This story about Kurt Vonnegut writing to a student is an old story, but it came across my Facebook feed again today and it got me thinking.
I remember when I was in 5th grade, my language arts class went down to the school library and we got into the Contemporary Authors books in the reference section (I remember them being blue). We had to pick a YA author (though back then the term “YA” didn’t really exist) and write to the author. Took most of us a while to find an author, and even longer to figure out how to contact the author through the publisher or agent. I wasn’t even really aware of that intermediary at the time, though of course I must have been because of the way you had to address the letter. In my head, I was writing a letter directly to an author, and I didn’t have any literary ambitions at the time but I was a voracious reader and authors seemed like wizards, like rulers, like mythical beings. The idea that I could write a letter they would read astounded and thrilled me.
Of course, I don’t remember who I picked to write to. The copies of Contemporary Authors were as limited as our time in the library, and the volume I managed to get my hands on didn’t contain any of the authors I wanted to write to (Louise Fitzhugh, Katherine Paterson, Judy Blume), so when the teacher ordered us to hurry up and write down an address do we could return to the classroom, I just picked the first vaguely interesting entry I found and scribbled a name and address. She was so elderly I wasn’t even sure she was still alive, and I’d never read anything by her, and when I went back later to search the catalogue for her work, I couldn’t find anything in our library. So I was a but dumbfounded as to what to write, but I wrote her. I think I must have asked her the usual questions: where did she get her ideas, what was she working on next.
Some of my classmates got back quick replies, often pre-scripted notes with a stamped signature but sometimes the real deal. My reply took ages, and when it came, it came from the publisher, who informed that sure enough, my author had died some years before.
So much for sage authorial advice.
A couple of years later, I did take it into my head to write a novel, and I attempted it during “sustained silent writing time” in Mrs. Hoffmann’s 7th-grade English class. I didn’t finish it, but I got the page count into the hundreds. Then I switched to short stories and poems in high school, and in college, I tried another novel, a bad Anne Rice pastiche with a vampire.
I wrote Anne Rice. Never got a reply, nor did I expect one, but shortly afterward, I visited New Orleans on spring break and, using nothing but her Witching Hour series of novels as my tour guide, I managed to find her Garden District mansion. A guard stood in a little booth out by the road, and when I approached the house he stepped out of the booth to intercept me, which I expected.
“I don’t suppose she’s in right now, is she,” I said.
“No,” he said. Then he recognized something in my face and added, “And to be honest, even if she was, she wouldn’t come down to meet you.”
“I understand,” I said.
“But I tell you what,” he said, and he reached into the booth and handed me a photograph of Anne Rice with her signature embossed in gold ink. I tucked it into my copy of her novel and thanked him and kept exploring New Orleans.
Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to study with a few authors and to meet a lot more, so the only times I’ve been tempted to write fan mail, it’s taken the form of emails and, later, Facebook messages. Some I’ve met in person at conferences — this past spring, at AWP in Seattle, I gushed like a fool when I spotted Roxane Gay leaving the bookfair. But most of the writers whocan count me as a fan I know enough to contact them online.
But I’m thinking that we’ve lost something in the writing of old-fashioned letters to authors we admire. Or, at least, I feel like I’ve lost something. I sometimes wonder whether it would be cool or not to send an old-fashioned letter and tell an author thanks for their work.
For that matter, I wonder who except the Big Names out there still get legitimate “fan mail” these days. I don’t know how that would go over anymore — the more public our lives become online, the more concerned we become with our offline privacy, and rightly so. Still. I’m sure it’s nice to know when you have a reader out there who loves your work, not because they want anything from you or are caught up in the celebrity of you but just because they’re a reader who loves to read.
I suppose these days that kind of interaction happens most often — and maybe best — in the form of online reviews, on blogs and on bookseller sites. Because authors do pay attention to those things. But I’m curious: when’s the last time you read something and thought, “I sure wish the author knew how much I loved this”?
Did you go to the author’s website and leave a polite comment? Did you email the publisher or the magazine and ask them to pass along your compliments?
If you did, did you get a reply?
And if you haven’t, what’s stopping you?