Today’s guest has a story that sounds like the beginning of a juicy historical fiction novel. As a teenager, Liz Maguire came across a batch of 1920s love letters at a flea market. This launched an obsession with collecting vintage letters and preserving people’s personal correspondence as a piece of history. And of course, this passion project has had some surprising effects on her reading life.
Liz is looking for books that measure up to the detailed, intimate depictions of the real stories found in her vintage letters – and I’m ready to recommend 3 books that provide that same sense of texture she gets in those letters.
Let’s get to it!
LIZ: You know, you’ll open the first page and the first page name drops Gatsby. And you’re sorta, like, okay I guess I’m in the ‘20s. [BOTH LAUGH]
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ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 250.
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Today’s guest has a story that sounds like the beginning of a juicy historical fiction novel. As a teenager, Liz McGuire came across a batch of 1920s love letters at a flea market. This launched an obsession with collecting vintage letters and preserving people’s personal correspondence as a piece of history. And of course this passion project has had some surprising effects on Liz’s reading life.
Today Liz is looking for books that measure up to the detailed, intimate depictions of the real stories found in her vintage letters and I’m ready to recommend three books that provide that same sense of texture she gets in those letters. Let’s get to it.
Liz, welcome to the show.
LIZ: Oh, thank you. I’m very excited to be here.
ANNE: Well I’m excited to talk with you today. Now we got your submission from our form at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest and the whole team at What Should I Read Next HQ loved the sound of your flea market love letters project. Aside from just being super curious about what you unearthed and how it started in the history, we’re readers, and we know the power of the written word whether we read it bound in a manuscript by a bookstore or whether we are, you know, writing a personal communication.
LIZ: I’m very excited to dive in, and I have to say I’m pretty excited for your recommendations. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: We’ll get to that. We’ll get to that. So this project that you started, what, like five, six years ago now?
LIZ: Yeah. So I started collecting in 2015. The first series of letters I ever bought were from a flea market in Pennsylvania. I grew up going to flea markets and my mom had given me 20 bucks to kinda leave her alone, [ANNE LAUGHS] so I would, like, go around, do my own thing. I spent it at about, we’ll say about 15 minutes.
And then I was at this one table and there was a shoebox and it had a bunch of loose paper in it, and it said letters, $5. And so I went up to my mom and I was in high school at this point, it was not … I was not a little kid. I should have been more thrifty. But I went up to her and I was like, can I have $5 to get this box of letters? And she came over with me and she was looking at it and to her, she saw, okay, this is great. This is a summer project. My daughter’s going to be home all summer. This will be great. She can keep herself busy with this.
So she gave me the 5 bucks right away and I spent that summer just kinda really diving into … the letters were from the 1920s and they are all from a gentleman named Raymond who is basically training to become a traffic cop. And he’s writing to his much younger, and seemingly far less interested, girlfriend Marie, who it seems from the tone of letters, I only have his side, is sorta always deflecting his attention and he’s very amorous and very passionate. I want to say there’s like 200 letters. And then in 2017 I started an Instagram where I started posting another collection I had come across.
ANNE: So the project itself is a digital archive of curated, vintage love letters. Is that right?
LIZ: Yeah. So I collect them from actual flea markets. I buy them online. I’m very generously supported by friends and family who kinda when they see something in the wild will pick it up for me, so it’s my project, but air quotes around my. It’s really a community based project.
I don’t make any profit off of anything that I do. I’m very … You know, it’s a big deal to me to make sure that’s clear because these are other people’s words. These are other people’s memories and personal correspondence. Just a community building project.
ANNE: When I first found out you were doing this, my first thought was, wait, you can buy letters at flea markets? [LIZ LAUGHS] Tell me more about that.
LIZ: Sure. So it’s actually quite a booming trade. So a letter typically will cost anywhere from seven to ten dollars. It’s not a cheap hobby. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: A single letter?
LIZ: Yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh wow.
LIZ: So the older the letter is, it can be a bit more expensive. I guess I would say the best example is I had a family member sorta purchase me a number of letters as a gift. As I was reading through them, and they were a series of World War II correspondence, and it ended up that it was one side of a love triangle. [ANNE GASPS] Yeah. [LAUGHS]
I knew from the seller of the letters that the author that I was reading in that moment had died. I had yet to come across a letter that … A series like this that was so obviously sad. Everything else I could kinda be like, you know, this letter is 80 years old. I wonder what happened to them. But to know that the person that I was reading would end up dying in World War II was a bit intense.
I had been given … I think I was given 10 letters as like a batch to say, you know, if you’re interested in this, we have more that we can mail to you as an exchange. It was a really big moment in the project because up until then, I had been sharing these kinda fluffy, really nice insightful throwbacks and then this was the first time that I knew, okay I’m dipping my town into real people’s lives and how do you go about that respectfully and how do you share this piece of history, but make sure that you are not totally exploiting someone who has, who’s left this piece to you.
