Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Weekend Assignment #328: Writing to Writers (Mostly)

Fan Mail? Yes, I've written fan mail. So glad you asked!

Weekend Assignment #328: Fan Letters

How about a lighter topic this week? Let's talk about FAN LETTERS. I have never personally written one, because the one time I attempted to, it came off, well, sounding kinda weird! LOL. Apparently I have NO talent for them at all! Nope. Nope. Nope. But how about you? Have you ever written a successful FAN LETTER? If so, tell us about your experience. Did you hear back from the celebrity? Was it a positive experience? Tell us all about it.

Extra Credit: Write a one paragraph FAN LETTER to your favorite celebrity.

I suppose most people who write fan letters address them to actors, but that hasn't been my pattern:
  • I wrote to the Laugh-In tv series as a whole circa 1969 when I was 12 years old, and got a few photos and a contract in return (for joke submissions to a spin-off game show, Letters to Laugh-In). I think I asked for autographs from "everyone involved." "Everyone," based on the response, was pretty much just Gary Owens. I've long since lost that photo, and doubt it was really autographed. But I still have the contract!
  • When Wayne Rogers announced he was leaving M*A*S*H on the grounds that his character Trapper John was not being given equal prominence with Alan Alda's Hawkeye, I wrote and tried to talk him out of this, citing several episodes that centered on Trapper. I don't think I ever heard back.
  • a package from Harlan, 2005.In 1975, as editor of a local Star Trek zine and, more importantly, because he was my favorite writer at the time, I wrote to Harlan Ellison, author of the Star Trek story "The City on the Edge of Forever" as well as a slew of highly-imaginative, award-winning short stories. He replied promptly, with a letter that I mislaid a few decades ago but which may yet turn up. I wrote to Harlan a second time, asking permission to publish his prior letter in 2-5YM. He gave permission, advised me on securing speaking engagements at Syracuse University and the folly of living in Los Angeles without a car, and closed with "I don't have time for correspondence. Please." I still have that letter. I've met him a number of times since those two pieces of mail, first when he spoke at Syracuse University (imagine that!) and we took him out to dinner, later when John and I met at the Clarion Writer's Workshop where Harlan was teaching, and most recently when he was given the SFWA Grand Master Award in Tempe, AZ a few years ago. He's a fascinating and maddening person, and my small acquaintance with him began with two fan letters from a recent high school graduate.
  • In July, 1986, after reading Ellis Weiner's excellent novelization of the flawed-but-fun film Howard the Duck, John and I wrote to praise the book and to ask whether he was Steve Gerber (creator of the Howard character) writing under a pseudonym. We got an appreciative and funny reply in return, which I still have in my autographs binder. Weiner now writes funny stuff on Huffington Post, among other venues.
  • About the same time as the Weiner letter, I wrote to artist and editor Dick Giordano, then in charge of DC Comics, objecting to the jettisoning of decades of story continuity in order to "reboot" the stories of Superman and other major characters. His form letter reply had a long, individualized postscript, defending the decision on the basis of sales, but doing so in a fairly gracious way. All these years later, I still think the short-term gain in sales was not worth what DC did to its characters in that era and since. I concede that it can be hard to keep the stories "fresh" after 50 years or longer, but I don't think in helps to press a reset button every few years and simply start over. How many origin stories does one character need?
  • Also in 1986, I wrote to writer Madeleine L'Engle because I was having theological and literary difficulty with her use of Noah and his family in her most recent book about the Murry family, Many Waters. As it happened, her husband had just died of cancer, but she added a postscript to a form letter about her bereavement, explaining briefly that there was nothing wrong with using the Ark "myth," as she called it, in a fantasy novel, and quoting Karl Barth: "I take the Bible much too seriously to take it literally." Heady stuff! 
  • 1986 was the year that John and I tried to write for a living rather than hold down conventional jobs, which perhaps explains why so many of the entries on this list are from that year. I also wrote to writer Damon Knight that summer, but that was more of a business letter. So was my letter to Martin Milner, requesting clarification on a few questions I had been reluctant to ask when we interviewed him that earlier in the year.

