This is no. 48 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Epistolary stories can be tricky to pull off—they can seem contrived, awkward, or precious. There’s often a delicate balance at play when calibrating the reader’s awareness of the form and their immersion in the world of the story. In the case of letters, the letter writer’s voice, in this regard, is crucial. It’s a bit like being driven by a guide through an unfamiliar landscape—you’re looking at the scenery and at people going about their business, aware that you can only see so much through the windscreen and passenger side window, but you’re okay with that because you know you’re in a car. But what you don’t want to be thinking about is how broken-down or fancy the car is, or how your guide is driving, because you only tend to notice someone’s driving when you’re worried they don’t have full control of the vehicle.
I wrestled with voice a lot in my epistolary story “The Wrong Dave,” which appeared in my debut collection, Last of Her Name. The protagonist, Dave, a soon-to-be-married man in London, embarks upon an illicit correspondence with Yi, a wedding crasher he briefly met several years ago in Hong Kong. Yi contacts him out of the blue, grief-stricken after a death in her family, and Dave suspects she’s writing to the wrong Dave. Still, he decides to continue writing to her. From this point in the story on, the reader, like Dave, sees Yi entirely through her e-mail exchanges with Dave, who becomes increasingly infatuated with her.
Writing this story, I considered how letters allow for absence and omission, and how those elements can help fuel a fantasy of someone you don’t know that well. E-mail is such a strange, inadequate medium of communication, and because so much is left out and what remains is magnified, sometimes way out of proportion, it becomes fertile ground for misunderstanding and obsession. So while we see the various external and internal aspects of Dave’s life and follow him around a fair bit, I wanted the reader to have limited access to Yi. I wanted her to be tantalizing to the reader as well as to Dave—not exactly in the same way, but enough to believe why Dave would be so drawn to her.
The e-mails brought out the very different ways in which Dave and Yi express themselves and what that says about why they’re writing to the other person. Yi’s e-mails are almost an unfiltered stream of consciousness—you get the feeling she’s not even thinking about what she’s writing—but Dave is extremely neurotic and careful about every word, as if he’s worried he’s going to expose himself in some way. For Yi, she wants to be seen—she uses the e-mails to try and make a human connection—but she’s also screaming her grief and anger into the void. It was really freeing for me, someone who tends more towards Dave’s type of e-mail neurosis, to write in Yi’s voice. Dave, however, definitely hides behind the medium. Its remove from the physical world, combined with its immediacy, lets him continue to feed his secret correspondence and romanticizing of Yi, completely free of consequence—or so he thinks.
The limited access to Yi leads the reader, like Dave, to project various ideas about the kind of person she might be, or the kind of person Dave might want her to be—the difference being that the reader is more aware of this projection than Dave himself is. She says so much, but to what is Dave really paying attention? And in Dave’s case, there’s the dissonance between the insight the reader has into his life and the vastness of what he chooses not to reveal about himself in his e-mails.
So, in the case of epistolary stories based on letters, it’s important to understand why the characters are writing to each other, what kind of language is particular to them, and what the form reveals or hides—and how that squares with what you want revealed, or hidden from, your reader.
Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.Thumbnail: Joanna Kosinska