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Epistolary Novels (and why they are awesomeness)

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Say you took every letter you've ever written and put them all together. Would you have a novel?

Probably not. For a start, there’s no overarching thread that joins them up. You know, you might spend one letter to a friend talking entirely about your cats, because that particular friend is a cat person who likes hearing about your cats, and then another talking about your family, and some weird dream you had about sandwiches, and also some form that needs to be filled out by next week. And I don’t know about your letters, but in mine, there’s, I don’t know, a tiny amount of rambling and incoherence. Just a tiny amount. Well, a moderately tiny amount. Ok. A lot.

Basically, a lot of the letters we write in everyday life are, at best, only interesting to the person who received them. And a whole bunch of letters is usually exactly that: a whole bunch of letters.

Except in an epistolary novel.

Most epistolary novels are written entirely in letters, from one character to another*.  And because of this, epistolary novels manage something incredible: they can make a whole story take place without a conventional narrative. There’s no third person voice that jumps in to tell us that he/she said that, and did this. We only have characters’ words to rely on. There’s no one main voice either, because the story jumps between one character and another, and from one voice to another. In each letter, the story unfolds a little more and new things are revealed, and we know the characters that much better. There’s something about epistolary novels that draws us in – there’s the quick pace, jumping from one letter to the next. And there’s the fact that they feel like you’re peeking inside someone’s mail. But not just someone’s boring, everyday mail. Someone’s extraordinarily interesting mail.

When Jaclyn Moriarty talks about writing her epistolary novels, she says this:

Letters are neither reliable nor static; they’re designed to fly through the air and gently fall into the recipient’s lap like a gift, or hit the recipient in the eye. If a teacher asked students to write letters to a neighbouring school, as part of an assignment, you couldn't trust the students to be honest or to be themselves.
What's she talking about? Well, are any of us completely honest with everyone you talk to? No. You’re always aware of who you’re talking to. There are the things you make up or exaggerate, the things you hide or gloss over, the little white lies, the version of yourself you show to one particular person, as opposed to the other faces you show to other people. Characters write letters with an awareness of their audience too. They know who they're talking to. And they know who they want to be for that person.

And even then, the person they think they're writing to can turn out to be very different to the person they’re actually writing to, because of how that person has made themselves look in their letters. Which means that there’s huge potential for dishonesty in epistolary novels. And misunderstandings. And conflict. And all sorts of drama and humour.

Sometimes, just sometimes, a whole bunch of letters can be something far more than a whole bunch of letters. In the hands of a good writer, a whole bunch of letters can be entertaining and thought provoking and beautiful.

Some examples of epistolary fiction:

The Ashbury books by Jaclyn Moriarty, especially Feeling Sorry For Celia (which I’ve already written about here) and Finding Cassie Crazy/The Year of Secret Assignments.

Letters from the Inside by John Marsden.

What do you think of novels in letters? Have you read any good ones that I've missed?

*I’m going to stick to just talking about novels in letters here, but epistolary novels don’t have to stick to letters at all: they can also feature diary entries, blog posts and newspaper articles. And other things too!
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. Great post! One that comes to mind that I read a few years ago was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Wow. Just wow. Wonderful (but adult) book. Thanks for highlighting this topic!

  2. I'm not normally a fan of epistolary novels, but my favourite book of all time is DADDY LONG LEGS by Jean Webster. Judy Abbott is the most interesting, entertaining protagonist I've ever come across!

  3. Heck yeah, epistolary novels!!! I love them... totally not biased because I'm currently querying one, but hey. :P

    Going to have to second The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. One of the best adult books I've ever read. Also, for YA, there's the Sorcery and Cecelia series, and for MG, Regarding the Fountain.

    Epistolaries ftw!!!

  4. There's a new one coming out in 2011 "Love Virtually" about a couple who meet by sending a wrong email. The exchange is then in email letters.