ANNE: What’s the beginning of that answer? I mean, how do you?
LIZ: So the number one thing I do is I have it written everywhere, and like I just said earlier, I don’t make a profit off of it. I have a personal rule that if I’m reading something, I mean, these letters are 70 to 100 years old. They are going to be instances of very sensitive material included in them in language use, in context. You know these are personal correspondence. These are … there’s no filtering going on. And a lot of has changed and a lot of, unfortunately, stayed the same in those 100 so years.
I have a personal rule that when I’m sharing a letter, if it’s something that I wouldn’t want posted about myself or if it’s something that, you know, basically the letter, the voice becomes a friend, so if I’m reading something and the example I’ll give is the first series I ever shared is a woman who is a war bride and the first collection I have is she … She was writing to her fiancé in the U.S. to move from England to live with him. And then several years later, she goes back to England for a summer with her two children to visit her family for the first time and I think seven or eight years, and there are intimate parts of their relationship that are detailed in that. As you would being away from your husband for a period of time.
So that was the kinda the first instance nearly three years ago where I came up to, okay, this is an instance of a term or a moment in history, this is someone’s personal information. What am I going to do with this? So what I ultimately decided to do is I have a kinda internal barometer. I will omit things that I think people don’t need to know that to get the full story. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Liz, what is it about these letters? About a good letter that holds such fascination for us many, many years later?
LIZ: I think you hit it right on the head. Nobody writes letters anymore. We write emails. We write texts. I mean, I remember when texting first became very popular. You could lock texts and you could, like, save them so you could, so you would have a list of funny one liners or whatever it be. And you can screenshot things now, but there’s really nothing that compares to knowing somebody sat down and wrote their thoughts and their feelings and their person into a piece of paper, and the fact that many of these papers are a 100+ years old are really incredible things to be able to hold and say, oh, this is from April 9th, 1918 and I’m typing this up on March 27th, 2020. It’s a time machine you really can’t replicate.
ANNE: Now on a purely practical level, I have some old journals and diaries, letters that have come into my possession from family members who are now gone. They are so hard to read. [LIZ LAUGHS] I mean, just reading the script from a 100+ years old, I mean, it’s not the same style of writing. I’m not sure often those are real words. Is that slang I’m unfamiliar with? Or I just can’t tell the difference between like an ‘o’ and a ‘d.’ Like, do you have secret decoders skills? How do you read these things?
LIZ: [LAUGHS] I’ve got faster over the years. So you also have to remember that many of these letters, if they’re war time correspondence or not, sometimes it’s just the distance generally, they can be a page to 40 pages long. So not only are you dealing with difficult handwriting, you’re also dealing with 40 pages of everything that’s in that person’s mind.
ANNE: A 40 page letter?
LIZ: It’s funny because you can also see the person kinda realizing that they’re probably annoying the person they’re writing to. [BOTH LAUGH] Because they’ll say at the end of it, they’ll be like, you’re probably bored by now but I ran into a really funny guy on base camp and he was telling me this story about chocolate bars, and you’re sorta, like, okay. [LAUGHS] I guess I’m going to hear this story now but the handwriting, I’ve gotten much faster but there is still some instances where even I can’t crack it and I think that’s maybe the universe saying maybe this is the ultimate private letter.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Was it Pascal who said, I would have written a shorter letter but I didn’t have time?
LIZ: There’s so much apology in these letters particularly from G.I.s because during World War II, they would have gotten letters from home, letters from sweethearts, letters from even other G.I.s. I feel like most of my letters start with about a paragraph of I’m so sorry I haven’t replied. I know you sent three letters in the month of March, and it’s now June, but I’m just now kinda sitting down to do this … Those are the ones that are 40 pages long because they’re catching up.
ANNE: How do these letters end up in flea markets in the first place? I mean, do you know?
LIZ: Usually it’s estates or someone has passed away and they never kinda showed anybody that they had these letters in a shoebox or in the attic or whatever it is. And they’re really truly … it sends shivers down my spine, but there really truly are people who find these photographs and letters of you know a distant aunt or uncle and it’s just clutter. So you know, I just sorta pray that they donate it to a Goodwill or put it in a yard sale rather than throw it out because so many insightful pieces of history have been lost because someone has been like, okay, that’s my uncle’s letters from Vietnam, it’s not that big of a deal. Whereas the reality is that is a first hand account of a person’s life, and it deserves so, so much more respect than it gets oftentimes and that’s kinda where I come in. I swoop in and I put them in all their binders and they believe me, they get a second life with me. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: What you’re saying about losing that history reminds me of the proverb of ... what is it, when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.
