Shy in high school, I wrote an anonymous love letter to a boy. He was on the swim team; water-carved and wanted desperately by at least ten other people. I gave the letter to a friend who gave the letter to another friend, and so on it passed, my identity protected, until it reached him.
I didn’t expect a reply – I had thought only as far as the sending and reading. He did write, though. His letter, on an aerogramme, delivered back the way it had come – from friend to friend –until his light blue writing arriving in my hands. I can’t see the letter as it was that day – crisply folded and licked with spit. I see the letter how it has become, ink faded, paper folded and unfolded to frailty, read and re-read.
There’s something seductive about handwriting - the arc of a letter on a page – the curve of a person’s y, the kick of their e’s. It’s seductive whether it’s a love letter, or a letter from a friend, or the word of a stranger, scribbled in a book. I remember finding, in my old copy of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, a line drawn around Hart Crane’s quote, ‘And so it was I entered the broken world’. There was more to that line, I was certain, than a student circling on the instruction of a teacher. Hart Crane’s broken world had meant something to that stranger, and the importance was dug into the pages with that circle.
And so I started the book that became Words in Deep Blue, a book that arose from this love for letters and an even greater love for letters or notations found in secondhand books. The novel tells the story of Rachel, who starts work at Howling Books after her brother, Cal, has drowned. Her job is to catalogue the Letter Library, a section of shelves filled with books that customers can’t buy or borrow. They can write on the pages. They can circle words that they love, leave letters to strangers, to lovers, to anyone they want. In cataloging these notes and letters, I was certain that Rachel would find a way through her grief.
It was an idea that was all feeling, though, and resistant to plotting. It didn’t stand the test of explaining, either, to other people or myself. The book wasn’t a love story where one person left a letter in a secondhand book and received a reply that started an affair. It was something different.
Something in the secondhand bookshops I visited. In Alice’s Bookshop in Rathdowne Street, the then owner, Ellen, told me about an encyclopedia of flora, where an unknown reader had marked favorite pages with pressed flowers. It was in a letter I found, the handwriting indifferent to ruled lines, letters shaped like sprawling kindness. I was in love with the found things, and convinced these things held so much history that they would give my character a way to view dying to alleviate her grief.
And then my father died. The idea of a girl moving past grief in this way seemed ridiculous. I abandoned the novel along with the books my father had given me over the years. I boxed and hid them beneath beds and under the sink, but it didn’t stop his voice, which seemed to come from the pages. I got into the habit of always having sound in the house – radio, television, music – and this worked for a while.
But there were more of my father’s books, and eventually my mother called to say she’d found in them cards and letters. Letters from her to him, from me to him and from him to people, unsent.
And so, from beneath the bed and under the sink, I pulled out his books. Between the pages I found tobacco loose in the creases and coffee rings around the words. I could see him, sitting in his chair, pausing to smoke and stare out his window. Those books were full of him, of the evidence of his life, full of conversations we’d had over the years – things only I could see.
My mother also gave me letters of his to read. I realised that the seduction of letters is in the intimacy. Thought, when it arrives handwritten, is breath and voice. Even when the letters are transcribed and typed, it feels to me as if this closeness between sender and receiver remains. As if by writing the words, we write ourselves between the lines, and this, long after his death, brought some solace.
Rachel decides in Words in Deep Blue that she does not believe in the transmigration of the soul, but that transmigration of memory is possible. I like this idea of the dead leaving themselves for the living to find.
Recently, I looked for that letter from the swimming boy; I couldn’t find it. His reply exists only in memory. But while I’ve forgotten his face, I can call up his letter clearly – he lives in the tone of it - gratitude and kindness.
I’ll keep my father’s letters and books, always. I don’t think I will forget his face. But if I do, I know that in the shape of his signature, in the sharp quick stroke of his letters, I’ll find him.
Cath Crowley is an award-winning Australian author of young adult fiction. Her books include the Gracie Faltrain series and Graffiti Moon. Her latest book, Words in Deep Blue, is published by Pan Macmillan. Visit Cath Crowley's website and Facebook page for more information about her books and author updates, or chat with Cath on Twitter (@CathCrowley)