An Indies Introduce Q&A with Sylvie Cathrall

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Sylvie Cathrall is the author of A Letter to the Luminous Deep, a Winter/Spring 2024 Indies Introduce adult selection, and May 2024 Indie Next List pick. 

Cathrall writes stories of hope and healing with healthy doses of wonder and whimsy. She holds a graduate degree in odd Victorian art and has handled more than a few nineteenth-century letters (with great care). Sylvie married her former pen pal and lives in the mountains, where she dresses impractically and dreams of the sea.

Stephanie Skees of The Novel Neighbor in Webster Groves, Missouri, served on the panel that selected A Letter to the Luminous Deep for Indies Introduce.

“In her efforts to uncover a potential scientific discovery outside her home, E. begins to correspond with the illustrious academic, Henerey Clel," said Skees. "As their love story unfolds, so does a new understanding about their world. Told entirely through letters, Cathrall’s writing engages the reader’s curiosity by transporting them into an underwater fantasy world that manages to feel at once cozy and familiar, unknown and mysterious.”

Here, Cathrall and Skees discuss A Letter to the Luminous Deep.

Stephanie Skees: A Letter to the Luminous Deep has a little bit of everything for its readers, including an underwater fantasy world, magical academia, and a pen pal romance. How did all these elements come together as you were writing this novel?

Sylvie Cathrall: When I write something new, I start by imagining a single character in a landscape. In this case, I pictured a coral reef surrounding an underwater house, half-antiquated and half-futuristic, with a solitary woman at the window. Because I suspected she found it challenging to brave the world outside, I knew her story had to be told through letters. But who would write to her? Her intrepid sister? Her wayward brother? What about an unexpectedly kind scholar who happens to share her interests?

So I constructed this network of characters and correspondence first, then built the world around them. At the time, I chose the scholarly setting to work through my own frustrating experiences with academia as a disabled and neurodivergent person. The novel, however, ultimately focuses on something much nicer — how those who don’t feel quite at home in society-at-large can find connection and comfort together.

SS: One of the most striking things about the book is its epistolary format. In your bio, you mention your degree in odd Victorian art and handling of nineteenth-century letters. Was this where you drew your inspiration for the novel’s epistolary elements? Bonus follow-up: What is the coolest letter you’ve ever handled?

SC: It certainly helped! Studying what happened to the poet Emily Dickinson’s letters after her death, for example, inspired me to explore the complex dynamics of someone playing archivist for their own sibling. I found it fascinating that Lavinia Dickinson initially destroyed many of the letters her sister received, but later helped to find and preserve letters that Emily wrote to her correspondents. In A Letter to the Luminous Deep, my accidental archivists, Sophy and Vyerin, must constantly check their desire to respect their missing siblings’ privacy against a drive to discover the truth.

I love that bonus question, too. I once was lucky enough to examine a box of letters written in the 1850s by an artist whom I had studied for years. After a lifetime of reading epistolary novels, I expected his letters to be chatty and full of artistic gossip. Nope — just boring business negotiations. (To be fair, I still thought even that was pretty thrilling, honestly.)

SS: One of the first words I’d use to describe your book is “cozy,” yet the mystery at the story’s core makes it clear that we’re dealing with high stakes. How did you balance this tension for your readers?

SC: I’m relieved that you found it balanced — and flattered that you think I balanced it intentionally!

But, seriously, I didn’t originally think of my book as a “cozy fantasy.” All credit is due to my Orbit editors for situating the novel within a growing genre that fits it so well. I’d also say that the interplay between coziness and intensity derives from my way of experiencing the world. Because of my OCD, I often feel like the stakes of any ordinary situation could not be higher: even if there’s actually nothing wrong. When I’m overwhelmed by the catastrophes my brain invents, I become even more grateful for small kindnesses and simple comforts. My characters face some very real difficulties, but I always took the time to let them experience moments of calm and wonder throughout it all.

SS: As mentioned above, there is a lovely pen pal romance that unfolds throughout the story. This romance is guaranteed to capture a reader’s heart! What was the most challenging part about developing this love story almost exclusively through letters?

SC: To be fair, these particular pen pals — reclusive artist E. and reluctant scholar Henerey — made it fairly easy! Like me, E. and Henerey are most able to be themselves through the written word. I knew any potential connection between them could only form via correspondence. Still, I sometimes just wanted to let these two spend an afternoon spotting sea life and working up the courage to hold hands!

Due to the limitations of letter-writing, I also took great delight in developing the novel’s in-person romance between Sophy (E.’s cartographer sister) and her future wife, Niea. Because they aren’t pen pals, Sophy and Niea are able to engage in classic courtship activities like marveling at eerie deep-sea fish together, whispering flirtations into underwater communicators, and indulging in yearning gazes through their diving helmets.

SS: I’ve been thinking about each and every character since I finished the book. I love them all! Which character ended up surprising you the most?

SC: That would be Henerey’s brother, Vyerin! His very existence was unexpected, because he didn’t even appear in the first draft of the manuscript. Now I can’t imagine it without him! Though I’ve put a bit of myself into each of the characters, Vyerin and I have the least in common. He is extroverted, resolute, and extraordinarily cool. While writing, I often appreciated the confident and collected energy he brings to my cast of shy and anxious people.

But I am touched to hear that everyone left such an impression on you, Stephanie. Thank you! These characters are very dear to me, and I hope readers will enjoy getting to know them, too…or, at least, will enjoy the slightly sneaky delight of reading all their private letters.

A Letter to the Luminous Deep by Sylvie Cathrall (Orbit, 9780316565530, Paperback Fantasy, $18.99) On Sale: 4/23/2024

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