LIZ: Spot on. The kinda thing I’d like to finish up on is preservation. Particularly letters from people of color or from the queer community. Unfortunately letters like that are destroyed more than any other type and so I just ask that if anybody is aware of a family collection or has pieces that they’re keeping in a shoebox, there are different ways you can preserve and store letters but the best thing to do is to take them out of the envelopes.
I store mine in cellophane sleeves and binders and just try and keep them from touching other letters, particularly pencil letters are going to fade very quickly, so scans or photos are the best way to preserve those. But there are entire voices of history that have been erased because of letters being destroyed, so if you are aware of a collection like that or if you have access to a collection generally do everything that you can to preserve them.
ANNE: All right. Cause when you believe in the power of the written word, you don’t want those words to be lost.
LIZ: You don’t.
ANNE: Liz, you mentioned getting your first letters in Pennsylvania, but I know that you are across the ocean now. What took you from Pennsylvania to Ireland?
LIZ: So I moved in 2018 to grad school in Dublin, and I didn’t bring any letters with me. I [LAUGHS] left them all in Pennsylvania, and I was kinda operating on a backlog. So the way the process works is I’ll have … Let’s say there’s 50 letters in a collection. I’ll photograph all of those letters in one sitting. So oftentimes I have, you know, 300 photos of letters on my phone, and then from there I transcribe them. So I read them, type them into a Google doc, put them in chronological order, and then I sorta put it all together on a blog post and then I put it out on social media. So there’s about six or seven steps that sorta go into what, you know, most people would see as the front face of the project.
And when I moved I didn’t bring any of those letters with me, but it quickly became evident that I was missing my addiction. So I …[ANNE LAUGHS] I went back to the States in the summer of 2019; it was about a year after I’d moved and this was when I got this collection of World War II letters. I was in New York at a flea market and I was there with my mom. I was saying back and forth, you know, will I bring them or will I not, and I said I’m not going to bring them because I was flying back to Dublin that night because you know, there’s about 80 of them. They’re about 100 years old. Like I’m putting these at risk to do this.
And we were in Penn Station. I had given the tote bag with the letters to my mom, and I went to buy her a donut or something. And when I came back, I gave her the donut and she was so excited that she just walked away from the tote bag. She left it on the back of the chair, and I [LAUGHS] I sorta saw that these letters were gonna, they were gonna come with me. It was a moment where I was like no ma’am, those are too precious to be left on the back of a chair, so it was about July 2019 that I started building a collection on this side of the world, but yeah. I would say I probably have close to five to 700 letters in the States and in Ireland.
ANNE: Oh wow. You mentioned that this appreciation for real people’s real pasts has not always done great things for your reading life ironically.
LIZ: I grew up reading The Dear America, The Royal series, kinda all that stuff. I loved historic … I love historical fiction and I’m not as ... I didn’t think I was as big into nonfiction, but I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who was like you archive vintage love letters in your free time. That is nonfiction. [BOTH LAUGH] So, and I was like oh, I find that nonfiction books are so boring. I really need a character. And my friend was like, okay, take an eagle’s view of what you’re doing.
But so I grew up reading a lot of historical fiction and when I got into the letters, again, I had a … I’ve had this hobby for five or six years, but I’ve only actioned it in the last three really and that’s when I started to notice a real difference in my reading tastes because I was seeking out books that were set in the periods that I was reading first hand accounts from. And I was finding a real deficit in pacing and research and character tone.
A lot of the books that I’d found about historical fiction really rushed to get to the point where the sorta sweet thing about these letters is they take ages to get to that one line about my sweetheart, I miss you. Or I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again, but I see your face in my dreams. Like that happens slowly. I’m always reading historical fiction, but at the same time in the back of my mind, I’m like oh, I wish we’d taken just a little bit longer to pull this apart, to really get to the meat of what makes it such a great story.
ANNE: Yeah. You feel like there’s more history than personal story in a lot of these books?
LIZ: Yeah. You know, you’ll open the first page and the first page name drops Gatsby and you’re sorta like, okay, I guess I’m in the ‘20s. [BOTH LAUGH] Like don’t tell me anything else about the moment where … you’ve already made a green light illusion on the second page we’re in the ‘20s.
ANNE: Okay. I’m envisioning we’re going to be talking about some historical fiction today. And I look forward to it. Are you ready to talk about your books?
LIZ: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
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ANNE: Liz, you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next.
ANNE: That hopefully satisfies your high standards.
LIZ: [LAUGHS] I promise I’m not a total snob. [ANNE LAUGHS] Obviously I’ve been binge listening to episodes and I am not a do not finish. I will stick with a book til the very end and even if I’m throwing it across the room and being like, why did she do XYZ? I will still read it to the last page. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So what I hear you’re saying is I better make these books worth your time.
LIZ: [LAUGHS] Well the good news is that I don’t know if you’re aware but we all lately have a lot of time so [ANNE LAUGHS] we got a lot of time to read.
