It’s not unheard of for writers to turn their personal journals into a memoir — but what about emails? Two friends vowed to write honest accounts of their lives once a week as a way to keep in touch after graduation. Over the next few years, Jess and Rachel exchanged detailed emails about their trials and tribulations — jobs, men, the whole gamut of life in your twenties — while moving from country to country. Now their joint account will be published in May by Gotham as GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND.
We asked Jess and Rachel to share their unique publication story — of how a casual email chain between friends turned into an inspiring memoir about being twenty and finding your way in the world.
Rachel: Do you remember the night of our graduation from Brown?
Jess: Uh, yes. Obviously. I wasn’t that drunk and we’ve only just turned 29.
Rachel: Okay, prove it. What do you remember about the pact we made that night?
Jess: We were sitting on the back steps of the house we lived in with our friends in Providence on Governor St. I think it was raining and it was really late – everyone else had already gone to bed or they were still out. And you and I were sitting outside under the awning and discussing how since we’d been through the past four years together, we felt so close to each other and to our other college friends. But we also knew how easy it is to let friendships fade away after graduation, no matter how close people are.
Rachel: I remember that we both talked about how our mothers always seemed to have such nostalgia and love for their college friends and yet over the years, they had still managed to lose touch with most of them. And we vowed that wouldn’t happen to us. Since you were moving to Beijing and I was moving to New York, clearly emails were the only way to go. We also vowed that we had to be brutally honest. I think that we really trusted – and still trust – each other enough to admit when we felt really lonely or really scared or depressed or unloved, or anything that we thought was embarrassing, because we knew that the other one had also felt that way before and would understand.
Jess: It’s been nearly seven years since we made that pact. What’s your earliest memory of how we came up with the idea to edit the emails into a narrative form?
Rachel: You had just moved to London. I’d already been living here for nearly a year. We’d only seen each other twice in five years, but it felt like we’d never been apart for a day, because we’d kept such close contact. Suddenly it was like our old college days when we would meet for coffee every day. I think one day we were arguing about the timing of something that had happened in the past and we both searched our inboxes to find the answer. It was completely astounding to see what strange emails from years and countries ago would appear.
Jess: And when we began rereading them, it was shocking how much detail and raw emotion there was – to the point where I couldn’t believe I had felt so strongly about certain events and people because time had dulled the memories. It was eye-opening to see how much we had grown up.
Rachel: I think we both had the same reaction when we went back and looked at those emails, the idea that we would have loved to read a book about girls like us when we were younger – some true stories about the struggles and heartache that occur right in those wonderland years post-graduation. And I think once we began collating our emails, our real stories emerged and our lives had this clarity that we’d never been able to see before.
Jess: For me at least, it started just as a fun personal project, like “These are the stories of my youth that I can show my grandkids someday,” and then gradually it became, “Maybe we should just see if anyone wants to publish this, because other women might take comfort or pleasure in reading these stories; we’ve all had really embarrassing things happen to us or really low moments when all we had were our friends to rescue us.”
Rachel: Do you think we changed each other, being so far away? Or influenced each other, at least?
Jess: It was always good to have someone who really knew me to keep me grounded and remind me of who I was. When I was off in China, sometimes not making the best decisions and then suddenly questioning everything – you were always someone who could tell me when I was about to make a big mistake – because I’m impulsive and rash sometimes. How did I influence you?
Rachel: You were always pushing me to be braver in my life. To get out more. To not be passive. To go for bigger things and not settle. You were big on that. It’s important to have that encouragement when you’re feeling vulnerable. For those first few years out of college, the choices we make matter so much – and to reliably have someone on your team — well, it’s important.
Jess: When you go back and reread our intimate emails and then imagine a stranger reading them, what do you feel?
Rachel: It makes me laugh and cringe a little bit at the beginning, because we do sound very young, and I just want to shake myself sometimes! But as the book goes on, even I can see us getting older and slightly wiser. It’s strange to see that in yourself. Am I embarrassed by the less than flattering sex stories or job mistakes I made or insecure moments? Of course. But if we didn’t share those parts of our lives, than there would have been no point at all – just like how our original emails had to be honest. The whole point was to talk about what was real – the good, the bad, the ugly.
Jess: And I like rereading snippets of my past lives in Beijing or Australia. It’s good to see how far we’ve come – and wouldn’t it be great if our pact started a trend that motivated friends to keep in touch, when they otherwise might have grown apart? I like thinking about that.
Jessica Pan has a BA in Psychology and Literary Arts from Brown University. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. She was the editor of a magazine and a TV reporter in Beijing and has written for The Hairpin and The Toast.
Rachel Kapelke-Dale is pursuing a PhD in cinematographic studies at University College London. She has a BA in History of Art and Architecture and Comparative Literature from Brown University and a master’s in Cinema Studies from the Université de Paris VII.