April Spotlight: Letters in the Mail


Twice a month, The Rumpus brings your favorite writers directly to your IRL mailbox via our Letters in the Mail program.


April 1 LITM Erica Berry

Erica Berry is a writer and teacher based in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. Her nonfiction debut, Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear, was published by Flatiron and Canongate in early 2023. Other essays appear in Outside, The Yale Review, The Guardian, Literary Hub, The New York Times Magazine, Gulf Coast, and Guernica, among others. Winner of the Steinberg Essay Prize, she has received grants and fellowships from the Ucross Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and Tin House. 

The Rumpus: What book(s) made you a reader? Do you have any recent favorites you’d like to share?

Erica Berry: I recently read Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born, which was just longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and which I bought while teaching in the U.K. last summer, in part because I am just always drawn to what is hiding behind the stark white and blue of Fitzcarraldo Editions covers. I found it a totally propulsive novel, lyrically exploring the contradictions and societal pressures of motherhood, womanhood, etc. I was also stunned by The Story of a Brief Marriage, by Anuk Arudpragasam, which unfolds over just a few days in a Sri Lankan refugee camp amidst the civil war, with a granularity that was so gorgeously, delicately rendered in a very short book, while also raising larger questions of how we love amidst crisis. What does it mean, really, to tie ourselves to another body? I’d also be remiss not to mention a few wonderful nonfiction books: I was awed by the intellectual inquiry in Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, and am currently loving Doreen Cunningham’s researched memoir Soundings, about whales and migrations and family more broadly. 

Rumpus: How did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

Berry: I think of one day in middle school, when I was dreading a camping trip required for my whole class from school, and my father—he was in the driver’s seat—told me that it would be okay if it wasn’t all fun. In those moments, he said, I could think of myself like an anthropologist or a journalist, and thereby create a little distance from living the drama, I could be observing it instead. He told me he was looking forward for me coming back to tell him the stories I had learned. I already knew writing as a form of self-expression, but until then I had not understood that storytelling was also a way of making the world more bearable. Even things that were challenging to bear IRL could be made palatable—or at least a bit more legible—by wrestling them into story. I suppose I grew up feeling like I was always a bit too curious and too sensitive, and writing let me see both those things as assets. I was hooked. 

Rumpus: What’s a piece of good advice or insight you received in a letter or note?

Berry: My best friend from college and I have a very close, joke-y relationship, but our senior year, she slipped a note under my door explaining that the way I’d told a story about her at dinner had rubbed the wrong way, and she felt a bit hurt. I felt horrible, truly like the worst person, but, at the same time, overcome with gratitude—she knew our relationship could bear the honesty. I struggle with confrontation, and I was awestruck by how gracefully she’d pulled it off. For years I saved her note. It was a reminder of who I wanted to be as a friend—the sort of person who expected more from the people around me, and was always working to strengthen those ties.

Rumpus: Tell us about your most recent book? How do you hope it resonates with readers?

Berry: Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear is a weave of memoir, history, science, psychology, folklore and cultural criticism, telling three central stories: my own coming-of-age encounters with fear, the story of real wolves coming back into Oregon, and the legacy of ’symbolic wolves’ across time and space. When I started the book, I didn’t even consider myself an ‘animal person,’ and a part of me wanted to try and write a wolf book that made space for readers who might not think they would have any reason to read one. Whatever a reader’s preexisting relationship with wolves, I hope the larger life questions resonate: How do we evaluate our fears, and at what cost both to ourselves and to the world? How can we best share the world with one another, human and animal?

April 15 LITM Henriette Lazaridis

Henriette Lazaridis’ novel Terra Nova (Pegasus Books, 2022) was called “ingenious” and “provocative” by the New York Times. Her debut novel The Clover House was a Boston Globe bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her short work has appeared in publications including Elle, Forge, Narrative Magazine, The New York Times, New England Review, The Millions, and more, and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. Henriette earned degrees in English literature from Middlebury College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania. Having taught English at Harvard, she now teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and runs the Krouna Writing Workshop in Greece. She writes the Substack newsletter The Entropy Hotel, at henriettelazaridis.substack.com. For more, visit www.henriettelazaridis.com.

The Rumpus: What book(s) made you a reader? Do you have any recent favorites you’d like to share?

Henriette Lazaridis: I still have my copy of James Ramsay Ullman’s Banner in the Sky, and you can tell from how beat up it is that I read it and over and over. I loved that book. I imagined myself as Rudi, the main character who climbs a mountain that’s a lot like the Matterhorn to succeed on the climb that killed his father. I loved to hike, and this mountain climbing adventure captured my imagination and got me into reading all sorts of other adventure books, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

Among the many recent wonderful books I’ve read, I keep going back to Shrines of Gaiety, by Kate Atkinson. It’s not my favorite of hers, but it’s her latest, and it filled my need to be in the presence of her narrator once again–a narrator who does things I don’t think I’ve seen any other narrator quite do. Reading Atkinson is almost painful, she’s so good. It’s like speaking a language you know you can communicate in but whose real meaning keeps eluding you.

Rumpus: How did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

Lazaridis: I talked the talk starting in middle school, and wrote for the school magazines and all that. I left my career in academia after fifteen years to return to fiction writing. But I didn’t really understand that that was what I wanted to do until I’d gotten yet one more letter in a stream of rejections and decided to burn all my manuscripts (Really. I looked up the regulations for a bonfire in your backyard and I was good to go.). I got some excellent advice from those who best knew me, and I didn’t light that bonfire. I realized I had to go all in, no hedging bets, no self-sabotage, no easy way out, if I wanted to really call myself a writer.

Rumpus: What’s a piece of good advice or insight you received in a letter or note?

Lazaridis: I can quote it by heart. It was one of the pieces of excellent advice I got, from my then husband, when I was trying to figure out if I should just quit this whole writing thing. “You can’t burn to reach a dream while seeking to protect yourself in case of failure.” Dammit, he was right.

Rumpus: Tell us about your most recent book? How do you hope it resonates with readers?

Lazaridis: Terra Nova is about two Antarctic explorers in 1910 and the woman back in London who loves them both. While the men are racing to be first to the South Pole, Viola aims at new achievements of her own, as a photographer and artist involved in the suffrage movement. The book explores questions of ambition and rivalry and kinds of love. I would hope readers would come away from the novel asking themselves how far would they go to achieve their own ambitions? How much would they be willing to sacrifice–and to ask others to sacrifice–in order to reach their goals?

Rumpus: What is your best/worst/most interesting story that involves the mail/post office/mailbox? 

Lazaridis: During my childhood summers visiting my family in Greece, I’d go to the local kiosk and buy that week’s edition of the Mickey Mouse comic, in Greek. My grandmother and I would read it together, with the images helping me figure out the words. When I went back to the States for the school year, my grandmother would send me those comics from Athens every week, to help me keep up with my reading. (Greek was my first spoken language but the second one I learned to read.) Those comics came like clockwork, delivered in brown wrapping paper to my mailbox in New England, decorated with an array of Greek stamps, week after week. I loved the stamps, I loved the comics, but most of all, I loved having mail addressed to me–just me–every single week.