Jessica Brockmole reveals the story and history behind her debut, Letters from Skye
In Jessica Brockmole’s epistolary novel Letters from Skye, the stories of two interconnected relationships unfold. In 1912, Midwestern college student David Graham writes a fan letter to Elspeth Dunn, a published poet living on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. In 1940, Elspeth’s daughter Margaret falls in love with a RAF pilot, and Elspeth’s warnings about the dangers of wartime romance prompt Margaret to search for her mother’s hidden history. Letters from Skye is an absorbing, romantic read firmly anchored in its place and time, and it’s been receiving wide acclaim, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Here Jessica tells us more about her characters and setting, the fine art of letter-writing, and her role as a reviews editor for the HNS.
SJ: When I first read about the premise for Letters from Skye, about an American college student who sends a fan letter to a Scottish poet in 1912, I made the assumption that the student was female and the author male – and was actually very pleased to be wrong. How did you come up with the character of Elspeth, this young, reclusive poet who loves geology and the wild, pagan land around her?
JB: In my mind, the poet character was always female. Perhaps it’s because I am, but I could only imagine a woman having the easy connection to nature that my poet has. Her other character traits—the love of geology, the fear of water, the overfondness for jam—were not planned and surprised me in the writing. In retrospect, they were interesting traits to give to Elspeth. Her preference for the rocks beneath her feet rather than the ocean beyond hint that she is more grounded than her dreamy nature suggests.
SJ: What did you enjoy most about your time living in Scotland, and what made you decide you absolutely had to set a novel there?
JB: The history. Walking the streets of Edinburgh, I would lay my hand on the stones of a building and swear that I could feel history beneath the surface. Growing up in the Midwestern U.S. I never felt that to the same degree. I was fascinated by all of the years that the city had seen and wanted to find a set of them to write about.
SJ: In novels written in the form of letters, creating a distinct, authentic voice for each character is so important, and it was obvious the amount of care you’d taken in doing this. How did your academic training in linguistics help you? What other resources did you use?
JB: In studying linguistics, I had a special interest in language history. This came into play in writing Letters from Skye. Because it wasn’t a narrative, an assumed translation between an earlier time and ours, I was stringent about language use. I spent far too much time with my OED and my etymological dictionaries, checking and double-checking the dates of words. These are fictional letters, written in specific years, each with their own lexicons; the words chosen had to be the right ones.
That said, I do have one small confession to make, one tiny liberty I took that I hope you will forgive. When, in the very second letter, Elspeth exclaims over receiving her very first “fan letter,” she may be ahead of her time. I feel I can make a case for it, though. Although the OED dates “fan letter” to 1937 and “fan mail” to 1924, “fan” itself (as a fanatic or ardent spectator) dates earlier than that and they certainly did take pen to paper. So, although Elspeth uses a term which doesn’t make its way into print for a couple of decades, the concept is there and I need to give the reader a quick hint as to what was happening. Mea culpa.
SJ: David decides to volunteer as an ambulance driver with the French army well before the US formally got involved in WWI. How did you first learn about the American Ambulance Field Service and decide to use it in your novel?
JB: From my father, who’s a military history buff. I was lamenting the fact that America’s late entry into the war, in 1917, threw off my timeline. I needed David overseas before then. He casually suggested the American Ambulance Field Service. As I looked into it, I realized it was perfect for David. Those who volunteered with the AAFS were often college boys, tenacious thrill-seekers with stronger ideals than sense of personal safety. David had been on a path to medical school, but was too restless to stay in one spot for too long. He wanted to go out into the world to do something great. He was exactly the kind of man who would have considered the AAFS.
It was also easy to research, which was a bonus. The AAFS published several collections during the course of the war as propaganda pieces, to persuade both new recruits and donors to share their time and money. Although carefully curated, the books had journal entries, letter excerpts, and recollections from ambulance sections, which I used to plot David’s path through France and to decide which things an ambulance driver held most dear.
SJ: I read through an article from BookRiot you posted on your Facebook page, about this summer being the “season of the epistolary novel.” Where do you think readers’ interest in this sort of slower, more formal type of correspondence comes from?
JB: Many readers who’ve written to me since Letters from Skye came out comment on the celebration of the written word in the digital age. They tell me about missing the days when letter-writing was an art and they fondly recall penpals who became dear friends. So perhaps it’s nostalgia, perhaps wistfulness, perhaps yearning for an age when the pace was slower and communication anticipated rather than expected.
I think there’s also a certain guilty pleasure in reading someone else’s mail, even if fictional. With epistolary fiction, there’s a sense of peeking into someone’s life, a literary voyeurism. We read words that characters may have meant to be intimate and we find ourselves, very quickly, in their minds.
SJ: As a writer as well as a reader, what draws you toward historical novels set in the 20th century?
JB: I like the early 20th century because it feels so familiar, yet the history still takes me by surprise. It’s easy for readers to quickly connect with an era in which the way people talk, dress, work, and play similarly to them. And yet there are so many forgotten islands of history, so many things that we feel we should know about the early 20th century already but don’t. I love adding those bits of history back to the map.
SJ: You’re in a unique position in that you have insight into both sides of the book review process, editing and writing reviews of historical novels for the HNS while being a historical novelist yourself. How do these two roles interact with one another?
JB: I’ve always been a believer in the adage that the best way to learn to write is to read. In my roles at the Historical Novels Review, I read widely and, as a reviewer, critically. I think this helps me to deconstruct novels better, to see what works and what doesn’t.
I think that reviewing also gives me a little peace of mind when I’m looking at it from the other side of the fence. I’m able to accept negative reviews, understanding that every book doesn’t work for every reviewer. I’ve been in that position myself.
SJ: Can you reveal anything about what you’ll be working on next?
JB: My new novel, coming out with Ballantine next year, 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.
Letters from Skye was published by Ballantine (US) and Hutchinson (UK) in hardcover in July 2013. For more information, visit Jessica’s website at www.jabrockmole.com.