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The Writer-Groupie Experiment

1.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by fame. My elementary school catered to the offspring of celebrities, and Crosby, Stills & Nash performed at my high school fundraisers. Call it what you want: fortunate, pretentious, obnoxious, weird, I somehow managed to grow up politely turning my head away from all those stars around me. Celebrities, I was sternly told, were just normal people like everyone else. I was supposed to continue on with my day whenever I encountered them. To pretend as if they almost weren’t there. So I’d down my cocktails at The Standard on Sunset with Simon Rex shooting tequila next to me, somehow refraining from mentioning his stint as an MTV DJ. I’d flash my terrible fake ID at The Roxy to see bands like Maroon 5 (before they were Maroon 5), who weren’t mega-stars but merely the “cute seniors” who happened to have a recording contract. When Jake Gyllenhaal and Alex Braverman wandered into my friend Lyssa’s party one random Saturday night, I (painfully, I’ll admit) turned away to resume flirting with my crush-of-the-month Robby instead. To respond to their presence was to betray my parents and teachers. No greater sin could be committed than acknowledging celebrity.

But writers? What about famous writers? Writers, it seemed, were a different breed. No one told me how to act around them. No one ever said if it was cool or appropriate or even gauche to be a writer-groupie. This was Los Angeles in the mid-nineties; we didn’t have the internet to find out where they’d be reading, or Twitter to see what they were doing at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday. For someone who grew up surrounded by fame, I was obsessed with the quiet inner world of the writer. And the only way to learn about that world was the old-fashioned way: I’d compose embarrassingly gushy handwritten letters, stuff them into envelopes, and send them on to their publisher.

“Dear Francesca Lia Block,” I’d begin. “I’m writing to tell you just have much your book Weetzie Bat spoke to me and was wondering if you had any advice for a future writer?”

Or, “Dear Sandra Cisneros,” I’d say. “I’m writing a paper on The House on Mango Street and was wondering if I could interview you for your thoughts on the novel’s success?”

This became a semi-masochistic routine. I’d pour my heart out, although actual replies were rare. So I resorted to another form of contact — the book reading.

2.

I was 15 when I went to see Jim Carroll read. I’ve written about it before, because it’s the one reading that sticks with me the most. Sophomore year of high school, I wasn’t just a Carroll fan. I was angry, hormonal, “dabbling in Wiccan,” and absolutely convinced that no one understood me (and here I thought I was an original). And yet, for some reason, I believed that Jim Carroll would “get” me if only we had the chance to meet (this sounds borderline stalkerish now, but at 15 my intentions, I swear, were innocent). All I had to do was get to speak to him, and we’d become the best of friends. Easy enough, right?

The night of the reading, McAbe’s Guitar Shop was packed with coffee-drinking twenty-somethings whose Doc Martens and pageboy haircuts both terrified and thrilled me. Carroll was a good 20 minutes late to the stage, and when he arrived, he wore a tight black turtleneck that magnified his shaggy red hair. He read for an hour in his endearingly cigarette-hoarsened voice.

“That’s it,” he said at the end, closing the book. And that was it. Carroll didn’t open the room up for questions. He didn’t sign my dog-eared copy of Fear of Dreaming. He stood up, the house lights not even yet raised, and made his way upstairs, not once looking back. Fast-forward 11 years and Carroll would be found dead of a heart attack in his New York apartment. I would never get the chance to shake his hand.

3.

I’ve been working in publishing now, on and off, for 10 years, and I still find myself dumbstruck over the unbelievable access I have to the writers I admire. My first years at Random House, I could barely maintain my cool when standing next to authors like Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer. Nothing, though, tops my completely moronic response to my encounter with Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie’s publicist was out running an errand one afternoon, and I happened to accidentally answer her phone line. The connection was poor; I couldn’t hear what the man on the line was asking of me.

“What?” I finally yelled into the receiver. “I can’t hear you! What do you want?!”

I was about to hang up when, miraculously, the connection cleared.

