Writing Letters-“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”

book_guernesy literary and potatoThe novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, is written entirely in letter format. It’s a way of writing that could grow dull quickly, but the authors avoided that pitfall by developing their characters so well their personalities shine through each piece of mail. (The novel was started by Mary Ann Shaffer, but due to health reasons, Mary Ann asked her niece Annie Barrows to finish the book)

The novel is sent on post World War II England; the first letter is dated 8th January, 1946. The war is over, but not the hardships–rebuilding hasn’t gone far, and wartime shortages still abound. The first letter is from writer Juliet Ashton, to her publisher Sidney Stark, lamenting her lack of progress on her latest book. Juliet is a writer with an attitude, closing her letter with “P.S I am reading the collected correspondence of Mrs. Montagu. Do you know what that dismal woman wrote to Jane Carlyle? “My dear little Jane, everybody is born with a vocation, and yours is to write charming little notes.” I hope Jane spat on her” (4). Sidney responds, closing his letter with “P.S. You write charming little notes” (4).

By reading these first two letters, the reader knows these two have a strong, long-lasting friendship, one that has grown out of a good business relationship. Juliet closes her next letter with another P.S, this one referring to an incident Sidney is already aware of, clarifying Juliet “did not throw “The Shepherd Boy Sings in the Valley of Humiliation” at the audience. I threw it at the elocution mistress. I meant to cast it at her feet, but I missed” (6).

Every piece of correspondence between the characters in the book isn’t included, but it doesn’t have to be. When Juliet writes back to Mrs. Alexander Strachan at Feochan Farm, an old friend living in Scotland and Sidney’s sister, it’s full of gossip about the previous night’s disastrous dinner party and Juliet’s inability to find suitable man–“I think there’s something wrong with me. Every man I meet is intolerable.” (8) She goes on to say “Do you suppose the St. Swithin’s furnace-man was my one true love? Since I never spoke to him, it seems unlikely, but at least it was a passion unscathed by disappointment” (8)

Then in a letter dated 12th January, 1946, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a farmer in Guernesy. He knows about Juliet because he has an old book that once belonged to Juliet and her name and address is written inside the book. Dawsey is writing because he’s a huge fan of Charles Lamb, the author of the book and he’s writing Juliet to ask if she could “send me the name and address of a bookshop in London? I would like to order more of Charles Lamb’s writings by post,” (9). Dawsey is a fan of Lamb’s because “Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig” (9). Dawsey goes on to explain “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers” (9). He ends his letter with a PS regarding a pamphlet a friend of his bought that once belonged to Juliet. The pamphlet was called “Was There a Burning Bush? A Defense of Moses and the Ten Commandments.” Juliet had scribbled in the margins a question “Word of God or crowd control?” (10) and Dawsey wants to know if she ever decided the answer.

The intimate nature of the letters reveals the characters of the novel—personal details that wouldn’t resonate as much if revealed in a more standard format. Backstory becomes important information revealing more about characters, but it’s revealed in a natural setting—information that’s needed to explain current actions of the characters. There is no straight narration in the novel, but it’s not needed; the letters reveal the characters’ personalities, lives and struggles. They also move the novel forward, as Juliet moves from London to Guernsey in order to research the new book she’s decided to write and becomes swept up in the residents’ lives.

What makes the writing work in this novel is the format, which reveals the characters in intimate ways—letters between two people is an intimate form of communication, written with the understanding that no one else will be privy to the contents, allowing the reader to really get to know the characters.

Barrows, Annie, and Mary Ann Shaffer. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. New York: Dial Press, 2009. Print.

Creating an Unsettling Experience for the Reader: The Journal Format in Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie

by Matthew McEver

With Halloween a week away, it seems appropriate to discuss a work of literary horror. I’ve chosen Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie—which is not about zombies but, rather, her homage to Frankenstein. It is the gruesome story of Quentin, whose overriding obsession is to create a male companion by means of a crude lobotomy detailed in an antiquated medical text. (The novel is also a thoughtful interrogation of homophobia, but my focus will be on why the writing works). Quentin, though, has botched this effort numerous times. Sometimes the abductions go wrong and thus far, despite meticulous planning and flawless execution, the lobotomies have all gone wrong. The story moves toward the climactic abduction and transformation of a young man nicknamed Squirrel that Quentin considers his holy grail.

Typically, I would have no interest in such a story—yet I wanted to know how someone like Joyce Carol Oates tells it. Oates makes the decision to tell it by immersing the reader in Quentin’s depraved mind, by means of a journal. The novel itself is Quentin’s journal, though it reads like a monologue. The narrator’s prose is laden with unconventional punctuation, overuse of italics, ampersands, exclamation points, and words written in ALL CAPS, all of which is unsettling. Moreover, Quentin refers to himself in the third person, also disorienting to the reader. Oates masters the technique of knowing the rules of grammar in order to break the rules of grammar. The erratic nature of the prose parallels the erratic nature of Quentin’s mind. (The reader may find this unconventional style of prose distracting for about the first twenty-five pages or so, before becoming accustomed to Quentin’s voice and manner).

