Each quarter, one of the Ladderbird writers takes the helm and decides the theme for Ladderbird’s newsletter. This quarter I asked the agency’s authors to write a letter to a character in their work. They delivered with impeccable insight and imagination. But before we dive into the epistolary chocolate box, Ladderbird would like to welcome Caroline Lear and Nate Chang to the fold.
Caroline was born in Washington DC and raised in Alexandria, Virginia. After discovering a heart defect when she was three years old, she spent her childhood in and out of hospitals, finding endless comfort in stories. To her, books were magic, and helped her to heal every time she got sick. She decided she wanted to be a writer by the time she was seven years old, and was stubborn enough not to give up on her dream. Now at twenty-two years old, she’s healthy and thriving, still chasing the magic of storytelling and still too stubborn to quit.
Nate Chang is a genderqueer author and professor of English, currently living south of Seattle, Washington. Their work has appeared in The Pitkin Review Literary Magazine, Paper Tape, and Soul’s Road: a Fiction Collection (although you might not know it was them.) They enjoy musty old books, weird comics nobody has ever heard of, and model tanks.
Ladderbird is currently seeking Non Fiction interesting takes on current affairs, psychology, business, or self help. Non Fiction should be geared toward a wide audience, easy to read, with a point that is easily understood. The writer should be well credentialed with a solid platform and preferably previously published academic work (although we are NOT looking for academic writing). For questions regarding Non Fiction writing please inquire at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Non Fiction Question"
Now, without further ado, a collection of remarkable letters.
The first line of your story describes the splash of blue wool trembling on the surface of a lake in rural Montana. The hole you fell through was already frozen over and your body had sank to the depths, settling in a cloud of silt against the rusted hulk of a tractor in the darkness. You were just a boy and you were one of the first characters whom I witnessed dying in the pages of my work.
You return to my mind frequently. Sometimes I will see your hat, frozen to the ice in my mind’s eye. Sometimes I will hear the voice I never recorded on the page. You have no lines of dialogue, no lines of monologue, you have no lines whatsoever and yet I believe you remain one of my most deeply communicative characters. You needed another dead child to speak for you, the unsettled ghost you could never be and still, neither of you spoke.
I stopped writing your story for over a year, Richie. I kept you in the bottom of a frozen lake for a year and I find that I am sorry for that. You were my test of honesty after all. Could I write the most difficult thing? Could I do justice to your death? Would a reader believe me as I grieved for you alongside your parents and the retired Navy diver who finds you in the darkness? I didn’t think so or perhaps I was too afraid to find out.
I have witness the death of quite a few characters now, my stories are rarely gentle creatures. I have brought forth ghosts and returned the dead to life. I have scared myself silly and made myself laugh as I wrote but I have never grieved another character as I grieved you.
I think I’ve done justice by you, Richie. You made it out of the ice and in many ways, I followed.
Cody T Luff
Dear Ava Camilla Rome,
You asked where you came from. I assume you are not asking about your parents, Vergil and Loraine, whom you know well, though your relationship with them has often been rocky, Rather, I suspect you ask how you came to be on the page. When I first met you, you were a statue, a marble warrior woman in the Vatican’s Gallery of Statues. The stoic expression on your face barely hid the pathos of war. Fatigued but still standing, beaten down but not beaten. The plaque on the pedestal identified you as a wounded amazon, a popular archetype dating back to antiquity. Wounded amazon statues graced the temple of Artemis in Ephesus in the fifth century B.C.
The archetype of the wounded amazon represents a fundamental ambiguity of warfare: that heroism knows no gender. War is an unglamorous undertaking for both males and females, and it is difficult to tell the victorious from the vanquished.
You ask about contemporary examples of the wounded amazon? How about Olivia Benson of Law and Order, SVU, or Vic Moretti of Longmire? I submit Robert Crais’s Carol Starkey and Michael Connelly’s Rachel Walling also belong to the sisterhood of wounded amazons. They engage in conflicts on equal footing with their male counterparts and suffer as much in victory as in defeat. Only the weapons and the shape of the battlefield are modernized. The resolve of the combatants and the wounds to the body and soul are ancient.
Your namesake, Camilla, is a classical example of the archetype. Camilla, Queen of the Volscians, was the strongest mortal woman in the Aeneid, but you know that. Your father read her story to you often. The Aeneid was his favorite book. With the name Vergil Rome, how could it not be? Camilla was a favorite of your father, just as she was a favorite of Vergil the poet, judging by the words he lavished on her.
Like Camilla, you fight for your beliefs and allies with valor and honor, but also like Camilla, you are brash and headstrong at times. You are impatient with, and quick to step over, gender norms, as was Camilla several millennia before you. Both of you are quick to taunt a male adversary and gloat after taking him down.
Camilla is doomed, as are all of Vergil’s heroes. She is betrayed by the gods, stalked across the battlefield and, in a moment of distraction, is slain. It is no comfort to you that the gods are no longer with us; there are no shortages of people who would betray strong women. How you will meet your doom, I don’t know. I hope I never write about it. But, be warned, Ava, in coming stories, you will suffer betrayal from people closest to you and you will make mistakes that will cost you physically and emotionally. In spite of all that, stay true to your friends and your beliefs.
