Approaching Your Idol: Ray Bradbury Wrote To Somerset Maugham (Who Replied), And I Wrote To Bradbury (Who Replied)

Photo of Ray Bradbury.
Ray Brabdbury, one of my idols. Image via Wikipedia

If you ever dreamed of entering a specific profession, you might have found someone, even you were very young, who inspired you. If you were bold, and lucky, and wrote to them, they might have written you back:

Contact! Connection! Inspiration!

Ray Bradbury, whose work I discovered when I was 12 — and which so made me want to become a writer — did this when he discovered the work of British author Somerset Maugham.

From a recent story in The Wall Street Journal:

On an upstairs-corridor wall, for instance, hangs a sepia-tinted photograph of the English author W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). “He was a big influence,” says a white-thatched Mr. Bradbury, seated nearby like a benevolent wizard. “I loved his short stories, and I wrote him when I was 39 years old; I wrote a fan letter, and sent him my first book of stories. And Somerset Maugham wrote back and said: ‘I think Edgar Allan Poe would have liked some of these stories.’ Isn’t that a great thing for him to say?”

I was at summer camp way up north in Ontario when I wrote to Ray Bradbury, begging him to not stop writing, I so loved his work. I was 12, and hopefully mailed my letter to his Manhattan publisher, Ballantine. To my delighted shock, within a week or two, I received a blue paper personalized postcard from him (with his return address) with his felt-tip-pen signature — and his typewritten reassurance that he would, indeed, keep writing.

I treasured his card then, as I still do today. I wrote, twice, in my 20s, to John Cheever — whose former home lies about a 2o-minute drive north of mine — and he, graciously, wrote me back both times, also on personal stationery.

I simply couldn’t imagine writers of their stature and skill taking the time to read and answer, but they did. And that left an enormous impression on me. I was touched by their graciousness and, since then, have realized that the life of a writer — certainly pre-Internet and email! — can be an isolated one. Even though millions of readers enjoy your printed, published work, depending what you write and for whom, it’s rare for some to reach out and let you know that, and a treasured moment.

Every writer shares this: you put your bum in the chair (as Margaret Atwood told me, when I was the editor of our high school paper and she, a graduate of that school, became my first Big Name interview) — and write. It’s what we choose to do, but lonely. Hearing back from someone so insanely accomplished I remember the plot-lines of several of his short stories decades after reading them made me realize he, too, appreciated being appreciated.

Have you ever reached out, in gratitude and admiration, to someone well-known and accomplished whose work you distantly admire?

What happened?