An epistolary experience
S. E. Craythorne on her experiences writing How You See Me.
I never intended to write an epistolary novel. In fact, I tried very hard not to. I wrote the opening of How You See Me first as a third-person narrative, then as a first person monologue. I played with a multitude of character voices and perspectives. But it was only when I started to write letters from Daniel that the novel really started to develop and breathe.
I love a letter. As anyone who has had the good fortune to come across a forgotten cache of correspondence knows, letters form a preserved time capsule of conversation. And if those letters belong to someone else? All the better. Here one has intrigue of who and what is being addressed, alongside the delicious frisson of intruding into a private space. It’s essentially a safer form of eavesdropping than listening at doors.
I decided to make How You See Me a one-sided correspondence, which is part of the reason why I forgo the modernity of emails for written letters. In this way it is a first person narrative, but Daniel is always addressing someone off page. The reader becomes detective, piecing together the other characters (and, of course, Daniel himself) through his descriptions. As an avid reader myself, I believe in giving them some work to do – though, hopefully, not too much – to form a complete picture of the world into which they have wandered.
The true fun came from playing with Daniel’s reliability as narrator of the novel. Personally, I think all narrators – all people – are unreliable. Ask any policeman who’s taken witness statements, and they’ll tell you how they have to piece together some form of the truth from a group of people convinced they are giving facts. We all embellish, exaggerate, and twist the truth, particularly when it comes to viewing ourselves. So it follows that characters and narrators in novels must be unreliable, if they are to be convincing.
How You See Me features only Daniel’s letters, so we are given only one witness statement. Here I am giving the reader a harder job than our metaphorical policeman. The tricky part is not losing their attention. Daniel had to be sure that he was telling the truth in order that the reader is willing to stay with him through the book, no matter how much they might doubt his version of events. This means maintaining a level of sympathy and understanding for Daniel’s character. The reader must not find him entirely repellent, or they might give up on him and, ultimately, the novel.
The use of any device – such as letters – in a novel must serve the story. In How You See Me I was able to create suspense and intrigue for the reader because of the epistolary form and not in spite of it. Here I am following in the tradition of great novelists: Alice Walker, Samantha Harvey, Alice Kuipers and Lionel Shriver, to name but a few. All these authors used the epistolary format in different ways to create exquisite novels and give the reader an unusual type of narrative experience.
How You See Me is available now from Myriad Editions.