Pen pal fiction

For his new book, Michael Kun returns to an old form: the epistolary novel

Illustration of a man and woman writing letters to each other

Credit: John Hendrix

The way Michael Kun describes it, he attended Johns Hopkins back in the technological Pleistocene. No smartphones. No personal computers. No Facebook. No apps. Not even a landline in his dormitory room—just a lonely pay phone at the end of the hallway, which, as he points out, "didn't exactly lend itself to long or private conversations." To stay in touch with family and friends back home in New Jersey and high school chums attending college all over the nation, he wrote letters. Gobs of them. Whenever he had a few spare minutes: late at night, between classes, during the downtime when he worked at the student union desk selling candy, newspapers, magazines, and cigarettes, periods that could stretch to as long as a half-hour when he should have been taking inventory, cleaning up, or performing some other mundane task.

Kun, A&S '84, wrote letters about anything and everything: "I'd write about my classes. I'd write about girls I was dating or interested in. I'd write about sports. I'd write about my writing. I'd write about books I'd read or movies I'd seen, and I wrote about music I was listening to. It wouldn't be unusual for me to write 10 letters in longhand in a week and to receive as many back." This prolific output continued straight through Kun's four years of law school at the University of Virginia, from which he earned a JD in 1988.

Unwittingly, Kun has become something of a carrier of the torch for what may seem like the quaint literary curio from a bygone era.

Now 53, Kun, who works as a labor attorney in Los Angeles, still writes letters. But rather than chronicling his real life, he now composes fictional letters for epistolary novels, a literary genre that peaked in popularity way back in the late 18th century. His third epistolary work (and sixth novel overall), We Are Still Tornadoes, will be published this fall by St. Martin's Press. Unwittingly, Kun has become something of a carrier of the torch for what may seem like a quaint literary curio from a bygone era.

Not that he has any long-nurtured affection for the genre or a scheme to return it to best-seller ascendancy. "I didn't study epistolary novels at Hopkins," admits Kun, who majored in political science, "and I may not have even read one until after I had graduated, unless there was one we were assigned in high school that I'm drawing a blank on." As best he can remember, he discovered the form when he read Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al and Gordon Lish's Dear Mr. Capote, not long after leaving Johns Hopkins.

While Kun's two previous epistolary novels, 2003's The Locklear Letters and 2012's Everybody Says Hello, trace the tragicomic existence of hapless, luckless, clueless software salesman Sid Straw through his blizzard of rat-a-tat-tat missives, We Are Still Tornadoes doubles the character quotient with two correspondents: just-out-of-high-school best friends Scott, working in his father's men's clothing shop in suburban Baltimore, and Cath, off to college at Wake Forest in North Carolina.

Over the course of one year, August 1982 to August 1983, the pair fire off a dizzying array of letters, recounting various major and minor exploits, problems, disappointments, and epiphanies. Scott forms a new wave band. Cath struggles through a misguided relationship with a frat boy. Scott questions his decision not to attend college. Cath agonizes when her father, still back home, leaves her mother to take up with his secretary. They confide their innermost concerns to each other, fall out, reconcile, and make discoveries about themselves and, ultimately, about each other. In effect, Tornadoes functions as a dual coming-of-age novel, undergirded by a generous dose of humor.

The first-person approach of Tornadoes particularly appeals to Kun. "With epistolary novels, you're necessarily writing in the first person, and I suspect most writers would agree that that normally is easier. In third-person fiction, all the credit and all the blame for the writing go to the author of the book. In epistolary novels and other first-person fiction, any perceived deficiencies or flaws in the writing, whether purposeful or not, are part of the narrator's voice.

"Obviously, a story has to be told differently if you're telling it using the epistolary format, but you still have to plot the story and develop the characters. Putting that aside, the other major distinction is that, with an epistolary novel, you only have to create a single voice if the novel will show only one side of the correspondence, like The Locklear Letters, or two voices, like We Are Still Tornadoes—unlike a traditional novel where you have to create multiple characters with, hopefully, distinctive voices. Now, some people would find that more of a challenge rather than less of one because you're counting on one or two voices carrying the entire load. I don't."

Another dissimilarity, which he confides somewhat sheepishly: "I'm not sure I should admit this, but one of the reasons I enjoy writing epistolary novels is that it comes rather easily to me. After hearing that [Mary Shelley's] Frankenstein, another epistolary novel, was written in a week, I challenged myself to write the first draft of The Locklear Letters in one week on a vacation, and I did the same with Everybody Says Hello. I can say with complete confidence that I wouldn't have been able to do that using a more traditional format."

