Two Writers, Two Decades of Correspondence

For more than 20 years, Robert McGill and Siobhan Phillips have regularly exchanged emails about their lives and work. This year, as they both published novels, they decided to reflect together on their enormous—and still growing—record of correspondence.

Robert McGill: So, I recently sat down and read our email correspondence from the past two decades—about a million words, all told. I didn’t go back as far as 1999, when we first met in Oxford. But I have everything after 2002, after we finished the Creative Writing program at East Anglia, when you returned to the U.S. and I went back to Canada. That moment could have been the end of our friendship, right? Instead it was the beginning. I bet that in the last two decades—leaving aside the year we overlapped on a postdoctoral fellowship—we haven’t spoken on the phone or seen each other in person more than a dozen times each. But all the emails!

Siobhan Phillips: All the emails! I reread them recently, too. In my email program, they’re in a big folder labeled “friends.” Long ago I should have given our conversations their own folder, but now I’m almost grateful that in rereading our messages I had to pick through a landscape of other connections. In 2001—year of the earliest emails between us that I have—the evidence doesn’t predict that this will be my most important epistolary relationship of the next 20 years. To see that emerge was like watching a time-lapse film of a field or forest, in which one’s attention can be gradually caught and held by what turns out to be the most persistent element. Other, non-McGill email-writers emerge and wither; meanwhile, one unassuming tree keeps on growing.

RM: An email every couple of weeks, maybe a thousand words at a time, often with a fresh manuscript attached, accompanied by a polite, grateful request for feedback. Could that be why we kept up our correspondence while others faded: our eager service as readers of each other’s work?

SP: I think so. A lesson from our early emails is that—counterintuitively?—critique can be the grounds of friendship as well as the other way round. Naturally enough, I suppose—after our grad-student writing group at Oxford and then a creative-writing degree—all of the earliest emails between us are focused on writing. Only from there did we add more discussion of other parts of our lives. 

RM: I’m impressed by how wide-ranging we’ve become. I mean, there are topics that recur frequently: our heavy workloads, our bodily ills, and our ambivalence about the academy as we’ve transformed from graduate students to literature professors trying to carve out creative lives for ourselves. But we’ve also corresponded about shared enthusiasms, whether for distance running or TV series like The Wire. We’ve regaled each other with stories of misfortune (that time your car was stolen!) and surreal encounters (that time I met Matt Damon’s brother!). Do you recall me devoting over 500 words to an account of watching the guy seated ahead of me on an airplane write out his Christmas cards? It reads like a scene from a short story, but I never did anything with it beyond sharing it with you.

SP: I do. It may yet make its way into a story. 

RM: Ha! But reading over our correspondence, I also realized that in certain ways, we haven’t ranged much at all. In particular, even though we never explicitly set out norms of structure for our emails, we’ve maintained a remarkable consistency in them: at least a portion of almost every one involves responding to the other person’s last message, while another section is devoted to recent happenings, which provides fodder for the other person’s next response. Every email ends up resembling a stanza in a verse form such as terza rima or the pantoum in which each verse reaches back into the previous one for its materials while furnishing new material for its successor. So yes, I’m suggesting that we’ve created the world’s first million-word poem. 

SP: Yes, early on, our emails assumed a just-enough, and never-agreed-upon, formal rigor. To some extent I feel like that shape is endemic to correspondence, not poetry. We somehow adopted the rhythm we would have had to take up if we were sending letters in the post. I might have resisted that pattern if it were suggested outright—too anachronistic or mannered. Yet here we are, keeping an old-fashioned pace. Although there was that brief stint, during a period of upheaval in my life, when I asked if I could send you daily “progress” emails, using your address as a kind of accountability tool to make sure I kept writing my novel and didn’t despair.

RM: You know, when you suggested that it would help you to send me those daily messages, I was thrilled. It made manifest something I’d felt for a long time: that our usual, slower rhythm of correspondence wasn’t just a habit or a limit we’d imposed on our friendship. Instead, it was a kind of foundational structure on which we felt comfortable building if we needed support. But that more usual rhythm has worked well in other ways, too. For one thing, it grants us enough time for each email to include both news of happenings and reflections on them. The emails have become, for me, a way of at once recording my life, taking stock of it, and sharing it with you.

SP: Our messages to each other let us articulate ourselves. Sometimes they’ve done so with a direct question. In 2004 you wrote to me, “How does your being Catholic affect who you are?” Sometimes they’ve done so with an emerging back-and-forth conversation—like that exchange, years after Oxford, about what our time there meant to us. We were both ambivalent about it; no surprise, maybe. But before our emailing, I think each of us thought the other had experienced things differently. The correspondence could set us right about things, then. But emails were never a final word. I think that’s important. When I recently enthused about the two dogs I live with, you were gracious enough not to remind me of an impassioned 2005 paragraph laying out my case against contemporary pet culture. You haven’t kept track of political opinions I’m now embarrassed about or literary works I defended or rejected wrongly. 

