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.
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RVW: When it comes to how readers react to a writer’s piece of writing, Robert Frost once said (and I paraphrase here), “I just write the poems; what you do with them is your own business.” The way you have shared this story with your readers, however, in a very interactive format, must make it virtually impossible to not be bothered with your readers’ “own business.” Some of your readers – myself included – have become very emotionally involved with the story for very personal reasons, and the magnitude of the story’s effect on real people, in real time, is unavoidable. How does this change the seriousness with which you handle each letter, and what kind of pressure does that place on each of you to “satisfy” the readers who are just on the other side of the ‘net, waiting anxiously to read and respond?
JODI: The interactivity has its pros and cons.
I remember being really bothered with a comment made about EL—I think it was that she was a ‘cock tease’. At the time, it looked like she’d been stringing Jude along, saying she wouldn’t go to the reunion, but went to Piper’s that weekend, then said she wouldn’t go to the actual event, but did. And then they slept together.
I was worried EL was on the verge of being demonised and I’d tried hard to ensure she’d been humanised despite her failings, her love for Jude the biggest one.
But, you take it on the chin and know if you’re evoking strong reactions in readers, positive or negative, you’re doing your job as a writer. Ambivalence is the silent death.
ADAM: Readers will be dismayed, shocked, upset, annoyed etc at what Jude does, but they understand that this is who he is. The fact our readers have such visceral responses is very humbling.
JODI: What the fan base changes, for me, is the impetus to write. Not just to keep that barrier between reader comment and each new letter penned, but to ensure there is new content each week (especially now the 12 week buffer is sometimes less than 2 weeks). My friend Jessica Bell recently talked to me about her need to release a book in 2013 to keep her fans happy and I understand that better now.
But, would the world crumble if next Tuesday a new letter didn’t appear on the website/in your inbox?
ADAM: Recently I wrote a post for Write Anything about this topic. My first commitment is to the purpose of the project, then to the consistency of my character. I cannot let readers’ opinions sway how I create Jude. He is a character who has to act within the parameters of who he is, not what other people see in him. I treat each letter very seriously but focus on developing the character and the narrative.
I had one of our readers, a colleague at work, say to me that she would recognise EL and Jude if they were to walk down the street. I think that’s a testament to the authenticity of our characters.
JODI: Due consideration to consistency and authenticity are the spawns of the fan base (especially when you consider all the letters are first draft, unedited material!)
When I came to write EL in transition between Coranderk Bend and Sydney I was a mess. It took me six weeks to find a way in and then I was dogged with doubts. Had I got it right? I knew the readers would absolutely pick up my failure to nail her voice, thoughts, actions. What if the readers didn’t connect with this new EL and her course of action? What if they didn’t believe what she’d do/react/think?
But to write of my potential fallibility as a writer, discredits EL. She is absolutely her own woman and when I sit to write her for a few hours I am her. You only have to see me when I come out of the ‘EL fugue’ to understand it is like a socially accepted form of possession.
ADAM: Recently we’ve coined a phrase: WWRT (What Would Rus Think). It comes out of your insights, Rus, into our characters. We anticipate the deconstruction and perspectives you bring to our characters because we are so enmeshed and tangled in our characters. Not that we are writing in response to your comments, Rus, but that we appreciate the insight you bring. It makes us better story tellers.
JODI: I am certain your richly drawn and deeply insightful commentary is as much a draw card to Piper’s Reach each week Rus, as the actual letters. And for that, we are deeply indebted to you.
RVW: As far as the storyline is concerned, are all options still on the plate (e.g., another reunion)? Or have you created a “won’t go there” list between the two of you that keeps the direction of the story on a narrowed track?
ADAM: The beauty of the NSP means anything is possible.
JODI: A no go list… hell no! It’s open slather.
I admit I had a hankering for a reunion at the end of Season Two until I considered what would force EL out of the wilderness and back to Piper’s Reach… and I don’t want Adam to do what my mind concocts as worst case scenario.
I keep pleading for Adam not to crush Jude!
ADAM: Readers can guess at where the narrative might head based on what has happened but we can support or subvert it.
JODI: And probably will!
RVW: Actors often have a problem with “letting go” of a certain character they have been portraying for a certain amount of time, and they remain in-character for some period after the last curtain drops. Do you envision that, when Piper’s Reach concludes, you will feel the same way about Jude and EL?
ADAM: We’ve joked at various times we will need some serious therapy when this concludes.
JODI: I’ve already done part one of my therapy of letting EL go in writing a story called “Nothing New To Begin” (it’s currently under consideration for a short story prize here in Australia). The story explores the process of letting a character go when I couldn’t envisage a life without EL, much less actually letting her die. Perhaps I had to accept the possibility of her death before I could cast her into the danger of testifying at the Francos’ trial and the possibility of not making it back to Jude.
ADAM:I know Jodi had EL as a fully formed character from the start. Jude began as a shadow of a man, a mere sketch I filled in as I went. He is now a fully fledged character. To say goodbye to him will be bittersweet because part of him is me. There are parts of Jude’s narrative, his personality and character that are reflections of me (except the adultery) I built into him in the first season until he was his own person, and I think Jodi would say there are parts of her in EL.
It will feel like a little death when I have to say farewell to Jude.
JODI: The real question is how do the readers feel about letting go of EL and Jude? Will we see farewell parties spring up across the globe upon receipt of the final letter.
My idea for letting go is a road trip—a few days of therapy on the wide open roads to see if we can find all the fictional places (The Point, the McCracken House, the lighthouse, EL’s cottage, Piper’s Reach fish and chip shop, Ginny Laine’s beach house) amid the real geographical markers (Eden, Coffs Harbour, Narooma). One bottle or two of chocolate port to ride shotgun, Adam?
For now I’ll enjoy this part of the journey and be grateful for the blessing bestowed on me working with Adam on this narrative.
RVW: Lastly, is there anything your readers have not caught on to the story of Jude and EL that surprises you? If so, do you feel – individually or as a team – like you need to be more deliberate in pushing that concept or subplot?
JODI: What has surprised me is the ambivalence of the readership to what EL faces in Sydney—the true extent of the danger. But I think that has been in part EL playing it down and only recently sharing the full extent of her past. Perhaps also, it has to do with Jude’s inability to grasp the enormity of what EL has gone to do. As the only sounding board within the narrative, I think the lack of reaction from Jude has dulled the sharp edge of the danger.
It’s got nothing to do with either Adam or I missing the chance to push the concept, but an artefact of the organic narrative. I’m certain the readers will change their stance and fully engage with the peril EL has put herself in and what that means for her and for Jude as the present truly unfolds for them both across the next month. At a time when EL needs Jude more than she has ever needed him before, he’s beyond her in a way that threatens to destroy her.
ADAM: What amazes me is the depth of awareness and understanding our readers give to Jude and Ella-Louise. They articulate, often quite profoundly, the characteristics of Jude and Ella-Louise, whereas I am simply writing a character. I am not consciously creating a character in terms of “complex,” “depthed,” “mature,” “selfish” etc. I describe what he does and what he thinks. Everyone else does the analysis for me.
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We encourage your comments and input about the epistolary form, the series, and the authors during the run of this three-part series.