One day while busy working on my YA debut, What The Woods Keep, I experienced a flashback from my teen years: It was a memory of going on a routine school trip and coming across a collection of old wartime letters preserved in a local museum. Recalling the teen-me studying the letters’ faded ink and yellowed edges as well as contemplating what happened to their authors in the end, the grown-up-me wondered: what if archived documents played a role in my debut novel? Would allowing multiple entries into the story by introducing these so-called “found” objects enrich the narrative and make the readers more invested in how it all ends?
This was a major lightbulb moment for me: My struggles with what I worried were unavoidable limitations of a first person narration were at last coming to an end! I could now fill these gaps by introducing additional perspectives on the key events occurring in my book via what postmodern scholars of metafiction termed manipulated paratexts – literary devices used to insert such textual elements as faux files into the narration. Examples of paratexts are many and can include interview transcripts, school records, reports, snippets of mainstream news coverage and found movie footage, the latter deployed notably in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. All these elements serve to simulate reality while simultaneously augmenting it, in the process provoking in readers the sensation of uncanny by distorting what was once familiar.
I remember first coming across such use of found objects in fiction when reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which uses epistolary documents to demonstrate its narrators’ subjectivity. In addition to the aforementioned Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, other powerful examples of paratexts’ usage can be found in Marisha Pesshl’s Night Film, as well as among my fellow 2018 YA debuts. For instance, the first person led narrative of Melissa Albert’s mesmerizing The Hazel Wood is centered on a supposedly real object – a certain book of obscure dark fairy tales – which has a cult following and supernatural aura surrounding it. However, Derek Milman’s Scream All Night takes advantage of the meta storytelling format in a different way: Milman augments his debut’s primary narration by weaving multiple references to movie scripts. The catch? While definitely sounding familiar, all these intricately detailed movies exist solely in the universe of Scream All Night. The effect is reality-warping!
Regardless of how those are deployed, the use of found objects can enrich the story, sometimes in unexpected ways. In What The Woods Keep, Hayden, whose mom mysteriously disappeared into the local Colorado woods ten years ago, narrates the story through the lens of her own experiences. Her narration is influenced by her upbringing, her worldview and her emotions. Readers follow Hayden along on her journey back to the strange windswept town of her childhood, slowly becoming immersed in her thinking patterns, observing her as she reaches her conclusions about what could’ve happened to her mom all these years ago.
While Hayden appears to be a reliable narrator, she also doesn’t know her own limits of perception. And as the case of her mom’s eerie vanishing becomes more complex and bizarre, it also becomes apparent that there’s a lot more going on in the background of Hayden’s story than meets the eye. I wanted to show these multiple sides of the story to my readers. That’s when the mixed media storytelling format and found documents came in handy.
Found documents begin to enter the story of What The Woods Keep early on, complementing Hayden’s narration and making things more and more complex. This increasing complexity is meant to defy rational explanations as it “eschews the rules of cause and effect” and, as a result, warps the reader’s perception. Some of these documents are common: letters, medical files, lecture notes, etc. But some are odd, borderline disturbing. Some of these Hayden sees firsthand as she progresses in her journey, but some are for readers’ eyes only – I imagine these latter types as existing in the periphery and haunting the narrative.
I felt that by introducing these documents into the story I could give readers a variety of different ideas to entertain about what’s happening, more points of view and perspectives to consider, and, as a result, more conclusions to reach on their own. After all, there’s so much depth to every story, and the subjectivity of perspective reigns supreme. Everyone’s perception is different: sometimes people can have a completely different memory of the same event! Our memories are often selective, influenced by strong emotions we experience, by our state of mind and other factors. Telling the story of What The Woods Keep through multiple formats gave me an opportunity to experiment with just that and, hopefully, the readers will appreciate the result.