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.

Author Interview: Jodi Cleghorn and Adam Byatt from 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 first of a three-part interview (parts two and three will run on December 19 and 21, respectively).

*** *** ***

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.