Tuesday, May 25, 2010

25. On Writing in Letters and Notes

I saw Sarah Jessica Parker being interviewed by Oprah once, and she was talking about her five-year-old son. She said, ‘Oh, having him around, we just learn something new every day.’ And Oprah said, ‘Really? Like what?’ Sarah Jessica didn’t know what to say. I think she’d been expecting Oprah to say, ‘I can imagine!’ or ‘Yeah, kids are dynamite, aren’t they?’ or ‘We could all do with that sort of wisdom these days — maybe he should run for president!’ That sort of thing. But no, it was just, ‘how so?’

Poor SJP.

It’s strange, I wouldn’t remember either. Charlie skates such a fine line between genius and dreamlike madness. The things he says slide out of my mind as they happen.

Luckily, though, I sometimes write them here. If Oprah ever asks me, ‘How so?’ about Charlie, I won’t falter, I’ll just give her the link.


One thing I remember. He started playing shops one day and he said, ‘Do you want to buy something?’ and I was feeling a bit whimsical, I said, ‘Well, do you have any happiness?’ and right away, he said, ‘No. But we’ve got apples.’


That little story — the happiness/apples one — it feels like something I could sell to a minister of religion, doesn’t it. To use as a human interest anecdote, and they’d get a quiet, grateful laugh from the congregation, and then they’d stretch it out into a metaphor for something spiritual, bridge it over to the bible, lose the congregation, drift off into abstraction.


With Feeling Sorry for Celia, the first Ashbury book, I didn’t intend for it to be epistolary. There were a lot of letters, sure – between the girls, from imaginary associations, notes on the fridge from the mother – but these were all embedded in a third person narrative. After a few pages of writing, though, I noticed that the narrative was getting thinner, like a diminishing lattice pastry, and I thought, why is it even there?

I thought: I’m going to see if I can do without it!

It was kind of an exciting moment. Stepping out of the narrative. Setting out on my own! Breaking loose! I took away the pastry shell and the pie kept its shape!

This happened in the computer room at Cambridge. For a moment I felt I had done something revolutionary, then I remembered that epistolary novels have been around for a bit.

Anyway, after that, I became addicted to the format. Partly, it’s because I like to take things to pieces, write into the fragments, and see what shape they start to take. Partly it's because I've always loved an unreliable narrator. Letters are neither reliable nor static; they’re designed to fly through the air and gently fall into the recipient’s lap like a gift, or hit the recipient in the eye. If a teacher asked students to write letters to a neighbouring school, as part of an assignment, you couldn't trust the students to be honest or to be themselves. When you have six students writing letters, you get multiple, intersecting, unreliable narrators.

In Amelia/Ghosts, there are exams, history, and blogs, and I think that, for their own reasons, these are even less reliable than letters. When you write an exam, you're conscious that you're writing for authority, and being graded. (So when Emily says that watching Riley and Amelia act was like having sex with strangers, she suddenly remembers she’s in an exam, and feels compelled to add that she’s not that kind of girl.)

Most of all, though, I like the spaces in between. Once, when I was a lawyer, I was going through a box of documents for a case, piecing the story together. There was a long, long chain of dull, procedural letters and documents, typed, stamped, formatted, in high-brow legalese. Then, suddenly — startlingly — a small hand-written note. The ink was pale blue; the script neat and curling. It had been written by an elderly woman, a minor character in a huge, complex, corporate case, and her note said, ‘this has made my life something of a disaster’ and, ‘perhaps I could prevail on you to help?’

Immediately after her note, the typed documents were back: dry, formal, remote. There was no response to the woman. That silence— that’s where the real story was.


Blogger Elleira said...

one of my favourite entries yet. :)

12:09 a.m.  
Anonymous Holly said...

I've always thought you wrote in letters/scraps of information because it was the lawyer in you treating your books like solving a case.

Good ol' Oprah.

12:24 p.m.  
Blogger TopCat said...

I've been on holiday with no internet access and I've really missed your posts, but catvhing up all in one go has been a real treat.

It was a family holiday (my in-laws) and between them they had six children from aged 2 to aged 7. They were hilarious and I'm envious of mothers because every day they would do or say something that amazed or amused me and I realised that mothers have this privilege every single day

7:02 p.m.  
Anonymous sabiya said...

I think that's really true, that thing you said about Charlie and how you sort of forget the things he says. I sometimes write down what my little sister says, or send them in a text when i remember, but most of the time, if someone asked me on the spot, i wouldn't remember anything!

One of my favourite things she said though was when i asked her what my niece was doing, and she said 'She's got the sun in her head'.
i loved that! (my niece was day-dreaming) :)

And also, the silence you were talking about inbetween letters. I was just thinking about silences yesterday night and how maybe i could write my dissertation on that. I was on the phone to my friend and i could feel her mind sort of skipping around this topic, it was like a silence i could hear.
I need to listen out more for the silences.

But i like it when you can hear the smiles too.

I'm probably not making much sense. Sorry for the long message.
Thank you for another luvly post :)


8:38 p.m.  
Blogger Jaclyn Moriarty said...

Thank you again, Elleira - and Holly, I like that idea, of treating a book like solving a case - and TopCat, welcome back, I have missed you, and I hope it was a good holiday. And Sabiya, I love your little sister's 'sun in her head' comment, and I really like how you express that idea of hearing your friend's silence on the phone. You made plenty of sense. Jx

10:24 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read Feeling Sorry for Celia when I was maybe... 14? But it was kind of my lonely/awkward stage and my family was going through stuff. I used to write myself letters in the form of associations after I read the book. Some would put me down and others would just be cute and funny. I kept the journal locked up in a laptop case and I kept the key in my jewelry box. It had a huge impact in my life, it really helped me get through some stuff. I'd only ever want to tell you this, because I know as an author you wouldn't view me as a "troubled" child or anything. I'm about 18 now and I wish I had that notebook still. To see how much I changed.
I'll also always remember reading The Year of Secret Assignments. I stayed up until morning to read it. We have a small library, and the surrounding libraries all share the same books. My best friend was a couple towns over at the time and I knew she'd likewise love the book. She ordered the book from the library branch in my town after I checked it back in. I wrote her my own little real "Secret Assignment" in the book... which was just to read the book and tell me how she liked it ;)

12:23 p.m.  
Blogger Jaclyn Moriarty said...

Kelly, thank you so much for sharing your lovely and beautiful stories about your locked laptop case full of letters, and your secret assignment hidden in a book - they absolutely made my day. Jx

10:17 p.m.  
Anonymous Emilie said...

I loved this entry! Just like I love your books. And it did speak to me. I dont have a child myself (only 19) but I do have a little sister who's almost 2 and a little brother still unborn. You so learn a lot. Learn how to not take things persionally (sometimes it's all mom and she might hit me for standing too close), or that I do have a little fan of my own. She often takes my finger, walks in to the living room and says "Emiii dance!!" and then I do a couple of steps which she tries to follow (Im a dancer). I can feel that she looks up to me and that is a great feeling, something I learn to accept and live by every day.

Children are the best :)

Also, the way you write with letters really is great! I love to write letters myself - maybe that's why I fell so much for your books? But the year of secret assignments (Yeah I have that version) was the first book I read in english and it was also one of the best books I've read in english. Think I was 14-15. My family didnt see much of me :)

7:42 p.m.  
Blogger Jaclyn Moriarty said...

Emilie, it's lovely how you talk about your little sister - especially the idea of your dancing for her - thank you so much for your comment. Jx

10:49 p.m.  

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