Letters tell the story

The epistolary novel in the digital age

The story-in-correspondence found in epistolary novels is by no means a new thing. It’s been going on for centuries.

Letter writing to people who mattered but who were not close enough to speak to every day was once an art form, both in content and in execution. Some people sat at a kitchen table writing letters with a pencil. Others sat at a writing desk with inlaid leather surfaces touched with gilt, dipping quill pens into silver inkpots, writing in elegant cursive about the important things that mattered to the heart and the soul, as well as about what one had for dinner and whom one invited to share it.

Then came email….

But I digress. Stick a pin in that for the moment.

Stories told in the form an exchange of letters had a strange quality of intimacy, as though the reader had somehow gained access into the innermost citadel of the keep of someone’s life, suddenly privy to their hidden thoughts and feelings, because you HAVE to have access to those, if you’re writing a letter, if you’re writing from the heart. Letters were a glimpse inside a soul.

That is why those books caught on – because the letters are an invitation to become a part of the letter-writer’s world, and then share the sensation of being stamped and mailed, sometimes sent across the globe, the glory of that journey being a part of the glory of the communication. The waiting for a reply was part of it, too. It was a slower, more delicate time, a golden gleam, a communication in nuance where people took the time.

Then came email.,..

But stick a pin in that again.

I still remember special onion-skin notepads which one used to write “airmail” letters, because the thin paper meant cheaper postage. I recognized the red-and-blue-edged “airmail” envelopes – and those were special, they meant letters from far away. Probably not one kid today would know what one of those envelopes on your hallway table meant, the excitement of an OVERSEAS letter from someone so very far away.

But letter writing withered when the concept of distance disappeared with the Internet.

These days you write an email from one coast of America and it is instantly received on the other — or in Europe, or Japan, or anywhere someone is with a laptop and a hotstpot connection to the Internet. Time and space disappear in the blink of an eye. Instead of waiting weeks or months for a reply, in gleeful anticipation or grim foreboding both made bigger and more intense by WAITING, you get impatient when you don’t get a response IMMEDIATELY. What could anyone else possibly be doing that they cannot answer your email the moment it pops into their inbox? I mean, how RUDE.

And yet there is a nuance that can linger in emails too. I treasure a four-word email from my then hospitalized husband:”Need socks. Love you.”

Letters from the Fire coverEpistolary novels have always existed – but these days the communication can be electronic, too. I co-wrote an epistolary novel with the man I later married, with the two of us “writing” to each other, in email, in character, to create a story of two people who moved from enmity to friendship to love at digital speed when the Internet connected them as their nations went to war.

That’s how ‘Letters from the Fire‘, was born, an epistolary novel in which a lifetime of living is encapsulated in an exchange of emails which covers a period of time measured in days, not years.

In the era of email, we’re still writing letters, still reaching for each other’s souls. These days, it’s just faster, that’s all.

If you think that it’s also shallower, more perfunctory, more ‘surface glitz’ than anything that went before – well – there is something to be said for the handwritten letter inscribed by a fountain pen in an elegant hand. But story and emotion can transcend that.

Write a letter.

Read a book of letters that others wrote.

It is part of what it means to be human.

My epistolary novel, ‘Letters from the Fire’, can be bought HERE

epistolary novels illusttrationThe Guardian takes a look at 10 other modern epistolary novels. See them all HERE


Quote of the Day

Writing fiction is like remembering what never happened” ~ Novelist/Poet Siri Hustvedt

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Stories are alive

What is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s a question that Neil Gaiman explores in a lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking, an article in Brain Pickings tells us.
Neil GaimanGaiman suggests that stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does. “Stories are alive – they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia,” he says.

Read the article and listen to Gaiman HERE

My first major success was ‘The Secrets of Jin-Shei‘, a novel of sisterhood set in a mythological land called Syai that resembles an Imperial China that never was. It is out in 13 languages so far.

The Secrets of Jin-sheiThe first Harper Collins hardcover edition of Jin-shei had a gorgeous cover. While the paperback is still available, the hardcover edition is out of print now and I have seen it being sold as a collector’s item. I have a few copies of my own stashed away that I am hoarding.

