Writers on Writing: And All the Ships At Sea

I wanted to share an interesting email I received last week from a reader:

I’m a Marine stationed over at Camp Pendleton in California. While I was on deployment, I found The Year Of Fog in the small ship library…I was a part of an expeditionary unit sitting off the coast of Burma last year after their country was ravaged by a natural disaster. I mean this in the greatest sincerity when I say that reading and finishing your story was truly all I looked forward to the 2 months I spent sitting on a ship, counting the days until I could come home. I’m not sure what it was, but I found myself very sympathetic and attached to the main character. I almost wish the story hadn’t ended. Or at least had ended the way I was expecting. Again, thank you for your story.

It’s always nice to receive emails from readers. Some write to say they liked one of my books, some write to say they hated one of my books, and often, they have questions, or want to share their own experiences with San Francisco, which is the setting for my last two books. I recently heard from the editor of Tea and Coffee, who had read NO ONE YOU KNOW (the narrator of that novel is a coffee buyer), and I once heard from a woman whose father-in-law had been instrumental in the invention of the cesium atom clock (which is mentioned in The Year of Fog). Sometimes, I’ll hear from the parent of a missing child, which is always a humbling and moving experience. I appreciate all of the letters I receive from readers, but some get to me more than others. Some strike me in a certain spot, and I don’t easily forget them.

The young Marine’s letter made me think about what it is we do when we write a book and send it out into the world. We write in solitude, and, for me at least, when I write I’m thinking only about the story, not how it will be received, or where. I do, in some sense, think about the reader, in that I think about what I would want to know if I was reading the book, what I would care about, how I would respond to the characters. But I get so caught up in the story that I don’t think about the book as an object that will be bound between covers and shipped off to bookstores, purchased and perused. Which is why it’s so surprising, and satisfying, to hear that one of my books has ended up in a small ship’s library, to be found by a Marine, who is looking for something to pass the time, and to whom it gives some degree of pleasure.

I remember the events of last year in Burma well, and have long been interested in that country, where the people suffer under a brutal regime of censorship and political tyranny that is every bit as horrific as Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. It is a place where one can be jailed or murdered for reading the wrong book or writing the wrong letter, where the words one speaks in private, if overheard by the wrong person, can be used to justify torture. A place where the magazines are delivered with huge sections cut out, and where newspapers are vetted by the government for “accuracy.” How strange to think that my book–which I wrote in San Francisco, much of it in my car on Ocean Beach, or in the library, or in my neighborhood cafe, with absolute confidence in my absolute freedom to say whatever I wanted, in whatever way I pleased, with no fear of the consequences–would find its way there.

The marine’s letter reminded me what a privilege it is to be a writer, particularly to be a writer in a country where free speech is such an ingrained way of life. There are writers who risk everything when they tell their story. So to have the opportunity to tell a story, at any time, in any place, to a person who, for whatever reason, happens at that moment to be in the mood for a story, is wonderful. It’s a responsibility, too. One hates to disappoint–and yet, so often, I’m sure that I do. Which is part of the reason we writers write the next book, and the next, and the next: always hoping to do better, to say what we want to say with more precision and depth, the get the story right.

This post was originally published on Feb. 13, 2009

1 Comment

  • May 25, 2011

    Josh

    I know this Marine. He is very hard to impress yet, he impresses me every time I talk to him. The post I just read was more reading than I normally do but as I was reading it, I visualized it. How long the days on ship can be…. how short they seem now. The difference in what kept each individual occupied was a small description of who these men were. Some would wrestle, some would play cards. I smoked cigarettes and stared at the ocean. James, your “young Marine” read. We have parted ways now and maybe we will see each other in the future but I’ll never forget the way he spoke about this book. He almost made a reader out of me.