Part II of III: Interview with Jodi Cleghorn and Adam Byatt, authors of Postmarked: Piper’s Reach

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 second of a three-part interview (part one was published on December 17 and can be read here; part three will run on December 21).

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RVW: Have there been situations in the first two seasons where you felt limited by the epistolary form? Authors who have, in the past, published their work annually solely through the print medium are now finding the need to satisfy fans’ cravings for more writing between books via blogs and social media networks. Have you thought about possibly utilizing the website and social sites such as Facebook and Twitter to provide more details and supplementary materials (character sketches, maps of Piper’s Reach, etc.) to fill in the gaps created by the epistolary form? Or, do you see this as the ultimate challenge in brevity, revealing everything to the reader through letters only?  

ADAM: The letter is the ultimate challenge in brevity. The voyeuristic nature of reading private letters is a greater benefit to our readership and the narrative than lots of background information. We know we are writing a narrative, but also aware we are writing letters. There is a fine tension between the two and I think we’ve been successful. The readers have had to take Jude and Ella-Louise at face value and extrapolate from the letters the shared history and experiences. I feel it makes for a more authentic reading experience as the readers are able to follow their reconnection and current history.

JODI: I think the fact there is new content every week assists with feeding the fans’ cravings.

It was my need to explore beyond the epistolary constraints that saw the creation of additional content. But it’s a literary spoor (left mainly by me) and rarely talked about, much less pointed to. Search through our blogs and you’ll find smatterings of short stories, vignettes, scripts and poems that compliment (I hope) the letters. I even managed to get Adam to write something PMPR related without him knowing it.

ADAM: In our initial planning, Jodi and I were going to write the notes Jude and Ella-Louise passed to each other during high school. We wanted to develop a measure of authenticity about our characters, explore the development of their relationship and who they were as teenagers but it lasted for only two notes.

It would be fun to develop their backstory through images, web pages, twitter feeds, but ultimately I want the narrative to speak for itself.

JODI: The music is really the only steadfast supplementary tool we use, in and out of the letters. While Adam and I absolutely will never discuss future plot points we will drop “a new EL & Jude” song into Facebook or Twitter. It’s like a secret language that doesn’t break the NSP.

ADAM: And we have talked about writing a screenplay for television for Piper’s Reach and that may be an opportunity to develop the backstory and relationship when they were in high school.

JODI: Complete with agreement on the opening scene of Jude pulling up at his folks’ place, and going inside to find EL’s letter there. Which of course provoked discussions about what song would be playing on the radio and what song would accompany the flashback of EL and Jude at The Point during the opening credits!

ADAM: We have a Facebook page—originally set up to bring both sides of fandom together, but more recently we’ve encouraged Posties to return to the website and comment on there.

JODI: My hope is one day PMPR will have the same ardent following that Constantine Markide’s Fourth Fiction had in 2009 along with the rampant commenting. Though I wonder, if we’ve already seen the rise and fall of the blog as the central platform for commentary?

ADAM: What if we were to offer the original letters for sale?

RVW: When writers compose stories, they usually have the luxury of drafting an outline, selecting a theme or point of character evolution that readers can relate to and take with them long after the story has finished. In its simplest terms, the writer gets to craft a bigger purpose to the piece. In Piper’s Reach, however, the writing is so reactionary to the letters that are received, and there isn’t much of an opportunity to really create that bigger purpose for the story (aside from the virtual immediacy of the story unfolding as it might in real life; in some ways, it rivals The Truman Show where we are voyeuristically experiencing their story one letter at a time).  The NSP is part of the magic that is so appealing to readers. What temptations do you face in resisting collaboration about the direction of this story and in developing that bigger purpose for the readers? What do you do to keep those temptations in check?

ADAM: There is a bigger purpose to Post Marked: Piper’s Reach, which is on the blog, and in rereading it, we have fulfilled those aims. In particular, we have fulfilled the narrative purpose by exploring the lives of two individuals reconnecting in real time. It is a “real life” narrative and mimics and mirrors the lives of individuals.

JODI: In Season 2 we see EL and Jude mirrored not just in the words they write but in the way these letters are written, sent and read: huge gaps of silence then mad outpourings; distance; uncertainty; utter disconnection. It’s the sort of thing you could never cleverly plot or plan for: the simplicity of process as metaphor.

ADAM: The temptation in breaking the NSP is to “solve” the problems we have created for our characters, but it would be contrary to what we have established.

JODI: As such, the temptation has been huge for me in the last six weeks not because both narrative threads are a magnificent crescendo, but because the narrative is so broken, an absolute tangle of the past, present and future—I was afraid of creating inconsistencies if the letters crossed.

Adam and I discussed this and we conceded, if need be, we’d corroborate on a series of dates (such as when the trial began/finished) and basic events (what happens at the trial) and leave the rest of it to interpretation and reaction. We haven’t had to do that, because to date we’ve kept events fluid—both EL and Jude in limbo from their combined and individual predicaments. When dates and events require permanence, or the narrative creates it, we know how to approach it.

ADAM: Both of us are invested in our characters, who they are and what they have become. We created them and they operate how we understand them. Trying to tell the other how to write their character would contravene the purpose of the project. I keep the temptation in check by thinking ahead.

JODI: I resist the temptation by thinking backward! By talking to Adam about what has passed.

For example: I dropped Ginny into a letter, Adam fleshed it out and once committed to paper it’s free for deconstruction. When we talked about it, we found (not surprisingly) we came at Ginny and Bill from very different angles. What will emerge is Ginny and Bill as a reflection of life; how we interpret it through our own filters. EL absolutely thought Bill wanted her to tell Jude (she calls it building a bridge between them) but we find out from Jude’s letter Bill was shocked Jude knew.

Ginny and Bill’s story will become an artefact of how the different roles we play in life shape the narratives we develop and share—what Bill tells Jude is very different to what he tells EL, defined by his different relationship (and inherent expectations) with the two of them. When I dropped Ginny into the letter, it was only because EL told me! I saw her and Bill on the beach and Bill pointing up to the house. All this cleverness is only accessible in hindsight!

Readers are free to take the example of Bill and Ginny and reflect/speculate on what it means in terms of the narrative EL and Jude share. What truly shapes it? What is the purpose of it for each of them?

ADAM: We deconstruct each letter once it’s read, talking over what we said and what happened. It helps to understand each character further. I can foresee a proper collaboration in the future where we sit down and map out the narrative arc and thematic purpose, but the immediacy of this project gives Post Marked: Piper’s Reach its own thematic concern and purpose.

At some point we may have to break the NSP and decide where to end the narrative, or it may simply come to a natural conclusion.

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Be sure to read Part Three of this three-part interview right here on December 21, 2012. We encourage your comments and input about the epistolary form, the series, and the authors during the run of this three-part series.

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