Exploring the Epistolary Realm with B. Elizabeth Bell

A Journey Through Ghosts, Letters, and the Healing Power of Narrative

B. Elizabeth Bell discusses her debut novel, The Disconsolate, blending ghosts and epistolary, the influence of Dungeons & Dragons, overcoming challenges, and upcoming projects.

B. Elizabeth Bell resides in the picturesque city of Portland, Oregon, alongside her husband Jeffrey, their feline companions Artemis and Tansy, and the ethereal presence of Basil, their spirit cat. With the release of her debut novel, The Disconsolate, Bell effortlessly weaves together her lifelong enchantment with ghosts and her profound affection for epistolary storytelling.

The genesis of The Disconsolate can be traced back to Bell’s adolescence, where her voracious consumption of Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait till Helen Comes ignited her fascination with the supernatural. A personal encounter with the uncanny in a graveyard, coupled with the haunting echo of a departed friend’s presence, further solidified her connection to the world beyond.

Drawing inspiration from her weekly writing sessions with the Fly-by-Nights, a close-knit writing group nurtured by the nonprofit organization Write Around Portland, Bell found solace and camaraderie in the art of crafting letters—both sent and unsent. Through this collaborative endeavor, she honed her skills, embraced her unique voice, and discovered the transformative power of community in the solitary realm of writing.

Bell’s creative journey has been enriched by her background in Dungeons & Dragons, where she learned the nuances of storytelling and character development. Immersed in a realm where imagination knows no bounds, she cultivated a keen understanding of perspective and narrative dynamics, infusing her work with a palpable sense of authenticity and depth.

However, delving into themes of human suffering and adversity demanded a delicate balance of empathy and authenticity. Drawing from her own experiences of sensitivity and resilience, Bell navigated the emotional landscape of her characters with grace and integrity, immersing herself in their trials and tribulations while remaining faithful to their truths.

The road to publication was not without its challenges, as Bell grappled with the relentless passage of time and the emotional toll of bringing her characters to life. Yet, fueled by a steadfast commitment to her craft and buoyed by the support of her writing community, she persevered, emerging triumphant with a work that resonates deeply with readers.

As readers delve into The Disconsolate, Bell invites them to explore the healing power of narrative medicine and the cathartic release of unspoken words. Through the medium of letters, both written and unwritten, she offers a pathway to introspection and self-discovery, reminding us of the profound connection between storytelling and healing.

Looking ahead, Bell offers a tantalizing glimpse into her upcoming project—a late 19th-century epistolary set in the enigmatic town of Jerome, Arizona. With characteristic wit and poignancy, she delves into the untold stories of Madam Shaw, a spirited protagonist embarking on a journey of self-discovery amidst the backdrop of the American frontier.

With her unwavering dedication to her craft and her boundless imagination, B. Elizabeth Bell continues to captivate readers with tales that transcend the boundaries of time and space, inviting us to embark on a journey of self-discovery and illumination.

What inspired you to combine your fascination with ghosts and love for the epistolary in your first novel, The Disconsolate?

It all started with my reading Wait till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn at least 100 times at the beginning of my second decade of life. Having a birthday the day after Halloween, I was born curious about the supernatural. In my teens, I had a spooky encounter in a graveyard, but it wasn’t until a friend passed away and I later heard his leather jacket jingling, that I felt a connection to ghosts on a personal level. When email became mainstream for everyone in 2000, I started writing a lot of letters to friends and a few hundred were quite romantic and complicated. Years later, the ghosts and letters naturally flowed together to inspire a novel. 

Can you tell us more about your weekly writing practice with the Fly-by-Nights group and how it has shaped your work?

The Fly-by-Nights started as a 2015 Prompt workshop. I can’t talk about my amazing group without sharing a little about Write Around Portland, the non-profit organization that brought us together. They offer workshops to under-heard communities, focusing on strength, respect, and community. Prompt is a fundraising offering that mirrors the community workshops. We kept writing together after the workshop ended and stay with the model that we learned 9 years ago—it’s our guide to generating new work and evolving in friendship. 

