Wednesday, May 27, 2009

From Fan to Friend

It was a hot summer afternoon. I had taken a vacation day off work, so happened to be home when the mail arrived. One of the items was a red-white-and-blue Priority envelope. The return address label said "M.E. Kerr."

Even though I'd been corresponding with Ms. Kerr for several years, it was still something of a shock -- and a thrill -- to see the handwritten name of my favorite author on a piece of mail. I'd been a fan for over thirty years...but never expected to have her as a personal friend.

I eagerly opened the package and was surprised to find a paperback "uncorrected proof" of her next book, YOUR EYES IN STARS, inside.

Of course I already knew a little about the book from Ms. Kerr's earlier letters. I knew it was set in New York state and that it concerned two girls -- one whose father ran the local prison and the other a visitor from Germany. I knew it was set in the years before World War II. But I didn't know that an advance copy would be available this early -- or that I'd be lucky enough to get one.

Needless to say, I was very eager to read it!

I sat down, opened the book to the title page, but was a little disappointed to see that M.E. Kerr had not autographed it. Then I turned the page and saw that she had signed it -- on the dedication page! I gasped out loud when I saw what it said:

I never expected to see my name on the dedication page of any book -- much less a novel by my favorite writer. I was overwhelmed to think I'd made the transition from "fan" to "friend."

It was the fall of 1972 when I first saw the name "M.E. Kerr." I was the kind of kid who liked to read the "professional journals" on the reference desk of my local branch library. And it was while reading those magazines -- Publishers Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal -- that I learned about M.E. Kerr's first young adult novel, DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! The reviews were raves, but the story sounded dizzying to me: a cat-loving boy who wanted to be a librarian? A mouthy fat girl? Another girl with emotional difficulties who rhymes sentences when nervous? And what did the title mean anyway?

The book didn't show up in my local library until the following summer, but I still remember the exact day I brought it home and how it felt to meet Tucker and Dinky and Natalia and P. John for the first time. The author's voice -- a perfect blend of humor and melancholy -- seemed to speak directly to me. And the climax of the story, when the title phrase appears graffiti-style "on sidewalks, on curbstones, on walls, on the sides of buildings. and on the doors of automobiles" seemed then (and now) to be one of the most perfect, emotionally-overwhelming scenes I'd ever read. As soon as I finished the last page, I turned to the front of the book and began reading DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! over again.

And that's how it went with every successive Kerr title -- IF I LOVE YOU, AM I TRAPPED FOREVER?; THE SON OF SOMEONE FAMOUS; IS THAT YOU, MISS BLUE...the list goes on and on. It wasn't for a few more years that I learned M.E. Kerr's real name was Marijane Meaker and that, long before she was Kerr, she had spent the fifties and sixties writing the best-suspense-books-ever as "Vin Packer," nonfiction as "Ann Aldrich" and "M.J. Meaker," and magazine fiction under all kinds of pseudonyms. (She later adopted the name "Mary James" when writing for middle-grade readers.) I spent some wonderful weekends visiting cobwebby old bookstores trying to track down each of those older titles, such as Vin Packer's THE EVIL FRIENDSHIP or THE DAMNATION OF ADAM BLESSING.

Many years later, when M.E. Kerr had her own website, run by another fan-turned-friend, Michelle Koh, I finally got up the nerve to contact Ms. Kerr and ask if she would autograph some of my books. I'd never done that before, but just really wanted to let her know how much her books had meant to me for over thirty years. We have kept in touch ever since then, and I've found the person behind the books -- Marijane Meaker -- to be just as funny, wry, thoughtful, kind, and big-hearted as one would expect from her novels. And it goes without saying that she knows how to tell a great story or anecdote in her letters...just like she does on the pages of her novels.

I'm so glad that our correspondence -- a rare, old-fashioned correspondence on paper with stamps and envelopes -- has continued for these last few years, so glad that I somehow made the transition from "fan" to "friend."

Incidentally, you saw what she inscribed in the proof copy of YOUR EYES IN STARS. Some months later, I received the hardcover edition:

The comment about "my turn" is quintessential Meaker. Marijane knew that I began writing fiction, switched over to nonfiction, but wanted to return to fiction-writing -- and she has consistently encouraged me in that endeavor. Going back as far as the 1950s, she has always encouraged other writers to create, to persevere, to publish. Over twenty years ago, she established the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop in East Hampton and continues to teach there today. Many published books have come out of that group -- often with the name "Marijane Meaker" mentioned in the acknowledgements or on the dedication page. That's a measure of how helpful and inspiring she is, as a teacher -- and as a friend. And now that I know the thrill of seeing my name on a dedication page, someday I hope it will be "my turn" to reciprocate by putting the name of MY "friend and fellow writer," M.E. Kerr, on the dedication page of a novel I write.


Anonymous said...

omg, Peter, that is so great. You must be walking on air. And when can we expect your next book?! Have you started it yet?

Bybee said...

Wow, that's great. And I agree with M.E.'s your turn.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late coming to this party (about 3 months late) but I have only recently discovered your blog and have been spending the afternoon reading old posts!

This one made me smile. I can imagine how exciting it was to find M.E. Kerr's books in the mail. I remember seeing a TV movie version of Dinky Hocker years and years ago... it starred (if I remember correctly) Wendy Jo Sperber of "Bosom Buddies"

I was fortunate enough to meet one of my favorite authors, Madeline L'Engle, and she graciously autographed books for me... so I can only imagine how thrilling it must be for you to be able to befriend one of your favorites!