Born in Hempstead, New York, to a salesman father who moved the family to Rhode Island, California, and New Jersey, Kun, along with his sister, grew up in a series of different places attending different schools. His parents always wanted him to become a doctor, but science never engaged him. He chose to pursue the law almost by default, and for what in retrospect seems like an oddly appropriate literary reason. "I wish I could tell you that my interest in practicing law was driven by some experience with lawyers or judges who had somehow motivated me," he says, "but the embarrassing fact is that I'd never even met a lawyer before attending law school. Not one. Like many people of my generation, I was moved by reading To Kill a Mockingbird on a family vacation, and, after reading it, becoming a lawyer seemed like a much more reasonable goal than becoming an astronaut or a professional baseball player. I was so naive and unworldly."

Kun did not come to Johns Hopkins to become a writer, but he left as one. He began writing a humor column, Ham on Wry, for The News-Letter early in his freshman year at the request of its editor, who appreciated Kun's ready wit. The column caught the attention of Stephen Dixon, a professor in the Writing Seminars, who approached Kun one day while he was working at the student union sundries desk.

"He introduced himself and said, 'I've been reading your columns. I want you to take one of my classes,'" Kun recalls. "I had no idea who he was." Flattered nonetheless, Kun explained that he wasn't attending Johns Hopkins to become a writer. "Beyond that, I told him that this whole idea of having a professor tell me that 'this week you're going to write a story about your grandmother and next week you're going to write a story about somebody who loses his shoe' doesn't interest me at all. And so Dixon said, 'Take my class. Write whatever you want to write. Whatever the assignment is that I give to everybody else, ignore it.'"

Kun took as many as a dozen literature and writing courses over the next three and a half years, several of them with Dixon. Still, he didn't take writing seriously until his senior year, when Dixon persuaded an editor friend at The New Yorker to read one of Kun's stories. Dixon even wrote a cover letter. The New Yorker rejected the story—and the 15 or so more that he submitted over the years—but Kun still marks that moment "as the first time that it even occurred to me that this was something more than a hobby. For any student to be able to point to a professor and say, 'This professor changed my life,' is a wonderful thing. And I can say that about Steve Dixon."

The author of 33 books and a member of the Writing Seminars faculty for 26 years until his 2007 retirement, Dixon remembers being impressed by Kun's work "from the first thing I read. I sensed he was a born comedian with a light, clear style. His work always made me laugh. I loved it that I could have fun reading a student's work. When Michael wrote a serious piece—there were very few—I thought for the time being he was writing out of his milieu. That would change. But when he was writing short fictions in the writing classes I conducted, he was already a great comedic writer."

"And so Dixon said, 'Take my class. Write whatever you want to write. Whatever the assignment is that I give to everybody else, ignore it.'"
Michael Kun

When told that Kun credits him with his becoming a consistently published writer, Dixon takes the compliment—"he deserved whatever encouragement I gave him"—but adds that "he would have continued writing even if he had never taken a class with me or anyone else. He was that kind of writer. Taking my classes just gave him a platform to write more."

We Are Still Tornadoes—the title alludes to Scott and Cath's high school mascot—boosts Kun's published output to 10 books: six novels, a collection of short stories, and, as co-author, a trio of irreverent nonfiction "un-cyclopedias." And it marks the first time he has published consecutive epistolary works, coming four years after Everybody Says Hello. His debut novel, 1990's A Thousand Benjamins, was written as a third-person narrative, while both 2004's My Wife and My Dead Wife and 2005's You Poor Monster use a first-person narrator. (The latter book, incidentally, is a radically retooled version of his novel Our Poor, Sweet Napoleon, which, in my former life as editor of Baltimore's alternative weekly newspaper, City Paper, I published in serial form in 1993 and 1994.) In the midst of this barrage of novels, Kun's 2007 non-epistolary story collection, Corrections to My Memoirs, was issued. All brim with a trademark wisecracking playfulness.

"This is probably where I'm supposed to say that all the rejections of Napoleon were a blessing in disguise. Well, I won't. It tore me up. They say success goes to people's heads. Rejection does, too."
Michael Kun

The 13-year gap between Kun's first and second novels was not by design. He intended Our Poor, Sweet Napoleon to be the follow-up to A Thousand Benjamins. "It was a massive kitchen sink of a novel that seemed to contain every thought that had ever crossed my mind, because the world desperately wanted to hear what I thought about everything, right?" Kun says. His publisher didn't agree, pulling the plug on the project. Kun shopped it elsewhere. No deal materialized. "I was devastated and embarrassed," Kun says. "Over the next decade or so, I continued to try to rewrite that book, editing it at night and on weekends. Eventually, I just decided to put it aside for a while and work on an entirely unrelated book that was tonally very different and used a very different format—the epistolary novel The Locklear Letters. And that one sold fairly quickly.