    Originally in German, Spanish translation exists apparently. English out this year. Somebody blogged about it here:


  5. One of my favorite epistolary novels is Sorcery and Cecelia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. Amazing fantasy novel with a sort of steampunk flair, with the added bonus of the letters actually being written by two different people (the explanation at the back is really interesting, and is how a friend and I came up with the idea of Letter Games - writing an epistolary with a friend, without ever discussing plot.)

  6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Love, Stargirl are my favorite epistolary novels.

  7. I've only read GL&PPPS and loved it. When I graduated high school, one of my best friends presented me with a 3 ring binder filled with all the notes I had written her our freshman year. As I read through them, I laughed, but mostly cringed. Could it be turned into a book? No! They were mostly about music, and boys. And being bored. And boys. And music. Oh, and how stupid my parents were being. And boys. Can't fill 70,000 words with that crap!

  8. My two favorite epistolary novels are French classics (but you can read them in English like I did!):

    -DANGEROUS LIASONS by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
    Talk about misunderstandings! It's a very steamy book, especially for the 18th century. Also check out the great adaptations out there including Cruel Intentions.

    Great for readers who love social history AND it was written by a woman in 1784. Pretty awesome! Plus, my college president/French lit professor is one of the leading authorities on the book(her husband is the translator for the most recent edition).

    Check them out!

  9. I love epistolary novels! And I love Jacklyn Moriarty's books. I was just about to mention Guernsey and Daddy Long Legs, but others beat me to it. I can recommend Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.

  10. There are also a couple of plays - A.R. Gurney's LOVE LETTERS, and its satire by Kira Obolensky and Bill Corbett documenting a disturbingly funny dysfunctinal affair, HATE MAIL.

    The distance between characters and occasionally overlapping chronology of letters make these incredibly difficult to pull off - I think that's why they're so successful when they do work - the bar is already quite high.

  11. I've read epistolary novels, but am not too familiar with them. I had an idea awhile ago to do a novella (as an assignment for a writing class) containing the the letters my husband (boyfriend at the time) and I sent while he was in basic training (Army) & then while he was deployed to Iraq. He, however, voted no to this because he was afraid his "mushy factor" was going to be out in the open a little too much. lol

    Great post! I am sooo gonna check out some of the novels listed!

  12. I absolutely LOVE novels written this way and one of the most recent ones I've read (and totally loved) is Cathleen Daly's FLIRT CLUB. Sooo cute.

  13. I remember reading Frankenstein for english class and having a whole class about how that's an epistolary novel, but I wouldn't say I liked it.

    I remember this one book my fourth grade teacher would read to us, but I don't remember what it was called. It was about a girl who was picked for jury duty, even though she was only about 12, I'm pretty sure, and the whole novel was the letters she was writing home, in her diary, and records, transcripts, and news reports about the trial.

  14. I really love this genre. I remember one of my favourite books growing up was called Sorcery and Cecilia. It was a series of letters from one friend to another, set in the Regency period, and I absolutely adored it. I think it's a fabulous genre and though I know it's not everybody's cup of tea, I have to say that personally I adore seeing the way personality comes through in epistolary novels, and the exchnage between two unique voices throughout the story.

  15. The Perks of Being a Wallflower - one of the best books I ever read.

  16. "You’re always aware of who you’re talking to. There are the things you make up or exaggerate, the things you hide or gloss over, the little white lies, the version of yourself you show to one particular person, as opposed to the other faces you show to other people. Characters write letters with an awareness of their audience too. They know who they're talking to. And they know who they want to be for that person."

    Yes. Yes. And yes. So true, and such a perfect way to explain why these types of novels can work so brilliantly.

    Leila, this is a fantastic post. YOU are awesomeness.


    Also, there's one written entirely in Postits on the fridge, LIFE ON THE REFRIDGERATOR DOOR.

    I have actually never thought of epistolary novels as a category- probably because those are the only two I've read. But I love them both.

  18. I'm definitely considering trying one of these out when I'm done with my current writing projects.


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Item Reviewed: Epistolary Novels (and why they are awesomeness) Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin