Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Why I Chose the Epistolary Format for The Appeal: Guest Post by Janice Hallett

Janice Hallett reveals why she chose the epistolary format for her new novel The Appeal. 


Back in the early 1990s I worked for a business magazine, analyzing retail markets. I spent a significant proportion of each day on the telephone and as a life-long phone-phobic, I’ve no idea now how I got through each day. All I remember is, at some point in the early 2000s, I was handed an ‘email address’ – that probably ended in - along with instructions on how to operate a program called Outlook Express. Convinced I’d never use this new-fangled gimmick again, as soon as I pressed ‘send’ something clicked into place, and not just the creaky dial-up internet modem. 

I wasn’t the only one. In what feels like overnight now, the world’s main means of business communication changed – and what it became favoured my particular skillset. There was time now to craft the perfect letter instead of gabbling and stammering down the phone. No need to make notes or remember what was said… email meant a complete record of everything sent and received. I could respond to other people in my own time, instead of feeling I’d been caught out by an unexpected phone call. The era of the inbox had dawned. 

I can’t have been the only one to notice that a person’s email-style was a window to their soul - from when they sent their mails to the way they introduced themselves and signed off. More than this, it revealed their attitude towards the person they were communicating with. If someone replied immediately, they were eager and positive. If they took hours or worse, days to reply, they really were just not that in to you. It’s no secret that when people write to each other, they reveal their true thoughts and feelings as much with what they don’t say as what they do. 

As the years passed and dial-up gave way to ADSL, broadband, then wifi, more and more conversations, business and personal, took place virtually. Then came SMS, Messenger and WhatsApp. Suddenly we communicated with even fewer words – and fewer words mean more spaces in between to give ourselves away… 

When it came to planning my first novel, the story I wanted to tell was of a couple who find themselves back “home” after years immersed in a totally different culture. They are changed forever by their experiences overseas, and I wanted this to inform how they view the insular, hierarchical community they reluctantly find themselves in. What better way to explore the complex relationships within a small community than exposing its gossip and whispers? The things said behind people’s backs… In the 21st Century we don’t exchange info at the water cooler, we gossip in cyper-space, where no one can hear you scream with glee. 

That’s why I decided to present the events leading up to a murder, via a series of electronic communications between suspects. Messages and red herrings could fly to and fro in the background as deadly events played-out. This way we’d catch our victims and suspects off-guard and witness huge or micro changes in style depending on who they’re speaking to and what they could be hiding. How might such discrepancies inform a murder enquiry? 

As I began to write these emails, letters and texts, all between members of an amateur drama society whose members are raising money for a sick child, I felt the story needed a reason for this correspondence to have been printed out and gathered together. I wondered if these messages could all be in the past… and someone in the present is trying to uncover the murderer from correspondence alone. So, the trail of communications became part of a court case, reflecting a real-life legal process called eDiscovery. The characters trying to understand it all would be novices, like the reader, law students eager to please their tutor and highly motivated to solve the case… 

After a year of writing, I finally pressed send on The Appeal, an homage to modern communication and, like the epistolary novels of the Victorian era, the enduring duplicity of human relationships. 


Janice Hallett is a former magazine editor, award-winning journalist, and government communications writer. She wrote articles and speeches for, among others, the Cabinet Office, Home Office, and Department for International Development. Her enthusiasm for travel has taken her around the world several times, from Madagascar to the Galapagos, Guatemala to Zimbabwe, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. A playwright and screenwriter, she penned the feminist Shakespearean stage comedy NetherBard and cowrote the feature film Retreat. The Appeal is her first novel.


Anonymous said...

Alas, your editors seem to have missed the mark badly when it came to formatting this for e-readers. As so much of the impact relies on the style of the novel’s content, it’s flat, weird, and only occasionally effective on this alternate medium. RS [using Kindle app on ipad]

Janet Rudolph said...

Anonymous: I read this on my iPad, and I didn't have that problem at all. It was quite clear. Loved the book and the creative use of the epistolary 2022 novel!