Not so long ago, I was convalescing from yet another back injury, feeling not a little bit sorry for myself, and digging deep—and I mean deep—into my back catalogue of heretofore un-listened-to podcasts, when I came across an old Sound of Young America episode (a great podcast, by the way, as is its newer incarnation Bullseye with Jesse Thorn) wherein John Hodgman interviews George R.R. Martin. Topics covered in the interview include: old Avengers comics (in particular, the life and death of the Avenger Wonder Man), J.R.R. Tolkien, historical novels, and the prospect of Harper Lee ever writing To Kill a Mockingbird 2. And eventually the conversation turned to the very topic of fans and fandom, not the least because Martin has a complicated relationship with his own.
Fans are great, Hodgman and Martin agreed, about ninety-percent of the time. But sometimes—ten percent, let’s say—fans can be contentious. They can be possessive and confrontational. They can be pains in the ass. There’s a reason, after all, why “fanboy” has become such a derogatory term. But isn’t it flattering, asked Hodgman, to know that you’ve created something about which other people care so much and feel so much a part? It is, said Martin, but often it’s a flattery he could do without. Then Hodgman said something that really struck me. It was a prescriptive statement, though I think it was also meant to complicate. I understood it as a question, of sorts. “Not all fans are writers,” he said, “but all writers are fans.”
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 writers who I both admire and count myself a fan of. 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.
[Ed. Note- Bryan received so many great answers that we decided to break up what once was intended as a single feature and turn it into a regular column.]
T.C. Boyle (San Miguel): While writers are fans, they are also insanely jealous of other writers, who are, after all, less their compatriots than competitors. Writers must also be protective of their fragile psyches while in the throes of their own work, and fandom is often counterproductive. Better the dark bar, anonymous strangers, the pulp of our banal society. So, in short, I will choose to talk about my first artistic influence, one that hit me when I was a teenager and unconnected in even the slightest way to literature, which was then, for me, simply a variety of the torture known as junior high.
That first influence was John Coltrane, who remains one of my gods and heroes to this day. I then wanted to be a musician, but the music we played in school (like the books we were required to read), left me cold. Then, in the underground way of friends turning one another on, somebody–some angel–induced me to listen to Coltrane. I was transformed. For the first time in my life I related deeply to an artform and an artist. This enabled me to drive my parents and the neighbors absolutely carpet-chewing mad as I blew along, windows open wide summer and winter both, freeing my soul even as I strove (unsuccessfully, for the most part) to absorb and replicate the master’s genius. I listen to him today, often while working, and if I still can’t even begin to unravel what he is doing with his scales and key changes, I like to think that his soul speaks to mine and propels my own riffs and rhythms.
Amelia Gray (Threats): I have long made an ass out of myself in front of writers I admire. There is the time I offered my compliments in a strong whiskey breath to Vanessa Place; the time I got myself lost the hill country of Texas with Aimee Bender in my passenger seat; the time I handed Richard Ford a thrift-store copy of Independence Day to sign, described the plot of my first novel to him in one nervous breath, and nearly fainted. The very first time I interacted with a writer was when I was 22 and Tobias Wolff had just read his short story “Bullet in the Brain” to an appreciative crowd at Arizona State. I waited for twenty minutes in the signing line and then told him, because I could think of nothing better, that I was going to read the story out loud to my roommates. I did not have roommates. Why did I lie to Tobias Wolff? I am certain he knew.
Lee K. Abbott (All Things, All at Once): I agree with John H., wholeheartedly (John was a student of mine in the early 90s when I taught a five week fiction-writing class at Yale). Every writer I know is a fan of good writing. Isn’t it Holden C. who tells us that you know a really good book—or poem or story or play, or any darn literary thing—when you want to call up the writer and shoot the breeze?
It’s the early 80s—very early, methinks—and I read an essay, “When People Publish,” in the Ohio Review. It’s by Frederick Busch, a writer I think I’ve heard of. In it, Fred, early on in his way to the end, reveals himself to be father-haunted, as am I. I am taken. Charmed. Beguiled. Downright smitten. Insight follows insight. Sentences sweep and purl. Paragraphs get underlined—in ink. I read it again. And again. And, yup, I write a letter, mail it to the magazine in the hope that the editor, Wayne Dodd, will forward it to the fellow I addressed as Mr. Busch. I do not expect a reply. But I get one. Fred calls me Lee. He’s read a story or two of mine (this was much before I had a first book published). He thanks me. And so begins nearly thirty years of back and forth between him and me, thirty years of complaints, compliments, concerns, and confidences. Thirty years of finding still another way to say my say. Thirty more years of schooling and felicity.
So, yes, I write fan letters. Still do. I’ve got one to send to Jess Walter, whose novel The Zero is the best 9/11 book I know. I’ve got another—oh, it doesn’t really matter to whom. Rather, it’s this: I love letting another scribbler know how much X or Y has meant to me. We hear so rarely from the world. I am heartened (and humbled) every time I hear from a stranger, particularly a stranger enthralled, as Fred himself put it, to the “willed word.” Even though I am sixty-five, I’m still a kid, Holden-like, who wants to call up an author and confess to being ravished by what marvels can be made between margins.
Kelly Luce (Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail): I opened East of Eden for the first time during takeoff on an international flight. As the plane ascended, I read and re-read the book’s first two pages—which don’t even concern any people—and actually teared up because it was so delightful. Every line in that book is a window you can see his heart through. Steinbeck wrote it by hand, in a series of large notebooks. He stood while he wrote in his study in Salinas, CA, and he warmed up for each day’s work with a letter to his friend and editor, Pat Covici, on the left-side page of the notebook. The letters were, he wrote to Pat, a way of “getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game.”
On these left-side pages he shares his anxiety about getting the ideas in his head onto the page as well as details of his day-to-day life: kids acting up, a date with his wife. The growing novel filled the right-side pages. The bundle of notebooks that contain this first draft alongside Steinbeck’s reflections on the book that meant most to him live at UT Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. All I had to do in order to hold these notebooks, smell them, squint at Steinbeck’s tiny, tidy scrawl, notice the fact that the crosses on his t’s almost never connected, was watch a ten-minute video. The librarian who brought out the boxes read over my shoulder for a few minutes; I told her that one warning the “safety video” left out is “Do Not Cry on the Materials.” If there’s anything to be said about being a fan, it’s that it opens up the personal side to the object d’fandom. Makes it, him, or her, more accessible, more human, and because of this, even more impressive.
Bryan Hurt lives in Los Angeles where he’s finishing his PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at USC.