In April Adam Byatt and Jodi Cleghorn, two highly creative souls (one with a knack for pulling great ideas from nowhere, the other on a quest for the perfect cardigan) embarked on a writing journey the likes of which I’m yet to see elsewhere.
Piper’s Reach, a collaborative journey into serialised fiction with a twist, saw Jodi and Adam create a continuously evolving and organic narrative between two teen friends all grown up. The concept behind Piper’s Reach was to hand write letters to each other as their characters Jude and Ella-Louise, teasing a genuinely heartbreaking/warming story out of the tangled fibres of a strict No Spoilers policy and a skeletal structure. At the time, I was intrigued to know how the project had come about, why the hand written letters were so crucial, and how on earth would they pull this whole thing together.
Now, after five months of drip feeding their fans letter after tantalising letter, I drag Jodi and Adam out of Jude and Ella-Louise’s heads to ask them a few questions about how it’s all travelling.
When we first spoke, Jodi you explained of having a bare bones concept with little in the way of concrete plot ideas or story lines. As the narrative has developed through the two of you, how do you think this has worked? And has there been any aspect you’d hoped might work better?
ADAM: I think it has worked very well because the original intention of the series was two people catching up after twenty years. It allowed the narrative to have an organic development as the two characters established new parameters for their relationship. It may have worked better if we developed our characters and outlined a series of events as marker points for the characters to work towards, but I prefer the organic approach we have taken. I have several ideas for narrative design, as I’m sure Jodi does, but they are dependent on how the current season plays out.
JODI: Starting without a definitive direction has really allowed the narrative to go through a slow build giving readers time to understand and care for the characters as individuals. I’m not a plotter by nature so I love the unexpected and organic unfolding the narrative has taken. I’d give anything to crack into Adam’s narrative ideas to see how they compare and contrast to mine.
ADAM: Jude was initially an idea, but I have added flesh to the bones over the months. I struggled with him initially but now I feel I have inhabited his skin. And he can still surprise from time to time. I know Ella-Louise was a fully formed character in Jodi’s head from the beginning and it has made it difficult, at times, to try and understand who Ella-Louise is as a person. Yet while it’s a problem, it also makes the character development more authentic. I suspect there is so much more in Jodi’s head about Ella-Louise that can’t come out because Jude’s responses don’t allow for it to happen, particularly about her past from leaving school to the present day.
JODI: Yes, Ella-Louise exists in my head as more than a broken woman seeking a sea change to put her life back together or a troubled teenager trying to work out how the great love of her life went so horribly wrong. She’s been dropping breadcrumbs throughout her letters, but as Season Two rolls out, be prepared to see a totally different version of Ella-Louise… and Jude for that matter. Ella-Louise will lift the curtain to reveal what she has been protecting herself and Jude from.
You’ve kept your fans on the edge of their seats as the letters have rolled in. Aside from how exciting this must be for you both, how hard has it been to keep to your No Spoilers policy?
ADAM:Speaking of fans, I have a colleague at my school library who was most upset (in a playful way) about the way Season One ended. However, talking with her about the characters, she commented that she would recognise them if they walked down the street. They are, for her, real characters. She said it took a while for her to engage with Jude but she sees in each of them an authenticity of their gender in their writing.
JODI: Comments such as that fortify me that Adam and I are doing something right. I often forget I’m writing for an audience other than Adam. I write to entertain him; see if I can needle in and provoke the most primal of emotions in him (I’m still working on making him cry!).
ADAM: I have almost cried. Almost. It’s nearly a challenge to make Jodi cry again.
JODI: If we can bring the power of our words to each other, then the audience is just one step removed and it works because neither of us knows what to expect next. The No Spoilers Policy (NSP) keeps the integrity of the project. And thanks to the NSP mail day is equal parts excitement and dread (especially as we venture further into Season Two).
ADAM: I don’t feel like it’s hard to maintain the NSP. Jodi and l like to drop cryptic hints to one another via twitter about the letter we are writing or the one that’s on its way. It’s relatively easy in some ways. It means giving each other permission to be creative with the characters’ timelines. We drop in names, dates, places and events without consulting the other. I’ve learned lots of interesting things about Jude through Ella-Louise’s recollections. For example, Jude’s skateboard accident and subsequent scars was Jodi’s construction. I was most surprised to see it in Jude’s timeline.
