BACK IN THE OLDEN DAYS before the Internet, I had very few correspondents, and most of them wanted money. But the rise of electronic mail has brought down the traditional barriers to correspondence, at least if you make your e-mail address available online, which, like all lonely people, I do. (It probably didn’t help that I began to publish controversial books and articles just as e-mail use was ramping up.) As a result, my circle of correspondents has increased by a factor of several hundred, and that’s not including the many kind folks who seem concerned about my sexual health.
That’s what I love about my new correspondents: They’re so uninhibited. Take my friend Shep. He saw a photo of me barefoot a few years back and sent the following note: “Damn, Steve, you’ve got some of the hottest feet on the planet. (Yeah, I’m a dude with a foot/sock fetish.) A pic of you in stinky dirty white socks would definitely do me in.”
My first instinct was to send Shep a few soft-lit portraits featuring grubby tube socks. But my wife, who doesn’t quite realize how hot my feet are, felt this would be ill-advised.
A young woman named Kristina wrote seeking permission to translate my story collection My Life in Heavy Metal into Croatian. After spending months trying to settle on a title that would capture the book’s essence for Croatian readers, she sent this note: “I think I have the perfect title. I’ve discuss it with lot of people and they think it’s sexy and juicy. So here it is: SEXBURGER (made in U.S.A.)”.
No emoticon on earth can convey the pride I felt.
Unfortunately, not all my correspondents are so fawning. I get a lot of hate mail about my political writing. A distant cousin wrote to inform me that he found me “an embarrassment.” A retired Marine named Jack issued a series of colorful threats, then compared me to Hitler and Stalin. A third made disparaging remarks about my procreative equipment. (On the bright side, I don’t think he was trying to sell me anything.)
Occasionally, I hear from students who have been assigned the unenviable task of giving an oral report on one of my stories. These entreaties tend to arrive in my in-box 48 hours before the report is due. My favorite came from a guy named Alex, who wrote late one night to ask for some juicy personal facts and a crazy photo, which he needed by 9 the next morning. “Sorry I didn’t get you this email earlier but thats [sic] why I attend community college,” he concluded. I sent him a photo of myself with the word “failure” written on my forehead in Sharpie. He received an A.
Other requests are a bit more formal. A gentleman named Jenk wrote from Turkey to announce he was preparing a thesis on my work. There was one catch: “I never heard before your name or read any publication of you. Sorry. A bitt lazzy about you.” Jenk then asked me to provide him a topic for his thesis. I wrote back to suggest, perhaps lazzily, that he read some of my work and come up with his own thesis. Jenk was lukewarm on this notion. We went back and forth for weeks before I realized my compulsion to engage with any and all correspondents was eating up most of my actual writing time.
“Dear Jenk,” I wrote, “I have what I believe is a perfect subject for your thesis: Themes of Foot Fetishism in the Work of Steve Almond, SEXBURGER (made in U.S.A.).”
I never heard back.