The text also includes numerous scribbles and drawings reminiscent of those in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. These doodles, of seemingly ordinary objects such as a key, a person on a bicycle, or a baby chick, contribute to the disquieting tone of the narrative. Oates also renders the story in a stream of consciousness narration—a technique that, especially in conjunction with Quentin’s semiliterate prose, magnifies Quentin’s psychotic nature: “I smile & say YES DOCTOR. NO DOCTOR. Sit & smile & my hair cut & parted in a new way… Dr. E__’s prognosis of his patient Q__ P__ is very good. Q__ P__ is ‘definitely making progress’” (166).

The journal format enables us to realize that Quentin is almost childlike in terms of his cognition. His obsession with Squirrel reads like a high school crush. He writes, “Q__ P__ Crazy for Squirrel!!!” in his journal (105), and repeatedly calls Squirrel at home, only to hang up after hearing his voice. Quentin also has fits of jealousy on seeing Squirrel interact with people, writing on his prey “betraying me in full view!” (126)—and, in an attempt to further humanize Quentin, Oates includes elements of dark humor. One of the more memorable examples is how Quentin, in his botched attempts to lobotomize his prey, expresses his disappointment in teen vernacular, assigning himself letter grades: “My first three ZOMBIES – all F’s” (57). He also boasts of how he “always drives at the speed limit & obeys all traffic regulations. Whether there is contraband cargo aboard the van or not” (83).
On occasion, Oates weaves familial, communal, and institutional failure into the text without being heavy handed, allowing these observations to flow out of the story. Quentin is a person of privilege. Following his first, bungled abduction he serves no jail time, but attends mandatory sessions with a mental health clinician and a probation officer, both of whom are overworked and lethargic. Thanks to his parents, Quentin has his own apartment, a job as caretaker of the property, and he is enrolled at a community college. By contrast, the ideal zombie “specimens” are society’s nobodies: foreign university students, hitchhikers, drifters, junkies, “or from the black projects downtown” (28).

If you want to see how an accomplished author gets inside the head of a psychopath, or learn new methods for creating an unsettling experience for the reader, Oates’ novel is recommended. The stream of consciousness, journal format encourages the reader to follow the thoughts of a character we find to be sickening yet, to an extent, familiar. Perhaps the greatest success of this novel is that Oates creates a character who is memorable and frightening not because he is eccentric or flamboyant, but because he is ordinary. Quentin could be anyone, which is what is most unsettling about Zombie.

Works Cited

Oates, Joyce Carol. Zombie. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.

Literary Fiction PROVEN to Make You Smarter (Temporarily) (In Some Respects) (Under Laboratory Conditions)

Great stories affect us all in different ways. Some might make you cry or shout or sit in cold silence, while others can change the way you view the world. We, as writers, know all of this to be true. However, a recent article in the journal Science, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” has demonstrated that reading literary fiction leads to improved performance on psychological tests that measure one’s understanding of the emotional states, beliefs, and intentions of others. Now there is evidence that you can indeed expand your worldview by reading literary fiction.


Theory of mind, as defined in this article, is split into two categories, affective and cognitive.  Affective relates to “the ability to detect and understand others’ emotions” and cognitive to “the inference and representation of others’ beliefs and intentions.” The experiments tested both of these types of interpersonal understanding, and found them both to be improved when the reader was primed with literary fiction. Crucially, the scientists also tested works of popular fiction, nonfiction, and control groups which were given nothing to read. The group that read literary fiction outscored all the others.


The reading material provided to the participants was short: either a short story, a few pages from a novel, or a short article. Some of the more well-known writers used in the study were: Don DeLillo, Danielle Steel, Anton Chekhov, Robert Heinlein, and Alice Munro (her inclusion being fitting given recent events). The selected works and methodologies of the researchers can be found in their supplemental materials online.


So what does this mean to you as a reader and a writer? For starters, it does not mean that literary fiction is the only type of writing that is worthwhile. It also does not mean that your literary short stories have the ability to brainwash anyone. It does mean that well-crafted, truthful stories can give the reader an experience that (at least temporarily) deepens their understanding of the human condition. This result may seem underwhelming if you have been reading and writing your entire life, but to be able to demonstrate it in a laboratory setting is incredible. Don’t put down the popular fiction novel you are halfway through or scrap the nonfiction essay you’ve been writing. But if you aim to write stories that can enlighten readers as those in the study do, you must make a world as just as rich as our own with characters that live, breathe, and die.


