WRITERS AT WORK: Letters, We Get Letters — and Lots of E-mail Too (Part 1)

REMINDER: Sandy and I asked for your comments on how you feel about this regular feature on my blog. Should we continue with WRITERS AT WORK or discontinue it at the conclusion of this month’s topic? So far we’ve read (and appreciated!) a small number of comments but to be honest we tend to see the lack of response as a response in itself. We haven’t yet reached our decision but this is the month of our final conclusion. If you have anything to say, pro or con, we would love to hear from you. Many thanks.

Hi everyone,

Another month, another Tuesday, another topic for WRITERS AT WORK. This time we chose to chat about the letters and e-mail we receive as part of the package of being a writer. Some notes are heart-warming. Some are humorous. Some? Well, it’s Sandy Asher’s turn to go first so read on!

Letters, We Get Letters – and Lots of Email, Too
Response 1 – Sandy
June 7, 2011

Mail, David. Think about what an important role it plays in the life of a writer.

You and I remember the days when we sent manuscripts off by First Class Mail (it was not yet called snail mail, or even Priority Mail) and waited impatiently each day for the sound of the mailman approaching our door (they were mailmen, not mail carriers). Our hearts sang when we found a white #10 business envelope holding an acceptance letter (and maybe even a check), or they plummeted at the sight of a large manila envelope bringing a rejected piece home to roost. After many (many, many) of those manila disappointments, the prized #10s showed up with more frequency. And a while after that, our work appeared in print, and a happy day’s mail included complimentary copies.

And after that, a new kind of mail began to arrive – letters from readers.

As a playwright, I sometimes get to attend performances of my plays and observe audiences responding to them – laughing at the funny parts, falling silent at serious moments, and applauding at the end. That’s encouraging! It makes me want to rush home and write another play. But authors of books never get to watch their readers enjoying their stories. Well, that’s not entirely true. I once saw a little girl sitting cross-legged in a supermarket cart, completely absorbed in TEDDY TEABURY’S FABULOUS FACT while being pushed up and down the aisles by her mom. But that was once. (And, no, I did not disturb her by introducing myself.) Normally, unless we’re in a classroom reading to children ourselves, we don’t hear the laughter or the attentive silence, and it’s not likely that even observed readers like the little girl in the cart would burst into applause upon finishing a book.

I don’t know about you, David, but sometimes I wonder: Is anybody really out there? If no one takes the time to drop me a note, I have no idea how my stories are being received. So when someone does write, it’s absolutely thrilling.

And sometimes funny. Or touching. Or . . . puzzling.

Whenever I speak to groups of children, I ask them how many have written to the author of a favorite book. It’s a great day when more than three raise their hands. We laugh about the fact that when I was their age, I thought all authors were dead. I’d never met a live one. Like dinosaur bones in museums, authors left books behind on library shelves that proved they’d once walked the face of the earth, but I no more expected meet a live author than a live dinosaur. So why would I write one a letter?

Then I tell them that’s why you and I developed the America Writes for Kids website, David – to show that real, live authors do still exist, and to provide access to information about them, including email addresses – so much easier than the old letter-to-the-publisher, and almost guaranteed to get a response. After each of these heartfelt pleas for improved correspondence, sometimes to hundreds of children in a day, I generally get one e-mail the very next morning. Maybe two. I tell myself other children in that group are writing to other authors linked to America Writes for Kids. Good for them! I tell myself that TV executives once concluded that every letter they received represented 20,000 people who felt the same way, 19,999 of whom never bothered to write. Small comfort, since authors deal in considerably smaller numbers, but comfort all the same.

Whatever I tell myself, the fact remains: That one child’s e-mail means a lot to me, and I promptly reply. I know each letter and e-mail means a lot to you, too, David, so I thought it might be fun for us to share some especially memorable examples of mail we’ve received over the years, electronic or snail. I hope other authors will chime in with favorites of their own. And I hope readers of any age will be inspired to drop a line to their favorite authors and prove that readers really are out there, enjoying their books.

I’ll lead off with a few examples of Most Unusual Correspondence this time, and move on to Most Touching Correspondence next time. In the Most Unusual category, I must begin with an e-mail received very recently from a woman who has so enjoyed sharing my book TOO MANY FROGS! with her fiancé and her 7-year-old daughter that she’s decided to make it the theme of her upcoming wedding. Can you imagine my surprise and delight when I turned on my computer that morning and opened that message? Froggie and Rabbit have been in books, on stage, and on tape and CD, even on tabletops during my presentations, but this will be the first time they’ve attended a wedding.

Somewhere at the other end of the spectrum lies a postcard received from someone who was planning to review another picture book, STELLA’S DANCING DAYS, but decided not to and wanted me to know why. “This book depicts irresponsible pet ownership,” she declared, “because Stella is allowed to roam free, meet another cat, and give birth to kittens.” All true, except the irresponsible part. My real pets are always neutered and never roam free. This book was my opportunity to pretend to raise a houseful of kittens. Stella’s babies will not add to the world’s cat overpopulation.

Sometimes, letters come in packets sent by teachers, usually after an elementary school visit. The Most Unusual, so far, had a bit of an edge to them. “Thank you for coming to our school,” announced the first. “I enjoy visits from authors, and you are one.” I passed muster just by writing a book and showing up! The other thank-you gave only qualified approval: “I enjoyed your visit, but I doubt anyone else did.” Both letters arrived in the same packet, so I had reason to believe this writer’s doubts were unjustified.

Bring them on, dear readers, e-mailed or scribbled in pencil, with or without hearts and flowers and characters from my books and portraits of yourself and your pets. I love them all! And I’ll bet you do, too, David. Let’s hear it for readers who write!