JODI: I think we’ve created a kind of side step, safety release valve around the NSP, whereby we talk broadly about the characters and their response to what has happened once a letter arrives. We haven’t done it all that often in the past, but perhaps with what is looming in Season Two there may be more now. But at the end of the day, we both know the boundaries of the NSP and abide by it (almost) faithfully.
ADAM: While we didn’t plot out the Reunion, we spoke around April of there needing to be an agreed upon catalyst to propel the narrative forward. A school reunion was the obvious answer, but it wasn’t the only potential plot point we discussed.
JODI: I have breached the NSP once, because a scene nagged me for months. I sent Adam the following text message in late July after I received the first post Reunion letter: “I always had a scene in my head. Dark at the Point. EL alone there. And Jude finds her there. She says “Don’t touch me I’ll shatter.” Did it make it into Jude’s next letter you’ll read? You’ll have to wait and see.
We’re about half way through the saga now; Ella Louise has decided to go to the reunion, and Jude seems excited to see her again. How are you both coping with the emotional roller-coaster that is developing the story through two very complicated and, at times, intense characters?
ADAM: knowing Season One has ended, and Season Two is about to be revealed, the emotional roller coaster is becoming more intense. I’m coping quite well as I give myself a bit of emotional distance from Jude. I tend to follow him around now, watching him go about his business and take notes. But I am becoming more inextricably linked with Jude as I process each new correspondence from Ella-Louise, and there are some very difficult times ahead.
JODI: Until we kicked into Season Two, I was doing well. I’d had my early teary moments as I excavated Ella-Louise’s past, and then I just got on with it. Ella-Louise kind of gave up trying to seduce Jude via letter and things settled into a holding pattern. She got on with practising for open mic night, hanging out with Ava, renovating and then doing storm repairs on her house, all as the Reunion loomed on the horizon.
ADAM: Season Two has gone into a territory I didn’t think it would go so the emotional toll is heavier and more intense for me. It has made writing Jude a whole lot harder. When I sat down to write the first letter of Season Two, it was emotionally draining. I had solved the problem of the Reunion, but it was difficult to put it into words. Each letter now is harder, darker, more complicated, without that thin veneer of nostalgia as a buffer between them.
JODI: Since we hit Season Two, I’m a basket case for one or two days every fortnight, when Jude’s letter arrives. I digest it, wander around the house like a zombie, spend a sleepless night further digesting it and then purge it all from my system the next morning. The impact of Ella-Louise’s possession on these days is such that I now timetable my work and other writing around the arrival of a letter so I don’t need to be trying to think, when I’m just an empty shell filled with a churning, unpredictable Ella-Louise.
ADAM: Because Ella-Louise is not “my character” I am on the same roller coaster of emotions as our readers, but then I have to bring Jude in on it and have him respond. There is one of Ella-Louise’s letters early in Season Two that I can only describe as “brutal.”
JODI: I wondered, back when I first thought of the idea in 2009, what it would feel like to fall in love virtually, one step removed through a character and if you could emulate it authentically in fiction. What I forgot was the flip side of the excitement and thrill; the sickening rollercoaster ride that comes with love/lust/attraction and the great unknown that divides and suspends it in time. Let’s just say, I’m grateful for my low-key, settled suburban lifestyle with my partner of ten years, thank you very much. There is something to be said for beige.
One of the aspects I found particularly engaging, was the way in which Jude and Ella Louise rehash those moments in their past where if Jude had acted, or Ella Louise had said something differently, then perhaps they might be with each other now. It’s a classic theme of regret and love lost, however I found myself reading Jude’s eloquently worded confessions of his past feelings, and wanting to punch him for pouring salt in Ella Louise’s open wounds.
Jodi – Ella-Louise is deliciously complicated; a character to drag nails down your emotional blackboard and leave you wanting to both slap her for her self-indulgences while grabbing her in a bear hug and healing all her wounds. Without tripping over the No Spoilers barrier, give us some background on what makes EL tick – will she ever have a happy ending? Does she even want one?
I’ve spent the last eight months trying to understand what motivates Ella-Louise, who she is under the multiple personas, what she wants from life and where she goes next.
While we see a self-indulgent, perhaps at times maudlin or disempowered Ella-Louise dwelling on a past that didn’t treat her so well, we have to remember she didn’t follow her mother into drugs and an early death, or systematic self-abuse. Because she keeps the past under lock and key we also don’t see her as someone at the height of their profession just 12 months earlier.