Published more than a decade ago, it is a story that fits Gaiman’s definition. It is a living thing. I still hear from or about women and girls who have pledged Jin-shei to each other like the characters in my story. Some time back, a teenager in Brazil posted a video about it on her blog. I don’t speak Portuguese, but she did seem to be enthusiastic about it.

At off the Shelf, Hilary Krutt takes a look at several other similar books:


11 Novels that Explore the Beautiful and Complex Bonds of Sisterhood

“The concept of sisterhood has always possessed an almost mystical allure for me,” Krutt says. “Growing up with no sisters of my own, my brother served as a proxy, begrudgingly allowing me to dress him up in old tutus and playing along with my extensive collection of Barbie dolls. He eventually grew out of it, but I always cherished the time when he allowed me to project my girlish whims on him. Whether you’re from a clan of sisters or sisterless like me, here are eleven books about the joys and challenges of sisterhood.”


The Weird Sisters

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown:

Bianca, Cordelia, and Rosalind are the book-loving and wonderfully quirky spawn of Shakespeare scholar Dr. James Andreas. When the three sisters return to their childhood home to lick their wounds and bury their secrets, they are horrified to find the others there.

But the Andreas sisters soon discover that everything they’ve been running from might offer more than they ever expected.


Read the whole story HERE



Another story that interested me because of the personal connection to one of my own books is a Flavorwire story on Internet novels. :

I didn’t write an Internet novel in the sense of the article below, but the man-who-was-to- become-my-husband and I wrote an epistolary novel together about NATO’s war on Yugoslavia in the form of an exchange of emails over the Internet between a pro-war American man, and a Serb woman living under the bombs. After the original bitter exchanges, the couple, despite themselves, fell in love.

Published by New Zealand HarperCollins, it was called ‘Letters from the Fire‘ and sold extremely well in New Zealand where I was living at the time. Now self published on the Internet… Well… No comment.

The books mentioned by Flavowire have made a lot more of a stir.

The Evolution of the Internet Novel, 1984 to Present: A Timeline



The article begins with, not surprisingly, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, published in 1984.

It may be argued that earlier novels, genre or otherwise, anticipated the Internet before William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), but can any of them lay claim to the invention of the word “cyberspace,” or the cyberpunk genre, or the credible hacking novel?’



Read the whole story HERE

ParbunkellsThe Word the Internet Didn’t Know

Ever heard of the word in the photo above? Maddie Stone asks at Gizmodo. Probably not, because, until this month, that word didn’t exist on the Internet.

That’s right: A 17th century English word that means “coming together through the binding of two ropes,” according to a 1627 publication housed at the New York Public Library’s Rare Book Division, was, until this month, dead to the digital world—and to almost every living person.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the internet knows everything, but it doesn’t.

Read the whole story HERE


New favorite review of ‘Wolf‘, second book in my The Were Chronicles. At Goodreads, a reader called Melani exclaims with glee,

They saved the day with SCIENCE!”

The man who saved 2,000,000 babies

…and 14 other saviors of mankind

Read the whole Kindness Blog story HERE

Scientists discover what’s killing the bees and it’s worse than you thought

Read the whole story of the bee apocalypse HERE

Quote of the day

Stories should change you – good stories should change you.” ~ Neil Gaiman

Alma Alexander      My books      Email me   

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Not Safe For School

50 great books you’ll never read in school

It’s that time of the year when reading for pleasure will give way to burning through that syllabus, Emily Temple writes at Flavorwire. She selects some great books you’ll (probably) never read in high school, but should still read.

For example:
Infinite JestInfinite Jest, David Foster Wallace: Well, for one thing, it’s way too long to assign. And it’s complicated. And full of drugs. And probably impossible to teach. It’s best to read this book by taking three months off from everything else, which is just not possible in a traditional school. That said, it’s worth every minute it takes you to get through it.
Ooga-BoogaOoga-Booga, Frederick Seidel: Deliciously dirty and gleefully gauche poems from the “Laureate of the Louche.” It’s really a shame this isn’t taught in more high schools — I can’t think of anything more likely to get teenage boys into poetry.