ANNE: Okay. I’m not going to call that a silver lining, but point appreciated. [LIZ LAUGHS] Liz, how did you choose the books today?
LIZ: I chose them because I like to photograph my book covers. So I curate my sorta reading lists several different ways, but one of the ways is I keep a list of the beautiful covers and I take staged photos. I’m sorta … I’m a very amateur bookstagram person. So I have a little Instagram story. So I was flipping through that in anticipation of filling out a form, and I realized there were so many great books that I so enjoyed but I am just inhaling them so often that I was kinda going through that was a great book, and that was a great book, and that was … But … I have more than three, but I’ll keep it to three. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I like it. What is the first book you love?
LIZ: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I read this book entirely on a flight from Dublin to … back to the States when I was moving here and kinda getting our house sorted. This book was so vivid and oftentimes with historical fiction, I’ll need to step away from it for a minute to, you know, even Google something or figure something out, but The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was just written so beautifully it totally triggered in me nearly now a two year fascination with old Hollywood. I have actually read quite a few blogs that that is not an unusual response to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. [BOTH LAUGH] I thought I was unique until a lot of people were like no.
ANNE: Liz, what did you choose for your second favorite?
LIZ: So I guess kinda following the trend I really liked White Houses by Amy Bloom.
ANNE: Okay. Tell me more about that one.
LIZ: So that is about Eleanor Roosevelt and it is historical fiction to the max and that is [ANNE LAUGHS] about her paramours and her relationships outside her marriage to FDR, sorta written from the lover’s perspective. That was the book I’d say most recently really hit the tone and the voice for what I look for in historical fiction.
ANNE: Interesting. Liz, we haven’t talked about that book on the podcast since Roxanne Coady was on in episode 126, which, tell me if this resonates, called “books that appeal to your head and your heart.”
LIZ: Aw. Yes.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I love your reaction. Okay so White Houses is a book ... what would we call this, like, biographical fiction?
LIZ: Yes. When you try and read outside of the base text, every review starts with “this is very strongly fictionalized.” [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: I’m just noting that as opposed to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo where you’re unearthing a hidden, totally fictional story that could’ve been inspired by elements of real life, but it’s not telling one person’s story, you know? I mean with White Houses, there’s the delicate balance, I mean, almost like you do in your letters, like you are presenting a real person’s life and the way you present it matters and the choices you make matters. But that doesn’t bother you. You really enjoyed this book. And I’m not saying it should. I’m just saying that readers feel very differently about fictionalized stories as sometimes ... very lightly fictionalized stories of sometimes not too distant historical figures.
LIZ: Yeah. I had never thought of it coming from that angle, but there have been so many times in archiving the letters where particularly with that series that was a love triangle, I really struggled with sharing that because I didn’t want the sensationalism of that to override the fact that it was real people, which was I guess sorta drew me to White Houses by Bloom because it was a beautifully written and I find beautiful writing, I breeze through it. I don’t know if that’s a correlation, pretty sure it is.
It has a very clear purpose in presenting the relationship between the two main characters not as sensationalized but as very real. And that’s what I’m kinda always trying to do with the letters is, you know, there are great elements of romance like you would get out of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, but then there are also these real moments of tenderness that if they’re fictionalized or not are recognizable as human experience really.
ANNE: It can be a real experience and still be fictional, but you want that ring of truth to it. Okay, what did you choose for your third favorite?
LIZ: So my third favorite book overall is Station Eleven [LAUGHS] which is a total twist, but I felt I was betraying myself if I stuck entirely to historical fiction.
ANNE: Now that’s what I like to hear, that you’re betraying yourself if you don’t show the book you love most of all. [LIZ LAUGHS] That’s a real book lover talking.
LIZ: It is. I read Station Eleven before the current circumstances. I read it maybe three or four years ago now and it very much stuck with me and the idea of I guess where does history go when we lose everything? So when we lose the Internet, when we lose phones, the - that whole side of things always fascinated me. I have been maybe an outlier during the lockdown where I’ve really gone back to books like Station Eleven. I also really enjoyed The Last by I think Hanna Jameson is her name.
ANNE: Oh, I don’t know that one.
LIZ: It’s really brilliant. It’s about a professor who I think he’s in Switzerland. He might not … It might be in France. I read it at the beginning of the year, but basically there’s a global epidemic and there’s about 25 people living in this hotel that don’t know what happened to the rest of the world, so they have to make all these decisions about resources and basically a democracy develops. It’s really fascinating. And that was the same kind of borderline twisted vein that I find myself like drawn to in Station Eleven is what happens to history when we lose what everybody uses for it, which is Internet, technology, even I use Google drive, Instagram, my own website. Outside of that, what happens to it?
