When a writer writes you back…

English: Ray Bradbury autograph.
Image via Wikipedia

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?

What happened?

19 thoughts on “When a writer writes you back…

  1. Creative work, not really, but when I was six I sent a letter to the White House, and President Clinton responded. I ruled show and tell for the rest of primary school.

  2. This post reflects a very recent personal experience I had.

    I just opened a Twitter account for the first time, added two of my favorite writers available and started sending them 120 character long thanks and congratulations. And they replied! I was thrilled that they answered and even laughed at some of my jokes, so I can’t begin to imagine how amazing it must’ve been to go through that same experience at a young, impressionable age and at that point in time.

  3. I wrote to Jimmy Stewart, and never heard back. I was heartbroken. His people could’ve at least sent a photo, don’t you think?
    I was having a depressing writing spell a couple years ago and wrote to Molly Gloss. She wrote back with warm encouragement.
    It does make a difference. How kind of you to keep passing it forward.

  4. I wrote an email to an author from a conference who inspired me. She wrote back and we ended up starting a writer’s group together. She also helped me with my first major publication. It is well worth it to write to those who inspire you because you never know what could happen! Thanks for the post!

  5. Meghan

    I love this story – especially this phrase: “The card had his return home address. He was real!” I have always loved reading and literature, and I totally relate to the idea of an author you respect being up on this pedestal – they almost seem unattainable or unreachable. I am green with envy about your encounter with the author of Fahrenheit 451; I have always loved that book.
    Where in Portugal were you visiting? I had the chance to travel through Lisbon briefly and absolutely want to go back- it is unique from anywhere else I’ve visited in Europe.
    Keep up the good writing! πŸ™‚

    1. He is such a talented writer. I couldn’t imagine anyone of that stature making time to answer a kid, but it was so gracious.
      I spent about 3 weeks in Portugal, alone, starting in Lisbon; Sintra, Evora, Beja…Loved it and would to go back. Sintra is like entering a dream. One of my favorite museums anywhere is the Calouste Gulbenkian, in Lisbon…hope you had a chance to visit it.

  6. Belongum

    I wish I’d written to Gerald Durrell Caitlin… his childhood adventures on the Greek island of Corfu had me imagining that I too was a salt-water – come bumpy island – explorer! “My family and other animals” had me snickering to myself many times over. Oh the looks I used to get! My friends and I spent every daylight hour exploring the rock pools, reef, beach and dunes associated with the area we grew up in. We’d spend so much time doing it – sometimes we’d forget to eat! I learned much about how entertaining words could be through Gerald Durrell. To my mind then – he was phenomenal!

    Here’s the thing though: my experiences then – as a young Aboriginal boy in the place I grew up – didn’t allow me to feel like I had the RIGHT to write to such a man. I was just a blackfella kid in a predominantly whitefella town and these things simply weren’t encouraged back there then. So – I never did it. Such a shame – as I know better now. In fact you’ve now given me an idea for a blog mate: good job! πŸ™‚

    I did in fact write to Barry Heard a few years back, wishing to thank him for his book “Well Done Those Men!” His memoir of National Service, his experience as a digger (Australian soldier) in the Vietnam war and. his subsequent life surviving the post-traumatic after affects of this experience – was simply one of the most moving accounts I have ever read.

    He replied and did so in such a positive and personable way – that I smiled such a big smile for days! I hope to meet the man one day – as I know a few fellas who also know and served with him. My military background and my (very small) experiences compared to some had me identifying with Barry in many ways. He was (and I guess still is) such a humble writer when recounting his experiences in his post Vietnam life. I felt like his writing reached deep inside me a touched a spot I’d been protecting for a very long time. I felt human again and only because this man laid his soul bare for all to see.

    So there you go… I’ll do it again I hope – we’ll see! πŸ˜‰

  7. LOVE!!!!!! Gerald Durrell…It was he, before Bradbury, who made me desperate to write with 1/12977 the skill he brought to “My Family and Other Animals.” :-))))

    I was forever in terrible trouble at boarding school during study hall (when I hid it inside my [ugh] math textbook) — and was snorting and hooting at…equations?! Oh, the confiscations. The scene with the scorpion in the matchbox? OMG.

    I still remember his luscious descriptions of the natural world and what wonder he brought to the smallest moments. I have been dying to visit Corfu ever since.

    How sad you didn’t feel it was OK to write earlier, but I can see that — and how great you did, and that Barry wrote back. Unless someone is a HUGE star, I think they/we are so thrilled to learn that our words or ideas have resonated that of course you’d write back.

    Without an (appreciative) audience a writer is really, I think, wasting time.

    I love hearing from you, Mr. B….thanks for weighing in.

    1. How rude of me Caitlin… I’ve been too busy trying to keep up with my renovations at home.

      Wow! You too? How groovy i that! I love how a casual ‘yarn’ like this connects people – the world over. I was in my early teens when I discovered Mr Durrell and as you might suspect – the irony that lay in a white middle class Englishman opening up the world and wonders hidden inside of books – to the likes of me (then – a young blackfella kid in country WA – not able to hope for that sort of opportunity in our schools here at that time) well… it was something that I came to appreciate when I was a little older and reading his books for the fourth of fifth time.

      I still see the world in much the same way as I did – tripping over it with Gerald Durell. I too wanted to travel to Corfu and see where he’d lived his younger life and I’ve wondered all these years where his family ended up – especially Larrry! Haha

      Wow… well there you go!

      Cheers mate…

  8. Never really written to anyone, as such, but I have, just this month, been mingling with Magnum photographers – Magnum Photos held a workshop here during FotoFreo, which is a highly regarded photo festival held right here in Western Australia. I was first selected to attend this 2 years ago, and my tutor then was Trent Parke, Australia’s only Magnum photographer.

    Imagine my absolute delight when, 2 years down the line, I call out to him at a big exhibition opening (for another Magnum photographer incidentally, Martin Parr), and he recognised me.

    And then immediately reverted back to groupie form by asking if I could take a picture with him (to which he agreed).

    Been meeting quite a few of the famous in the photo scene this month, and also held my first exhibition, so still feeling quite the rock star πŸ˜‰

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