Writing with my group is vital to my development as an author, giving me courage and teaching me to focus more on strengths and less on negative voices. Letters (mostly those that go unsent) are the recent thing I have been dialing in on. Writing can be lonely, but it really doesn’t have to be. Together we set a timer, we write, and we celebrate the uniqueness of our voices. 

How does your background in playing Dungeons & Dragons influence your storytelling and character development? 

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) teleports you to another world, and quickly. Playing a Druid—that can change into different animals—is one of the best storytelling teachers. There are limits to what you can do as a fly on the wall or an owl soaring through the forest to spy on enemies—if you forget one, the DM will call you out (or will let you die). D&D enables me to have real-time practice with perspective and point of view. It creates within me a more natural suspension of disbelief so that I can fully build a setting while increasing my awareness of inconsistencies and improbabilities.

How do you approach writing about human suffering and difficult topics in your work? 

Growing up, I was a sensitive child with her head in the clouds. I was often teased, and this gave me an advantage in empathy and sympathy as an adult. I tend to be a deep feeler and worry constantly about how others might react to situations. I spent hours feeling how James felt, how his mother felt, and of course, as folks say, our first novels are often slightly autobiographical, and there is a lot of me in Aislin. I explored personal emotions when writing about her. With Hana—Zlata’s Diary inspired me to write about Bosnia-Herzegovina. The diary was my first detailed exposure to war during my informative years. While writing the book, I did a lot of research into the Balkans and the impact of ongoing war. My first concern was that I bring honesty onto the page and be authentic in my retelling of any history that is not my own: that I embody the emotion, let it go through my veins before sharing. When I wrote the novel it was often difficult to get through the content with such heightened empathy. 

That’s a great segway into the next question: what challenges did you face while writing “The Disconsolate” and how did you overcome them?

A lot of authors will understand when I say “I wish I could just write all the time!” but having a lack of time isn’t the only reason this work spanned a decade before publication. When I became emotionally invested in the characters, I also needed space away from the work. This wasn’t always conscious, but looking back over the years I remember walking away from my PC grieving for my characters, or for myself as I pulled up my own losses to write a specific scene. Writing calls forth wounds and this is very healing, but it also takes time. 

Craft related challenges were around chronology and James’ existence as a ghost. I created an actual calendar in Word to track important dates: this even included researching moon cycles in 2013! 

Bringing the book to fruition through my 30s created some interesting challenges. As my writing strengthened, my satisfaction with the book would ebb and flow. I went back and edited the whole thing many times (laughs). That’s just what happens when something isn’t published yet, you can keep changing it! Publishing wise, things can get overwhelming and that process added its own frustrations. InDesign is not my friend, so I hired someone for the book layout and that was the best decision. I finally took the plunge and went for it, and it is the best thing you can do, especially for work you’re emotionally invested in. When the Kirkus reviewer wrote “…Bell capably explores various forms of emotional pain,” it was a relief to know all the tears I shed paid off in the end. 

What themes or messages do you hope readers take away from “The Disconsolate”?

Narrative medicine is a worthwhile companion to any therapy and is a healing practice. Writing letters can be a way to say what we need to say (even letters to ourselves)—plus we don’t even have to send them! 

Are there any upcoming writing projects you can share with your readers? 

I am currently writing and researching a late 19th century epistolary set in Jerome, Arizona. I grew up near this “ghost town” known as the wickedest town in the west and wanted to know more about who haunts it, specifically about the brothels there. Told through Madam Shaw’s letters to family and friends, the reader will follow her as she sets out to open her own brothel in the hills of gold. She takes the Transcontinental from the Midwest to California. Tragedy strikes and she boards a wagon—determined to take a chance in the new southwest territory of Arizona. It’s a haunting, humorous, and raw tale that has been keeping my writing group entertained since I started it in the early fall of 2023. I plan to send ARCs out later this year! 

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