When I was a teenager, my main pasttime was reading. I would borrow a dozen books at a time and spend weekends draped over my bed or curled up in my papasan chair, devouring my hometown library's Young Adult section in giant bites of dragons and vampires and wizards, pausing only for meals. I couldn't read fast enough: I was always hungry for more.
Then I met the goblins.
It was like any other book at first. I liked the strong female protagonist, who was fiercely independently-minded, protective of her spunky little sister, and wonderfully defiant. It was a good story which I enjoyed and returned with a pile of other books I had enjoyed. But quietly, ever so quietly, the goblins snuck into my head and set up camp.
I hadn't paid much attention to the goblins. They were just another faerie-type species that happened to be the one in this novel. But I felt like I'd missed something, and the book ended up in another bout of library borrowing, and I read it over and over again.
I found myself borrowing the book repeatedly over the years. The goblins were...different. It wasn't goblins like I'd seen them before. There was the strong figure of the Goblin King, but there was clearly more background to the goblin culture than I was getting in the book. That wasn't something I came across often in my voracious fantasy addiction. These goblins felt new. The author had somehow created a culture that felt completely original.
Most books felt like re-telling of stories I'd read before. I was all right with that. It was still enjoyable. But these goblins were something else. The Hollow Kingdom didn't feel like a story I had read before. Maybe it was something original. Or maybe it was like tons of other stories I simply hadn't yet run across. But I couldn't figure out which one it was. And if it was new, I couldn't figure out how the author did it.
So I asked her.
I wrote Clare Dunkle an extremely excited letter with lots of gushing and lots of questions. I didn't expect an answer, and I didn't know how long it would take to get to her since I'd mailed it to the address of her publisher. The envelope that arrived in my mailbox many months later was so thick you couldn't bend it. It encased a single-spaced, double-sided, multi-page letter along with a handful of printed pages on creating fantasy worlds from a section of her website where she has advice to aspiring young writers.
I was so excited about the letter, I couldn't even read it at first. The sheer length was overpowering. I was like a child in a candy shop, on the verge of a tantrum because it is impossible to eat every single candy at once.
I couldn't read it all in one burst of skimming, like I read books. I had to read every single word, comprehend every single sentence. She apologized for the delay in her response due to my letter having to "percolate the Holt system." I had to get out a dictionary. I used it several times. I learned what a motif was.
Clare's response to my letter was incredibly gracious and generous. She wrote about her childhood reading books on mythology in the library where her mother worked, she recommended mythology books, she named several other fantasy novels that referenced some of the same folklore that had inspired The Hollow Kingdom, and she explained more about her "if-then" thinking that she talks about in her ideas on creating fantasy worlds. It was so gracious and generous that, years later when I was a freshman at Purdue, I felt compelled to write her back and thank her for her lovely letter and give her a brief update on how my life had changed.
And she responded again. Thanking me for my letter.
Clare's methods continue to fascinate me, and I still return to her website on occasion to browse through her thoughts on writing characters that are neither completely good nor completely evil and fantasy cultures that are complicated and flawed, like all cultures.
Clare's book surprised me, and Clare herself surprised me. The Hollow Kingdom made me realize that not all books are pretty much just like any other. The author made me realize that authors aren't mysterious celebrities with superpowers but are people who work at writing, just like me. Clare's generosity in her correspondence with me and her vast online resources for young writers and her readers, coupled with the fascinating qualities of her novel, is sheer inspiration.
The woman is a superstar.
I think I'll write her again and tell her so.
Have you ever contacted someone you admire and been astounded by the response?