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Interview with Sylvie Cathrall – A Letter to the Luminous Deep

By Katie Farr, Iona Fleming, Jess Scaffidi Saggio, Ayman Sabir and Lucy Powell


As a writer who pens stories full of hope and healing, with a dash of wonder and whimsy, Sylvie Cathrall’s debut novel, A Letter to the Luminous Deep, is a mystery-romance set in a fantasy underwater world. The novel includes elements of magical academia and nestles a pen pal romance right at the heart of its narrative. Revolving around the relationship and subsequent disappearance of a recluse (E.) and a scholar (Henerey Clel), the story is told exclusively through letters, notes and sketches as their grieving family members pick up the pieces to find out what happened to the pair in the wake of a seaquake.  


Cathrall, with a degree in Victorian art and experience with handling historical letters, said that it was “probably no surprise” that her novel ended up being an epistolary one (a story “in which people use letter-writing to fall in love, build friendships and connect with family”). The epistolary style is one that always interested her. As a reader, she found it “enchanting.” As a historian, her study of primary sources like letters was something she enjoyed. As a person, she even “enjoyed an epistolary romance of [her] own.”


One of the challenges of writing an epistolary novel is creating the unique voices and writing styles of each character. An exercise Cathrall used during early drafting was to take pen to paper and draft letters in each character’s particular handwriting. Though it would have been impossible to do this for the whole book, it was a “fun writing warm-up” to help Cathrall “immerse [herself] in the epistolary structure.” During revisions, Cathrall would pick a pair of characters and examine their letters side by side to “compare their vocabulary and sentence constructions and identify any glaring overlaps.” Though not a “foolproof” method, it was “certainly useful” and helped to shape the personality of each character.


Mental health is an important theme throughout the story. One of the protagonists, E. Cidnosin, lives with the fantasy equivalent of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is a mental health diagnosis that Cathrall also has. This focus on mental health is one that Cathrall said she would “always include,” as the way she thinks and experiences the world “naturally affects the characters” that she creates. She added that E. was the first character she created, and E.’s experience with OCD was “rooted in [Cathrall’s] own.” However, in the novel, she wanted to “write something different from a diagnosis discovery narrative.” Both of the story’s protagonists, E. and Henerey, are “both well aware of their strengths and challenges” and “come to embrace each other’s unique way of being.” 


Whilst A Letter to the Luminous Deep is pitched primarily as a fantasy novel, the story incorporates a blend of other genres, from sci-fi to mystery and romance. Cathrall said she realised early on in her writing process that she “needed to incorporate elements from several genres” to realise the “story [she] had in mind.” Moreover, from the point of view of her characters, she added that they were “raised to view life through a rational lens,” but soon encountered “magical peculiarities they were not equipped to explain.” Despite some reviewers picking up on the sci-fi-esque flavour in the book a point Cathrall agreed on in the end she chose to frame her novel as fantasy “because there is very proper little science in it.”


When asked what the main challenges were when building a new fantasy world, Cathrall explained how “world-building often intimidates” her. She argued that this is because she’s more used to focusing on the smaller details, as opposed to trying to “conceptualise the bigger picture.” However, she expressed how she “enjoyed hinting at the broader social, cultural and environmental contexts” of her world because they were directly related to her characters as well. Some of her personal experiences also helped her with creating her world, in particular a “historic map” that is in discussion amongst some of her characters, which was inspired by Cathrall’s “interest in mediaeval cartography.”


The writer’s advice to those who want to write fantasy novels is to practise “low-stakes, behind-the-scenes world-building,” where setting aside some time to “imagine what one tiny aspect of your world might be like” will extremely benefit the overall process. She stated that this “behind-the-scenes” approach doesn’t have to make it into the final manuscript, but it ensures that you simply know “your world a little better” and “may help you write about it more authentically.”


A Letter to the Luminous Deep is, Cathrall states, “merely the first part of a larger story.” The sequel will also continue with the epistolary style. While this first novel was written without an outline, Cathrall planned the sequel with a synopsis, outline and a list of scenes, having found that she “benefit[s] a great deal from preparing a simple chapter-by-chapter summary first.” Cathrall hopes that readers will “appreciate how everything concludes” in this fast-paced, high-stakes sequel. 


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