A conversation with Shaun Usher on ‘Letters Live’

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We caught up with Shaun Usher on the art of letter writing, curating a live literary event and the phenomenal success of his concept which started out as a hobby. Letters Live is running NOW until 4th April and is inspired by Shaun’s book ‘Letters of Note’ and Simon Garfield’s ‘To the Letter’.

Letters of Live is a unique event, reading a carefully chosen selection of letters, with readings from Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey amongst a host of other world class performers.

The interest in Letters Live has grown so much and so quickly, originally what was it that inspired you to start Letters of Note? Did you ever anticipate that it would become as big as it has?

No – it goes back 30 years when I first met the lady who is now my wife – two weeks after we started dating she moved to Spain as part of her university course. She had to spend a year abroad so we decided to stay in touch by letter, primarily, so we sent a lot of letters to each other purely to see how it would go. And it was the best possible start so we kind of fell in love through letters and it was at that point that I was seduced by the whole idea of letter writing and I always thought to myself that one day I would explore the idea further. And then it was in 2009 that I decided to start the website. I was working as a copywriter at the time and one of my clients was a stationery retailer – and that basically led me on to letter writing again and I decided to start a website and it just took off really quickly. I just started it as a hobby but thanks to twitter – ironically, you know the very service which is kind of going to kill off things like letter writing – the website took off and it’s been crazy since then. I’ve never really looked back.

It’s so rare for a concept to take off like this. It’s always lucky but clearly your concept is brilliant and your dedication shows through. I think there’s so many people who would love to do something like this in the Arts. As someone who has managed to make word of mouth and social media work for you; what kind of advice would you give someone starting out with a new concept? We are a magazine who publish a lot of young and emerging authors, how do you craft an original presence online without drowning in the digital world?

Letters of Note is a simple idea, I couldn’t believe that no one else had done it when I first started the website. I was sure that such a blog would already exist so I was lucky in that respect. But if it wasn’t for twitter I wouldn’t be where I am sitting now and I would still be in sales. I would advise people to definitely build up a presence on twitter, and make your output digestable for a twitter audience. We’re so busy these days that we consume things that are very brief. Especially on twitter – what I’ve found is the things that get retweeted the most are the things that take mere seconds to digest. Anything that’s too lengthy puts people off. It’s the same with the book – I write introductions to each letter in the book. I deliberately made these introductions at most a couple of paragraphs long because I know that people’s attention spans are so poor these days, very telling of the times I think. The most important thing is to build up a presence online. Also don’t really think about it too much just continue to do what you love – it will become infectious if it looks like you’re enjoying yourself online and really really revelling in all this poetry or whatever it is your trying to promote.

I definitely agree with that about it becoming infectious. I think letters live reaches out to such a wide audience, it is a truly beautiful event. As someone who doesn’t come from a classic English literature background, what’s the core appeal of letter writing for you?

Well it’s a combination. I love the fact that you can learn about certain moments in history through letters – certain moments in history that you wouldn’t know about were it not for letters or moments in history that you see from a different viewpoint, from somebody that was actually involved like a first person view. I love the fact that these letters also show you a different side to people that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen, so for instance someone like Queen Elizabeth II. You never see her personal side really and then you see a letter she wrote to the US President with a recipe and it really kind of changes your view of people. There’s another one from Iggy Pop and he wrote a beautiful letter to one of his fans who’s having a tough time and it just kind of showed me a different light. A different side of Iggy’s personality – in this day and age as we’re all succumbing to the digital communications and emails and twitter and it’s so bland you know? And then you see a letter that’s hand written and you can look at the stationery and the smudges and the character to the letter. Whereas these days it’s far too easy to write an email and just leave no stamp. So many things – we are losing it and becoming boring.

Do you think that’s why so many people have warmed to your project and wanted to be part of this, because that originality is actually reassuring? In terms of what’s been happening recently, everything has just become so uniform. For me that’s what I liked about it when I first saw it – I found it reassuring and interesting in that respect.

Definitely, it’s quite comforting. Also a lot of these letters – (I read so many collections of letters constantly and I’m always searching for the letters that are self-contained stories), don’t need too much context to enjoy them. So I love finding a letter that’s its own little story, its own little world and I just think it’s priceless – they are so easy to digest and it’s such a beautiful thing.

What’s your favourite letter? Or top three?

It changes all the time. The one I usually say is my favourite is there’s one written by a guy called Robert Pirosh who was a copywriter in the 1940s and he wanted to become a screenwriter. So he wrote a job application letter to all the directors he could find addresses for and it’s just the most perfect job application letter. Cause it’s such a hard letter to get right and make sexy. His letter is a lovely exploration of the English language and he went on to be very successful.

People are fascinated by these letters. Your original assertion about how valuable this exploration is on moments of human nature and what we learn about people – I think that’s very valid, and all the fans definitely do as well. But logistically and practically, how do you source such amazing and archived letters? How did it come about?

The first thing I did was I went to the local library and I went to the section where all the biographies are and usually in every library there’s a few letter collections. This was in Manchester and in Manchester library they’ve got a big section on letters. I literally spent a few days, when I should have been working, just with these dusty old collections of letters – classics from Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson, Virginia Woolf; and just falling in love with it. But nowadays because the website’s been so popular I get a lot of suggestions from readers – a lot of people send me their own letters that they’ve received or that they’ve found or sent. I’ve got a network of archivists around the world now that I keep in touch with, as well as museum curators. There’s so much choice these days it’s actually quite difficult but what a great problem to have. So I get them from books, archives, museums, recipients and so on, loads of different places.

What would be your ideal library or archive to search?

The Harry Ransom center in Texas. It’s a University where they buy up loads of personal papers of people alive and dead. And they’ve got the biggest collection of letters you’ve ever heard of and it’s been my dream to go there for so long. I was meant to go there just a few months ago but because of a deadline I’ve got finishing Letters of Note Volume II I couldn’t go. But I’m desperate to get there. As soon as this books done I’m definitely going. They’ve also started buying up people’s email accounts as well.

That’s really surreal, digital correspondence such a recent idea now being archived too, we are constantly evolving in communication.

Yes but a sign of the times. The curators have realised that as letters aren’t being produced so much anymore we could start preserving emails as well.

What’s next for you?

The book is out at the end of this year. I’m really excited because I’ve been writing it for so long now.

How do you think Letters of Note is going to evolve?

After this I’m going to do a book about speeches – that’s something I’ve always wanted to do for a long time now and it will be in the same kind of style as Letters of Note. I’ve been tracking down all these drafts of amazing speeches – I’m going to be launching a website next year and probably a book

Letters Live as an event is a natural progression from the book which works perfectly but which do you prefer? Presenting your material on paper or being part of a live event?

As long as it promotes letters I’m happy but the event is a lovely event. These letters have gone from paper onto pixels and onto stage, it’s lovely to see them come to life read by people who really know how to do it properly, there’s nothing better, it’s always surreal but the best evening. So many people say ‘we can’t believe this hasn’t been done before.’ It’s the same as the website. It’s amazing that no one’s done this before because it really does translate well on stage and the atmosphere is amazing. If I wasn’t doing this as a career I would still be doing it anyway as a hobby!

You can find more information on Letters Live here.

By Tara Flynn