Some famous writers are courteous enough to reply to messages from unknown, distant, enthusiastic, obviously-youthful admirers. Basement archæological digs have recently unearthed a few decades-old artifacts along those lines:

  • Arthur C. Clarke - a handwritten note of 24 August 1966 on Hotel Chelsea (New York) stationery, politely thanking me for a letter of 28 June (which reached him that day). "I hope to be back in Ceylon next month," Clarke wrote, and in response to my question about whether he had produced as many books as Isaac Asimov, "Ike is far ahead of me now! I've lost count ...."
  • Isaac Asimov - a card of 19 September 1966 postmarked from Boston, thanking me for a letter of 29 August and gently explaining how to pronounce Asimov: "First say the three English words has, him, of. Say them one after another in that order. Now leave out the h's and say them again. You are saying my name." (In 1980 I wrote Asimov again, re a physics error spotted in one of his Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction popular science columns. He replied most courteously, again via postcard — but that card has not yet surfaced.)
  • Harry C. Stubbs aka "Hal Clement" - a letter of 31 March 1967 from Milton Academy. I had seen a correction published in Sky & Telescope magazine over the name Harry Stubbs and wrote to inquire if he was the science-fiction writer. He replied, "Your guess was quite correct; I do write under the pen name of 'Hal Clement' and I am very grateful for your compliments. 'Mission of Gravity' is my own favorite among my books, though my wife likes 'Needle' better. 'Mission' was a great deal of fun to write; it kept me busy for quite a long time with a slide rule before any real writing could be done." Stubbs continued, "The reason for my using a pen name dates back over twenty-five years. I sold my first science-fiction story when I was a college sophomore. I was majoring in astronomy at Harvard, and had done some writing for 'Sky and Telescope' (actually, 'Sky' published at Harvard, and 'Telescope' pubished at Hayden Planetarium, New York, were separate magazines then; they combined just about that time). I was afraid the Harvard authorities would take a dim view of the same name appearing in 'Sky' and in a pulp magazine, so I decided to play safe and use a pen name. The choice of the name was simple enough — 'Hal' is a standard nickname for Harry, and 'Clement' is my middle name. As it turned out, I needn't have gone to all that trouble; my faculty advisor, Dr. Menzel, proved to like science fiction — he had written a little himself, he admitted to me; and Dr. Shapley was in the same situation. However, by the time I found this out, I had sold several stories under my pen name, and it was beginning to get a reputation that seemed worth keeping, so I stuck with it...."
  • William F. Buckley Jr. - a short note on National Review stationery dated 1 February 1971 thanking me for a letter commenting on something unspecified (and of which I have not the foggiest recollection!) which his colleague Bill Rusher had said on the Firing Line television show.
  • F. Paul Wilson - an undated letter, probably ca. 1973, replying to my postcard concerning libertarian themes in his science fiction works. Dr. Wilson wrote, "I had to give up writing for about a year and a half after [sf editor John W.] Campbell's death for two reasons — my mentor was gone and my clinical studies were catching up to me. I'm an intern now and have managed to crank out a few pieces. The next issue of FICTION will carry a new novelette and REASON will publish an article on John Campbell in a few months." He went on to say, "Both of the above publications are part of the libertarian press that I discovered only recently. I've been a libertarian of sorts for a decade but never knew I had so much company until I stumbled across a copy of the 'A is A Directory' and found a list of a whole network of publications...."
  • Vernor Vinge - a letter from San Diego dated 7 February 1973. Professor Vinge wrote, "Thanks very much for your card of 14 January. Getting praise on a story is always nice, but when the praise is as perceptive and as thorough [as] your comments, it is expecially wonderful." (I had expressed my enjoyment of "Original Sin", a short story which had appeared in Analog in 1972.) Vinge continued, "'Original Sin' was always one of my favorite jobs, yet it was discouragingly hard to sell. The published version differs only slightly from the original I wrote in 1969. By the time I sold it, I had come to the conclusion that either it was my 'most misunderstood' story, or else I simply had bad taste. So your card was extemely welcome...." (Over the years Prof. Vinge and I have sporadically continued the friendly correspondence; the basement midden-heap contained letters from him in 1984 and 1985 concerning physics issues related to other stories he wrote.)
  • Jeremy Bernstein - an undated note on New Yorker stationery, envelope postmarked 30 August 1981, re my message concerning a minor and somewhat arcane mathematical error in one of his science articles involving map projections. He wrote, "As you may imagine I am swimming in letters about Mercator. Yours was one of the most enlightening. Dyson, who also wrote, did the calculation with metrics and got the same answer. I am preparing an amplification."

More recently, a year or two ago I sent a simple letter of appreciation to Martin Gardner, praising him for the great good done by his Scientific American "Mathematical Games" columns over the years. The clear, eclectic, exciting coverage of advanced math discoveries in those essays certainly helped me learn and enjoy that subject. Mr. Gardner kindly wrote back to me, but alas his note is lost at the moment.

Many thanks to all of the above correspondents! (And to the authors: if any of you would rather not see excerpts quoted from your letters, please let me know and I will remove them. My main reason for reprinting your words is to prevent them from being lost again!)

Wednesday, March 07, 2001 at 06:00:59 (EST) = 2001-03-07

TopicProfiles - TopicPersonalHistory

(correlates: VarietiesOfNotCaring, GibbonChapter10, TidyTime, ...)