The Lost Manuscript: A Love Letter to Books

An author interview with Cathy Bonidan


(St. Martin’s Press, January 2021)

by Authorlink columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

In THE LOST MANUSCRIPT, Anne-Lise Briard finds and reads an abandoned manuscript with a mysterious address on it. As Briard seeks to discover the author of the manuscript she unravels a thirty-year-old mystery and forges connections between the people whose lives the manuscript has touched.

Author Cathy Bonidan discusses the creation of her novel and her own path to becoming an author.

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. How did the idea for THE LOST MANUSCRIPT come to you?

“I began to write The Lost Manuscript on April, the 25th of 2016 as a farewell to my dreams of ever being published.”

BONIDAN: I began to write The Lost Manuscript on April, the 25th of 2016 as a farewell to my dreams of ever being published. A few months earlier, I had won a literary contest hosted by a website. During the award ceremony, Marie Leroy, who is a publisher at the French publishing house La Martinière, offered to publish my first novel, Le Parfum de l’Hellébore. It was an extraordinary moment for me, a childhood dream come true. But at the beginning of 2016, I did not know a thing about how a publishing house works, and, after several months without anybody contacting me, I thought that she had changed her mind, that my manuscript would never become a real book. It was to forget this disappointment that I decided to throw myself in the adventure of a lost and never published manuscript.

There is a good side to the story: I was halfway through writing the novel, when I finally signed the publishing agreement for my first book.

AUTHORLINK: You tell the story through multiple points of view. Why was this kaleidoscopic approach the best choice for this novel?

BONIDAN: This approach came to me when I chose the epistolary form. Because I was writing on behalf of each character, their life, their past, their fears and their doubts all became my own. I appreciated to be able to plunge into the intimate details of their lives, to able to be a man, a woman, an author, a prisoner… When you write for your character, you are struck by every single feeling he or she has and the emotion is right there, at every moment.

Moreover, this form was a way to emphasize the manuscript, to make it the center of the general interest. I really loved the idea of several encounters around one book.

AUTHORLINK: What drew you to the epistolary form? What were the benefits and drawbacks of telling the story this way?

BONIDAN: I have always loved writing letters. Most of the time without even sending them. The gap between the moment when you write and the moment when you put the letter in the box allows you to give yourself up completely, since, until the end, you keep this fundamental choice: whether or not to mail the letter you are writing. The advantage of such a form of writing lies in the characters’ honesty, which is reinforced in this novel by the fact that, for the most part, they did not know each other before writing. At the beginning of the book, they even think they will never meet and it is clear that one confides much more easily in strangers…

The difficulty of the epistolary form is of course to keep the rhythm of the plot, to create a construct which will give the reader the desire to know the end of the story. Without a normal narrative structure, it is undoubtedly more difficult to maintain the suspense.

AUTHORLINK: What authors and stories influenced your writing of these stories?

 BONIDAN: The first epistolary book that made an impression on me was 84 Charing Cross Road, which depicts the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a New York writer, and Frank Doel, a London bookseller. Years later, I was delighted to discover The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a novel written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I had kept in mind how great it must be to write an entire book in epistolary form. In the Le Parfum de l’Hellébore, I had already used this process, but on a very punctual way. The letters were intertwined with the other parts of the narrative.

“…as I was writing the novel, I got carried away by the style…”

When I decided to make The Lost Manuscript start with an exchange of letters, I didn’t know if I would keep this form until the end. But as I was writing the novel, I got carried away by the style, which seemed to be the most suitable way to establish quick and sincere contacts between the protagonists.

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing the novel and how did you overcome them?

BONIDAN: The biggest challenge when writing the novel was self- imposed. I chose to publish the letters day by day on the same website that had given me an award and helped me to get in touch with a publisher a few months before. Since I had no plan and still didn’t know what would happen to the lost manuscript and the characters, it was also a form of a play, a game, a real challenge. As soon as a letter was written, it was posted on the website, instantaneously – taking into consideration, of course, the mail collection times, and the letter carrier’s rounds. Since readers had access to it as I went along, I could not change anything and had to continue with what I had already written. No corrections, no going back. A bit like in the real life: we move on with our story and we all have to behave according to our actions in the past. As for overcoming this challenge, only the reader will be able to say if I succeeded.

 AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your choice to put a novel at the heart of the story. What does this say about the power of words in regard to love and community?

BONIDAN: I believe in the power of words, perhaps in an excessive way, but I think they can change everything. They have more power than the acts themselves because every single event can be described in a thousand ways depending on the author who is describing it.

As for novels, they have always been with me. Reading and writing are the only activities that can bring me out of sadness, to make me forget about the world’s reality when I need to. There are some books that have become companions at certain times in my life just as certain characters have become my friends and helped move forward when it wasn’t easy. As for encounters, I believe more and more that they are fostered by the love of books. Since I frequent book fairs and book signings, I find that I can have very deep discussions or unexpectedly sincere moments with strangers. Only because the common love we have for novels brings us together. It’s like a recognition between readers…

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?

BONIDAN: As far as I’m concerned, working with an editor is essential because they are usually the first person to read my manuscript. When I finish a book, I do not touch the text for a while. Then I read the story one more time, just to be sure it is understandable. Then, Marie (my editor) gives me her first impressions. No one in my family or close friends reads what I write before she does. Hence, I am in total uncertainty about how good my novel is until I receive her opinion… So you can imagine how important this first feedback is!

For The Lost Manuscript, it was quite different because it was not aimed at publication when I was writing it. Remember, I started it believing that my publisher had given up on publishing my first novel and that my books would remain Word files forever. I had already written the half of the book when I learned that my book was about to be in bookshops. It was such a relief when I heard the news and The Lost Manuscript took another direction: I decided to change the end of the story.

The editing process is also vital. As my first reader, Marie warned me about characters who were backwards and who could be more present, how incomprehensible their reactions may be for the reader when I have insufficiently described their past. I remember that this was the case for Sylvester, the author of the lost manuscript. While his personality was fully detailed in my mind, his character lacked consistency on paper.

And there are also some jubilant moments. Just like when Marie is in the middle of reading the novel and I realize by her remarks that she hasn’t anticipated the ending at all and that she’s going to be completely surprised.

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you offer to apprentice writers on craft? On staying encouraged?

“Even after the final word, I keep asking myself about where the story came from.”

BONIDAN: I am an apprentice novel writer myself so if you have any good advice, I’d be glad to hear it.

All I can say about my limited writing experience is that you should never write while thinking of the reader. If you want sincerity to happen, you need to lock yourself into a bubble with your characters and start living with them, and maybe even becoming them. To put it in a nutshell, you need to forget about yourself. When I am writing, I am not a writer, certainly not. I do not think about the style nor the credibility of what I say. I am a mere spectator and I go along with my characters during their adventures, I wonder why they react the way they do, I try to understand their choices. Even after the final word, I keep asking myself about where the story came from.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

BONIDAN: I am currently finishing a new novel and, obviously, I don’t know if the story makes sense nor if it will ever be published. Marie hasn’t read it yet and you are the first ones I’ve told about it.

The main character was born one evening while I was watching a literary program. To take a phone call, I had to turn off the sound of the television, but I left the picture on. As I hung up, I looked at the author who was talking about his book and, in the silence of my living room, just in front of my eyes, he began to tell something else through his eyes, his attitude, his movements. Unable to hear what he was saying, I imagined what he was thinking. He was a newspaper reporter who had just written a novel, and that evening he became the main character of my story.

He got me into a story about an attack that I was not prepared for and I am still wondering about the relevance of this subject. I will wait for my editor’s feedback to know if this book can be read by others than me.

Cathy Bonidan works as a teacher in Vannes and has been writing since the age of 14. Her debut novel, The Perfume of Hellebore Rose, won 11 literary awards in France.