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How To Tell A Story Through Emails


Twins Matilda and Harry are close. Matilda is a wedding photographer. She's a hypochondriac, a failed artist, and she's prone to lies - little ones and really big ones. Harry is a professor - unpublished, untenured, and, as it turns out, unscrupulous, not unlike his twin Matilda. They are both 35. Rachel Hulin's new novel - it's called "Hey Harry, Hey Matilda" - is the story of these siblings. It's told through their emails and charts and graphs and drawings. What emerges is something very weird, very surprising, very, very funny and just a little bit icky.

Rachel Hulin joins us from her home in Rhode Island. Thanks for being here.

RACHEL HULIN: Thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So this novel begins with a lie. Tell us the lie. It's Matilda that told it. It's sort of like the catalyst for the novel.

HULIN: Yeah. The first lie is just a mistake that tumbles out, and Matilda is dealing with it. She tells a boyfriend that she has a dead twin. And it turns out that the boyfriend also has a dead twin, which is unfortunate for her because she is immediately stuck in that situation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I have to say - when I read that, who would kill off their twin? What does that say about who she is in your mind?

HULIN: I don't know. You know - well, I do know. I feel that she is trying to be a more interesting person to those around her. And she's sort of deeply insecure, and she gets performative. And she had too much to drink, and she just blurted this out. In any case, it's - becomes a big problem for her to get out of.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that's so interesting about these two characters - and it's done in this form - right? - of these letters or emails back and forth between these two siblings - is the intimacy that there is between them and the knowledge that siblings have and twins have. Describe to me, in your viewpoint, you know, who are these two characters? Who is Harry, and who is Matilda?

HULIN: Well, they're both sort of at this late stage of child adulthood that a lot of people are in in New York, I think, when they're in their late 20s, early 30s. And they're really trying to figure out who they're going to be. There's a lot of societal pressure to have families and partners and careers and do good for the world.

Harry is a professor in Connecticut. And they're both creatives. One of them, Harry, is a writer, and Matilda is a photographer. And so they're very similar, and they're sharing their stories of trying to be successful career-wise and also figure out what the next step for them is. And I think they're deeply anxious about what those steps will be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they're very funny. I want to read a section that kind of gets at their dynamic. They seem sort of very broken and weird, but they have this back-and-forth that's quite telling.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Harry, my favorite emotion is shame because it's the one I can deal with the least and the one that comes up the most. Thanks for asking.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) Matilda, I didn't need to ask because I knew that already.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Harry, oh, well, did you know I've never made myself a sandwich?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) Matilda, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Harry, say something mean to me so I can react badly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) Matilda, tomorrow I'll tell you the dream I had, and you won't be in it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Harry, jerk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, very irreverent, the kinds of interactions that you would have with your sibling that other people might not see. Let's talk a little bit about how this novel came about. I mean, it is the first, as I understand it, Instagram novel that actually started in that form and then made its way to publishing and not possibly vice versa or in other formations.

HULIN: It's had, like, really a weird life so far, I would say. It began as a blog that I started called "Harry and Matilda." And it was really just, like, a way for Matilda to get some things off her chest, and Harry would sort of come in and absolve her of things. And then I put it away. I ended up doing a children's book and then, years later, coming back to this idea, realizing it was sort of sitting there and I wanted to make it into a full manuscript.

And so I did that. I wrote a full manuscript really quickly, and it was sort of missing something, I felt like. So I - being a photographer-writer, I'm always trying to figure out exactly which medium I want to work in. So I decided to shoot pictures for the project. And so I spent a full summer casting the book, basically. I found some friends to be Harry and Matilda, and I put them in a tree. And I made a website for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you have all these curated photographs, you know - a pair of painted toenails, a book of stories accompanied by emails. It has this entire life on Instagram.

HULIN: Yeah. And then a friend of mine, who is a publicist, said you should put it on Instagram. And it immediately really worked. And I think it's a testament to what words and images together can do and what added dimension that is. And it was really incredible to see because people were emailing Matilda with questions about their own creative lives.

And it was almost like PostSecret. Like, people were sending me their deepest, darkest secrets and lies because I think, obviously, they were really relating to Matilda and Harry getting themselves into sticky situations. And that's what I love about Matilda. She's, like, so flawed, and she admits it (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think this is the future of how books could be given birth to? I mean, people have been looking for a long time on how to meld social media and novels and art.

HULIN: No, I'm thinking so much about that. It seems so obvious to have serialized things. I think people are taking in literature in much smaller, bite-sized pieces. I think people are so visually literate now in a way they weren't five years ago. Even a year ago, when I started this project on Instagram, most people's pictures did not have captions. I think it's just sort of an obvious way to move literature, and it was a really fun way for me to explore this story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think Matilda and Harry remain sympathetic? They're really this mix of unlikable, charming. Do you think people can sort of embrace them fully?

HULIN: I think some people can. I mean, a friend of mine read the book and said, you know, I could never stay angry with Matilda for very long. But I'm sure other people will stay angry with them. And I think that in itself is interesting. I think that they bring up a lot of shame for people. I think that some people just find it icky. Definitely, people have strong reactions to this book one way or another, which is fascinating and, I think, sort of important and good. You know, I think thinking about taboos and doing the wrong thing and how that makes us feel is important. So I'm choosing to embrace that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rachel Hulin's book is called "Hey Harry, Hey Matilda."

Thanks so much for being with us.

HULIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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