In April 2012, two Australian writers — Jodi Cleghorn and Adam Byatt — began an ambitious 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. The project has at its heart a love of letter writing and music.
It’s called Postmarked: Piper’s Reach, and I am hooked.
Late last month, as Season Two was coming to a climactic conclusion, I found myself so intrigued by the development of the story — old lovers reunited through letters 20 years later — that I collaborated with authors Jodi and Adam about their Postmarked: Piper’s Reach project. I sent them eight rather detailed questions, and they returned a 4,000-word missive that gives us all more than we could ever hope for.
Their website includes copies of the handwritten letters sent to each other in “real time,” as well as numerous other interviews and relevant material in experiencing fully the Postmarked series of letters.
What follows is the first of a three-part interview (parts two and three will run on December 19 and 21, respectively).
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RVW: The form that you have chosen – epistolary – provides both advantages and challenges, both for the writers and the readers. Up to this point, the letter writing has been exclusively between Jude and EL. Throughout both seasons, though, you have introduced minor characters that have played a rather significant role in the story. Have you considered the possibility of having the two main characters write letters to – or receive letters from – some of those secondary characters as a means of furthering the depth of the plot and the backstory?
ADAM: Writing an epistolary narrative limits the focus you give to the characters and to the readers. It is a narrow perspective for the reader, that of the individual character and his/her choices of what to talk about in a letter.
Expanding the scope of the narrative to include other characters/narrators has not entered our discussions, and may yet, but for the foreseeable future, secondary characters will remain as sidelines to our main protagonists, Jude and Ella-Louise.
JODI: Laura and I did actually talk about this several months ago (Adam hits the floor and says, ‘You never told me this!’ (Adam – “You never told me this!”) I’d been brewing the idea of sending EL away for the trial for a while and part of the process was considering the implications of breaking the normal lines of communication. And Laura was keen to write, enamoured with the whole concept.
I saw a pile of Jude’s letters gathering on a bench somewhere (Ava’s house, EL’s cottage) and wondered at what point Ava would write to Jude and say, ‘I’m sorry. She’s gone and I don’t know where she went.’
Then… ‘EL and Jude happened’ at the McCracken House and I knew EL would never disappear without a word, not to Jude. Not even in the wake of his silent departure.
The possibility ended with Laura’s own insight into Ava: ‘She would just ring Jude.’
ADAM: Secondary characters (like Bill, Jude’s father) provide another perspective to Jude and Ella-Louise and their predicament. These characters add depth of understanding to how Jude and Ella-Louise act/interact/react, but the reader is only able to see what Jude and Ella-Louise share. It allows Ella-Louise and Jude to remain true to their own agendas and ideas. The story is about their relationship and to alter it now, adding in additional narrators, would alter the trajectory of the narrative.
JODI: And for all intents and purposes the idea of communicating via handwritten letters is really an archaic idea in this hyperconnected world; it belongs to twenty years ago, much like EL and Jude. I’m not really sure whom else around them would have a buy-in via this mode of communication. Rebecca, perhaps: yeah I know, how many readers would love there to be a letter from Rebecca to EL? Or Marion: a cease and desist order from the woman I’ve always had in my head as being utterly over-protective of her only son! Or Zeke: a lovelorn letter born on clouds of plaster dust and promises. Or one of Season Two’s new players: Bryan, Ginny Laine, Dario?
RVW: Because you have a No-Spoilers Policy (NSP), I imagine it is quite the challenge for each of you to resist the temptation to “steer” the story in one direction or another based on the new details you reveal (especially about the backstory) in each new letter. Is it like a game of chess, where you are plotting letters two and three in advance? Or is it a more fluid, write-as-you-receive approach?
ADAM: We do try and steer the narrative in one direction or the other, in very subtle ways. Jodi is a master of it; she has been responsible for providing a lot of Jude’s backstory, although I am the one responsible for dropping them into the predicament they are in now, when I didn’t think it would go there.
JODI: I drop hints (though I’ve learnt subtly is lost on Adam and Jude) or make mention of something (Ginny Laine, a busted knee) and let Adam build on it, but ultimately PMPR has been a huge lesson in letting go. I can’t definitively commandeer the narrative in [insert proposed map-capped ill-conceived direction], but yes, we both have the power of influence.
ADAM: Jodi did try and steer one narrative angle that I completely missed.
JODI: Oh yeah…I totally tried to drop a pregnancy into the mix, because a weekend of rampant sex with no real thought to the consequences begged a life-long consequence. I wanted to see how Jude dealt with that!
But I set up very early on in my head that EL couldn’t have children. So I pushed a direction I knew it couldn’t go, but Adam wasn’t privy to any of this, which meant it was a thread that could absolutely have been picked up. Ultimately the push failed and I learned the narrative is its own beast to which I serve. Not the other way around.
ADAM: As a character, Jude is not privy to the information held by Ella-Louise. In a similar way, because Jude was not a fully-fledged character at the beginning of the series, more a generic ‘everyman’ character, defined and developed as the series progressed. Thus, he sees things in a linear fashion, cause-and-effect.
Therefore it is a fluid write-as-I-receive approach. After reading once, I read the letter a second time and make notes as I go on the back of the envelope, recording what happened and what I might plot in terms of where I want to take Jude. I react to what Ella-Louise writes (as if I were Jude) because Jude is a more reactive character; he lacks the forward momentum Ella-Louise has. He can see that she is driven in ways he is not; she has an agenda which conflicts with who he is and what she wants him to be.
I have one or two ideas up my sleeve about what I want to do to Jude (but Jodi has begged me NOT to crush Jude too harshly) but it is dependent on what transpires between each letter.
I know where I want to take Jude, but do you want me to take him there?
JODI: I’m a big picture person. I throw threads in all directions and wait to see if at some point they can be gathered and pulled together (or not!). Adam’s is a more linear framework, compared to my nebulous approach. In an organic narrative both approaches fit together beautifully.
I’m super patient, prepared to wait months, across ten or twelve letters for a plot point to develop. It’s like taking a Polaroid but having to wait weeks and months to see what the final photo is. A bit like waiting on the outcome of Jude and EL’s first meeting.
ADAM: As we approached the school reunion in June, part of me wanted Jude to fall, and to fall spectacularly. Jude and Ella-Louise had been flirting with their history, recounting past experiences and the modern Jude was still in love with the girl he knew twenty years ago.
Throughout Season 1 Jodi and I (unspoken mind you due to the NSP) danced around the issue of “would they or wouldn’t they?” We were both hoping they would.
JODI: But, the better I got to know Jude, the more I resigned myself to the fact they wouldn’t. It seemed implausible for Jude to seduce EL. I felt, if it were left to me to write the post-reunion letter, I could not push him to do that. And EL, well despite still being in love with Jude, she had begun a retreat from flirtations months earlier. I couldn’t see her pushing their relationship toward the bedroom (and frankly I think she was too scared of the possibility of being rejected: thus we got, ‘If you touch me I’ll shatter.)
ADAM: I was tempted to let Jude remain as he was, unable to do anything. It was a text from Jodi that tipped the scales and gave me the impetus to push in a different direction.
Jude’s act of adultery at the end of Season 1 changed the narrative dramatically and has made for an interesting second season, particularly with Ella-Louise separated in Sydney. It leaves them physically separated and unable to deal with the current situation while Ella-Louise deals with her past.
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Be sure to read Part Two of this three-part interview right here on December 19, 2012. We encourage your comments and input about the epistolary form, the series, and the authors during the run of this three-part series.