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Interview with C.W. Phelps : The Genesee Letters

For today’s article I thought I would do something a little different. I spent some time with C.W. Phelps, the author behind one of our first publications, The Genesee Letters. Her work fits perfectly with the theme of this month being InCoWriMo as it’s completely written as a set of letters sent between two friends.

Check out what the book is about, read the interview with the author, and then we have a surprise in store for you at the end!

Growing up is never easy. In 1940s Michigan, Jeanne Peterson struggles with her discontented brother, overbearing expectations from her parents, and her best friend, Luie, who brings along a whole different set of complications. With a war going on overseas and the ever-changing landscape of the city around her, Jeanne endeavors to find her place in the world. The Genesee Letters is a coming of age story written in letters spanning the 1940s, through war, school, and broken hearts.

1) The Genesee Letters is your first published work. What was the feeling like to see your work come to life for the first time?

Awesome. And crazy. Mostly crazy. It is one thing to spend time writing something, but it takes a whole new life once it isn’t just a bunch of words on a screen in front of you, but something you can hold and touch. I was terrified and excited and a whole other mess of emotions thrown in there too I am sure.

2) Tell me about the book.

The Genesee Letters is a collection of letters between Jeanne and Louise, two young women who are coming of age near the end of World War II. They are living life removed from the war and deal with all the things girls deal with no matter what the time frame. It is a picture of first loves and loves lost, the joys and troubles of friends and family, and the journey of a friendship as the two girls get older and each grow into themselves.

3) How would you describe Jeanne and Luie’s relationship?

They are the best of friends. Jeanne is definitely the more responsible of the two. Luie is free spirited, ready for drama, adventure, and a new beau every day. I think Jeanne is a bit envious of Luie for that. Luie, however, doesn’t see she is very self-involved. Luie is determined to be the lead in every part of her life.

4) Just like the setting, the lingo used in the letters fits the period. What are some of your favorite words or phrases and what do they mean?

I don’t know that I have any specific words or phrases, but Luie sometimes likes to write in funny ‘voices’ like movie gangsters or ‘wise guys’ and that was a lot of fun to write. This was something that took direct inspiration from the original letters Luie was based on, but I think we will get to that a little later.

5) Stories have a way of surprising us, did you have any surprise moments in crafting this one?

Plenty. Once I started writing, the story took its own path. It started as an exercise in writing letters, but soon there were small interconnections, bits of story that pulled The Genesee Letters together into what it is. I suppose one of the things that happened was what Jeanne refers to as the “Maple Theatre Incident.” It just sort of happened and it made sense for the story, and forced Jeanne to grow. I think Luie's reaction, or lack thereof, to the incident there is what caused the two girls to grow apart.

6) There’s an interesting history behind how this story got started, what can you tell me about it?

Yes! I was visiting my father in Michigan one fall for a weekend. He was homeless at the time and was staying in an old house that belonged to a friend. The friend had bought the house with the idea of flipping it, but it was full of junk left behind by the people who had lived there before. My father would stay in the house and help clean and fix things up to get it ready to be either turned into a rental or sold. I was helping him clean and, in the process, I found an old box of letters written from the late 1930s through the mid-1940s sealed in an old freezer bag. All the letters were from the same person and kept very well, alongside a handful of old pictures. These letters are what then became the inspiration for Luie. In using inspiration from the letters, Jeanne happened as a response to the actual letters. Originally, I was just going to use it as a writing exercise, but I kept coming back to the same characters and the threads that held them together. NaNoWriMo finally gave me an excuse to put the whole thing together, and many drafts and a KickStarter later—here we are.

7) What was the process like in adapting the real letters into the story they became?

I think I worried my husband a bit during the whole process. The first draft came out of NaNoWriMo, which if you don’t know, is during the month of November when writers undertake the momentous task of writing 50,000 words in a month. Couple that with a retail carrier for a day job and I was a caffeinated, sleepless mess. I would come home and hole myself up and pull up the good old YouTube and search for music and radio dramas from the 1930s and 1940s as background noise as I wrote. The original letters mentioned songs and artists that I would take extra care to look up as I was writing to get a better feel for the girls. Some of these are mentioned throughout the letters between Jeanne and Luie.

Letters themselves don’t usually tell a neat and clear-cut story. Life happens in between the time each letter is written, and not everything is always chronicled like a bullet journal or diary. I wanted to do the same for The Genesee Letters as well. I wanted each letter to string together to the next but leave enough room that the reader could also craft their own story in between the lines.

8) While this takes place during the 1940s there’s a lot of elements that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern story. What elements do you feel really transcend time?

It surprised me how much the letters I had read sounded like something that could have happened today. I tried to capture that as best I could when writing Jeanne and Luie. Luie is just a bit boy-crazy and flighty. Jeanne feels overshadowed and that Luie is sometimes there to sweep what she wants out from underneath her. These are feelings that many people can relate to. Jeanne is also struggling with her family and the changing dynamics at home. I think that the awkwardness of growing up is something that everyone must go through.

9) What do you hope readers will take with them after reading The Genesee Letters?

I just hope that people enjoy it. It wrote The Genesee Letters because it was a story I wanted to tell and honestly, because I had fun doing it. Hopefully someone out there will also have fun reading it. Maybe it will inspire people to write their own letters. The idea of writing letters is so romantic, and I don’t mean the lovey sort of romantic. But there is something so wonderful about the idea of sending someone a handwritten letter. It means you had to dedicate time to the person you are sending it to, take care to write legibly (if you are like me that is extra hard). I don’t know. What I do know is that I would like to see more handwritten letters in my world.

10) What do you think happened to the characters after the book ended?

I think that while they continued to care about each other and continued to write to each other, as they continued to grow they got more involved in their own separate lives. Those letters and visits became less frequent, until they were just fond memories.

Read the book for yourself!

For a LIMITED TIME we are offering

The Genesee Letters

for only $7!

These will be copies signed by

C.W. Phelps herself!

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