RM: I’m glad that we’ve never called each other out for changing or held ourselves to our past statements and positions; that we’ve aimed for betterment over consistency. You know, I cringe at some things I’ve written to you over the years—the slapdash phrasings, the ill-formed opinions—but, taken as a whole, my emails to you might approach the best version of me that’s out there. I can see myself in them repeatedly trying to be someone who’s thoughtful, articulate, ethical—and trying to be that person, not least, because you’ve been that person for me. In 2011, almost finished with your first term of full-time teaching, you wrote to me: “I should go now, and answer emails that have piled up since Halloween, and work on the class plan I have to teach tomorrow, the review that’s overdue, the book list for next term that’s overdue… I’m clenching my teeth again. But when I’m writing to you, I feel a little more human.” Each time I write you, I feel like I’m becoming a little more the human being I want to be.

I try to be a good person with others, too, but I seldom get the chance to put my best self forward with them so comprehensively and carefully as I do with you. In everyday, in-person relations, the need to respond to someone aloud, immediately, can lead to me saying words I regret. With you, I take as much time as I need to write. I imagine it’s the same for you—not least because, in reading over your two decades of emails to me, I caught about four typos.

SP: Oh, I think you’re being kind about typos. But definitely, letters encourage a better self—at least sometimes!—and then chart our way toward it. Letters don’t hold us to what we once were, even as they pick out of the mess of daily life some things to be clarified and preserved. I mean, three years after I responded to your question about religion, I was no longer religious. And then 10 years after we talked about Oxford, I began a novel set partly there. 

RM: One thing I love about your novel is its depiction of the dynamics between young academic overachievers, including a hard-to-avoid strain of competition. But reading our emails, it struck me that somehow, despite the fact that our friendship began in that environment, and despite all the subsequent overlap in our professional lives—doctoral studies, the postdoc, the tenure track, and, now, our novels appearing at the same time—we’ve never really been competitive with each other. 

SP: It could go back to beginning in critique. We’ve always been honest, I think, about what we like and don’t like. Perhaps attention to the work prevented too much concern with its results? 

RM: I don’t know. It’s still hard for me to disinvest from “results” in certain ways. But when it comes to comparing achievements, our sharing of work all these years has made me think of our fortunes as so intertwined that I can’t help feeling like we get to claim each other’s successes as partly our own.

SP: Agreed. Though I think I also wanted to keep the writing of correspondence apart from success or failure. Our exchange is grounded on reading drafts with an eye to publication, but the emails themselves were a place in which I didn’t have to worry about outcomes. 

RM: That makes me wonder about our correspondence’s relationship to other forms of writing? For one thing, I love how our emails can resemble first drafts of things we’ve later published. In 2008, for instance, expressing unease about an essay you were due to write, you identified what you called your “only thought” on the subject, then elaborated on it for a paragraph before concluding: “Well, typing that paragraph made me much more encouraged about actually writing [the] essay.”

I do worry, sometimes, about us having given over so much of our lives to a one-on-one correspondence. A nagging voice says that with a bit of effort, more of what we’ve written each other could have taken public forms: blog entries, social media posts, essays. Or we could have invited more people into our correspondence. But I find myself wanting to argue for the importance of extended conversations with just one person, someone who comes to know you intimately, yet whose relationship to you isn’t complicated by romance or cohabitation or monthly payments. 

SP: Yes. Probably I shudder away from this whole question Is email wasted time? because I’ve published much less than you, so I have to tolerate the idea of wasted writing, in general. My acceptance of inefficiency isn’t just self-protection, though. I’ve done some scholarly research on letters as a genre, as you know, and I’ve learned that correspondence is necessarily inefficient. Personal letters are different from other genres partly because of their particularity, written with and to a specific audience, and also their timeliness, preserving a moment while recognizing its evanescence. Both of these facets make correspondence chancy. The chain of back-and-forth comes with gaps and dross. So if we want to preserve or practice letter-writing, we probably have to agree to its fundamental vagaries. 

That’s not to say that our emails haven’t had real results. I was surprised, rereading my emails to you, to note how often they unconsciously fed my fiction or poetry or nonfiction. And I saw the same happening when I reread your emails to me in the light of your books and stories and essays. Your latest novel is told in part through a series of letters! I also bookmarked some ideas you’ve written about in emails to me that I think might emerge in future published writing: ideas about minimalism, about athletics in mid-life, about “home” and childhood places. Maybe that Christmas-card scene! Could the same idea-nurturance have happened more succinctly? In a different form? Maybe. It’s a serious question. There’s a sense in which letter-writing may be indulgence. 

RM: I’m reminded of something you wrote in an email all the way back in 2007: “I think one of the main attractions of biographies and letters is that they’re meant to be boring, sometimes; or, they’re bound to be, so you can indulge that pleasant almost-affect-less style of reading in which you float along on a sea of anecdote and veracity and wait for some passing lily-pad of exceptionality to catch your interest.” Perhaps there’s something analogous in the writing of them? Speaking of your research about letters: I’ve never asked you whether our emails played a part in your decision to tackle the topic. What do you think?

SP: Probably yes. But I didn’t admit as much because that felt like either self-aggrandizement or tempting fate. I didn’t want to claim anything special for our exchange. Also, I didn’t want to mess up this special thing. I’m less fearful now. A benefit of 20-plus years, maybe. Also—even as I appreciate everything we’ve articulated here about what correspondence has done for us—I feel that the genre isn’t essential. As I reread all those years of advice and encouragement and support and editorial suggestions, what mattered most was not its shape or container but the trust it presumed and created. And that trust will go on finding the form it needs. What I mean to say: the correspondence sustains something essential, I think, but the correspondence is not what counts.