Making Contact

Encounters with readers

Annie Dillard
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram

WHEN YOU PUBLISH A BOOK, people send you surprising letters.

a letter from a young woman began. “I have met the Wind. His name is Jim Longernecker. He is 20 and loves the weather; he is the Weather.”

As a novice he went swimming with his confreres in Lake Sagatagen, Minnesota, where a fish bit off the tip of his left nipple. It later grew back.

who performed autopsies on suspected homicide victims, wrote cheerful letters. He said he had a friend who greeted him by shaking his hand and whispering in his ear, “Anybody you want hurt?”

He sent a revision of a story he had sent me, he claimed, once before. “My name then was Oskar Viktorela; my name now is Bill Wilson. I do this not so much because I want your help in getting the stories published, … but because the stories are truly great literary documents. Because of their radical and profound nature, they are very threatening to the ruling class. Love, … ”

wrote to say that all summer she saw an odd, one-legged sandpiper. In place of his missing leg, someone had set a small wheel. She said he moved along the shore as smoothly as the other sandpipers. Nothing about this letter's context—its blue stationery, its well-bred handwriting, its courteous tone—led me to doubt her. The problem of attaching the wheel’s axle to the sandpiper’s skeleton, however, gave me pause. Perhaps some skilled veterinary surgeon actually did release a wheeled sandpiper on a beach, as a great gag, and prayed to God someone would see it.

I get a new letter telling me about God. A dozen little brown pamphlets fall out of the envelope. The pamphlets picture God in various homespuns, large-eyed, with various difficult names. The letter tells of the change in the life of the writer; it is dense with quotations from the Master. Other people tell me about Jesus. I write all these people back and say, “You're absolutely right.”

wrote to say he had named his Irish setter “Dillard”: “I wanted him to APPRECIATE the tick-tocking of NOW.”

got in touch with me. He sent me several pieces he’d written about my work. In his letter he said, pretty much as an aside, “I don't mean to bother you, but would you tell me if God is here watching his creation and deciding who lives and who dies, or is he gone?” His son drowned sailing a Sunfish. Did I happen to know if God directs events such as his son’s death? There was no hurry on my answer, he said; he was just curious.

called right before dinner. He had sent me a literate article he wrote for a medical journal about melanoma. As I was getting off the line, he delicately thanked me for spending an hour on the phone with him three years ago, when his wife had just died. I dimly, dimly remembered. His wife had just died; he had been drinking a little.

A reporter wrote. Her son, a doctor in Atlanta, was near death from Rocky Mountain spotted fever. She wanted to know why God was a maniac.

Another letter writer suggested a reasonable answer. This witty man from Plymouth, Massachusetts, said his wife has a notion that God is a gorilla. That is why we fear him; that is why things are so unexpectedly rough. One of the many beauties of this notion, he points out—in full awareness—is that it reconciles the views that man was created in the image of God and descended from primates.

From upstate New York, a man wrote a letter which read in its entirety: “Dear Annie, What is God’s last name?” (Many letters, even from educated writers, begin “Dear Annie.”)

The most startling letters contain dead insects, particularly moths.

A woman wrote from her grandson's hospital bedside. As he lay dying of Hodgkin’s disease, they read—she said—my book, and talked of many things. Now they had an urgent question. They agreed that I was the one to answer it. The question was: Was the United States RIGHT or WRONG to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima?

The most interesting thing about this amazing letter I learned later. The same letter has come to many other writers. Someone is putting us on.

sent a manuscript for me to praise, and a letter: “I don’t mean to sound chauvinistic, but you have a fantastic sense of humor for a woman.”

contain dead insects, particularly moths, which drop into my lap, fallen-off bent legs and all, when I least expect them, when I’m opening envelopes as fast as I can. People used to send Edwin Way Teale live tarantulas and scorpions in the mail. He dreaded little parcels. The people who write me simply throw the dead things in ordinary envelopes. If I'm quick I can spot a frizzy head or a pair of bristled antennae protruding from a folded letter. If I’m not quick, I unfold the letter unsuspecting, and the insects fall and shatter on the desk or tangle in my skirt.

called Holy the Firm, a new menace appeared in the mail: religious objects. Cards dropped out of envelopes from priests: a Mass was being said for me. Tinny medals crossed my desk, and microscopic shreds of fabric from Veronica's veil. A man sent three cards printed with photographs of the shroud of Turin. On the back of each card was printed a different prayer, each more or less addressed to the shroud itself. Once I unfolded a letter and a wafer fell out. It was white, translucent, stamped with a cross. I didn’t know where to put it. I laid it on a pile of papers on my desk. The letter said it wasn’t consecrated.

