The other morning, I received an email from one of my readers. It began, “I just read your novel Into The Wilderness and I absolutely loved it as I really connected with it.” This reader explained how she grew up in New York City and was now married to a man from New Zealand, where they’d just spent the last year. They were back in the states with their four children, but she was in a quandary: the New Zealand lifestyle was better, she thought, but her children had better educational opportunities here. She signed off asking me what she should do: “Would love your advice if you have a chance to give it!”
There’s no question that fan mail is fantastic. I’ve been touched and humbled by letters and emails from readers, amazed at their generous response to my novel, and moved by the details they’ve shared about their lives. These letters remind me how intimate the act of reading is. I’m not just talking about those readers who’ve taken my book into bed with them, or read it in the bath (two of my favorite places); the intimacy I’m referring to is closer than that. The act of reading allows the writer’s imagination to infiltrate her reader’s mind, where the story is reconstituted and absorbed according to that reader’s experience and understanding. A good story gets under the reader’s skin.
Sometimes, what readers write gives me new insight into my story. More often, their letters reveal intimacies about themselves. One of my favorite letters was from a reader who compared herself to Rose, the main character in the book, who’s a feisty 64-year old. “I’m just like Rose,” she wrote. “What I say is what I mean and what you see is what you get.” Then she asked, “So where is my Percy?” referring to the leading man in the novel. When I read this, I laughed out loud. But I also felt the pain and frustration of a woman who wants to be loved just as she is.
Other letters have been filled with reader’s reminiscences of Vermont in the 1960’s, when the story takes place, or of their own stories about negotiating a new and strange location filled with unknown local customs, as Rose does when she moves from New York City. Others have written to me about the music in the book, or the politics, often offering me their memories of 1964, when the story is set.
Fan mail has taught me what an enormous responsibility it is to send a novel into the world, and never more so than this recent letter – which is the first to make a direct appeal for my advice. Of course I wrote back; I even gave her advice – but I didn’t tell her where to live. Instead, I suggested that she involve all members of her family in making this decision, and even engage an outside counselor to help facilitate the process.
My correspondent wrote back, telling me stories about life in New Zealand where, evidently, it’s customary for children to attend school barefoot. And she thanked me, signing off with, “Please, please write more!”
I didn’t earn much money from my first published novel, but I learned a lot about the huge responsibility it is to be a published author. And while I still hope to earn a living writing fiction, letters like this are worth the world.
Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com