Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Corresponding with a Character in a Book

Many people send fan mail to their favorite writers, but has anyone ever written a letter to a CHARACTER in a novel?

I have.

Previously in this blog I’ve spoken of an experiment that the American Library Association conducted in the early 1970s, publishing lists of books that were nominated for each year’s Newbery and Caldecott award. I’d always try to read as many of the nominated titles as I could. Mostly I borrowed the books from the library, but occasionally I’d save up a little of my paper route money and order one or two from the bookstore. In the fall of 1974, I ordered three books off the list and, amazingly, all three turned out to be life-changing favorites that I have continued to read over and over again through the years: William Sleator’s HOUSE OF STAIRS, Ellen Raskin’s FIGGS AND PHANTOMS, and Sandra Scoppettone’s TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU.

One of the things I liked best about TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU was how contemporary and real this novel felt. It’s set in the summer of 1973 and, as I read the book in the late fall of 1974, I could completely relate to the characters. After all, they were practically my peers. They dressed like me and my friends, spoke like us, listened to the same music (Carole King, Jim Croce), and went to the same movies we did. Today when I read the book it still transports me right back to the summer of 1973.

Sandra Scoppettone only wrote a few more young adult novels (THE LATE GREAT ME, 1976; HAPPY ENDINGS ARE ALL ALIKE, 1978; LONG TIME BETWEEN KISSES, 1982, and PLAYING MURDER, 1985) and because she wrote about “hot topics” (homosexuality, alcoholism, rape, multiple sclerosis) she was often unfairly labeled an author of “teenage problem novels.” The critics didn’t always note her genius for realistic dialogue or the incisive, highly sympathetic characterizations that made her books rise far above the “problem novel” category.

Ms. Scoppettone definitely had a gift for creating characters you wished you knew personally...could hang out with...call on the phone...correspond with. I actually had a literary crush on Camilla Crawford, the likable -- even lovable -- narrator of TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU and didn’t realize I’d picked up one of her catchphrases until someone mentioned how often I said, “I find that hard to believe.”

But I didn’t write a letter to Camilla Crawford. I wrote to another character in the book.

This happened several years after the publication of TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU. By then I was crazy about a new show on television, a domestic drama called FAMILY, starring theater actress Sada Thompson, actor James Broderick (before anyone knew he had a son named Matthew), Meredith Baxter (before she had a TV son named Michael J. Fox), Gary Frank, and Kristy McNichol. I watched the show every Tuesday night and devoured every article I could find about the series. Back then there were dozens of TV and movie magazines with names like MODERN SCREEN, SILVER SCREEN, TV MIRROR, HOLLYWOOD GOSSIP...on and on. One day I was standing in the bookstore flipping through one of these publications and saw a column by the magazine’s editor, Elissa Rosner. I immediately did a double-take. Where did I know that name from? Then I remembered. TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU was dedicated to someone named Elissa Rosner --

-- AND a character named Elissa even appears in the book! In the story she runs “Elissa’s Bookstore,” which Camilla calls “one of the coziest and nicest bookstores I’ve ever been in.” Elissa is described as the type of “warm and sunny” person who offers her customers a free cup of coffee and a cookie, someone who “never made you feel foolish about the books you bought” and is so supportive of the local kids that “this past June she came to an assembly to hear Billy Shipley give his campaign speech for president of student council. Billy’s parents weren’t even there.”

In other words, she’s another of Scoppettone’s supremely likable characters.

The photo of the magazine editor looked exactly like I pictured Elissa in the novel. (Strange, because the character’s appearance is not even described in the book. But I had conjured up a mental picture of the character and she was a dead ringer for the woman shown in the gossip magazine.) I’m sure there is probably more than one person in the world named “Elissa Rosner,” but somehow I knew this had to be the same one depicted in the book.

So I wrote her a note in care of the magazine, ostensibly to ask a question about FAMILY but really just to say, “Are you THE Elissa from TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU?” I even included a stamp so she’d write me back.

A week or so later I received a letter in the mail from “Sterling’s Magazines” on Lexington Avenue in New York. If you click on this image you can enlarge it and read it for yourself:

I immediately glued the letter into a scrapbook. Hokey? Well, how often do you hear from someone who was featured as a character in one of your favorite books? Who lives and works in New York City (someplace I never expected to visit in my life)? Someone who edits and writes for a magazine (something I could only dream about doing)? Someone who goes to see “live theater” (something I’d never done before)? ...And she even sent my thirteen cent stamp back!

Well, obviously the cost of postage has changed a lot since then. And so have many other things.

Sandra Scoppettone began writing primarily for adults, both under her own name (SOME UNKNOWN PERSON, 1977, is a real stunner) and as “Jack Early” (check out 1988’s DONATO & DAUGHTER.) Her private investigators Lauren Laurano and Faye Quick (each featured in her own series) are as winsome and likable as the protagonists in her young adult books.

As for me, I actually did get to visit New York eventually. I’ve gotten to know other editors and have written for magazines. I’ve seen lots of live theater and have even seen Sada Thompson on stage.

But I still treasure the letter I got from Elissa Rosner in 1977. After all, how many people can say they’ve written to a character in a favorite book? And actually gotten an answer back!


Sandra Scoppettone said...

Hello Peter,
I'm printing out your post and giving it to Elissa. We're still very close friends. We both live once more on the North Fork of Long Island and talk on the phone almost everyday and meet once a week for lunch.

Thank you for all the wonderful things you said about my writing. You've made my day.


Daughter Number Three said...

Peter (and Sandra! how exciting to comment after you!),

I have long loved Trying Had to Hear You also. I only have a paperback copy myself, but I remember the original cover you posted from my first reading. It was lovely to see it again.

I recently reread THTHY after reading a couple of Nancy Gardner's teenaged "gay problem novels" and disliking them... and was reminded (as you write) of how great Sandra's characters are (and how emotionally moving the story is).

During my post-Nancy-Gardner reading jag I also revisted Lynn Hall's Sticks and Stones, another lyrical, nuanced treatment of homophobia. (Which also has a great illustration on its cover by acclaimed graphic designer Milton Glaser. I am lucky enough to own a copy of that in hardcover!)

Thanks for a great post!


Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hello Sandra S.,

I'm honored that you visited my blog and am glad to have this opportunity to thank you for all your wonderful books -- from your young adult titles to the more recent BEAUTIFUL RAGE and the Faye Quick books; I own all of them and often re-read them.

Maybe I'll write a separate blog about this one day, but since I have your ear right now, I want to especially thank you for one particular scene in TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU. Without giving away too much to those who have not yet read the book, there is a funeral scene toward the end of the novel in which Camilla begins to have a panic attack and then calms herself down with some thoughts about death and how she plans to live her life. Her words of wisdom are something we could all live by! Thank you for that -- and for everything else that you've written!

And please give my regards to Elissa R.; I'm glad to hear she's alive and well and still a close friend.


Hi Daughter Number 3:

Yes, isn't it exciting when an author drops by and leaves a comment?

You mention having a paperback copy of TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU. For years I only had the original hardcover, but I've re-read the novel so often (I always read it every summer because it's such a summertime book) that I was fearful that my hardcover would fall apart...so I bought a second copy -- just in case!

I'm also a fan of Lynn Hall and plan to write a blog entry about her in the future.

Thanks for stopping by,