ANNE: Wait, what does that mean, even I use … You mean because you’re dealing with, like, physical relics?
LIZ: Yeah. So obviously, you know, I have binders and binders full of this stuff, but the presentation that people see is one 5x5 square on Instagram oftentimes. So it’s a lot of the work also falls on authentically you know producing that history.
ANNE: Okay. So the books you loved, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, White Houses by Amy Bloom, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
LIZ: Mmhmm. That’s always going to be my little soft spot. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Now, Liz, tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you.
LIZ: This is a real trust exercise. [LAUGHS] Tiny Little Thing by Beatriz Williams.
ANNE: Tell me more about that.
LIZ: This was one of the first of this kind of historical genre fiction genre that I got reading three or four years ago. It just didn’t strike a flame because it was a very interesting concept. It was a, you know, a housewife who’s struggling having an identity in the late ‘40s, ‘50s, a dynamic relationship in sorta finding her own self and it just … It was very formulaic in a way that I knew that period of history was kinda the start of women’s live … It was the start of a lot of you know, I’m not going to stay home all day, particularly into the late ‘50s, ‘60s, that was when all of that sorta started happening. So it was one of the first instances where I realized, you know, we’re in a time zone and we’re talking about the fwoopy dresses and talking about the gender roles but we’re not really talking about anything outside of that.
ANNE: If it makes you feel better, I recommended this book way back in episode 23 to Mallory in our episode called “honeymoon reading.” So there’s a perfectly well written, brilliant book that lots of people loved isn’t necessarily right for you. So I just want to tell the world and you that, Liz.
LIZ: That does make me … I think because reading such … You spend so much time in your own head that it just becomes a real thing, a very vulnerable experience of sharing why something didn’t work. So thank you, I appreciate that. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. Okay. So more for your historical fiction, you talked about how you loved the presentation of the real, and that’s what we’re really looking for. Like that … Is texture a good word to use?
LIZ: That’s a great word, yeah. Yeah. Texture definitely. Something ... It doesn’t have to be gritty. It doesn’t have to be, you know, I don’t … I’m not looking for Saving Private Ryan in a book. [LAUGHS] I’m looking for something that just has roots, has texture and roots.
ANNE: Yeah. I just watched the movie for the first time.
LIZ: It’s an incredible movie.
ANNE: Oh but holy bookshelves, like, I knew it was going to be hard to watch and I was watching it because my kid wanted to watch it, and I’m like okay, if you’re going to go through this, like he’s, you know, he’s fascinated by that and he already saw the first like 20 minutes in school. I’m going to do it with you, but wow, I was not prepared. But now I’m just saying that I kinda vaguely understood what you meant two months ago ...
ANNE: … But now I get it.
LIZ: [LAUGHS] No …
ANNE: Oh, even when it was making my heart beat faster.
LIZ: And this is the kind of thing that I am really not the kind of girl who would normally recommend like The Pianist or Saving Private Ryan even four years ago, but since during letters, I actually just saw the film Jojo Rabbit. The end of Jojo Rabbit, I really recommend it, but already it’s intense at the end for a variety of reasons but there were Americans G.I.s in the film who drive around and they’re waving this flag and I just … Even now I get goosebumps thinking about it because it totally changed my perspective that, you know, on my bookshelf I have letters from real guys who did that and I’m seeing them on the screen and so historical fiction films in the last three, four years have really ... the world has opened. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And I just want to say that I’m noticing that like we are people who love to read. We are readers, and yet great storytelling can still happen on the screen.
ANNE: You can be a reader and still appreciate a great movie. Those things are not in opposition to each other.
LIZ: Nor are they exclusive. Excellent point.
ANNE: Exactly. Not that like a Netflix binge might get in the way of your reading life sometimes. I don’t mean you, Liz, I just mean one. [LIZ LAUGHS] One’s reading life. Okay. Stepping down off the soapbox, Liz, what have you been reading lately?
LIZ: This morning I just finished …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Very lately.
LIZ: Very lately, oh believe me, I just finished a book called Spare and Found Parts by an author named Sarah Maria Griffin and that is a young adult novel which is set in Dublin in a post-pandemic world. I saw that when I was visiting … There’s a new museum in Dublin called the Museum of Literature of Ireland. They have a great display on up and coming authors, and they had Spare and Found Parts. And I saw Dublin post pandemic and I said sign me up. [ANNE LAUGHS] So it kinda in my Station Eleven last vein of thinking, I can just really get cozy with a book that’s about black water and spare resources and all those kinds of stuff while everything’s happening outside and I find comfort in it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I like it. Liz, what do you want to be different in your reading life? Or what do you want more of? Take your pick.
