I get amazing fan letters from time to time. It puts me at a disadvantage. Most times I know nothing about the sender. Aside from thanking them, there’s not much else I can do.
I can’t take a compliment. Can anybody? What do you do with it? Somebody says something nice and it just sits there. No way to adequately reciprocate because the complimenter has put themselves out past the breakwaters of what’s expected and accepted. It’s a vulnerable no man’s land. I’m touched of course because something I made inspired them to go to this extreme but I’m also profoundly uncomfortable.
I hardly ever hear from writers whose books I’ve written about. But about a year ago, I got a mysterious email from a woman writing on behalf of an author whose book I’d written about some months before. She wrote that this writer was blown away by what I’d written, that it was something like life-changing, that it was one of the best things to’ve ever happened to him.
That’s a lot to lay on 800-some words in an alt-weekly. I’d liked the man’s book very much. It was a collection of stories set in Chicago’s now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes. The stories followed several characters as they negotiated the many racial and economic boundaries of the city. What got me were the vivid descriptions of places I knew well. Setting can get a story almost all the way where it needs to go. Each story in the book nailed the sense of where as well as anything I’d read in a long time.
I wrote back the woman to thank her and the writer for their flattering words. Then typed his name into a search engine and found virtually nothing. Aside from the publisher’s book page and a few reviews——the book had gotten on my radar due to a Times review——I could find no Twitter handle, no Facebook page, none of the expected platforms for the contemporary author. It was really impressive. How had he managed to steer clear of the social media shitshow so completely?
Some time passed, then the woman wrote again asking for my address. A couple weeks later a paperback arrived inscribed with the most flattering, over-the-top message I’ve ever received in my life. Because of my review, this writer now considered me his brother.
What was I to do with that? Because I had no phone number or email for the guy, I couldn’t even thank him for his words. I put the book on the shelf reserved for signed and inscribed books and tried to forget about it.
But then I got an email from the man himself. I’d half thought that the woman was an alter ego, a way to preserve his privacy, but it was not so. She was a real person, as was he. He messaged me at random intervals. What he said was interesting enough to respond to. Eventually, I offered to meet him for coffee. He seemed hesitant but promised it would happen sometime soon.
In a time when the average person publicizes every meal they consume as well as most bowel movements, the barriers he put up were a breath of fresh air. My new friend barely even let a photo of himself online. I’m familiar with enforcing boundaries, so I respected what he was doing.
We met last Wednesday at a coffeeshop in my neighborhood. Turns out two taciturn strangers can sit and talk for three hours without a problem. He asked me to make the cover for his next book.
I never expect to have much in common with anyone, so when it happens, it’s hard to reconcile. Not unlike receiving a compliment. I don’t know what to do with it aside from saying thank you.
Which I do.