July 3, 2014

Letters play the muse for N.C. novelists

Lee Smith, Mark Ethridge III find inspiration in packets of letters.

Some years ago, novelist Lee Smith of Hillsborough bought a packet of letters at a garage sale. She spent the weekend reading them, fascinated by the letter writer’s relationship with her sister and how she related the ordinary details of her life. Smith absorbed the voice of these letters and soon sat down to write her stunning epistolary novel, “Fair and Tender Ladies.”

Reading the letters worked for her.

Charlotte’s Mark Ethridge III also happened on a packet of letters. He has a different story.

Ethridge, former publisher of the Business Journal of Charlotte and managing editor of the Observer, was on tour for his second novel, “Fallout,” when a woman introduced herself to him. “Hi. Your father married my mother.”

They had never met, but Ethridge knew who she was. His parents divorced when Ethridge was grown, and his dad married a woman who had children of her own.

Ethridge says the woman told him that after her mom died, she found this stack of letters from his dad to her mother. “I thought you might like to have them,” she said.

Ethridge says he recognized the distinct signature of his father’s typewriter on the tissue-thin Par Avion stationery.

“I have to warn you,” the woman said. “There are things in there you might find shocking.”

The top letter, Ethridge noted, was dated around the time of his parents’ divorce. He glanced at the bottom letter.

To his surprise, he saw that it was dated many years earlier.

I was fascinated. What did the letters say?

“I don’t know,” Ethridge says. “I haven’t read them.”


Ethridge says he told a producer friend about the letters, and the friend warned: “Don’t open them.”

Why? he asked.

“Because once you know what’s in them, you’re going to have to work very hard not to be restricted by the content,” Ethridge says the friend told him. “You’re going to keep getting pulled back to what they are. If you don’t open them, they can be the most interesting thing you want them to be.”

It won’t surprise you to know that this third novel, tentatively titled “Blood Relative,” opens with the protagonist being handed a packet of letters.

“Blood” will be a sequel to his first novel, “Grievances,” adapted into the 2012 film “Deadline.” Which means Matt Harper and his sidekick Ronnie Bullock will return.

When will the novel be finished?

Ethridge has been around the block a couple of times now, and he’s too savvy to answer.

“There’s finishing,” he says, “and there’s finishing.”

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