Category Archives: mail

Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

This morning I had the pleasure of going to the post office to send an inscribed copy of Washington Irving to a former U.S. Ambassador to Spain, who was thrilled to learn I had written about his illustrious predecessor. I’m always pleased when Irving gets recognition beyond his literary accomplishments, and it’s an honor to send my book to the ambassador.

Even closer to the home front, we’re in the process of having a geothermal heating and cooling system installed here at Chestnut Hill. Our house was built back in the late 1930s, well before the days of air conditioning, so we’ve spent our last few summers improvising ways to keep the house cool. We settled on window units for the bedrooms, which works well enough for sleeping at night, but the rest of the time . . . well, let’s just say we have an understanding of what life was like in the 19th century.

Heating was another matter. Our house was built for steam heat, meaning we have hot water running through radiators throughout the house, all heated by a boiler in the basement that burns heating fuel. When we moved in five years ago, the boiler in the basement was the original, a half-ton monstrosity that looked like it could power the Titanic. Since then, we’ve replaced the boiler with a new, more efficient model, and it all works well enough . . . but with fuel prices going through the ceiling, we’ve been working hard to get the heating fuel monkey off our backs.

We decided on a geothermal system, as opposed to a traditional heat pump, because we wanted to get a system that was not only more efficient, but better for the planet. Unlike a traditional heating/cooling system — which sucks in hot air which it then cools down to blow as air conditioning in your house during the summer, and cold air, which it then heats up to blow as heat in the winter — a geothermal system takes air from the rock-steady 60-degreeish temperature of the earth and converts it into air conditioning or heat.

So this week, the hammers are flying, saws are rasping, and drills are, er, drilling as our crew of HVAC fellows retrofit our 1930s stone farmhouse with ducts, vents, blowers and returns, squeezing ducts into tight corners of our crawl space, and fitting vents into thick horsehair-plaster walls. Next week, the drilling crew comes to drill two 350-foot wells in our back yard, from which a pipe will run, carrying a water/alcohol solution over to the AC/heating unit, which will then be blown into the house to provide the correct amount of heating or cooling.

I know. I don’t understand how it works either.

The Marvelous Mr. Gaiman

There are delightful moments in your life when people completely meet (and indeed, exceed) your expectations. I’m going to tell you about one of them.

A bit of background first.

Until the very moment I was in the midst of it, the process of bookmaking was completely foreign to me. I had no idea what any of the lingo meant, and I had never heard, for example, the term advance reading copy. For those of you playing along at home, an advance reading copy, or ARC, as they call it, is a paperback version of your book that is sent out to book reviewers, like Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly, for them to read, and hopefully review, in the months and weeks leading up to the final publication of your book to give you a bit of advance buzz. The ARC is by no means final — you can still work out kinks, make edits, change the cover, and so on — but it marks the first time you’ve put on your new suit to see if it fits and make an appearance in public. It gives you a feel for what your book might look like when it’s finally ready for production, and for an author, it’s an exciting, if nervewracking, moment. And when I got mine, I was so thrilled to have that thing in my hands that I just had to show it off. And in an enormous fit of . . . I dunno, insanity, or something, I decided that one of the people I wanted to show it to was someone I admired immensely, and whose work meant a lot to me: Neil Gaiman.

Now, I’ve been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s since waaaay back. Even before he was Mister New York Times Bestselling Novelist Guy, we comic nerds had already laid claims to him as One Of Ours — and, yes, as much as it pains me to admit it, we were loathe at first to share him with the rest of you. But we got over it. Anyway, I even had a front row seat, of sorts, to his rise from comic book icon (it’s generally agreed that if there’s a comics Mount Rushmore, Gaiman’s face is on it, along with Alan Moore‘s, Frank Miller‘s and, I would argue, Harvey Kurtzman‘s. No, wait — Will Eisner‘s. No, wait . . . ) to world phenom.

As I’ve mentioned before, I worked in a comic book store in the late 1980s. And while I often rolled my eyes at the tastes of the store’s manager (who was more interested in hoarding boxes of G.I. Joe, and exploiting the booming sports card trade), to his credit, he did allow those of us behind the counter to order all sorts of obscure titles, including British comics and magazines, like 2000 A.D. I had initially started picking up 2000 A.D. because I knew Alan Moore had been a contributor — but even after Moore had abandoned its pages for Saga of the Swamp Thing and other projects on this side of the pond, I still regularly flipped through it each week. So I had seen Neil Gaiman’s name on a few stories (if I remember correctly, he usually wrote for the EC-ish “Future Shocks!”) and — even better — I had heard he was a friend of Alan Moore’s. So I was already keeping an eye on this upstart when he began his assault on American comics with Black Orchid (yes, that was first) and then Sandman. And you probably know the rest.