Recently I held an envelope up to the light—a precaution against surprises—and saw in silhouette a small, simple cross. The return address was that of a priest. I opened the envelope and shook it into my hand, but instead of a cross, a little agonized Christ fell out in my palm. I jumped. He must have fallen off his cross in the mail. He had bumps on the back of his hands where he’d been bronzed to the cross. I took a deep breath and threw it all away.

a sorrowing letter about one of her professors who had just been killed in the Santa Cruz, California, mud slide. She consoled herself with “He died a natural death.”

FROM CALIFORNIA, A MAN WROTE at length, in longhand, about the changes he supposed—on the evidence of my books—to have taken place in the depths of my being. He didn’t sign his letter but noted threateningly, “If you have have an intention to communicate with me, you will.” For a clue, he supplied the name of his cat: Sunshine.

of hospitality come in the mail, like this from a young woman in Alaska whose books I later read: “Anytime in the next 40 or 50 years… my dog team is at your service.” A Montana writer invited me to come live o mountainsides with a herd of bighorn sheep. A Maine man wrote a long, kind letter on strips of birchbark. The birchbark’s inner surface was smooth as vellum; it made a fine, formal stationery.

A college student wrote to inquire: What is transcendence, and how can I get more of it in my writing?

An Alaskan homesteader wrote to propose marriage; he added, “There is too much work here for one man.”

about me said, among a good many other things, that I smoked Vantages and spent time at the Hollins College snack bar. The next week I got an anonymous package from the Food and Drug Administration—under the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, in Rockville, Maryland—addressed to me at the Hollins College snack bar. It was a pack of Vantages.

A GENEROUS LETTER from a man named Geoffrey Manning ended, “Damned truly yours.”

from Chicago. Her paper was due the next month; she wanted the story of my life, a personal interview, and comments on the imagery in all of my books. This sort of demand arrives in writers’ mail every week; I mention it only because she concluded her long letter wonderfully: “I'm greatly looking forward to getting to know you in another dimension if that is possible. Please let me know if you can create time to fool with me.”

to inquire: What is transcendence, and how can I get more of it in my writing?

wrote, just as natural as you please: “There’s a girl in our class who wants to be a forester. She is always telling how she eats violets and things. She’s a good kid. I went to grammar school with her.”

began his letter, “Dear Annie, I'm Maurice Tomb.” He wanted to change his company’s format, “scrap 12 years of clientele,” and make “high-quality commercial films for the clients’ advertising dollar.” And would like to name the new company after one of my books: Tinker Creek Productions.

often echo the bizarre quality of the mail.

On a Cape Cod beach, a woman who happened to be a practicing psychotherapist said to me, “I read your book this morning. How long did it take you to write it?”

On the other hand: “I’m reading your book very slowly,” people say. At parties, that means they couldn’t get through it. In the mail, it means what it says. A guidance counselor from Massachusetts called me. “I’m reading your book very slowly,” he said. I was surprised he hadn’t finished it, because I recalled that he’d written me about it months ago. Later he said, “I’m reading your book very slowly. Because I have a special learning disability.”

A man called from New York; I talked to him because I knew his father long ago. He said he came to New York once a year from Coloardo and test-drove the new drugs. That day he'd taken speed, dropped LSD, eaten psilocybin, and smoked a couple of joints. His speech was more coherent than he thought it was. He wished me luck on my “next endeavor.” I said my next endeavor was understanding. He said his was “clarity.”

