The first and only letter I ever wrote to an author was to children's writer Joan Aiken (I loved her "Wolves of Willoughby Chase"). I was about 10 or 11 and wrote it in careful script on lined paper. When I was ready to mail it -- could I have figured this out myself? -- I addressed it to the company whose name appeared on the copyright page. I don't know that I understood the word "publisher."
Weeks went by, then months. But one day, well after I had ceased expecting a response, an air-mail letter on periwinkle-blue stationery arrived. A short, typed note thanked me for my letter and agreed with a tremulously offered assessment I had made of a particular character.
Even though I was still in the first flush of book love, I sensed that I had successfully breached, in some small way, the mysterious barrier between reader and author. Nearly 25 years later, I can easily conjure that sense of deep satisfaction. Yet, perhaps knowing that I had been ineffably lucky that first time, I never attempted to contact a writer I admired again.
That is, until last year.
A serious fan of what has come to be called Anglo-Indian literature, I picked up a copy of Vikram Chandra's "Love and Longing in Bombay." I had heard of Chandra's widely acclaimed debut novel, "Red Earth and Pouring Rain," with its monkey-poet narrator. I was eager to read him.
"Love and Longing" did not disappoint me. It comprises five long, sumptuous and occasionally suspenseful stories, all told by a rather mysterious civil servant named Subramaniam to his cronies in a bar. As I read it, though, I kept interrupting myself to revisit the blurb about Chandra on the book's flap.
I was tantalized, for there, listed quite plainly, was his e-mail address. It was even phrased as an invitation: "He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org."
He can be reached.
When I finished the book, I wasted no time. I sent him a message. A response came quickly, no more than a day or two.
Thanks!! I'm glad the book gave you pleasure. I've just started work on a new novel, so it'll be a while coming ...
In that instant, I felt my relationship to his work change forever -- though in ways I still find hard to explain.
On one level, I was impressed, amazed even. Take a look through the displays at Barnes & Noble or Borders; you'll find no other examples of literary fiction where an author's e-mail address is supplied. Indeed, you'll find few examples of nonfiction with one -- even within the burgeoning category of digital culture books.
I imagined that Chandra must have some connection to the computing world -- a prior career? -- to explain this openness. One of the protagonists in "Love and Longing" is a programmer, and the occasional passage had hinted at an appreciation for technology unusual in a literary novelist. ("Where screens had scrolled they now snapped, lookups happened in a flash, every process was twice or three times as fast. It was beautiful. She had gone close to the metal and come out with a kind of perfection.")
I felt restrained from further messaging, though. I didn't want to take advantage of whatever generous impulse had prompted Chandra to make his address available. And so I tucked his message safely into a folder and moved on to other books.
A few weeks ago I picked up the paperback version of "Red Earth" at a book sale. I immediately turned to the back cover. There it was again: the same blurb, the same challenge to connect -- that's how I now thought of it. I bought the book.
Now I'm reading it and maintaining an e-mail exchange with Chandra at the same time. My curiosity as to why he included the address and the response he's received needs to be sated -- I cannot finish the book until I know.
My first message after a year-long absence elicited a long reply:
You'll have noticed that in both "Love and Longing" and "Red Earth" there's a storyteller who tells stories to an audience. And that the audience talks back. There seemed to me an opportunity, given the technology, to let my listeners talk to me, to close the circle. If Sanjay the monkey and Subramaniam can do it, why not me? ...
So, as "Red Earth" made its way through production, I asked my various publishers to put my e-mail address on the book. I did meet some resistance, especially from my British editor at Faber. He thought it was a dangerous thing to do, that I'd be inundated with "psycho mail," and be distracted from my work. Also I think there was some fear that it would be seen as a gimmicky, new-fangled thing for a literary writer to do. But I insisted, and finally they all put it in. But in that first Faber edition of "Red Earth" the e-mail address is tucked away discreetly on the copyright page.
I should say also that before I published these books I kept away the wolves that pursue close-to-starving graduate students/writers by working as a computer consultant, programmer and software reviewer. In that world, it is good form to put your e-mail address in your byline, as you know. So it seemed a natural thing for me to do.
I've since had a steady flow of e-mail from readers all over the world. The overwhelming majority of it is positive. There are thoughtful, insightful critiques; questions; quick pats on the back. There are alerts about factual errors and typos; requests for interviews and readings; questions from academics who are working on the texts. There are continuing conversations with some of these people. There were even some letters from actual descendants of Colonel James Sikander Skinner, one of the protagonists in "Red Earth," and this I found extraordinarily moving. Talk about closing the circle.
The only really scary psycho mail I've ever received came through snail mail.
So I had been right, Chandra had some direct knowledge of the tech world, though his reasons for including his address had as much to do with artistic values as past work habits.
"Closing the circle." Is that possible, or even desirable? Generalizations won't do here. The relationship between author and reader is fraught with Freudian perils -- there are few things as intensely personal as reading. Authors may be justly afraid of allowing any breach of the wall. Yet readers, given the chance provided by technology, may provide succor in ways yet to be explored.
Chandra is willing to find out. From another message:
I think the new technology can have the effect of short-circuiting the distances that we've come to accept in the recent past as immutable and natural. I'm a storyteller; I don't very much like the idea of myself as the distant "author," a creature of the Romantic imagination and in some ways peculiar to the newly industrializing West. So if the current technology lets me get around the huge institutional structures of publishers, reviewers, big media, and speak more directly to the listeners, I take the chance ...
I'm sure that there are writers who don't want any such feedback, who would react with horror to the thought of actually communicating with the great crowd out there. There's that very persuasive construction of artist as solitary prophet, who communes with his or her inspirations and demons in the desert, and comes back to gift the populace with an incandescent vision. And then the often-baffled but dazzled audience is properly grateful and worshipful. It's a charming narrative, but I'm skeptical. Sanjay the monkey-narrator makes stories out of his own painful history, and through this difficult process, during which he forges several interesting things in the smithy of his soul, he comes to some understanding of his own morally ambiguous actions and troubled times. But he is also very aware that his very life depends on the attentions of his restless and resistant listeners, who are ruthlessly interested only in their own pleasures. He describes them collectively as the "monster that I was about to face ... this fearful adversary -- an audience."
By contacting Chandra, perhaps I am "ruthlessly" pursuing my own pleasures, no more, no less. Instead of waiting for a local reading where I'd be just one in a crowd, I've inserted myself into his electronic mailbox and, by extension, his consciousness.
But he did proffer an invitation. And now my connection to his work feels somehow stronger. I am more aware of the essential role I play as the audience. He has paid me homage. The story does not live without me and those like me. Chandra e-mails:
As I work, as I write, I show the pages I produce to a small group of people, my sisters, my mother, a couple of friends. These are faces I know, my family, and I understand what I have to do pull them in, to keep them there. Once the story is out there in the world, it finds its own life in the hands and ears and eyes of that many-headed monster, which is impossible to fully know, or control -- Sanjay's crowd on the maidan outside the house finally breaks up in violence. But these individual voices that come floating in over e-mail, these mark at least some of the turns that the story takes in its passage through the world.