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.