What we see is the raw, damaged, angry and painful parts she’s never revealed to anyone. As the letters have progressed and her trust in Jude returns, she’s opened up in an effort to understand where it all went wrong and, for the first time in her life, dare to dream of a different ending.
Readers will be surprised to learn what Ella-Louise yearns for is not that different from Jude. The difference is Jude has it, Ella-Louise doesn’t and it’s doubtful she ever will. She knew what would bring her happiness as a teenager and that’s where things got complicated with Jude: why she never risked the opportunity to kiss him and why she waited (as patiently and as saintly as she could) for him to make the move. To tell him what she truly wanted would have meant exposing the truth of herself. In the present she’s repeating the cycle with Zeke, but this time it’s compounded by her belief Jude is the only one who can make her happy.
Does a happy ending for Ella-Louise involve Jude? It’s always seemed an oxymoron for Adam and I as “happily ever after for Jude and Ella-Louise” would come at a heavy price: Jude’s wife, his kids, his parents and friends… before we start on his own peace of mind. It would have to be one hell of a blazing love to put all of that on the line. That’s not to say they won’t end up together. Given current twists and turns, Adam and I have admitted we’re just following the leaders.
In my heart I want a happy ending for Ella-Louise, but my head says there will be moments, some short and others long, where she will be happy, but it won’t last. Her past will always have inescapable undercurrent of the past in present and the future; a bittersweet view poised on the horizon.
Adam – Jude fascinates me. A happily married family man who tackles Ella Louise’s fiery re-entry into his life, with the zeal of a man who realises his one true purpose in life is to save her from herself, with supposedly no impact to his own beige existence. I’ve had moments where I’ve yelled at Jude through my computer, desperate for him to falter in his Zen like approach to Ella-Louise. Waiting for him to give in to her. Again, without giving anything away, tell us a little of Jude’s motivation when so many men, if in his position, might behave so differently.
Jude’s perception of Ella-Louise is shaped by his memories of twenty years ago, when they were kids growing up in Piper’s Reach. He knew something of the trouble of her past with her mother, and it was something he didn’t completely understand as a teenager. He liked Ella-Louise, her company and friendship, but felt he couldn’t keep her grounded to a place like Piper’s Reach, although I think Ella-Louise might argue differently.
He has a gap in his knowledge of Ella-Louise; there is a void of twenty years of which he knows nothing about her, what she did, what happened to her. In some ways he still sees her as the troubled teenage girl he knew, not the woman she is now, and that creates a conflict within himself and in his understanding of her.
Over the time as they have reconnected, he is learning about the life she has lived, but it seems disconnected from the reality he remembers. There is no point to connect the new memories of Ella-Louise, so he harps back to the past and what was and what could have been.
He is a man tied to his town, happily “beige” as we are fond of saying. Nothing extraordinary or outstanding, but contented satisfaction with modern suburbia. Jude likes the element of danger he sees in Ella-Louise, but prefers the safety of what is known to him. In his head he thinks he can be the supportive friend he was twenty years ago, providing a firm foundation for Ella-Louise to be herself. In some ways he is scared of who she is, scared of the risks she brings.
Lastly (spoilers!), you’ve hinted to your fans the possibility of a Piper’s Reach eBook. Is this just a carefully constructed ruse to titillate and/or torture your fans, or can you confirm for us once and for all that Ella Louise and Jude will make it to published nirvana?
ADAM: It’s definitely a go for e-book publication. We have to look at some copyright issues regarding the use of song lyrics, but once that’s sorted we can look at putting the compilation together with some minor edits to the letters for fluency and typos.
JODI: We’re aiming for an “in-time for Christmas launch”. How soon that will be depends on the complexity of the copyright issues with the lyrics and how willing we are to part with the lyrical inclusions. Adam’s already pitched two lots of additional content for the eBook and I’m not discounting the possibility of a special edition paperback. It would make a stellar Secret Santa present. (I see Adam’s high school flooded with copies).
My hope is this series is a stepping-stone to something bigger for Ella-Louise and Jude (and Adam and I by default). Given the narrow focus of the letters, there is still plenty of landscape to be explored.
Jodi and Adam have managed to engage their readers effectively, to the point where one is seamlessly catapulted into two very different, yet converging lives, to feel week after week, drained and simultaneously pumped to discover what might happen next.