LIZ: I guess what I would want more of are books that have that texture. That have a real story even if it’s a little bit fluffy or if it’s padded on the sides for sensationalism. That’s okay to an extent. But just books that are based on the really interesting people that have come before us and the people who have lived through these incredible times of history, which I think many contemporary people now are starting to realize this is one of those times of history. There’s a letter that I shared in March which is from World War II or World War I, and the soldier in it is writing his mom about the Spanish Flu and I shared that in March.
ANNE: What did the soldier say?
LIZ: He was just sorta saying that he preferred being in World War I France to Spanish Flu California, so hundred years doesn’t really change that much. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh wow. What a time to stumble upon that.
LIZ: And I have at least two more collections of World War I which are waiting to even be opened. One of the things that I’m anticipating in there, you know, is reference to the flu and that’s, you know, we’re all living in a moment of history now. I suppose what I'm looking for in my reading life or to read more of are just books that grab you and hold you and tell you a real good story.
ANNE: Liz, if we were going to have a literature seminar, I’d really want to go into texture and tapestry [LIZ LAUGHS] and also fluffy and padded. We’re not going to do that today. What we are going to do, I hope, is give you three books for your reading list that all use the concepts of letters in different ways. [LIZ GASPS] Does that - does that sound interesting to you?
LIZ: Anne, how did you know?!
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I read the billboard.
LIZ: [LAUGHS] You mean, I actually just got … I custom ordered a face mask yesterday with a big envelope on the side of it and my boyfriend was like, wow, so we’re really doing this now and I was like mmhmm. [ANNE LAUGHS]
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ANNE: Okay. The first book that I suspected we might talk about is right here. I’m going to open it up to the author’s note. This book is Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. Do you know it?
LIZ: I don’t.
ANNE: That makes me so happy. Because, Liz and listeners, the thing about sitting in my chair is that so many times the perfect book occurs to me for a reader or at least I hope it’s the perfect book, and sometimes the book is so perfect that I feel confident you’ve already read it. You’ve already loved it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You don’t need to hear about it. So I almost don’t want to go there because I’m certain you read it, but when you haven’t read it, it’s really satisfying. So thank you, Liz, for giving me that moment.
LIZ: You’re very welcome. That’s the same rush I get when I find 50 letters for $25. [LAUGHS] Yeah, you have to steady your hands and be like, mmhmm. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: See I thought I didn’t know what that felt like, but it turns out I do.
LIZ: Oh yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So this a novel that came out in 2017 in the U.S. It’s World War II, historical fiction. The reason I like this for you, aside from the fact that I imagine you’ve read quite a few World War II letters, is that this story was inspired by the letters that Chris Cleave’s grandparents wrote back and forth…
ANNE: … Before they got married. Oh I love it. [LIZ LAUGHS] Okay. So, when Chris Cleave’s grandparents got engaged his grandfather gave his grandmother an engagement ring that had nine diamonds in it. One for every time that they had met in person, and that’s because they courted and fell in love through their letters that they exchanged over years and that sounds ludicrous to some people listening today but I imagine you may have a different perspective on that.
LIZ: Oh my goodness. Oh, that’s so special. Oh, oh, I actually do genuinely have goosebumps.
ANNE: So having read people’s personal letters that they exchanged during war time, can you see how that maybe that wasn’t a relationship that was doomed from the beginning? They went on to live a very happy life and were married for decades, to Chris Cleave’s account, happily.
LIZ: It’s so special to kinda have these letters to read and for him to have them from his grandparents. You know, we say now that people rely on their phones too much and we text too much but these letters, letters themselves, if you’re a good writer or even a halfway decent one, you reveal so much of yourself that I can absolutely believe a relationship ...
LIZ: … Would be stronger because of the intimacies that are shared between them.
ANNE: Now this isn’t his grandparents’ exact story. He played with the details which makes for an excellent book. He said that he actually ended up, or he sought out to write a very different story that was more about a character of history, like more in the vein of White Houses.
ANNE: But ended up deciding that he didn’t want to tell the story of this historical figure. He’d leave that to the biographers. [LIZ LAUGHS] He wanted to unearth this more common experience. Okay, so here’s how the book starts. “War was declared at 11:15, and Mary North signed up at noon. She did it at lunch before telegrams came in case her mother said no.” So this character, Mary, is modeled on both his grandmothers who seemed like gentle quiet women that he found out later, they didn’t like to talk about the war, but he found out later they did amazing things like driving ambulances through the falling bombs.
What I really love about this book for you is tied in to the element of the letters because that’s what allows Chris Cleave to authentically write that experience that has the ring of authenticity. Like it’s the details that come from those letters that give it the texture. Further, the research process he did for this, I think, gives the book those elements you are looking for. He visited Malta, where his grandfather was stationed, and he only slept in the places that he knew his grandfather had slept as well.