And if anyone ever asks you why you read literary fiction you can point them to the last line of the article. “These results show that reading literary fiction may hone adults’ ToM [Theory of Mind], a complex and critical social capacity.”


“Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind”, Science. Kidd and Castano, 342 (6156): 377-380. Published Online October 3 2013.

Wanted: Supervillain. Apply Within.

Over the past year, I have spent a good portion of my time revising two poetry manuscripts and sending them out to publishers. And revising them and sending them out to publishers. And revising them…you know the drill. I try as much as possible to send them out to presses that I think they are a good fit for, of course, but also to presses that offer open reading periods – free open reading periods.

It’s not that I mind reading fees; I don’t. But these things add up, and rejection emails don’t exactly feel like a good return on an investment. So when a press I like has an open reading period and offers a choice between a reading fee and a book purchase, I always buy a book. Not only do I feel like I am supporting their work in a small way while also submitting my own work, but I am also exposed to authors I might not have found otherwise. So, a few weeks ago, I submitted a manuscript to Steel Toe Books, and I received Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Becoming the Villainess.Image

I’ll admit I chose it for the title and cover art. I mean, seriously. Look at it! (I did read the reviews, ok?) I do love comic books,  heroes and villains, fairy and folk tales; this book seemed to be right up my alley. After reading it, I’m happy to say I was correct. The poems in this collection examine the lives of characters we are familiar with – Ophelia, Cinderella, Alice, Wonder Woman (my favorite!) – in unfamiliar ways. The variety of text and character sources keep the reading fresh through to the last poem.

In the poem titled “Job Requirements: A Supervillain’s Advice,” Gailey presents a new take on the bad guy in the form of a list. Want to be a supervillain? Make sure you “[e]xperience isolation from ‘normal’ childhood / activities” and “[m]ultiple traumatic incidents welcome” (51). Also, “Physical limitations, such as an unusual but poetic disease / or a deformity due to mutation, are preferred; / problems due to accidents involving powerful / new weaponry or interactions with superheroes / are also acceptable” (51). Using the language of a job ad draws the reader in to the construct. The speaker also offers prospective evil doers the following advice: “Chaos, destruction, death: these are your instruments. Use them wisely” (51). The list of good (bad?) villain characteristics leading to the job-specific pointers takes the reader into the minds of all the supervillains he or she has ever read or watched, and it makes the reader consider the qualities we believe makes someone evil.

In the end, Gailey hits the reader with this poem’s truth: “In the end you are the reason we see the picture; / we mistrust the tedium of a string of sunny days. / We like to watch things crumble” (51). No matter what the story is, the villain is a necessity. There will always be openings in that field.

Gailey, Jeannine Hall. Becoming the Villainess. Bowling Green, KY: Steel Toe Books, 2006.

Journal Focus

Image Journal: Bridging Faith and Imagination. Their blog “Good Letters
From Image’s About page: A culture is governed by its reigning myths. However, in the latter days of the twentieth century, there is an uneasy sense that materialism cannot sustain or nourish our common life. Thankfully, religion and art have always shared the capacity to help us to renew our awareness of the ultimate questions: who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. Read more at the above link-Bridging Faith and Imagination. Publishes poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction

Ruminate   From Ruminate’s About page: ru’mi-nate: to chew the cud; to muse; to meditate; to think again; to ponder. Ruminate is a quarterly magazine of short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, and visual art that resonate with the complexity and truth of the Christian faith. Each issue is a themed forum for literature and art that speaks to the existence of our daily lives while nudging us toward a greater hope. Because of this, we strive to publish quality work accounting for the grappling pleas, as well as the quiet assurances of an authentic faith. Ruminate Magazine was created for every person who has paused over a good word, a real story, a perfect brushstroke— longing for the significance they point us toward. Please join us.

Ruminate’s Blog:

Tin House-check out their latest issue. A story by Stephen King. Interviews of Margaret Atwood and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and much, much more. Blog

Unstuck publishes once a year. From their about page: Unstuck is an independent, nonprofit annual based in Austin, Texas. We emphasize literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, or the surreal—a broad category that would include the work of writers as diverse as Abe, Ballard, Borges, Calvino, Tutuola, and (of course) Vonnegut. In our pages, you’ll find everything from straight-up science fiction and fantasy to domestic realism with a twist of the improbable. We feature a mix of established and emerging fiction writers from both the genre and literary publishing communities. We also publish a limited selection of poems and essays. Interviews and Excerpts

Coconut Poetry. Submission guidelines

The End

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

Coming to the ending of a piece of writing can be challenging; no matter the subject, genre or word count.  I remember in elementary school every one wrote, “The End” to signal that his or her story was finished.  We learned this from the fairy tale stories we often read or heard. Yet, as I matured as a reader and writer, I noticed that the best books I’ve read always concluded a chapter or the book in a way that made me re-read or reflect for a few minutes. The endings often led to a new connection or a new appreciation of what writers and language could do.

