Over the past few days, I've gotten some amazing emails from readers telling me how much my books have meant to them or how my writing has inspired them to write. What I love about these letters is not the praise (though a little flattery certainly never hurts), but how willing these teenagers are to honestly express their feelings. It shows how connected they feel to the books and that's really rewarding.
I always answer every email that comes to me from a fan. The reason is simple. If someone has taken the time and effort to reach out to you, the least you can do is write them back. I'm not so busy that I don't have a few minutes a day. I made my mind up to do this ages ago. When I was 19, I read Betty Smith's amazing A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and in the introduction, she talks about answering fan mail. She tells the story of writing a letter to her favorite author as a child and the disappointment of receiving no reply.
According to Betty Smith, she vowed to reply to every letter written to her if she ever became an author, a promise she kept even after the book sold millions. I remember reading that and being moved by the sadness she must have felt as a child to commit to such a promise. In my little, dimly lit apartment, I read that and vowed that if I were ever to become an author, I would answer every letter as well.
The one time I failed was a when a girl in a juvenile detention center sent me an incredibly moving letter about how one of my books turned her life around. I kept the letter in the book I was reading on a flight from NYC to Seattle, planning to answer her on my vacation. I was staying several hours outside of Seattle and by the time I discovered I'd left the book in the seat pocket, it was too late to recover it...the plane was long gone and no one had turned in the book. I was devastated. I even mentioned her in the Acknowledgements of my next novel, hoping she would see it. I have no way of knowing if she did, but I hope so.
When you write books for teenagers about difficult subjects, I honestly believe you are taking on a level of responsibility...otherwise, you're just adding to the confusion.