Read the article

Speaking of school…

25 Of The Most Dangerous And Unusual Journeys To School  

To the delight or dismay of millions, the school season is beginning in many countries. But in some parts of the world, school can be a hard-won luxury. Many children have to take the most incredible and unimaginable routes in order to receive the education that some of us may take for granted. This list compiled by Julija K at Bored Panda shows some of the most astonishing, from a 5-hour journey into the mountains on a 1ft wide path, to crossing a broken suspension bridge, to ….

Kids flying 800m on a steel cable 400m above The Rio Negro River, Colombia
400m Above a riverImage credits: Christoph Otto

Read the article

Speaking of dangerous…

Five things to do before you’re ready to be a writer

Before you can write about life, at least adequately, you have to have lived it. And I don’t mean vicariously on Facebook.  What you must do:

1) DO SOMETHING DANGEROUS. Know what an adrenaline surge REALLY feels like. You cannot possibly write about one without that visceral knowledge. Three of my young, female friends and I once climbed down from Table Mountain in Cape Town, on foot, in the dark, sliding down scree slopes and falling into the switchback roads. Foolish? Dangerous? Yes, but exhilarating. (We were very young and, of course, invincible.)


Read the article

Knock down a wall, find a city

A man renovating his home discovered a tunnel… to a massive underground city

In 1963, a man in the Nevşehir Province of Turkey knocked down a wall of his home. Behind it, he found a mysterious room that led to an intricate tunnel system with additional cave-like rooms. What he had discovered was the ancient Derinkuyu underground city in Turkey.
Derinkuyu mapThe underground city is neither the largest nor oldest, but its 18 stories make it the deepest. The city was most likely used as a giant bunker to protect its inhabitants from either war or natural disaster.

Read the article

50-year missing Willy Wonka chapter discovered

In the Daily Mail, Jim Norton reveals the grisly end of two greedy boys who disappear in fudge cutting room in Roald Dahl’s most famous book was published.
Willy WonkaIn the missing section from the 1961 draft, mysterious confectioner Willy Wonka took children who won a tour of his factory to the Vanilla Fudge Room – only for the passage to be cut from the published version.

Read the article


At Slashdot, destinyland writes that even though the newest book from the geeky cartoonist behind XKCD hasn’t been released yet, it’s already become one of Amazon’s best-selling books. Thanks to a hefty pre-order discount, one blogger notes that it’s appeared on Amazon’s list of hardcover best-sellers since the book was first announced in March, and this weekend it remains in the top 10. Randall Munroe recently announced personal appearances beginning this week throughout the U.S. two weeks ago he was also awarded the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.

Books & Beer

McIntyre’s Books in Pittsboro, N.C., is hosting a Books & Beer event series to celebrate North Carolina authors and provide an informal space for writers and book lovers to enjoy a good read over local craft beer at Fearrington Village’s Roost beer garden. The “informal and intimate literary event” series launches September 11 and will run for six weeks.

Oldest library Could close

For more than two centuries, the Darby Free Library has remained both a vital part of its community as well as a historical landmark. Built in 1743 in Darby, Pa. by Quakers, it remains the oldest public library in the nation. But a financial crisis has left it in danger of shutting down by the end of the year.

Quote of the Day

We’ve all heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true.”   — Robert Wilensky

Alma Alexander
My books

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Spamology et al

DEARLY BELOVED, SAVE HUMANITY!” says the subject line on one the messages in my spam box.

I am tempted to send an autoreply.

“You have reached the Messiah Hotline. We value your call. Due to the heavier than usual call volume, you may have to wait a little longer than usual for a response. Your expected wait time is approximately 2000 years. Please stay on the line and someone will be with you momentarily.”

Sea of Voices, or, A Question of Character

“How many people are in this room?” I asked the audience at a recent Cascade Writers Conference. They began turning around to count heads.

“No,” I interrupted, “not how many warm bodies. How many people?”

I paused as they puzzled over this, then went on.

“Let me introduce you to the ones that are currently up here at the front of the room with me.”

And then I spoke, in character, as character, as four of the characters from my own stories.

There was Coyote, for example, from my Worldweavers books:

CybermageShe called me Corey, in the books. She had to call me something. But you might know me better as Coyote…

I am a spirit; I am a god; I am an avatar. I am chaos. I am a rock in a stream; I do not block the water flow but I act as a dam and I make the water find a way around me if it wants to move forward in its bed. I am a lesson to be learned….

