Have you ever written to an author whose work leaves you a little gobsmacked?
I did — first when I was 12 and at summer camp for eight weeks in the wilds of northern Ontario. I was deeply into American science fiction author Ray Bradbury, loving his The Illustrated Man and other collected stories. I needed to tell him how great he was! So I wrote him a letter, care of his New York City publisher, Ballantine.
Imagine my shock and delight when, within a week or two, I received a pale blue personalized card (which I still treasure!) from Los Angeles, hand-signed by one of the nation’s greatest writers, author of Fahrenheit 451, among many other classics. I had begged him to “please keep writing!” and he assured me that he would.
The card had his return home address. He was real!
It is hard to over-state the effect this speedy and generous gesture had on a young girl who lived to read and, even then, was winning prizes for her writing. That someone so famous and well-respected would even bother to read mail, let alone answer it personally…
So, at 20, I did it again, writing this time to John Cheever, another national legend (much more popular in the 1980s), praising his odd but moving novel, Falconer. I loved it. (The New York Times called it “one of the most important novels of our time.”) My enthusiasm, then, was hardly unique to me, some random young woman in Toronto.
He, too, wrote back promptly on personal stationery — he lived in Ossining, New York, a suburb about 30 miles north of Manhattan.
Traveling alone through Europe, reading his collected short stories, I kept encountering a phrase I did not understand: “to shoot one’s cuffs.”
So I wrote him back to ask what it meant. (Let me explain I was: a) on the road b) alone c) in Portugal where no one spoke English d) Google had not been invented!)
He answered again.
The world is a small and odd place for writers. His daughter, Susan Cheever, another writer, praised my first book — and I met his son, Ben, another author, last fall at a local library event while promoting my second book.
I now live a 15-minute drive south of Ossining.
Last week, a 12-year-old girl living in a midwestern city wrote me a letter — first introduced by her father (both of them total strangers to me) — asking if she might interview me by email for a class project on bullying; she’d found my USA Today essay on it.
Of course, I said, replying immediately. I gave her a long, detailed and personal answer to her thoughtful questions.
Classmates now see her “as rock star”, her Dad told me, for having gotten a twice-published author to help her out.
I was 12 when I first reached out — and felt the firm hand of a fellow writer, far, far away from me in age, accomplishment and geography meet me in return.
How could I not?
Have you ever written to someone whose creative work you admire?