“Megan, it’s me, Salman. I need to ask about a pick up time with the car service?”

I thought I was going to throw up. Literally, on the floor of my cubicle, throw up. I was 21, barely out of college, and Salman motherf*&ing Rushdie — the man whose novel (Midnight’s Children) I’d written my tenth-grade Honors English paper on — was asking me a simple question that I, petrified, could no longer answer. I fumbled for his itinerary, hyperventilating as I read him his pickup time. When I hung up the phone, I locked myself in the bathroom and cried.

4.

I took time off from publishing to get my own MFA in fiction. When I returned, now at Algonquin (not even three years later!), everything had changed. Gone were the days of sending letters of praise through the black hole of the “general mail” address. Gone were the days of getting caught for being on Facebook. Facebook was part of the job now. The dependency on the internet had changed everything, including authors’ accessibility.

I was curious to see how many writers I could reach out to, to test how thin the walls were between author and appreciative fan. In an era where authors regularly tweet their thoughts on the selection of salsas at Baja Fresh, could it really be that easy to email them a simple question? And with the convenience of Facebook, was it wrong to expect a more or less immediate response?

So I decided to test this theory out. I put together a list of authors I hadn’t worked with but had long admired. (I admittedly had a leg up, since — due to my years at publishing houses and literary magazines — I happened to share several mutual “friends” with these writers.) I wrote the following message, tailored to each author.

Dear  X,
Please excuse my creepily writing via Facebook. I am a huge fan of your work and hope you don’t mind my briefly emailing you to ask you a quick question… I am working on a potential piece for THE HAIRPIN on the accessibility of writers to the public (basically I’m saying it was much harder, say, ten years ago, to field personal questions/reach out to an author one admired). Now, I feel that the internet has changed everything and it’s much easier for a ‘fan’ to contact an author. I was wondering if you would mind answering the following question (only if you feel comfortable?). For the sake of the piece I am keeping the question pretty generic, and would love to know what you ate for lunch today.

I gave myself four days to wait. Four days with 10 different authors. I figured four was a suitable number, factoring in variables like the potential of no internet connection, hectic deadlines, or different time zones.

My first response came within two hours.

Alix Ohlin: “Because I’m trying to eat healthy, I had carrot ginger soup and quinoa salad. Because I’m always failing at it, I also had chocolate covered pretzels and salt-and-vinegar potato chips.”

Kate Christensen: “I had a spring roll and beef pho at a place called Saigon in Portland, Maine!”

Nam Le: “I skipped lunch yesterday (and today too, actually).”

Tom Perotta: “My answer is: burrito and an orange.”

Thisbe Nissen: “I had an amazing lunch today! My husband made egg sandwiches: sourdough toast with smoked provolone, scrambled eggs with dill, and sautéed portobellos. It was really friggin good.”

Rick Moody: “Ritz crackers, some black beans, and a banana.”

Nick Hornby: “Today – no lunch. A big hotel breakfast instead.”

I couldn’t believe it. There they were, these authors whose novels I read and discussed and even taught, right there, responding to my question. Granted, not everyone I contacted responded, but seven out of 10 saw my email, then took the time to respond. I know that this can’t always be the case, and I have no doubt that writers are inundated with requests to “look at my manuscript,” or to give out a blurb (emails they’re right to ignore). And yet, in an era where one almost expects immediate gratification, it’s startling to see — in just a few short years — how the days of sitting outside one’s house waiting for the mailman are slowly disappearing, and the lines of keeping one’s distance have blurred to near-invisibility.

Megan Fishmann is a 2010 Henry Hoyns Fellow at The Univeristy of Virginia. When she’s not at work on her novel, she’s busy being a publicist at Algonquin Books, writing book reviews for BookPage, and judging fiction submissions for Zoetrope and Narrative Magazine. Megan had a kombucha for lunch but she would have preferred a cheeseburger.

Photo by Wojciech Jaskowski, via Shutterstock

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