In the early 2000s I wrote to Madeleine L'Engle a few more times, offering her condolences on the death of her son and telling her about the website I maintained about her books. I also sent some photos to Harlan Ellison at his request in 2005 so he could make copies of them. But that's about it for snail mail to celebrities. My most recent contacts with writers I admired have been online. After the publication of the original and revised editions of The Writer's Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook, I wrote to Ben Cook via Facebook and got a nice reply each time. And just in the past week or two I wrote to another Doctor Who Magazine journalist, Andrew Pixley, for a truly pleasant and informative swapping of ideas and anecdotes about the history of fan research about the show. Good stuff!

I always wanted to send a letter to Thurl Ravenscroft, the basso profundo behind the song You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch, the character Tony the Tiger, and, for more important to me, a long list of Disney shows and attractions. He died of cancer a few years ago, but I still have a cheap Tony costume I intended to get autographed. Which reminds me: I did get around to writing to Fess Parker in the early 2000s, and got an autograph back. He's dead now as well.

Another writer whose work I love is also on the short list of people who died before I got around to writing to them. Every time a Douglas Adams Hitchhiker's Guide book came out, I inevitably started writing a letter to him in my head, and occasionally onto a computer drive. But I never quite managed to say anything cogent enough, witty enough, or interesting enough to make it worth sending.
    Finally, I've never written a fan letter to any of the actors who played the Doctor on Doctor Who, unless you count a brief by-mail interview with Colin Baker. I've interviewed four of these actors, but no fan mail. Yet for years I've been writing a letter to David Tennant in my head, on the grounds that he was my favorite Doctor, the best actor of the lot, and by all accounts a nice man. The urgency to get this letter out of my head and over the the BBC has faded considerably this year, because his successor in the role, Matt Smith, is so outstanding as the Doctor that he threatens to take over the top spot in my affections. With that in mind, here is my fake but heartfelt letter to Matt Smith for the Extra Credit:

    Dear Mr. Smith:

    As an American who has been a Doctor Who fan since 1988 and interviewed four of your predecessors in the role, I never expected David Tennant to become "my Doctor," which he did over the course of his tenure. I expected even less for you to win me over completely in the first minutes of "The Eleventh Hour" this past spring. You had me from the moment you popped out of the crashed TARDIS and asked, "Can I have an apple?" Your Doctor is youthful and ancient, funny and sorrowful, brilliant and clueless, and always a joy to watch. How do you manage to look and act over 900 years old, when you yourself have not yet hit the tender age of 30? I just can't figure it out. What I do understand is that you are truly amazing in this role, which you were seemingly born to play. If forced to choose a favorite Doctor today I strongly suspect I'd choose yours, and your performance as well. May you have a long and happy tenancy in that ancient, brand new blue box!



    Florinda said...

    I loved your extra credit. Believe it or not, we are JUST starting to watch Doctor Who, so we came on board with Matt Smith. But given your long history with the Doctor, I'm very glad he meets with your approval!

    We're still trying to figure out some of the show's history - can you suggest any good crash-course sources?

    Stephen Watkins said...

    As both a fantasist/occasional student of mythology and a believer (in this context, a believer of the judeo-christian variety), I have to say I can't disagree with Madeliene's characterization of the Noah story - nor of any other judeo-christian story, allegorical, mythical, or otherwise.

    To paraphrase C. S. Lewis - Christianity is a mythology that just happens to be true. But, for being true, that doesn't make it any less mythological. And, as a writer of fantasy, to me that makes it just as ripe for mining as any other mythology (or perhaps moreso, because that the prevalence of judeo-christian mythological motifs in society means that stories that tap and mine those motifs will be more potent to readers). Obviously, YMMV, but those are my thoughts on the issue.

    And kudos to you for being such a prolific fan-letter writer - and, for that matter, for being able to translate that into a level beyond mere fandom by actually engaging some of these celebreties in pro-level interviers and the like.