That’s a roundabout way of saying I’ve been a fan since just about forever. What’s more, I’ve read just about every article about or interview with him that I could find, and he always struck me as a genuinely nice guy — so nice, in fact, that I’m quite certain he has plenty of punks like me making demands on his time and patience, simply because he seems so approachable.

So approachable, in fact, that in late September 2007, I e-mailed him through his website and, trying hard not to geek out too much, asked if I could send him one of my ARCs just because … well, y’know, I really like him. Several days later, I had an e-mail from him. “Sounds great! Thank you!” he wrote, and provided me with a mailing address where I could send it. Nice.

Off the package went, with yet another gushy note, and I thought no more of it, happy just knowing that it was sitting somewhere in the Gaiman Emporium of Stuff.

Two weeks later, I found in my mailbox an eggshell-colored envelope addressed to me in a thick blue cursive, with its stamps cancelled, but no return address. I opened it, and eased out the correspondence card inside — one of those classy cards of a weighty stock that are almost heavy in your hand. The name NEIL GAIMAN was inscribed across the top in all caps. The same blue cursive continued on the card inside:

Dear Brian:

Thanks SO much for the Washington Irving biography. I’m looking forward to reading it. Probably by the time I do, it will have won many awards and graced all sorts of best seller lists.

Good luck!

Neil Gaiman

Now, how neat is that? Neil (if I may call him that) didn’t know me from Adam. Further, I knew from reading his blog that he’d been incredibly busy over the past few weeks, traveling extensively and putting the finishing touches on Odd and the Frost Giants. And yet, he had taken a moment to write a few kind lines to an admirer. He didn’t have to do anything at all, but he did–because Neil Gaiman was–is–a true gentleman.

I’ve got his card framed and hanging in my office as a constant reminder of how decent people can be. Not, when it comes to Neil Gaiman, that I really need reminding. He was everything I expected.

Apple Blossom Time

One of my very favorite things to do in the whole wide world is get the mail. Not e-mail, mind you, but honest-to-gosh postal mail. Very analog of me, I know, but I love opening up the box we have nailed to the old maple tree in our yard and seeing it crammed full of stiff white envelopes, magazines, and, on a good day, that E-Ticket of mail, The Package. (Come on, is there anyone here who doesn’t love seeing that smiling box?)

The other day, however, it wasn’t a package that made my day, it was one of the envelopes. This one was a yellow envelope, and the return address on it was one of my favorite places in the world, Historic Hudson Valley, of White Plains, New York. The fine folks at HHV, as they call themselves, were incredibly nice and helpful as I was working on Washington Irving, so any correspondence from them is always a treat. I opened it, and inside was a small, sealed envelope, with a cover note from Kate Johnson, curator of HHV. “This letter came in for you,” Kate’s note said in her perfect, spidery script, “so I am sending it on.”

The enclosed envelope — with a Rancho Cordova, California return address — had been sent to HHV, but addressed to my attention. I turned it over; “Thank you” had been written across the back tab of the envelope. Gently, I nudged it open, and slid out the card inside, a crisp white notecard with a painting of apple blossoms on the front. “My very dear Sir,” the note began, in a spiky cursive:

Thank you for the beautiful reading days you have given us with ‘Washington Irving.’ A work of art coming in with the arrival of Spring.

Sincerely yours,

Carlotta Monteverde (*)

All I can say is: wow. That small note made my day, week, month, maybe even year.

The fact that someone read and enjoyed my book — someone I don’t know — and then took the additional time to sit down, write a note, and mail it, is all at once so sweet, flattering, humbling, and inspiring. I’ve been well reviewed in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Associated Press, but I must tell you, no review means more than the kind words of a reader. To know it’s been in the hands of someone 3,000 miles away who read it and enjoyed it — and enjoyed it enough to write — really makes it all worthwhile.

In all my days as a reader, I don’t think I’ve ever once dropped an author a personal note to tell them how much I appreciated their work — I think my assumption was always “Ahhhh, why bother? They’ll never get it.” Because of Carlotta, I’m going to change that assumption. I’m going to start letting writers know when their work has touched, inspired, or just flat out entertained me. Because it sure meant a lot when someone took the time to do it for me.

I wrote Carlotta a card in return, thanking her for beautiful note — and I meant every word of it. Those apple blossoms on her card may have been a portend of the weather that’s to come, but it was the sentiment inside, in Carlotta’s sprawling handwriting, that truly brought Spring here early.

(*) Name changed to protect and respect the sender’s privacy.