Thursday, April 22, 2010

Guest in Progress: Rachel Hall on Letters in Historical Research

I’m delighted to share Rachel Hall’s wonderful exploration of why the use of personal letters is important to writers conducting historical research.

Rachel and I met at Bread Loaf many years ago. At the risk of making myself sound like a kindergartner, I distinctly remember my first sighting of her: I was standing in the lobby of the Inn on the first day, feeling despondent that “no one would like me,” when I saw her walk by, on her way to the mailboxes, and I immediately thought, “I want to be friends with her.” Lo and behold, we met later that day at a gathering of the group of writers who were Bread Loaf Scholars that year, and we hit it off immediately. Later, she confessed that she had noticed me standing in the lobby and had had a similar feeling of connectedness.

This piece is adapted slightly from Rachel’s presentation at the recent AWP conference, where the two of us were members of the panel entitled “Shh!: Librarians, Archivists and Writers on Research.” She’s incredibly smart about writing (and so many things), and her short stories and essays are evocative and painful, never shying away from the hard questions we all face. My favorite feeling in the world is to read her work and immediately find myself thinking, “My, God, that’s so good…and how amazing and lucky for me that she’s my friend.”

[Note: Part II will run next week, followed by Rachel’s recommended list of collections of letters.]

On Letters, Part I
By Rachel Hall

I have always loved letters—writing them, of course, but receiving them even more. Every day, I look hungrily in my mailbox, an old-fashioned contraption that requires a 100-yard walk from my house. That I’m usually disappointed, that I write few letters myself these days, does nothing to prevent my eagerness to tug open the lid. But this is not, I promise, a plea for a pen pal or even a manifesto to bring back the written letter, along with 45s or the typewriter, hats and gloves for ladies. What follows are some thoughts on the value of letters, how they are different from other forms of research in their usefulness for the writer of historical fiction, and some examples.

I’m working on a collection of linked stories based on my mother’s childhood in France during WWII. All my life, I’ve heard her stories and my grandparents’ stories—how they didn’t register at City Hall when Jews were required to do so, how they were denounced in this town or that village and fled just ahead of the police. Writing these stories, I find I have particular questions that my grandmother at 103 can no longer answer and my mother, who was a young girl at the time, probably never knew. For instance, did they correspond with my grandmother’s family in Palestine during the war? I felt instinctively that they must have had contact, but wouldn’t it have been risky to mail a letter to Palestine in those days? To receive one? When I asked my mother, she found a bundle of letters saved by her aunt who lived in Palestine—later Israel. The letters had indeed come from France during the war—some directly, such as the one where my grandfather, stationed at the Maginot Line, tells of his situation at the beginning of the war. He writes,

Bien cherstous: You can be completely calm about my fate. I am very well. I eat well. I have a good, warm room. And everything. I even think I’m gaining weight.

There are other letters, too, some sent to a friend who acted as a courier. The existence of these letters, despite the obvious risk and difficulty, said something important to me about writing historical fiction. Because letters are from an individual, they remind us in a way that other sources cannot that people felt and said and did things that history suggests they would not. In a review of a historical novel in the Times, the reviewer took issue with a character who found solace in the beauty of some yellow flowers in the spring. No one, the reviewer indicated, ever thought about daffodils in this way before Wordsworth’s 1804 poem.

But I’m not sure. Individuals, after all, behave independently and outside of historical movements, which are percolating long before arriving on the scene. In letters we find those individual voices responding to particular situations, and we hear the individual voice that gets muffled, summarized away by history. My family letters gave me permission both concretely and in the abstract to make my characters individuals, not the masses living under Vichy law. If I wanted a character to send and receive mail during WWII, I could do it—the letters were evidence of the possibility even though research about the era suggested otherwise. Here, for instance, is an example of the preprinted post card that was permitted between the Occupied Zone and Unoccupied Zone until May 1941. Writers were to check and cross out words as applicable.


. . . in good health. . . tired. . . slightly, seriously ill. . . wounded . . . killed.

. . . prisoner. . . died. . . without news of. . . .

The family … is well in need of supplies…of money . . . news, luggage. . .

has returned to…is working in…will go back to school at…is being put up at…is going to…

Best wishes. Love….


Of course, journals, if my relatives had written them, might offer some of the same kinds of information as letters. The Journal of Helene Berr has been useful for my project. Berr describes her life as a Jewish woman living in Paris during the Occupation. Her journal is beautifully written—Berr was a student of literature at the Sorbonne before the war—and full of details about that time, but it is first and foremost, a private record, a means to maintain some order in a world tilting into chaos. Letters, because of their communicative purpose, provide more for the fiction writer. They are active, crackling with tension, in a way that a journal is not. The letter writer is desiring something--response and connection, information—which is, of course, crucial to fiction. A letter, too, seeks response from a particular other. That relationship is implied in a letter—we learn something of the dynamic between the writer and receiver, making letters a rich source for both character and conflict.

In his book Yours Ever, People and their Letters, Thomas Mallon laments the frequency with which only half of a correspondence is available. He writes, “it’s an irony that besets epistolary friendships: the letters of the disorderly person or the wanderer wind up being saved and filed and organized; what’s written by the correspondent with regular habits disappears into the other person’s chaos.” This is true certainly with my family’s letters—we have the letters from France from 1939 to 1945, but none of the ones sent from home, those were likely destroyed before one of the many quick departures or lost in the shuffle. While this lack of replies and forerunners might be frustrating if I were trying to write a biography or a nonfiction account of this time period, the gaps or silences in the correspondence provide opportunity for the fiction writer. These are “the voids” which Geraldine Brooks encourages writers of historical fiction to inhabit. Out of these disjunctures or holes in the conversation fiction may be born. ~Rachel Hall

To be continued next week….

About: Rachel Hall's work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, most recently in Crab Orchard Review, Water~Stone, and New Letters, which awarded her their Cappon Prize in fiction. She is at work on a collection of linked stories entitled HEIRLOOMS, which follows a French Jewish family from the eve of WWII to America where they settle after the war. She teaches at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she holds the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

You can listen to an audio version of her story that won the Lilith contest:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.