Way back in 1976, someone, whom I have long ago forgotten, gave me a copy of The Letters of William Faulkner. I never read any such collection, and I could not imagine it would be worth my time. The friend asked me if I had read the book, but I pleaded too much work, too many things to read, but I would get to it. After the third request, I decided to spend a rainy weekend with Faulkner. I was completely surprised at how interesting the letters were. In one exchange, Faulkner wrote to his agent and his publisher begging for an advance because his electricity was about to be shut off. Exchanges with other writers became more and more frequent as time passed. He wrote to Ernest Hemingway begging forgiveness for an error he had missed in a manuscript.
I began collecting these (usually massive) books, and today I have nearly 100 books of letters of authors and other important historical figures. Letters by Jane Austen, John Cheever, Anton Chekhov, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, Robert Frost, Thackeray, Iris Murdoch, Boris Pasternak, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are the more notable writers I have. I also have letters of Mozart, Queen Elizabeth I, Sigmund Freud, and a few others in this category.
These are endlessly interesting, but my favorite letters in these collections include those that one author writes to another while discussing literature. Last week I struck a vein of pure gold. The New York Times reviewed a newly published collection of Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee.
I recently discovered Auster, and am working my way through his novels and memoirs. I have been reading Coetzee for a few years, and really like him as well.
The thing that draws me to these collections are the open, honest, and direct words from an author about his or her life and work. To see well-known writers pleading for money, or apologizing for some slip up, or personal correspondence between the writer and his or her family and friends, all shed a brilliant light on the real person behind covers of a novel or poetry or plays.
I haven’t read the Auster/Coetzee collection yet, but I know I am in for a pretty entertaining afternoon. If you have a favorite author, try and find a collection of their letters, I am willing to bet you will be much surprised.