We all carry it within us, all the writers, we all swim in this sea of voices which whisper nto our ears as we work, as we eat, as we sleep, as we dream. We contain multitudes, That person sitting in the back of the bus having a passionate conversation with thin air? He’s probably a writer arguing with a recalcitrant character who will not do what is needful because they know better (the worst thing is that they usually DO…)

I talk about this in detail at Storytellers Unplugged.

Read the Article

Okay, then. Okay.

I was procrastinating like crazy, trawling the Net, when I found something on the blog, Writing Advice: by Chuck Palahniuk.

“For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every ‘thought’ verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.” (If you want to read his whole column, you can find it here.)

UNPACK, he says. And then he gives challenge sentences. Here’s my answers to the challenge (his sentence first, my (long -winded) responses following straight after):

“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”

“Ripples spread out in circles silver-edged by moonlight, spilling on the surface of the dark water, as though something had been thrown into the river, or something had jumped out – for terror, for joy, perhaps for both. It might have been Marty’s own heart, beating too fast against his ribs as he struggled to catch his breath.”

“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”

“It all came flooding back as soon as the wine spilled into her mouth, and she could all but taste the wintry sunshine outside the half-empty cafe where she had last sipped of this particular vintage, watching the door close slowly just as Joe had walked out, leaving her alone with the half-consumed bottle of wine and the dregs in his own glass, unfinished, still stitting there on the table across from her, mocking her dreams.”

“Larry knew he was a dead man…”

“There was a metallic taste in Larry’s mouth as he crouched behind the packing cases. He could be certain of at least three of them, out there in the warehouse, too far spread out for him to do anything about; for all he knew there were a dozen more. But it didn’t matter, either way. They were between him and the exit, and there were only two bullets left in the gun. ‘Well,’ he muttered under his breath, out loud just so that he could hear his own voice one more time,  closing his eyes briefly and holding the cold metal of the gun’s barrel flat against his forehead in a gesture that was almost a salute, ‘I guess the only thing left is to make it count. I won’t go without taking at least two of those bastards with me.”

Of course, “unpacking” means MORE WORDS. But eh. I can live with that.

A hilarious video for all lovers of language
LanguageMatthew Rogers used the words of Stephen Fry in creating this kinetic typography animation. It’s wonderful. Watch it.

Watch the video

35 of the Internet’s Most Influential Writers

Some are young authors, others are firmly established, Jason Diamond writes at Flavorwire. Some of them are publishing industry veterans or new media superstars who want to use their clout to talk up writers they love, while others command small armies via their Tumblrs. Some start hashtag trends, while others have scored book deals with their clever tweets.

Whatever it is they do on the Internet, these 35 people do it better than anybody else in the book world, and that’s why they help steer literary conversations and tastes.
Melissa BroderMelissa Broder: We’ve already explored this poet’s uncanny ability to tweet magic, but it bears repeating. If you haven’t followed her yet, what are you waiting for?

Read the Article

Quote of the Day
hemingway quote~~~~~
Alma Alexander
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Comments welcome. What do you think?

Life changes

40 women, 40 words, 40 stories

Two weeks after my husband’s stroke, I saw him get up and take his first step since the moment that he was struck down. I wept. It was my fortieth birthday. This was the best birthday present ever.

I think of this now because of a story in the Boston Globe. To mark the 40th anniversary of Rosie’s Place, novelist Alice Hoffman asked 40 writers each to compose a 40-word essay on the theme: “the day my life changed.’

How does a life change? We reach the door to our futures by chance, or by fate, or by design. We know something we didn’t before. We love someone new, or say goodbye. We pick up a book, or forgive someone. In truth there are many days that can change a person’s life, a series of events that add up to a future, but some are remembered more than any other. This is the day that sticks with us and reminds us of who we are and who we might still become. It’s the day that made us who we are.

Jodi-PicoultAdam Bouska

Jodi Picoult
As the car careened wildly through Hurricane Bob, all I could think was: My baby is coming too early. That’s how life works: Sometimes the unexpected becomes reality. I wasn’t ready for my son, but he was ready for me. ?