You were the female protagonist from my first novel, A Chant of Love and Lamentation, and from the very start I had big dreams for you. I wanted to give you an entire section of the book so you could tell your story. I felt it was only fair, considering the agony I knew I was about to put you through: being sliced to ribbons by broken glass in a hotel bombing, being used as a token of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, losing your parents, then losing your kumu hula during a demonstration-turned-riot. To me, you were such an interesting character. It’s a shame I never could figure out how to let you speak. Something about you eluded me; I couldn’t nail the voice, I couldn’t nail the thoughts. I could only present you from the outside, as viewed by one of my other protags. This is perhaps my greatest challenge as a writer; I can think my way into the mind of a criminal, a domestic terrorist, a fishing boat skipper, an alcoholic… but you I just couldn’t “get.”
I admit, my intentions for you weren’t entirely unselfish. There’s an old colonial trope of Pacific Islander women (or, really, any women from non-Western, colonized lands) that sees females as symbolically representative of their home country. Usually this symbolic version is sexualized, where the native woman is to be conquered — willingly, though sometimes not — by a dashing white male explorer, much in the same way that her homeland is being colonized by other white males. In you I found a way to subvert that trope. You were disfigured by violence, as your home is scarred by conflict. You were forceful, when others expected you to be passive. And when you fell in love, it wasn’t with a white man but with a proud Hawaiian with whom you could work to strengthen the political future of your homeland.
On the whole, I’m proud of how you turned out, though. You took your adversity and made the best of it. You found your way to a place where you were no longer embarrassed by your scars. You were brave when the political situation on the islands took a turn for the worse. And, in the end, you earned recognition for your indefatigable attitude and your leadership skills, chosen to help guide a new, independent Hawai`i into a new future. I always knew you could do it. I just wish you could told us all yourself.
Maybe one day I’ll let you write a sequel.
I approach every novel-in-progress with two requests: first, that it be a place where I can express myself without fear of reprisal, and second, that it help me to examine difficult or frightening feelings, such as the anxiety of becoming a new father or the experience of being held hostage in my own life. You, MITU, are my tenth novel.
You began, in May 2016, as a short story. My dad had recently died and my marriage of nine years was falling apart. Looking back at the original document, I see that I wrote 545 words on the first day; 29 on the second; 151 on the third; 326 on the fourth; 363 on the fifth; 354 on the sixth. Not bad, as output goes, but the sections were discontinuous—the characters and settings shifted rapidly. All they had in common was a shared conceit: a man who follows his father to the netherworld, where he’s rendered dead, himself.
Eventually, the short story became a novel. I identified a protagonist (a ten-year-old girl, promised in marriage) and two subplots (that of her mother, who sacrifices her freedom for safety, and that of her father, who coerces a crow into being his guide). I chose the characters’ names from Sumerian nouns: Ziz means “moth,” Meshara means “all the oaths/duties,” and Temen means “foundation.” Over the next two years, I asked you to remain my haven—telling myself that, when this first draft had been completed, I would’ve survived the most harrowing period of my life. That you were keeping me alive. And so you did.
As with every other novel-in-progress, the day came when you made a request of me. You said, “All right—you’re okay now. Now it’s time to take care of me.” You were right, though I grudgingly accepted this transition. I looked at what I’d managed to accomplish, and the six chapters remaining, and I realized this wasn’t a novel about my dad dying, or about my divorce, or any of the dark places I’d traveled to; it was about the power dynamics inherent to labor, class, and gender. Once I’d gained that perspective, I was able to tell a meaningful story—not just meaningful to me, I hope, but to anyone else who stumbles upon it.
FROM THE BOSS, BETH
Oh my books! How I wanted all of you to be my art, my babies, the brilliant extensions of me that could finally show the breath and depth of my talent! But you, especially you, my wonder Abe and Sam, my book without title who only had your names- you killed me in so many ways. And that’s why, like the terrible mother I am to you, I gave you up.
Abe, over and over again I tried to make you sane, tried to force you to act as I thought a “normal” person might to the unusual circumstances that I stuck you in. But you insisted, so often, more often than I could keep up with that you were not to be trusted, that you held deeper secrets than I, your creator, your caretaker, could know. Oh Abe, why did we fight so much. I should have just let you have your secrets, let you be the bothersome narrator of your life who simply could not be trusted. One cannot force a insane mind to be sane, we can only give them tools to exist in our world and I never did give you those tools Abe. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you insist on believing the fox is real. The fox is a ghost Abe, only a ghost.
And Sam, my favorite character, my friend, my source of comfort when I needed to escape my own dramatic, failing world. I think my love for you Sam was what burned our relationship. I wanted so much for you, for you to be so much, but you are the person who you are and you could never rise to the heights that I demanded. I’m sorry that I put you in a position to be a conduit to the ethereal, you were so clearly the ground, but I missed that. I thought that the strength of your desires could take us up into that transcendent place where the unknown becomes known. It was my fault Sam that I had to leave you, sitting alone, forever waiting to be written out of circumstances that I didn’t mean to put you in.
I’m sorry my friends, I will never be done with you, but I won’t write you anymore.