Today I'm pleased to welcome Jessica Brockmole to the blog to discuss her novel Letters from Skye. There is also a giveaway (US residents) for a signed copy of the book from Jessica. Letters from Skye is a love story told in letters and has been garnering lots of attention. I thought it was a great read. See my review here.
What inspired you to write Letters from Skye?
At the time that I wrote Letters from Skye, I had just moved to Scotland with my husband and children. I was across an ocean from friends and family, without either a webcam or the budget for (very) long distance phone calls. We all had to transition into communicating more often through the written word. As a writer, I found this fascinating, to see just how much we had to put into our correspondence, how much more was said beyond the words on the page. In the past, when families or lovers were separated, sometimes those letters were all that existed to hold them together. I wanted to explore this in a book.
In this day and age of modern communication, letter writing almost seems like a lost art. Was this story always going to be told in letters, and was it particularly challenging to do so?
Yes, it was always going to be told through letters. I wanted to try to tell a story in nothing but letters, to see how a relationship could unfold on the page and how, with only stamps and envelopes, it could be maintained.
The writing itself came easily, the getting to know these characters and their stories through their own words. In the revision process, though, when I really had to take a closer look at my structure, I understood the limits of the epistolary style. I had to be careful to balance the accuracy of the format with the readability of a novel. Bits of dialogue had to be worked in naturally and descriptions had to be sparing. I found this particularly challenging in the letters recounting the times that Elspeth and David were together. It wasn’t a natural thing for them to write about without a clunky, “Do you remember when we…” structure, but I had to get that information across to the reader, preferably without bringing in a third correspondent. My solution was to give each character differing perspectives on the meeting, giving them something to discuss on the page after the fact.
The relationship between Elspeth and David was the heart of the story but towards the end I was really rooting for Margaret to find happiness as well. Was there a character that you enjoyed writing the most, or that surprised you?
I’m quite in love with Elspeth (and we don’t need to tell my husband about my crush on a certain fictional ambulance driver), but my favorite character has to be Finlay. He’s so emotionally complex, and he gives up his story so reluctantly and sparingly throughout the novel. He’s the character who I think, most of all, has more to tell us. Interestingly enough, he was a fairly late addition to the novel. I needed a correspondent to fill in some gaps for Margaret, to offer her information that none of the other characters could. He also ended up providing a much-needed outside view of Elspeth and her relationship with David. As eleventh hour as his appearance was, I can’t imagine the book without him.
Was it a challenge researching this book, set as it is during both World War I and World War II? Did you find anything surprising about the time period that affected the story?
Writing this did involve a lot of research, not only historical but also linguistic and epistolary, but honestly none of it felt like work. These are eras of history that I’m particularly interested in and the reading was fascinating.
The American Ambulance Field Service and their volunteer work for the French army early in WWI was something new to me. We tend to hear more about later ambulance work, with the Red Cross or the U.S. Army Medical Corps, and the famous names associated with that (Hemingway, Dos Passos, Walt Disney). The Field Service, though, especially at the beginning of the war, was full of thrill-seeking, opinionated college boys—a perfect fit for my David. I loved learning about its development, its enthusiasm, and its volunteers.
I also learned a lot about Edinburgh during WWII that surprised me. Despite knowing that the city was across the Firth from a naval dockyard, I didn’t know it had been subject to so many air attacks during the war. Now when I say “so many,” I’m speaking relatively, as it never came close to the frequency seen in London or even Glasgow, but Edinburgh had the somewhat dubious distinction of being the site of the very first and the very last enemy air attack on mainland Britain during the war. Edinburgh had the misfortune to lie along the flight path between Glasgow and Germany, and many bombs left over from attacks on Glaswegian shipyards were offloaded over Edinburgh to lighten the flight home. I’m sure it didn’t make the residents of Edinburgh feel any better to know that it “wasn’t personal.”
The Isle of Skye almost seems like another character in the story at times, with its rugged beauty and stark landscapes. Is there a particular place on the Isle of Skye that was inspiring to you, or that influenced the story?
The setting was inspired by a little family getaway that we took up to Skye after our first year in Scotland. After the bustle of the city, the island felt like a refuge. We chased rainbows, we walked barefooted along the rocky beach, we hunted for fairies through the heather. I was completely taken in by the poetry and almost otherworldliness of the landscape. I could see how a person could live on Skye and never want to leave, how it can be such a part of their soul that their very personality is shaped by the island. From this the character of Elspeth was born, a poet inspired by her surroundings, who could never imagine stepping foot off the island. But she could see the mainland from the shore and, with that, she couldn’t help but wonder what else might be out there in the world.
Did you always know how the story would end, or did it gradually develop?
I knew how it would end. And, to tell the truth, that was about all that I knew when I started writing it! The rest of the story developed from that ending. How would their relationship develop to get them where I needed them to be? How would Elspeth’s life unfold? Who else would she need with her on this journey? I’ve probably read it a hundred times, but that ending, it still gets me every time!
Can you tell us anything about your next project? Will it be epistolary as well?
My next project is also set during WWI, centered around another pair of lovers separated by the war. A Scottish and a French artist in war-torn Paris yearn for a shared, but long lost, summer of innocence. Though it’s not epistolary, I couldn’t resist putting a fair number of letters throughout. It’s just such an organic, comfortable way to get to know a character.
Where can readers find you online?
You can find me at my website www.jabrockmole.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jessicabrockmoleauthor, and on Twitter at @jabrockmole. I have the most fun on Twitter, sharing whatever fun and fascinating history I come across that day. I’d love to connect with you!
Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this!
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