On an airplane I met two clothing designers, Christine and Zonda. Christine designed silk camisoles. Zonda did every sort of weird thing. After we talked about designing, they asked me what sort of books I wrote. “About nature.” Zonda gave me a dull, incredulous look. After a time, she brought out, absolutely disbelieving, “You mean like… birds?” “Sure,” I said, “birds and all sorts of things.” Again a long, swallowing pause, then: “What else IS there… other than birds?”

An English professor sent me a check for $2.50. I cashed the check.

MOST OF THE MAIL COMES from professors of one sort or another, and other writers. Outside academia, a great many doctors, it seems, find time to read. (Mystifyingly, most of the doctors who write me are internists.) Letters routinely arrive from members of what must surely be very small groups in our world: monks and sculptors. Photographers, lawyers, painters, publishers, businessmen and businesswomen: the usual run of people who read books, with, it seems, a surprising number of engineers. A brilliant letter, a real work of genius, came from a Florida woman who mentioned in the last paragraph that she had seven little children. (The letter was about the stations of the cross.) Who else? A hunting guide, a river runner, a minister named “Lefty.” A farmer who killed a snake; an airplane pilot from Sussex, England; a medical missionary; a retired abbot; a Black Muslim in prison in Philadelphia. A German writer and politician close to Willy Brandt, who referred to Pilger am Tinkerbach. Travelers write from exotic hotels. Europeans, Asian, South American, and African readers express exactly the same sentiments that those from the United States and Canada do, but more briefly.

A man from Arkansas asked, on an index card, what I thought of ferns.

A wonderful person who’d kept house for a woman all summer wrote that she used to read that woman’s hardbound copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek every night while crocheting. She liked it “because it stayed open.”

An ornithologist in Oregon was stunned that I’d written him a post-card; it took him a month, he said, to believe it was really from me. In the same mail, a writer from Boston dryly described my postcard response to her letter as “economical.” She sent in retaliation her life’s work for comment.

which began, “I live where the bounds of nonfiction ever expand and outward towards which you find yourself reaching. Here the Eve of Evolution eternally extemporizes in exquisitely detailed eloquence… If we are to know one another better and our spontaneous friendship is to be benignly regenerative, evolution will bring us together….”

a fossil fish: 230 million years old, Permian, before dinosaurs. It was black carbon now, lustrous as graphite. I lifted one fossilized scale from its fishy side, and wrote with it on paper. One man tied tumbleweeds to my mailbox. One sent a bronze sextant and a tube of toothpaste. One sent a weasel skull, three meteorites, and a Tibetan prayer wheel.

An English professor sent me a check for $2.50. He had read a Melvin Maddocks piece which quoted Cyril Connolly’s saying that we should tip authors. I didn't know what to make of the $2.50. I cashed the check.

from a wino who spent all his time on Maine rivers in a sailing canoe. What has become of him? He sent me pictures of his canoe; its sail was red. He made me crazy brown-paper dustcovers for all my books—from thick grocery store bags—on which he crayoned the books’ titles and drew his own jacket designs. And it is these covers I have on my own copies of my first three books. Has he died? No one would tell me if he died, sailing the rivers in his canoe, with his bottle of wine and box of crayons. Once he sent a lithograph of himself, drawn by a friend. It revealed a good-looking man of seventy or more, with a big head of white hair and strong features.

who wrote speeches for a university president. He commuted to work all winter on ice skates. Later he became a translator of Foucault. He used to read passages from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to his roommate. He described his roommate as “reading nothing but Northrop Frye.” He said, “I read him the part about finding a deer leg boiling on the stove, and he slammed his Northrop Frye shut and said, ‘That does it!’ and didn’t come back for two days.”

I believe there are only two reliable triggers for this connection: your writing and chocolate.