He put himself on war rations for three months. So when his character in his own words describes seeing a jar of jam on the shelf that he just imagines eating one day because there’s rations, you can’t get jam, you think like this is a human who’s experiencing this thing. I mean he just writes with such [LAUGHS] longing about food because he felt it. Because he replicated that experience to write it.
Liz, I think this book is right for you, and the other thing I want you to know is you mentioned you like beautiful writing. I wouldn’t say this is beautiful and, like, lyrical and poetic, but it’s real good. It’s snappy. It’s witty. [LIZ LAUGHS] Chris Cleave said that his grandparents' letters were … people couldn’t turn on movies and Netflix. Talking was entertainment, and they worked at it. And just the dialogue is so fun and snappy. I think you’re going to enjoy this. That’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. What do you think?
LIZ: Sign me up. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I like it. That makes me happy. There’s a lot of different directions we could go with the letter theme. I’m thinking about a new release just out this summer in the United States. It’s by the American author Jill McCorkle. It’s called Hieroglyphics. And I’ve gotta say this is a novel that I don’t know that I’d recommend to a lot of 20-somethings because it seems like the kinda story, and I’ve seen the reviews, like ugh, I’m glad I waited until my 30s or 40s or my 50s to read this because I don’t know if I would have appreciated when I was younger. But I feel like since you’ve spent so much time unearthing people’s reflections and history that maybe we could go there. Does that description I just shared make you nervous?
LIZ: No, not at all. I …
LIZ: No, I’m looking forward to it.
ANNE: So this novel has a rotating cast of characters. I think there’s four different narrators. Let’s start by talking about Lil. She’s 85. She’s just moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina to be closer to her daughter that she feels like needs her even though her daughter doesn’t necessarily feel the same way. She knows that she’s not going to be on the earth forever, and so because of that, she has this project she’s working on. She’s creating and curating a written personal history for her family.
In different parts, she’s pulling out her own journal entries, letters she’s exchanged with people over the years, and she’s reviewing them and thinking what story does this tell? What do I want to share? And she’s also reflecting on the things that happen that cause her to write them. Is this sounding interesting to you?
LIZ: The concept of self editing is something that my authors of the letters, you know, tried to self edit when they were writing but when you see 50 pieces of paper lined up, you can really get to know a person through that, so I’m so interested to hear about the idea of someone who’s presenting their own story piece by piece.
ANNE: She is, and not only is she presenting the documents she already has piece by piece by she’s also writing her own letters to her children that she’s very consciously doing because she knows that she’s not long for this world, and what she gives them here is what they will have of her physically to remember. But something else about this, I’m just going to use the word texture like 75 times in this episode. [LAUGHS] That’s my new goal.
So Frank and Lil, they’ve been married for a really long time and the thing that originally brought them together in the past was that they had both suffered great loss. They’d each lost a parent to what I didn’t realize at the time, but turns out to be [LAUGHS] Google says were very real historical disasters. Lil lost her mother to the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire in Boston, and then Frank lost his father to a very real train derailment in North Carolina. They had each felt so alone in their grief when they met each other and discovered they had this in common. It really bonded them.
Frank is a retired professor and throughout the book you see him reflecting on the things that he’s been trained to reflect on which are markers of a life gone by. I don’t want to give too much away. The symbolism is strong in this story and I think you may enjoy that. But he’s become obsessed in his retirement when he no longer has a focus project with his past, and he wants to visit his childhood home that he moved into with his mother and stepfather after his father died. And so he keeps driving by. He’s knocked on the woman’s door. Readers who’ve read Jill McCorkle before may enjoy there’s a connection that you don’t need to know but you’ll appreciate if you’ve read her most recent novel Life After Life. Not the Kate Atkinson novel. Jill McCorkle one. They came out like a week apart in 2014 or something like that.
ANNE: It was very confusing for me. And I imagine many readers as well. But the woman who lives in the home has secrets of their own. So you have this married couple. You have this woman who’s tied to them through a house and everybody is very focused on the past but that’s coming out in different ways. And just with the family history, the discussions about grief and legacy and what do we leave behind? And of course the letters. I think you may enjoy this.
This - this is not an easy book, especially if you are in a place where … Well you know what, I’m not going to speak to your place in the world but it’s so poignant and reflective and wistful. Talking about things that each character has lost. It’s very meditative and it … I mean, that can be hard reading, but it’s also really gently done, although it’s not a gentle story through the end and you’ll find out why. How does that sound to you?
LIZ: So you’re saying texture, I’m using goosebumps, that sounds [ANNE LAUGHS] that sounds incredible. In 2019 I went back to a house that I had a series of letters for which had been sent in World War I.
LIZ: I was able to sorta step onto the front porch of this house with the letter that had been sent a hundred years that month. The way you’re describing that book gave me that same feeling. There’s so much story to be had in this space and the things we keep, and I appreciate you recommending it because I know I might not seem like the demographic that would normally snap it up, but that’s right up my alley.
