Is that true? Are we all—all of us writers—fans? Fan-like, do we not passionately—sometimes even obsessively—engage with our subjects? Do we not write in order to gain access and understanding? To be able to become part of the greater whole? But what about the freighted and fraught side of fandom? When our desire for access and intimacy creates a debit or comes at some other cost?
I put the question, as it were, to a variety of authors whom I admire and consider myself a fan. I asked them to describe their best or most interesting or most transformative experiences as fans. As the answers came back, I discovered another distinct and weirdly interesting pleasure: that of being a fan listening to fans talking about being fans.
Stephan Clark (Vladimir’s Mustache): Back when he was still thought of as a genius, a kind of Borsch Belt-Bergman, I was a huge fan of Woody Allen. Rented all of his movies, read his books, even showed up on opening night for Alice. But then we had a falling out, and it wasn’t even the Soon-Yi Affair that did it. In the mid-90s, when I was a film student in LA, I had a screenplay – a romantic comedy – staged for an industry audience. It was a thrilling experience, with one exception: during the first read-through, the actor playing my leading man said he found something overly-familiar about one particular scene. It involved a cockroach and a bathroom, but it was clearly reminiscent of the lobster scene in Annie Hall. I hadn’t realized I’d stolen it before then; I’d done it all subconsciously. But when I was called on this (the actor didn’t want to look like a fool, parroting Woody Allen’s poorly laundered words) I knew I needed to become a fan of someone else, if only so that writer could mix in with Woody and make it all the more difficult to see what I’d stolen. Because that’s what we are, really: thieves and artists, with our thieving elevated to art only once we’ve done it enough and found ourselves in the process.
Josie Sigler (The Galaxy and Other Rides): Grape jellybeans. I was a fan. I was five. My grandmother kept a candy jar on her table. Actually, she kept two or three, but who was counting? She didn’t believe in “such a thing as too fat,” she told me once. Just being prepared for the New Depression when it comes. “I love the purple ones best,” I said. Did I? Or was it the moment? Sitting on her warm lap in the small kitchen of her Downriver house, a howling train marking the hour, the smell of newsprint from her paper, I was safe from everything-else. The future was held up, it seems to me now, as I filled my mouth with a strange conglomerate of pleasure: sunlight on the swollen and primeval grape, white sugar bitter with shackles and death, the chemist’s blend of red #3 and lake blue #7. I played with the rings on my grandmother’s hand. Fake rubies and sapphires. She was a rough woman. My cousins swear she peppered our tongues for swearing. I don’t remember that. Not well, at least.
She had seven children and a thousand grandchildren—that was how the fractal of reproduction seemed to work—and thus little time. But soon after I told her I loved the grape ones, she got me alone again, which was rare in our huge family, and thrust a secret into my dirty fist. A baggie filled with grape jellybeans. Somewhere between church-attending and dish-wiping and noodle-making and nose-or-worse-wiping, she had found the time to separate the grape jelly beans from the lemon, cherry, lime, and the dreaded licorice. For me. That’s love. I’m not sure any of my cousins got a grape jellybean ever again. When I looked at the candy jar filled with reds and yellows and greens and black, I knew. We are fans because love’s path isn’t always clear-cut—there’s pepper and there’s sugar coming from the same seemingly bejeweled hand. Love eddies and threads of it circle back into jellybeans and rock bands and sports teams so they mean something deeper to us. I still love grape jellybeans, though I like the licorice ones, now, too. Maybe they’re even my favorite. But it’s different. It’s just about how they taste.
Apricot Irving (The Gospel of Trees): When I was in middle school, I fell in love with Jack London—my first literary crush. For years, I re-read White Fang every summer just to feel the delicious ache at the tragic final scene. That Annie Dillard would later describe my hero as the kind of man who wrote as if a weight must have been dropped on his head with some frequency would have horrified me. I worshipped the frozen tundra that he walked upon. If I could have been guaranteed a half-breed wolf to tame and make my own, I would have moved to the Yukon in a heartbeat. I was even prepared to change my given name—Apricot—to a more glamorous pen name, in his honor: Jacqueline Wolfe (when my cousins found out, they commenced howling every time they saw me).
A few years later, after we had moved to a hospital compound in Haiti, one of the other missionary kids gave me a battered copy of short stories by Ursula Le Guin. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do on the missionary compound—Dad was too busy trying to save the world to take us to the beach; also, there were riots and military coups—so I barricaded myself behind books. Dad recommended titles like Ishi: Last of His Tribe, but I preferred Anne of Green Gables and syrupy Christian novels about remarkably chaste Zionists. Le Guin, however, was a revelation. She was fierce and a little terrifying but she put into words, more than anyone else I’d read, the ache that underlies all things.
I was in my thirties when I met Ursula Le Guin at a book-signing event in Oregon, and even though I had children of my own by then and a book contract, I bolted over like a star-struck 14-year-old and fumbled my way through a breathless monologue. Somewhere along the way I had read that Le Guin’s anthropologist father had, in fact, befriended Ishi—was this why she wrote so convincingly about lost worlds?
She was a silver-haired god with a straight back and she fixed me with a level gaze and asked, “Just how old do you think I am?”
Kyle Minor (Praying Drunk): When I was a younger writer, Lee K. Abbott gave me a great piece of advice. Write fan letters, he said. Lots of them. If you read something that makes you feel something, let the writer know. It’s decent, it’s right, and it’s a way to return the pleasure you’ve been offered.
So I did, I have, and I will, not least because a fan letter of that sort often initiates a friendship with the other writer, and in this age of the Internet and email and Facebook and so on, it’s easy and nourishing to carry on lots of long-distance friendships with lots of other writers, the closest analogue we have, I think, to the old tradition of letter-exchanging that used to be a prerequisite for the claiming of the life of the man or woman of letters.
When I’m corresponding with other writers, I often feel as though I’m walking in the footsteps of William Styron, Eudora Welty, William Maxwell, Katherine Anne Porter, John Cheever, Anton Chekhov, and the many others whose letters have survived and helped me to better understand how to make a life alongside the art one makes from life.
Some of my favorite partners in correspondence, these days: Matt Bell, Julianna Baggott, Lee K. Abbott, Cathy Day, Erin McGraw, Donald Ray Pollock, Douglas Watson, Aaron Gwyn, Benjamin Percy, Jen Percy, Pinckney Benedict, Sarah Elaine Smith, Joyelle McSweeney, Johannes Goransson, Okla Elliott, Kirby Gann, Kristen Radtke, Letitia Trent, Laura Kopchick, and Meredith Blankinship. Some are my elders, some are my peers, all seem to me to be in one way or another my betters.
When I open my inbox and find some treasure from one of them — listen to this! read this! have you heard about this? I was thinking about this! Have you ever thought of that this way? — I feel alive and connected to a community of people who still believe in the beauty of handmade things, I feel less alone, and I want to make something new in the hope of bringing some new pleasure out of gratefulness for what they’ve brought me.
Bryan Hurt lives in Los Angeles where he’s finishing his PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at USC.