"Then I turned back to that old manuscript, and eventually it was published a couple of years later as You Poor Monster—a very different, slimmer book complete with an entirely new story. This is probably where I'm supposed to say that all the rejections of Napoleon were a blessing in disguise. Well, I won't. It tore me up. They say success goes to people's heads. Rejection does, too."

Kun's three epistolary novels constitute an ever-shifting endpoint for a genre that the majority of literary scholars trace back to mid-18th century England, when Samuel Richardson's two-part Pamela (1740–42)—composed of letters written by a servant girl, Pamela, to her parents—achieved blockbuster success, and which in modern times has appeared on the syllabuses of myriad undergrad English Lit courses. "Effectively, the story is, she resists sleeping with her master for most of the book and then ends up marrying him at the end," explains Mary Favret, a Johns Hopkins professor of English and author of 1993's Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters.

Richardson followed Pamela with Clarissa (1747–48), at about 1 million words the longest known novel composed in the English language. It, too, told the story of a virtuous girl via her letters; this time, though, the protagonist succumbs unwillingly to her suitor, then dies of grief and shame. In France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau explored similar territory with his epistolary Julie (1761). "Only a few things can happen to a woman in an 18th-century novel," Favret says. "She can get married; she can get raped; and, usually, if she gets raped, she has to die. We might call that 'romance,' but 18th-century writers and readers thought of these themes as moral lessons, a kind of social education. So you would read a novel not just for pleasure but also to learn how to behave and to learn about a different part of the social world."

The form's innate appeal, she contends, stems from the way it exploits our inner snoop: "A true epistolary novel presents itself as a collection of letters that somebody found. The ruse is somebody came upon this box of letters and sorted them out in chronological order and is giving them to you unfiltered. As a reader, you get access to something you're not supposed to have access to, something that would be private."

Kun finds that quality especially attractive: "One of the reasons I enjoy the epistolary format is that, unlike traditional novels, the 'author' is not writing the book for the reader. In fact, the 'author' isn't writing a book at all. Everything he or she writes is intended to be read solely by the recipient of the letters. It creates a voyeuristic quality."

The epistolary novel began a precipitous decline in popularity not long into the 19th century, Favret says, perceived as old-fashioned by an increasingly sophisticated readership and eclipsed by the rise of the historical novel. Tellingly, Jane Austen initially drafted her best-known works—1811's Sense and Sensibility and 1813's Pride and Prejudice—as epistolary novels, then tucked them away before refashioning them as third-person narratives 10 years later.

But, as if adhering to Darwin's theory of natural selection, the epistolary genre adapted, evolved, and survived, often by mashing up letters with third-person narrative and adding newer elements such as business memos, telegrams, newspaper articles, and diary entries. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), for example, brilliantly mixes and matches these various ingredients. According to Favret, Stoker's message to us is, "In the modern age, we have to figure our way through all kinds of media forms; we get our information in different ways. The letter itself becomes only one of many ways in which we communicate."

The epistolary novel persists, even thrives occasionally, in contemporary times. Witness the acclaim, both literary and cinematic, generated by Alice Walker's 1982 The Color Purple. "It has this bygone feel to it," says Favret. "And a sincerity. There are grammatical mistakes and spelling mistakes; it's not correct, but that makes it all the more authentic. And democratic: You have this slave girl who can write a novel, and that goes all the way back to Pamela."

To write We Are Still Tornadoes, Kun felt compelled to rethink his established authorial process. Given the central presence of a female character, he realized early on that while he could handle Scott's end of the exchange, he likely needed a collaborator to give voice to Cath's letters. "I thought that the letters from the young girl might read more like letters from a young girl if, in fact, they were written by a female writer," he says. "There have been more than a few novels that I have read where male writers have tried to write in a woman's voice, and it hasn't worked for me. It's often been 'off,' and you notice the hand behind the writing. I thought that having a female author would contribute to the authenticity, and I think it did."

Scrolling through his mental Rolodex, Kun quickly lighted on the person he wanted for the task: Susan Mullen, his friend of 30 years dating back to their days together in law school, when they met cute between classes. "She cornered me in the hallway one day and said, 'I heard that you're a writer. I want to read some of your stories.' Fortunately, she liked them, and that was the beginning of our friendship."

