A Roadtrip with Author Dean Koontz Results in Tears (and a surprise ending)

A recent article in the New York Times by Rachael Bedard, a geriatrician and palliative-care physician in New York City, attracted my immediate attention this morning. It was titled, “The Case for Writing Fan Mail.”

“When I’m truly possessed by an artist’s work, I let them know,”
Bedard writes. “It’s a way to turn distant admiration into intimacy, even
when they don’t reply.”

Her thoughts immediately brought to mind the wonderful writers’ class I’d
taken in Asheville, “The Literary Ecosystem.” And that, naturally, led to thoughts of a roadtrip Tom and I had once taken with author Dean Koontz.

Lauren Harr and Caroline Green Christopoulos of Gold Leaf Literary Services, (both of whom have an association with Asheville’s wonderful independent bookstore, Malaprop’s), taught the class, which revealed the inner workings of the publishing world, along with insights for how to work with agents, publishers, and bookstores.

I loved the class. Our weekly homework was to write a letter of appreciation
to an author whose writing we admired. As a big fan of letters & letter writing, this appealed to me. Letters were composed and written to Swedish author, Fredrik Backman (sent with a photograph of my own ‘wurse’-chewed copy of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry); Liz Gilbert (thanking her for coming to Asheville on my birthday); and Frances Mayes, author of Under The Tuscan Sun,  thanking her for her recent visit to Asheville during which she shared with me a fascinating anecdote about Italy and Ethiopia, which, despite years of research, I was unaware of. I don’t know if my letters ever reached them, for none of them responded.

But, as Bedard says, you don’t necessary write in order to get a response.

“Writing fan mail creates an opportunity to take pleasure in my own
intemperate passions,” she says. “Articulating what turns me on about beautiful work transforms distant admiration into intimacy. I do not send these letters to receive a response. Instead, my fan mail is correspondence in the same sense that prayers or blessings are correspondence … making no demands of the recipient.”

I write my own mash notes to authors both because I admire someone’s work, but also to convey that sense of connection, which is so important to me in my own writings. I know how heartwarming it is to actually get a response from someone ‘out there.’

morning coffee with my girl

Not long ago, my beautiful and slightly ridiculous large white dog, Klejne suddenly passed away. I hadn’t realized she was ill until the very last day of her life. Like so many who have lost pets, I couldn’t find words to express the enormity of the loss of my beloved companion of more than a dozen years.

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Almost everything I did, Klejne did with me. Each day, she was by my side in my studio. On the evenings and weekends, we explored Asheville and the mountains of  Western North Carolina hiking thousands of miles together.

And so, when Tom showed me photos of a litter of puppies his cousin Celeste’s dog had recently given birth to, I shook my head. It was too soon, I didn’t want a puppy. I just wanted Klejne back.

Two weeks later, he showed me another photo of the puppies. This time one of them – “little boy green” – reminded me of Klejne as a puppy. I took it as a sign and said okay.

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To my surprise, Tom said he would get one of little boy green’s siblings. And a few weeks later, we were on our way to Grand Rapids to pick up our new pups.

In preparation for the 22-hour round trip journey by car, Tom had thoughtfully downloaded several books on Audible. We passed through Tennessee listening to A Confederacy of Dunces but lightened things up a bit in Kentucky and Ohio with James Herriot’s All Creatures Great & Small.

Somewhere in Ohio or Indiana, Tom said, “Hey, I downloaded something especially for you.” It was Dean Koontz’s A Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog Named Trixie.

I was skeptical. Koontz writes suspense thrillers that often incorporate elements of horrors, fantasy, science fiction, mystery and satire – not my go-to genres.

“I think you’ll like this one,” Tom said with a smile, pushing play.

He was right. Koontz has me with his opening lines.

“She arrived with her name, Trixie. I joked sometimes that it sounded more like a stripper than a dog. But if it sounded more like a stripper than a dog, it sounded more like an elf or a fairy than a stripper. Elves and fairies are magical beings, and so was she.”

The miles rolled by as Koontz read to us. So much of what he had written about his golden retriever, Trixie, reminded me of Klejne, my half-golden. Close to midnight, we stopped in Greensburg, Indiana to sleep for a few hours, pausing to save the last chapters of the book for the final part of our journey.

On the road again the following morning, we pressed play and settled back in to spend time with Trixie. Within moments, however, it appeared that things had suddenly taken a turn for the worse in her life.

Driving 70 miles-an-hour along the Interstate, tears began to flow freely as we listened in horror. Trixie’s happy life had suddenly taken a medical turn for the worse, mirroring exactly the ailments and trauma I had just gone through with Klejne.

“How could you do this to me?!” I asked Tom, crying.

“I forgot how it ended!” he answered, crying.

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We arrived at our destination with red-rimmed eyes.

But isn’t it a wonder how the scent of a warm puppy wriggling in your arms can dispel even the bleakest of moods? All was forgiven the moment I picked up little boy green. I decided to name him “Kiitos,” which means ‘thank you’ in Finnish.

We returned to Asheville with our new puppies in time for my weekly “Literary Ecosystem” class. This week’s homework, I decided, would be to write a letter to Dean Koontz telling him the story of driving to Grand Rapids in tears. I mailed the card with a photo and the story of Klejne to him and soon forgot about it.

Two weeks later, however, a package arrived covered with beautiful stamps.

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To my great surprise, it was from Dean Koontz.

I tore it open and found a hardback copy of his book with a handwritten note to me from him inside.

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I was overwhelmed.

That an author of his stature and success would take the time to pen the perfect condolence note to me on the loss of my dog created an emotional moment of connection I will never forget.

So yes, for whatever reason – connection or simply to express yourself in words – write a letter to someone whose art or writing or music has touched you. Let them know how they made you feel.

photo by T.
In loving memory of Klejne [photo by Tom]

 

 

 

 

 

Author: kristin fellows

Documentary film consultant, writer & photographer Kristin Fellows is based in Asheville, North Carolina. She has worked as a documentary film consultant for more than 125 films on a multitude of topics. Kristin’s adventures in the past several years have taken her to Iceland to hike volcanoes and photograph puffins; to Barcelona, Mexico, Addis Ababa, and New Orleans for street photography; and most recently, to Athens for a big fat Greek wedding, to Helsinki to get beaten with frozen birch branches in the city’s oldest public sauna, to Portugal to track down the backdrop of an old photograph, and to Italy to travel in the footsteps of her late grandmother. Her travel articles have been featured in Pink Pangea, a travel blog for female travelers, and other publications. Her photograph, “Skywalker,” was chosen as a National Geographic Photo of the Day in 2015. Kristin is very nearly finished with her first book, "Lions, Peacocks & Lemon Trees" – a travel memoir that follows a collection of old letters half way around the world, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Ethiopia to Portugal and Italy. Educated in both London and the US, Kristin also has a cherished diploma from Álfaskólinn, the Icelandic Elf School. Kristin is the niece of the late New York Times foreign correspondent, Lawrence Fellows. Follow Kristin on this blog and on Instagram @ kristinfellowsphotographswords

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