Friday, December 22, 2017

Letters from a Friend

In the twenty-plus years that I’ve been writing fiction, I can’t say it ever occurred to me to co-write a novel. If I’d stopped to think about it, I probably would have decided that it sounded more difficult than writing alone. Sharing the authorship of an academic article is hard enough, but at least two people can discuss the evidence and the argument and, with luck, agree on who has a more fluid pen and who a better grasp of statistics (or paleography or whatever your particular auxiliary discipline happens to be). But how do you share a sense of character or writerly style?

I’m not talking about critique groups here. As anyone who has followed this blog for even a dozen or so posts knows, I credit my writers’ group with getting me past the “reading books about fiction without really absorbing the information” stage and into the “here’s how you craft a story” stage. It’s no accident that I thank them lavishly at the end of each book: I truly don’t know how I would produce a finished product that made me proud to share it with the world unless it had first profited from their questions and comments.

Nor am I talking about the kind of co-writing that Joan Hess did for Elizabeth Peters by finishing Peters’ novel for her after Peters passed on, as she described in my September interview. Again, that’s a single writer’s vision replaced by a slightly different one that tries to honor the first—a complicated task, to be sure, even without the emotional trauma of performing such a service for a friend, but still one person at a time.

But as Heather Webb explains in this December conversation, it is possible for two writers to cooperate from beginning to end on a work of fiction. This lovely epistolary novel, set mostly during World War I but with a frame story in the late 1960s, grew out of a previous project and took shape through a prolonged Internet exchange that bound not only the characters but the authors in a deep and engaging friendship. For how that happened, listen to the interview.

And while you’re there, please don’t forget to support the New Books Network, so that the interviews on this and many other subjects can continue to enrich your lives. I give my time and the use of my equipment for free, but I nonetheless pledged to support the service. I look forward to hosting many more conversations with authors, whether they write alone or together. But we can keep the podcasts going only if everyone chips in.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

When we first meet Thomas Harding in 1968, he is facing what he believes will be his last Christmas and mourning the loss of an unnamed woman who clearly meant a great deal to him. He carries with him bundles of letters, which he plans to re-read on his trip to Paris. The letters sweep us back to the very beginning of World War I, then trace the entire course of the conflict. One of them he has not yet seen.

Most of the correspondence takes place between Thomas and Evie Elliott, the younger sister of his best friend, Will. We see the early hope and idealism of the troops fade as the realities of trench warfare sink in. We watch from the inside the transformation of women’s roles in society because of the absence of men. We become caught up in the developing love between Evie and Thomas, the grief suffered by families who lose their loved ones to war, the frustration of being left behind, unable to take part. We revel in the guilty pleasure of riffling through other people’s things, reading words not meant for our eyes.

Other voices fill in circumstances that Evie and Thomas take for granted or have no reason to know. And the drama slowly builds as Armistice Day approaches, and the war that was supposed to end all wars creeps to a close. The letters are vivid and real, each voice distinct. And by the end of Last Christmas in Paris, Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb have shepherded us along a journey through the tragedy of war and the triumph of survival, the experience of love lost and gained.

And for those of you who celebrate, the time is here!

Image: Clipart no. 110057306

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