‘I’ve been working with words pretty much all my life’: A Conversation with Sonya Moor
By Jonathan Coste
‘For me it is always really important to go and meet the story. The need to go to Chartres was obvious for me, and I went several times for this story. It was important just walking around, even though it has changed so much since the time in which I was researching, just to see the way the wind moves over the land and how the sun rises and falls. There were limits to for me to explore, also you find yourself up against the limits of your own skin.’
Based in Paris, Sonya Moor is a French and British writer, specialising in short story fiction. Her latest piece, the post-script to a letter addressed to the ‘Shaved Woman of Chatres’ was recently published as the third entry of Vol.6 of The Letters Page. The piece is both innately personal and delicately poignant; it details Sonya’s journey from Paris to the town of Chartres, wandering the streets which bore witness to harrowing historical events in 1944, and in turn, inspired the contents of the piece.
I sat down to chat with Sonya on what happened to be the hottest day this country has ever experienced. As I started the Zoom call from my home in the West-Midlands, Sonya joined from her home in Paris. Despite the one-hour time difference, which made it nearly six o’clock in the evening in France, the extreme heatwave that has afflicted us in the UK similarly resulted in a scorching evening across the Channel. To combat the sweltering heat, we both employed electric fans; in what for me personally, proved a futile attempt to cool down from the unrelenting warmth that had entirely enveloped every room of my house. Nonetheless, in spite of the impossible weather, over the next twenty minutes, we enjoyed a conversation which spanned the topics of: French history, the art of storytelling and finally letters; detailing both the composition process, as well as the importance of the letter form, for writers and readers alike.
Sonya firstly detailed both her background as a writer, and her somewhat unconventional journey undertaken into storytelling: ‘My background as a writer? I seemed to have done everything backwards. I did family and work first and found creative writing at middle age. So, I’m something of a beginner.’ Despite her own humble admission, a youthful penchant for letter writing and an unbridled passion for words has been ever-present for as long she can remember, ‘I’ve been working with words pretty much all my life, and I wrote a lot of letters when I was a kid’. This early history of letter writing would go on to form the crux of our later discussion, yet it also led me to my next question. For I was keen to understand the writing process for the piece, both as a post-script (a typically rare form under the umbrella of letters), but also fascinated by the process of writing in response to a photograph. ‘It is a form that has occurred in my writing before, and second person comes quite easily to me. Addressing the artwork itself seems to come quite naturally to people and there are lots of things you could explore around that. Although I’m not sure if I’m talking to the artwork if we are referring back to other people, ourselves and our own experiences.’
The context of the photo that Sonya’s piece is responding to is also important. ‘The Shaved Woman of Chartres’, was captured by Robert Capa, and depicts the punishment and humiliation enacted onto French women who were accused of conspiring with German enemies, in the aftermath of France’s liberation near the end of the Second World War. I was fairly hesitant to pry into such an emotionally charged subject, with which I was relatively unfamiliar. Nonetheless, I was fascinated to hear from Sonya if the relevance of the image remains prominent today. ‘The photograph is very well known. I cannot remember why I decided to write about it, but it has become quite a widespread thing in France. There are podcasts and documentaries, but I found a lot of it was not very useful, because people tend to look for easy narratives. Which is something I encountered myself.’ In my own reading of the piece, I was struck by a few potentially religious phrases and references. I wondered if Sonya viewed the post-script as a religious piece. ‘I hope that reflects the need for this story and character, but it may also reflect the writer: I was raised in a very strict Catholic environment, but then I tend to be quite attracted to stories and subjects with the same background as myself, for we are always looking for ourselves when we write. I wanted for the reader to create a sort-of mental tie with the business of writing itself, as for me writing is about trying to connect. I often feel that there are limits to that and it’s frustrating, yet we still keep trying.’
Nearing the conclusion of the conversation, our focus returned once more towards letters. Sonya distinguished the differing approaches she explored when writing her letter, and the accompanying post-script, ‘I think it was a different approach. The letter is perhaps more coherent – it was the outcome of all. Maybe I was holding back emotionally though. In fact, when the letter was complete my editor and close friend, told me that I was indeed holding back too much emotionally, and thus encouraged me to write the post-script.’ Finally, we reminisced about our own childhood letters written to friends, family, pen pals, whoever. Smiling softly, Sonya told me that she still writes ‘at least’ one letter a week, always to the same correspondent. Thus, at the very denouement of our conversation, from that very sentiment, I was once again reminded of Sonya’s previous answer about writing to connect. So, perhaps there is a kind of inherent childish innocence in letters, but it is something I never wish to lose, and something which we are all certainly greater for revisiting every once in a while.
The Letters Page team are back in the office, and ready to read your real letters again. We publish stories, essays, poems, memoir, reportage, criticism, recipes, travelogue, and any hybrid forms, so long as they come to us in the form of a letter. We are looking for writers of all nationalities and ages, both established and emerging.
Your letter must be sent in the post, to :
The Letters Page, School of English, University of Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK.
See our submissions page for more information.
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