against their hearts or holding them firmly on their laps, afraid that at some point during the interview they will be taken away. In some cases, these are the last moments shared between them and the soldiers that never make it home. The only memories they have, some of the letters carrying their scent which is why they hold them to their nose and breathe in the memories.
Others run their fingers over each handwritten word contained in the letter, as if tracing the face of their lost love.
I wanted to bring this feeling to my short stories, renew what is slowly being lost through the use of text messaging and email. The essence of a person on the page and the messages they send to their loved ones. Anthony Doerr does this brilliantly in his novel, All the Light We Cannot See, portraying, through letters of course, a father who is still worried about the well being of his daughter despite his own situation. Historically, the reader can assume the father’s fate but it is the relationship between father and daughter that Doerr draws attention to. No matter the location or the distance between these two characters, Doerr makes it clear that his one character never stops being a father.
Below is one of several letters I have written between my characters. Kazuo’s father, Seijiro, has just been taken and placed into one of the Japanese internment camps. The short story explains how several Japanese men were taken in the night, separated from their families so I won’t spoil the entire story just in case (fingers crossed it gets published some day).
Finally it is spring and I no longer miss my slippers. I’ve been transferred
to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Please tell your mother to write her letters in English. I am doing well, my health is fine and I have started working out after every meal. I met a carpenter who may have a job for you once we are released. Are you still crafting? Tell me what it is you do in that shed. This man asks me questions while we lie in our cot and and I don’t know how to answer. It is always good to have a hobby. Maybe he is asking impossible questions.
You must remember Kazuo
to never give up, not matter how hopeless the situation might seem. They cannot keep all of us here for long so you must stay strong for yourself and for your mother. Promise me you won’t forget?
Take care of your mother. I worry about you both but I know that you will find a way to overcome this.
I miss you my son.
Your loving father,
The crossed out and white font words are supposed to be huge black boxes, representing the razor cutouts that occurred during this time. What I love so much about this process is that I’m delivering a letter that displays a nod towards history without having to fully explain the meaning. Each letter was opened and read, the parts the US government found to be too telling were cut out leaving family members with these broken messages.
But the father is also distracting his son from the situation. Historically, we know he is in an internment camp (you can highlight and read what the letter actually says and look up the internment camp location for more details). The situation is bad but his father talks about his slippers, his health is fine, anything to keep from talking about what is really happening. Why? Because he is a father writing to his son.
I also wanted to draw attention to the mother’s refusal to write in English, proud of her heritage. Sadly, this disrupts the communication between husband and wife, her letters being kept from him because the soldiers are unable to read them. Several letters are exchanged between father and son, enabling me to to echo the main themes of my novel. Race. Family. Heritage. As the story progresses, the father’s letters become softer, reflecting on his life with his son and wife. The beginning and endings of a letter are also very telling. Does the letter begin with a formal statement? With a nickname? Or perhaps the letter just starts, representing a rushed situation? Does the character even know who they are writing to?
Does the letter end with:
Mr. John Doe
Does the character just write their name at the end? Yours truly? With love?
The second letter I’ve chosen to include is between Kazuo and his love interest, Esther. A softer side here with some touches of cultural difference. This one is still in the first revision stages which is why I’ve chosen to include it on my blog. No doubt it will change and by the time it is published (positive affirmations along with crossed fingers never hurt anyone’s chances) you might not even recognize it! So lets dive in and I’ll provide some notes of what I’m trying to accomplish with this one.
Dear Esther, (more formal start here)
As always, I am doing fine (reiterating the fact though historically the reader knows this to be somewhat of a lie) and can’t wait to see you again (displaying his expectations upon his release). You are always in my thoughts and even though I hope I am in yours, I will understand if you have chosen to forget me (hinting that not everything is alright between these two characters. Why would he no longer be in her thoughts?). After all, none of your letters seem to find their way to me if you are writing at all (conflict, is she choosing not to respond and if so why? If it is not by choice then why has Kazuo not heard from her?). Just know that putting this pencil to paper, thinking of all the things I wish to tell you, is the best part of my day and makes waking up for work in the morning not so bad (contradicts his previous statement, “I am doing fine.” If this is true why does he need to write to her in order to make the mornings better?). Have I ever told you that the Japanese do not say, “I love you” that this is something assumed and represented through the time one spends with the person they care about (note on cultural differences). Our separation prevents us from spending much time together, which is why you must know that when I say, I love you I mean it. Not in the way many Americans say they love their spouse just to get them to stop talking or when they easily say they love baseball, Vermont or a Cadillac.
But there is something I wish to know. Do you believe in someone fighting for a cause they do not believe in (foreshadowing to a difficult choice Kazuo will have to make)? Even if it’s a chance at freedom (contradicting his previous statement again. If he is fine, why is he so desperate for freedom)?
Could you love someone like that?
Love (repetition adding emphasis to what is important to him),
I love the way short letters make you cling to every word, dissecting each sentence for a specific meaning. Hidden messages, the things characters don’t talk about or communicate to one another through their letters are what the reader should focus on. I encourage you, the next time you read a letter in a novel or one that someone sends you, pay attention to formatting. Formal or informal? Repetition of topics or straight forward?
And to my fellow writers out there, do you incorporate letters into your works in progress? Do you find your character’s voice coming through more so in the letters then through dialogue or the narrative?
I, personally, find that writing these letters allows my characters to stand in front of each other. They are vulnerable, exposed but still desperate to provide a glimpse of hope to the ones they love. Wanting to spill all their secrets but still afraid of the consequences.