Interview: July 11, 2013
A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel, LETTERS FROM SKYE, captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart. The author herself spent several years living in Scotland, so she's no stranger to the joys and pitfalls of epistolary communication. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Norah Piehl, Brockmole talks about the setting that inspired the story --- and all the tricks she used to do its visceral beauty justice. She also reveals that, initially at least, the novel was an exercise in "voice," and how Elspeth, David and Margaret's voices took on lives of their own, as well as how the story might be different (or not!) if the characters had email access.
Bookreporter.com: Many readers have probably never heard of the Isle of Skye. What inspired you to set your first novel there? What did you hope to convey about this landscape in LETTERS FROM SKYE?
Jessica Brockmole: We were living in Scotland and had escaped up to the Isle of Skye for a week’s holiday one autumn. It was such a wild place, just brimming with beauty, that I couldn’t stop myself from jotting down notes for a new novel. I really tried to capture not only the incredible colors of the island --- all of these vivid greens and blues --- but the way the wind tasted on my lips as it blew up over the cliffs from the ocean, the way the air smelled like peat smoke, the way the night sky felt full of magic. It’s such an effortlessly sensory setting, and I hope I’ve passed that on.
BRC: Why did you choose to write an epistolary novel?
JB: Initially it was an exercise in dialogue, something I was struggling with in my writing, but it became a fun and fascinating endeavor. I adore reading collections of letters; it only stood to reason that I’d adore writing my very own.
BRC: How do you think Elspeth and David's story might be different if it had unfolded today, via email, etc.?
JB: I think, in many respects, their story wouldn’t be very different. With email, there wouldn’t be the pauses and lost letters and delays that I’ve brought into LETTERS FROM SKYE, where emotions can take over in the absence of the post. But the essentials --- agonizing over the right words, misreading and misunderstanding, blundering, regretting, treasuring --- those come whenever we write and share a piece of our heart with someone else, regardless of the format.
BRC: The format of the novel means that you had to develop unique voices for Elspeth, David and Margaret. Whose voice was the easiest or most intuitive for you to capture? Whose was most challenging?
JB: Elspeth was initially the easiest. Her voice (and, indeed, many of her lines) remain unchanged from that very first draft. I had to go partway through the book before I found David’s voice (it was when he heads for war with the letter that Margaret later finds), but once I found it, his flowed effortlessly. Margaret was my problem child. With every revision I did of the book, Margaret’s character was completely rewritten. It wasn’t until the very last draft that she finally arrived, and it was a satisfying “a-ha!” moment to meet her.
BRC: Part of what makes the love story between Elspeth and David so powerful and compelling is what is, at first, not written. Was it challenging to pace the development of their romance?
JB: This is a tricky question to answer, because no part of the novel was planned out before I began writing. I did know I wanted the characters to fall in love, but I didn’t know when it would happen or under what circumstances. I let things unfold at the pace the characters set, I let them say as much as I thought they would at that point in time, and when the moment came where I knew they were in love (they, of course, knew it much sooner than the author), I let them.
BRC: LETTERS FROM SKYE is a love story, but it's also a war story about two different wars. What were you hoping to convey about war in your novel?
JB: I didn’t really want this to be a home front story, but I also didn’t want it to be a story of battle and honor. WWI was a time when many families were separated for the first time and trying to hold things together with pen and paper. That’s what I wanted to convey --- the effort to keep loved ones close, even when war tries to force them apart.
BRC: Have you ever had a long-distance correspondent? If so, how long did you write/have you written to each other?
JB: My best friend and I haven’t lived near each other in probably 15 years, being even on separate continents for much of that time. We’ve had to keep in touch epistolarily, first through letters, then email and Skype. Though our communication is much more instant these days, we still do send postcards and packages. I keep a dedicated drawer filled with interesting postcards I collect to send to her.
BRC: What's the most memorable letter you've ever received?
JB: The most memorable letter I’ve ever received is a touching one that my husband wrote to me shortly after our daughter was born. He left it tucked into a pocket where he knew I’d find it.
BRC: Your novel vividly shows the potential for misunderstandings (both big and small) when communication happens only through writing. What misunderstandings or miscommunications have you encountered while corresponding?
JB: I can’t think of any specific situation, but I know there have been embarrassing misunderstandings! Whether in an email or a written letter, tone can be misconstrued so easily. It’s happened to us all! Thank goodness for emoticons…
BRC: This is your debut novel. What has been the most surprising part of the publication process?
JB: The enthusiasm. LETTERS FROM SKYE was written almost in secret, as I was very private about my writing at that time. It’s been astonishing and gratifying to hear from so many people who have fallen in love with my characters the way that I always have been.
BRC: What novels or nonfiction works did you read as inspiration or background for LETTERS FROM SKYE?
JB: I used to haunt the secondhand bookshops, looking for out-of-print titles about Skye and the Highlands during the war. One fantastic book that I consulted a lot was A FAMILY IN SKYE, 1908-16. The book alternates snippets of letters from a young mother on Skye to her family on the mainland with reminiscences by her daughter. The letters were so engaging, their language so modern, the recounted events compelling and both women’s views of the island and the war priceless.
BRC: Are you working on a new project now? If so, what can you tell us about it?
JB: My new project is also set before and during WWI, in Scotland and France. It’s a story about friendship, love, war, art and recapturing a summer of childhood innocence.