They corresponded over law school summer breaks. "Sue and I would write to each other," Kun continues, "and I still look back on it very fondly because they were really funny, really sweet letters. In particular, I remember that her letters would include drawings of her new haircuts.

"One of the reasons that I thought of Sue immediately when I had the idea for the project [Tornadoes] four years ago was that I remembered how much I enjoyed getting her letters back in the 1980s."

Like Kun, Mullen grew up a dedicated letter writer. But though she had studied English literature as an undergrad at Duke University, including her junior year at the University of Kent, in England, Mullen, a 53-year-old commercial real estate attorney based in Reston, Virginia, had never written professionally until Tornadoes. "I'm a lawyer and I draft legal documents and correspondence all the time," she says, "but I hadn't written fiction since I wrote a short story for English class in seventh grade and, with Mike's encouragement, I wrote a somewhat half-baked short story in law school."

Mullen nonetheless segued effortlessly into writing Tornadoes, facilitated by the fact that "the structure of the book was perfect for a first-time writer because I only had to write one letter at a time, and I didn't get overwhelmed by the magnitude of having to create a work from start to finish." It helped, too, that the book took an unhurried three and a half years to complete, owing to their respective busy work schedules and family responsibilities (both are married, Mullen with two daughters, Kun with one).

Neither author encountered difficulty writing in the voice of an 18-year-old. Kun says it came naturally. Mullen, when in doubt, conferred with her daughters, roughly Cath's age: "They told me to use more contractions and that we had to let the character curse." Likewise, both found it easy to impart a ring of genuineness to the book's letters. Kun, of course, benefited from having written two previous epistolary novels. "I try to focus as best I can on making letters read like real letters, even going so far as to include awkward phrases or misspellings in them sometimes, or including information that might be irrelevant to the plot precisely because a letter writer isn't thinking about any plot. They're only thinking about the single letter that they're writing at that moment."

Mullen conveniently tapped into her older daughter's ongoing college experience to craft Cath's prose and lifestyle. "I tried to be aware of when Cath would be under academic pressure due to midterms or finals," she says, "and to make those letters sound somewhat rushed. Conversely, if Cath was writing from home or had returned early from break and had her dorm room to herself for a few hours, I felt like she would have the time and desire to write a longer, more leisurely letter. Similarly, if Cath was supposed to be writing in the middle of the night or when she was exhausted or upset or excited and she got a bit confused with her wording, it was meant to be reminiscent of when we wrote in pen on paper and didn't have the ability to hit backspace and start composing an idea all over again."

The publication of Tornadoes allows Kun to turn his attention to a peck of other projects, on top of his responsibilities as a full-time attorney, husband, and father of a 10-year-old daughter. "When I first started practicing law in my 20s," he says, "I would regularly write until midnight or 1 in the morning after I got home from work. Then I'd just turn around and get up at 6, head into the office, and write when I got home again. Of course, that was when I was younger, when I had more energy and less responsibility. Now, with a family and with far more obligations to my law firm, I'm lucky to find a few hours each week to write, usually after my wife and daughter go to bed. I like to joke that whatever time other people spend exercising is the time I spend writing. Somehow, it works."

Currently in development—or, at least, in contemplation—is a quartet of books: a traditional novel titled The Allergic Boy Versus the Left-Handed Girl; a serious memoir about Kun and his sister barely surviving a boating accident when they were kids; and two more epistolary novels starring the Job-like Sid Straw, one that continues his misadventures as an adult, the other a prequel that dates to his high school days.

"One of the reasons that I thought of Sue immediately was that I remembered how much I enjoyed getting her letters back in the 1980s."
Michael Kun

It seems that, despite his limited free time, Kun can't stop himself from writing. He does it, he says, "because Stephen Dixon convinced me that I could, and because it makes me a happier and better person. And while I won't pretend to be a literary giant, the type of books and stories I tend to write, and the humor in particular, comes very naturally to me. I guess it's as simple as that I enjoy telling stories, and I enjoy having some small but positive impact on someone's life. I like to imagine that someone somewhere ended up having a better day because they read something I wrote."

Meanwhile, much to the displeasure of the revenue-starved U.S. Postal Service, and like just about everyone else in the known universe, Kun confesses that he no longer writes real letters, "unless you count Christmas cards or thank you notes. I stopped writing handwritten letters to friends more than a decade ago, partly because I haven't had as much time to do so, partly because most people prefer to use email, but also because my handwriting has gotten so poor that I imagine they either couldn't decipher what I was saying or had no interest in trying."

Michael Yockel is part-time senior editor of Baltimore STYLE and the former editor of Baltimore's City Paper.