ANNE: Well I’m excited that you’re excited about it. That was Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle. And finally I want to go in a different direction. This just came out maybe two years ago by Jasmin Darznik. It’s called Song of a Captive Bird. Is this a book you know?
ANNE: Okay. I think it’s fair to call this biographical fiction.
ANNE: About the life of Forugh Farrokhzad, who’s an extremely influential Iranian poet. What I love about this for you is you were talking about a book earlier that had a purpose. The very clear purpose of White Houses was to portray this one element of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life. Not to cut her friend out of the picture. [LIZ LAUGHS] But that’s how we’re going to describe it.
So Darznik’s purpose in writing this book was to bring a buried story, and not just a lost story or a hidden story, but one that had been one purpose buried and obscured to the surface. Like some interviewers said, why did you want to write a novel instead of a biography? And she said, like hey, given Iran’s tumultuous history those documents do not exist. They have been on purpose hidden. A biography is impossible. But what I could do was use my imagination as a novelist and the poems, letters, documents that were available to her to try to resurrect the story the best she could.
So what I love about this for you is this is someone striving to use the historical record including this person’s own work and own personal communications to reconstruct a story that had attempted to be buried but shouldn’t have been because of its importance, its significance, and its resonance with readers than and today. How does that sound to you?
LIZ: I wrote imagination and resurrection and drew a big star around them, so spot on. [LAUGHS] This is just the right depth out of my comfort zone but it has those elements that, you know, really, really struck my interest.
ANNE: Mmhmm. Well I hope that it also has some elements that are just fun and inspiring to read about. I mean, this is a woman in ‘50s Iran who wants to be free in ways that are not available to her because they are illegal and she’s forced into a brutal marriage. You know her work is suppressed. She can’t do what she wants to do. And Darznik says that her goal with this book … Well, what she says is she wanted to help her become free in this book. She strove mightily to do it and almost achieved it in her life, but could not but this is a … I mean, this is a woman’s fight for her voice and for her freedom, which maybe sounds a lot more fun to read a lot than like reconstructing a letter history but both are true and I hope both elements to that really appeal to you and to our listeners.
LIZ: That’s wonderful. Yeah, no, I think that sounds really, really special and one of the things that I find a lot in the letters is that a majority of them are from male soldiers or male G.I.s, and I’ll have an occasional response from someone who I’d identified as, you know, a girlfriend or a partner or a sister and so I’m very interested in not only learning a little bit about something I didn’t know before, but also that female experience.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. That was Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik. Okay, Liz. [LIZ LAUGHS] Of the books we talked about today that we’re attempting to pile on your TBR, we talked about Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle, and Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik. Of those three books, what do you think you’ll read next?
LIZ: I’m going to say Everyone Brave is Forgiven. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That makes me happy. Ooh, I gotta tell you one more thing.
ANNE: When you pick up the book, I highly recommend trying to get your hands on a hardcover version at some point in the future if that’s not available to you now if you’re going to, you know, download the ebook or the audio and listen immediately, but the endpapers in the front and the back are letters and telegrams between his grandparents. You’ve got to see it.
LIZ: I have a really bad habit of doing finger guns when I’m on calls and [SNAPS FINGERS] they’re firing away. [SNAPS FINGERS] [BOTH LAUGH] You said that and I was like, they were like, I was looking at my hands and I was, like, we are very excited about this, Anne. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m glad. Liz, thanks so much for talking about books and the power of the written word and letters as well with me today. It was a joy.
LIZ: It was such a pleasure to talk to you and thank you.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Liz, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/250 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
Learn more about Liz’s project at fleamarketloveletters.com and see the letters yourself on instagram @fleamarketloveletter.
Readers, subscribe now so you don’t miss next week’s episode in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and more. We will see you next week!
If you’re on twitter, let me know there @AnneBogel. That’s Anne with an E, B as in books -O-G-E-L. Follow the podcast on twitter @readnextpodcast. When you’re on Instagram, share with us what you are reading. Find me there @annebogel or @whatshouldireadnext.
If you enjoy this podcast and want to support it, please share it with a friend, leave a review on Apple Podcasts, or check out my books like my reading collection about the reading life, I’d Rather Be Reading: the Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, get those for yourself or a friend. That’s a tangible thing you can do to support our free podcast here. Thank you.
And thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening. And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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• The Dear America series (try Voyage on the Great Titanic)
• The Royal Diaries series (try Elizabeth I: Red Rose of Tudor)
♥ The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
♥ White Houses by Amy Bloom
♥ Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
△Tiny Little Thing by Beatriz Williams
• Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin
• Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
• Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle
• Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik
Flea Market Love Letters
WSIRN Ep 126: Books that appeal to your head AND your heart w/Roxanne Coady
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What do YOU think Liz should read next?
Let us know in the comments!