Julia-AlvarezBill Eichner

Julia Alvarez
August 6, 1960: the bittersweet day my family arrived in New York City. Bitter, because we had left our homeland; sweet, because we had escaped the dictatorship; bittersweet, in balance, when I learned this English and could tell the story.

What’s your story in 40 words?

40 women, 40 stories

How the Internet took over the world

A timelapse map posted at io9 shows just how the Internet spread, quickly and across borders, all around the globe.

I was running a computer with Windows 3.1 and a 40 megabyte (you read that right) hard drive when I first dipped a toe in the waters of the Internet – via dialup. My father would wander past occasionally and sniffily ask when, if ever, he might be able to use the phone again.

It was all slow and cumbersome and oh so basic. In the beginning, I spent most of my time on Usenet — sort of like Facebook for you youngsters. I don’t remember if my monitor was remotely good enough to get decent access to websites, or even what the state of the Web was at that time.

I used Alta Vista, and well remember the days when “Google” was not yet a verb. My first email was to my then-boyfriend, who had helped me set things up, and it snarkily invited him to let me know if he didn’t receive the message.

Years later when we were getting cable speed Internet, the cable guy popped into the back office that I shared with my husband to ask a question. Hubby had his back to the door and was demonstrating how he used to play the viola in high school, sawing an imaginary bow across an imaginary set of strings with great gusto. I didn’t tell him that he was being watched because the expression on the cable guy’s face was far too amusing to break the spell.

This all feels like ancient history. I first stepped onto the Internet stage in something like 1995, 1996 or so. It wasn’t, in chronological terms, THAT long ago but it feels like cyberarchaeology.

Do you remember your first Internet experience?

How the Internet grew

12 Poetry Collections Every Woman Should Read

When I was messed-up teenager“, Julie Buntin writes for Cosmopolitan “my self-esteem hovered somewhere way below sea level, acne was a constant threat, and I truly did not see the point of school, or my family, or, sometimes, my entire existence.

Everyone has a worst time of his or her life — mine was between 16 and 19. During that time, I developed a habit of reading and writing poetry. That outlet kept me sane and helped control my angst. (OK, maybe sometimes it fueled the angst a little, too.)

One of the 12:

Ariel, by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia PlathIf you think Sylvia Plath is for weepy teenage girls, you’re right — but you’re also completely missing the enduring brilliance of the poems collected in Ariel, which are more than shrieks of pain and meditations on despair. Every woman should read this book at least twice — first emotionally when she’s 16 and again when she’s a clearer-eyed 35. Plath’s metaphors elevate her poetry into an almost visual art form. “Love set you going like a fat gold watch,” she writes “In Morning Song,” a poem about her first child. Plath, famous for her suicide and for poems like “Daddy” (in which she compares her father to Hitler), empowered women to own their darkness and their rage.

What’s your favorite collection of poetry?

Poetry for women

Short reads

At Flavorwire, Emily Temple offers us “50 Incredible Novels Under 200 Pages.

Classics you’ve read, classics you’ve always meant to read, and books you’ve never heard of.

Mr RobinsonElect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Donald Antrim
A surrealist masterpiece that’s oft overlooked. Terrifying, bonkers, hilarious, and filled with gorgeous language and real insight about real humans, it will knock you topsy-turvy.

calvinoInvisible Cities, Italo Calvino
This is the book that launched a thousand art projects, and for good reason: each imaginary city, described by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, is a mini revelation, a marvelous bauble. But the book adds up to more than the sum of its cities. You’ll just have to read to find out.

Train DreamsTrain Dreams, Denis Johnson
Johnson’s novella is a shimmering masterpiece that takes you from the railroad to the woods of Prohibition-era Idaho with a sort of manic grace. His narrator loses everything but finds something else, something not-quite, in the woods. And it’s the pervasive not-quiteness of this novella that makes it so powerful, so shifting, so freaking good. Read it.

Do you have a favorite short novel?

50 short novels

Quote of the Day

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.” ~ Charles William Eliot

Alma Alexander
Check out my books
Email me 
Comments welcome. What do you think?