At the start of this year I became aware that my business partner was up to something. Tweets and conference calls would be punctuated with talk of 1980s music, the vagaries of the postal system, and mutterings about “the secret project”, like some kind of New Romantic Bond villain.
At long last, “the secret project” can be revealed, and it even has a name: Postmarked Piper’s Reach.
In December 1992 Ella-Louise Wilson boarded the Greyhound Coach for Sydney leaving behind the small coastal town of Piper’s Reach and her best friend and soulmate, Jude Smith. After twenty years of silence, a letter arrives at Piper’s Reach reopening wounds that never really healed. When the past reaches into the future, is it worth risking a second chance?
Written by eMergent Publishing’s Jodi Cleghorn, and one of Write Anything’s newest writers Adam Byatt, Post Marked: Piper’s Reach is “an ambitious organic narrative collaborative project traversing an odd path between old and new forms of communication, differing modalities of storytelling and mixed media, all played out in real and suspended time”. More about both writers can be found here, but first I have a few questions of my own…
Welcome Jodi and Adam. I think the first thing people will be asking after reading the description of your project is—what is “organic narrative development”? I presume it is something more than simply pantsing?
(Adam) The project is pantsing it in some ways, but the collaborative nature of it allows for a more natural development. The focus of the narrative, the reconnection of two old friends, and the epistolary form, gives it breathing room for the characters to be independent and develop their relationship in their own time.
(Jodi) Organic narrative is the best emulation/approximation of real life. We can plan to do something, then as we’ve been wont to say in the past Paul, “life gets in the way” and our path deviates. We go a slightly different way, we stop, or we chose a brand new path and that happens with the arrival of every new letter. It doesn’t matter what I think, or plan, it will undoubtedly change. (And then I send the next instalment to truly deviate the left turn at the fork in the road—Adam.) When you work with someone else, and agree to leave the map at home, this is the only possible narrative contingency.
(A) As two old friends reconnect, there is a natural exploration of time and space, treading carefully across old boundaries before forming new ones. They need to come to an understanding of where each has been and what has happened. The past is an easy place to visit as it gives the characters a point of reference before revealing new truths.
(J) This narrative lives and breathes under its own impetus, in the pause and nuance between what is said and what remains unsaid.
(A) In terms of writing the letters, I let the character of Jude inhabit the space and let him write. I do some initial thinking, as if it was a letter I was writing. I have the latest letter in front of me and may scribble notes, but once the pen starts, I don’t pause to add or change things. It is what it is.
(J) I do no preparation other than to sit and re-read the most recent letter. Sometimes I’ll have in my mind an opening paragraph, but more often than not I sit with pen and paper and Ella-Louise slides into my head to inhabit me in a way that is seamless but at time, uncomfortable and too close.
Talking of the characters “inhabiting” you reminds me very much of automatic writing, and the loss of conscious control that happens with it. Within that loose, almost spontaneous storyline, do you have some kind of narrative aim? One that has been decided in advance? Are either of you trying to steer each other towards a particular storyline?
(J) I think the agreed on term is ‘no set destination’… though having said that, I have a very firm idea in my head how I think it ends. But this is always open to re-interpretation as Ella-Louise and Jude get to know each other again… and in the process rediscover themselves.
(A) I have my own ideas as to how it might end, but Jodi and I haven’t talked about it (did I mention the no spoilers policy?—Jodi). We have dropped hints to one another as to possible focal catalysts but our characters seem to have their own ideas.
(J) I believe four different catalysts were tossed in the ring several weeks ago to ensure the narrative had forward motion. The reader will see one around Letter 9… as for the other three… spoilers! (What are we? River Song from Doctor Who?—Adam) Shush… don’t spoil a great cultural hook!
(A) Where’s my sonic screwdriver? Jokes aside, putting forward possible narrative arcs are contrary to the keeping of the organic nature of the story telling. How it all ends, ultimately, is up to Jude and Ella-Louise.
Handwritten letters allow you textual flourishes that are difficult to convey in printed texts—for instance in the first letter Ella-Louise has added little extra notes to Jude which don’t make it across to the typed blogpost. Are these additions planned, or are they spontaneous?
(J) I was never one of those people who planned a series of PSs at the bottom of a letter… a bit like the farce of a planned encore at a concert. Any little embellishments at the end, or the side are spur of the moment things. Though others… like an entire final line blotted out is a conscious decision.
Handwritten letters convey so much more than plain text… the words forgotten in the run of an idea, the way the writer tires and writing becomes progressively harder to read, the watermark of tears…
(A)Or tea stains when you get clumsy—did that to students’ papers recently. But more importantly is the question: can you read my handwriting?
(J)Oh yes, the challenge of Adam’s handwriting!
(A)At least I don’t write IN ALL CAPS
(J)Touché Mr B!
(A) I have made sure to slow down and focus on creating a legible script. On a side note, I’ve always liked calligraphy—from the Greek adjective ‘kalos’ (beautiful) and the verb ‘graphos’ (to write): beautiful writing. My script is no perfect font, but the words can be beautiful in themselves.
(J) In all honestly Adam’s script is beautiful! But reading the very first of Jude’s letters I struggled to decipher several key words. I think that lends something extra not just to the reader, but to both Adam and I as we read and further develop the characters. (You invented a new word: awfulising—Adam) It is actually one of my favourite words but I don’t think I have ever written it down before now! I think it fits Ella-Louise better, but does that mean I get slapped for making up word?
(A) I think awfulising is a great word. Initially we were not going to post the typed versions, to give the reader an authentic reading experience of the letters. Jodi’s first scan was bugged by ants’ eggs (and the five letters which came afterwards!—Jodi). Technological issues have been rectified.
The typed version is a concession to the dodgy nature of our handwriting. But plain text is utilitarian, mechanical. Handwriting is the soul of a person.
And a final cheeky question to Jodi (I haven’t seen Adam’s letters to comment yet)—was the mistake in the song lyrics deliberate to add some authenticity to the letter, or a genuine mistake?
(J) No—that was completely me misquoting the lyrics. I couldn’t be that clever if I tried! The alternatives were: 1. cross it out and write above it or, 2. start writing the entire page again. The idea of transcribing the entire page didn’t appeal to me. Handwriting is far less forgiving compared to the instant fix of typing on a screen.
(A) Spelling and grammatical errors add an authenticity to the letters. Meanwhile, the internal editor face palms himself and shuffles off to make a cup of tea. I’m sure there will be errors in my writing, too.
I cross things out if I misspell or stuff up the word. The handwritten nature of the project allows things to be done as they would be in real life: lines crossed out, mistakes, additions to margins, post scripts.
(J) I do make an effort to correct spelling errors in the text transcript because, unlike the handwritten version, it just looks sloppy. I leave spelling errors in the letter. This means everyone will see what an atrocious speller I am when loose in the wild. There is a particularly bad mash-up of the word “redeemable” if my memory serves me correctly around letter five. I’ll blame it on Ella-Louise!