THEN THERE WAS A WISE, tough old bird in Florida. She sent me sea stars and Polaroid snapshots of her ex-husband's paintings. I gradually learned that she was an alcoholic. She wrote witty, emotional, smart letters. Once she made a whole pilaf out of one pope’s nose, she wrote—the pope’s nose of a turkey. Two years ago she sent me a silver medal, a carved lion as big as my hand’s palm, in low relief—all sterling silver. The medal was engraved, in a fine italic hand, with the word Grace. She sent the silver lion in a beautiful box, between sheets of cotton wool. Her letter, I saw in retrospect, said good-bye. A kind friend of hers wrote me a month later to say she had killed herself.

A poet wrote from a university. One morning, he said, he ate breakfast at a counter. The waitress was pretty and he was lonely, so he found himself saying, for openers, “Excuse me, do you—read?”

I heard from a collector of contemporary paintings who lived on a mountaintop in Virginia. He sent drawings of a new microscopic protozoan he had found in rainwater puddles on Bald Knob. He was, and I trust still is, the perfectly happy man, the one who collects rainwater and seawater. He had an instrument that projected onto his bedroom ceiling the live action visible through his microscope's lens, so he could open his eyes in the middle of the night and see the creatures swimming around, mating, eating, leading their lives. Someone sent him a small chunk of live coral from Florida; six months later he was still finding new things in it, every day. For years he has mailed ecstatic postcards from all over the world, filled with exclamation points in red ink, which announce new discoveries from scientific journals, and new microscopic excitements in seawater from many shores.

"Dear Miss Dillard, The other day upon leaving the Museum of Modern Art, I noticed Harper & Row’s place, so I dropped in to ask you how things were going at Tinker Creek. You weren’t in just then…”

on the West Coast, who lives on his ketch, sent me my third copy of Lives of a Cell. (Lewis Thomas told me that whenever he opened a package that year, he was likely to find yet another copy of my book.) Nothing surprises me.

A poet from Nova Scotia sent a cotton quilt; a nineteenth-century illustrated Lord’s Prayer poster; some rainbow thread; some “excellent apricots” (that’s what the wrapper said); many books; a mysterious pair of socks printed with the legend, “100% unknown fibers / 100% fibres inconnues”; and a Canadian park ranger’s embroidered insignia: “Naturalist / Naturaliste.” He also sent an enormous hanging map of the world, brightly colored, which pictures, in the major oceans, Cadbury’s chocolate bars.

A doctor has sent, over the years, bronze sculptures, gold necklaces, canned crabmeat, drafting instruments, a hand-bearing compass for boating, a summit pack for mountain climbing, a French easel, many toy robots, perfumes, gold pens, stationery, wristwatches, leather handbags, and perfumes. When I begged him to desist, he said he enjoyed sending presents.

People send magazine subscriptions, photographs, sculptures, cartoons, slides, paintings, books, poems, offprints from scholarly journals, notepaper, calendars, and assorted natural debris: leaves, feathers, flowers, bones. A lawyer sent an Easter chick in a basket. A professor sent a dozen hand-tied flies. A physicist from Princeton Laboratories sent a pocket-sized light polarizer, to help locate fish underwater. A Pennsylvania traveler sent glacial water, skulls, placer gold, Navajo shards, beads, josephenite, and turquoise. A molecular biologist sent a chart of the Rappahannock River and a feather from an Egyptian scarlet ibis.

of narratives called Teaching a Stone to Talk. Someone wrote, “I just finished Teaching a Stone to Talk. The book, I mean.”

of unlicensed literary theory called Living by Fiction. After it came out I got a letter from a woman in New York who said she liked it so much she read it to her cat.

Just this morning I opened a letter from a flight attendant in Miami. She invited me to visit her, saying, “You are my friend, Annie Dillard, you are my true fucking friend.”

In the same batch of mail, a professor invites me to come to his conference and get myself “cross-fertilized.”

A reader from upstate New York enthusiastically describes other worlds, which you get to by staring at a bean.

Last on this morning’s stack is a letter bearing an Army Post Office address from Honduras, dated 7 Enero 1988. “I read your books at times when I am desperate for contact, for contact with something good and true within me. I believe there are only two reliable triggers for this connection: your writing and chocolate. I am grateful to have two.”

Annie Dillard is an American writer who has published essays, poems, and a novel. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1974 work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Originally published:
July 1, 1988


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