I recently finished Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. It is a story about how Schwalbe and his dying mother maintained a book club of two during her visits to the hospital for chemotherapy.  The book is definitely about the power of books and about what happens for readers at the end of them. In fact, each chapter is titled after a title of a book and includes a synopsis, quotes and sometimes a informal review. Yet, the book is mostly about the journey to the end, in this case, the end of the extraordinary life of Schwable’s mother.

I think each writer goes on his or her own journey to the end as well. Writers must make careful choices about what they want to leave behind for their readers. A writer may choose a quote, an anecdote, a strong declarative sentence, or maybe a combination of styles to connect the reader to the story and its characters. Endings should provoke thought or emotion, allow reflections, spark debate, or echo a theme or idea a writer wants to share. For Schwalbe’s book, he consistently uses a reflective strategy for the end of his chapters.  The end of each chapter is an echo of the beginning or to the theme of the book presented. This works to connect the books being presented to the main storyline and allows his readers to reflect on and connect to the experiences of the main “characters” in the memoir.

In his chapter titled, The Uncommon Reader, named after the novella by Adam Bennett, Schwalbe laments that his mother’s grandchildren would miss out on “the massive quantities of love their grandmother would have given them.” At the end of the chapter, however, he reconciles that he could help them learn more about his mother by sharing the books she read and loved. Then they, like her, “could all become readers, and maybe even uncommon ones.” (130)

Just as the end of a life well lived can lead to a combination of sorrow and admiration, the end of a great chapter or book can sometimes lead to a bit of sadness, but it should always lead to satisfaction and admiration for a job well-done.

The End


Schwalbe, Will. The End of Your Life Book Club. New York: Vintage Books.2012. Print


Direct and Indirect Characterization in Our Kind

by Rhonda Browning White

Kate Walbert’s novel-in-stories Our Kind relates the lives of a group of aging, country-clubbing grandmothers, each of whom lives alone following divorce. These women each have empty-nest syndrome and each is a woman scorned. They live in close proximity to one another, share many of the same interests and are close in age. Despite all these commonalities, each is depicted differently from the others. There are no cookie-cutter characters in this story, though many situations and issues that link them. While there are several ways to fully develop and present a character, Walbert uses both direct and indirect methods that provide distinct contrast between each of these women.

What do I mean by “direct and indirect methods”? Let me explain. Indirect method can be described as telling: an author describes the character’s desires, ethics, motivation and feelings. It works as summary in order to condense a lot of important information into a few lines or paragraphs. A character can also be described using indirect method through the eyes of another character.

Walbert uses this indirect technique in describing Esther: “We had never understood her. Rich as Croesus, she drove a Dodge and compared prices at the Safeway. Her husband, Walter, had died years ago, but she still referred to him as if he had run downtown for milk and would be back any minute. She allowed her hair to gray, her nails to go ragged . . . she kept chameleons on her living room draperies and would often arrive at parties with paint on her hands” (6). We see Esther through someone else’s eyes, indirectly. As readers, we can choose whether or not to believe the narrator.

Direct methods include speech, action, appearance and thought. Appearance, of course, is crucial to developing characters and their personalities. We think differently of a woman in a Dior business suit than we do of one in a dirty, sagging bathrobe. Speech, however, is Walbert’s forte in directly presenting her characters. Her character Canoe comes across as no-nonsense, forthright, sometimes abrupt to the point of flirting with rudeness, and we know this through her dialogue. Likewise, character Barbara is a peacemaker, unwilling to ruffle feathers. In a scene where the two women are watching their pre-teen daughters decorate floppy hats at a birthday party, these difference are clear through their dialogue. Here, Canoe talks about the idea she had for her daughter’s hat-decorating party—an idea her daughter detested: “ ‘I told her in her teen years she can do what she pleases,’ Canoe is saying . . . ‘When I was her age, I would have given my right arm for this party. The shower inspiration story was bullshit. I was trying to rally the troops’” (147). Barbara’s response to her daughter Megan’s unhappiness with the party is much different: “‘Excellent,’ Barbara says of Megan’s work, then she squints up at us. ‘Megan just needed encouragement,’ she says” (150). We see distinct differences in not only the speech patterns, but in the personalities of these two women through their dialogue. This is an example of the direct method of character presentation.

Consider this exercise for developing characters: Put each of your characters in a room together, and have them describe an object on the table. Start a conversation between them. How does each character’s distinct personality surface as they uniquely describe, perhaps even argue over, the object’s traits? What is illuminated about your character that you didn’t know until now? Did you use the direct method, or the indirect method of characterization? Share comments about your results!

Works Cited

Walbert, Kate. Our Kind: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.