Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sharyn McCrumb: Nut Cases Get the Form Letter

Stephen King Wasn’t Kidding, Y’all

Crazy people write to you, too, right? I’m not the only one getting this stuff.

She seemed so normal at first. She e-mailed a brief message to the “Contact the Author” address on my web-site, saying how much she loved my books, and then she asked if I planned to write another book in the old series that was still her favorite,

She was referring to books I wrote twenty-five years ago, back when I was in graduate school, back when I had two children in diapers and very little time for contemplation. Short, fun books that were marketed as genre fiction, but when you’re working full-time, writing term papers, and taking care of babies, you don’t have time to be Virginia Woolf, trust me.

I get about one letter a week asking about those books, and I have half a dozen stock replies, depending on my mood. I sent her the nicest one, I promise you I did. I explained that while many wonderful, clever people read those books, far too many other people read them as if they were verbal Twinkies, missing all the satire, symbolism, etc. And those people then mistake my later works for genre fiction, too, which I will not stand for. I said that since people were teaching my later works in universities and writing dissertations about them, and awarding me literary prizes, I thought it best to move on. Often I compare my career to that of actor Tom Hanks, who, after winning two Academy Awards, is not going back to doing his old sit-com Bosom Buddies, either.

She wrote back with a stern lecture saying that I had “sold out” and that I had abandoned my fans to curry favor with academics. The tone was strident and over-wrought. She lectured me as if I were twelve years old. I did not reply. The next day another letter arrived from her, this one even more hysterical, beginning with her declaration that I had lost her as a reader (Thank you, Jesus), and saying she would tell everybody that I had sold out. What she was saying did not seem even remotely connected to the response I had originally sent her.

What reply did she expect to her diatribe? Did she think I would beg her to keep reading my work? That I would see the “error of my ways” and begin immediately to write a new installment in a series I had written back when Reagan was president? Not bloody likely. I hope she does stop reading my work. It makes me nervous even to know I’m sharing the planet with a lunatic like her.

I was tempted to send her one sentence “Thank you for your interest in my books,” and add a postscript saying “Nut cases get the form letter.” But I did not reply.

Do not write back to crazy people. Not only because some fans are dangerously crazy – remember Selena? John Lennon?—but also because you can never convince these people, and you can never get the last word. They want to be angry for two reasons: 1) It makes them feel emotionally connected to you; and 2) As long as you even read their messages, they are exerting control over you. You are giving them power.

I get one whacko letter a year, and you can never tell from their first message that they are mentally disturbed. They say the same sort of nice things most people say, but they take exception to even the most innocuous reply. It is usually evident when they reply by arguing with you, and taking a hostile or condescending tone. They are embarking on the power trip. At that point, I’m gone.

You know, when I first read Stephen King’s novel Misery, back when it first came out, I thought it was a wonderful imaginary tour-de-force. As the years went by, I came to realize that it is as close to non-fiction as you can get without being an autopsy report. Stephen King wasn’t kidding.

Remember Misery? It is less of a horror story than it is an examination of the dynamics between the reader and the writer. Oh, readers thought it was scary, because the best-selling author of historical romance novels is injured and trapped in a remote mountain cabin with an ax-wielding maniac who calls herself “his number-one fan.”

When “Annie Wilkes” discovers that her favorite author has no intention of writing that series any more, she keeps him prisoner, chops off his foot, destroys his new novel, and forces him to write the book she wants him to write.
All successful but sincere writers would be terrified by that book-- even if the hero had been kept in comfort in the sunny guestroom of the president of the Charleston Garden club, because the horror to us isn’t the deranged sadist, it is the readers who think that devotion to your work gives them any say-so in the process.

In part 11 of the first section of Misery, the author Paul Sheldon thinks of his captor:

And while she might be crazy, was she really so different in her evaluation of his work from the hundreds of thousands of other people across the country-- ninety per cent of them women-- who could barely wait for each new five-hundred page episode in the turbulent life of the foundling who had risen to marry a peer of the realm ? No, not at all. They wanted Misery, Misery, Misery. Each time he had taken a year or two off to write one of the other novels-- what he thought of as his “serious work” with what was at first certainty and then hope and finally a species of grim desperation-- he had received a flood of protesting letters from these women, many of whom signed themselves “your number one fan.” The tones of these letters varied from bewilderment (that always hurt the most, somehow) to reproach to outright anger, but the message was always the same: It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t what I wanted. Please go back to Misery. I want to know what Misery is doing! -- He could write a modern Under the Volcano, Tess of the D-Urbervilles, The Sound and the Fury; it wouldn’t matter. They would still want Misery, Misery, Misery.”

Stephen King wasn’t exaggerating. He spoke for all of us who write because we have something to say instead of to push a product at consumers. Maybe you can vote what a genre hack will write next (I can name you twenty), but their works are ultimately as ephemeral as cotton candy.

Here’s the truth about any real writer’s work-- Stephen King, again, in Misery: “It was never for you, Annie, or all the other people out there who sign their letters “Your number one fan.” The minute you start to write, all those people are all at the other end of the galaxy or something.”

* * *

Real writers all have the same moral standard: Never write just for money; never tell lies to curry favor with readers, and never write a book unless you have something you feel is worth saying.

That’s all I owe anybody. Integrity.

The “number one fan” thinks that she can tell you what to write. She thinks that having read your book (probably via used paperback) that she is entitled to dictate your career choices, but writing is a strange vocation-- it's not like Burger King, where the slogan is "Have it your way." Good writers never really write for anyone other than themselves. The ones who don't turn out garbage. Trust me. You know what they say about people who do it for money instead of for love.

Writers are crazy, too, but since most of us are loners, at least we don’t torment real people.


Sharyn McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, whose novel St. Dale, is the story of a group of ordinary people who go on a pilgrimage in honor of racing legend Dale Earnhardt, and find a miracle. This Canterbury Tales in a NASCAR setting, won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award as well as the AWA Book of the Year Award.

McCrumb, who has been named a “Virginia Woman of History” in 2008 for Achievement in Literature, was a guest author at the National Festival of the Book in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the White House in 2006.

She is best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, set in the North Carolina/Tennessee mountains, including New York Times Best Sellers
She Walks These Hills and The Rosewood Casket, which deal with the issue of the vanishing wilderness, and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, the story of the first woman hanged for murder in the state of North Carolina; and The Songcatcher, a genealogy in music, tracing the author‘s family from 18th century Scotland to the present by following a Scots Ballad through the generations. . Ghost Riders, an account of the Civil War in the mountains of western North Carolina, won the Wilma Dykeman Award for Literature given by the East Tennessee Historical Society;

McCrumb’s other honors include: AWA Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature Award; the Chaffin Award for Southern Literature; the Plattner Award for Short Story; and AWA’s Best Appalachian Novel. A graduate of UNC- Chapel Hill, with an M.A. in English from Virginia Tech, McCrumb was the first writer-in-residence at King College in Tennessee. In 2005 she honored as the Writer of the Year at Emory & Henry College.

Her novels, studied in universities throughout the world, have been translated into German, Dutch, Japanese, and Italian. She has lectured on her work at Oxford University, the University of Bonn-Germany, and at the Smithsonian Institution; taught a writers workshop in Paris, and served as writer-in-residence at King College in Tennessee. A film of her novel
The Rosewood Casket is currently in production, directed by British Academy Award nominee Roberto Schaefer