Heinlein's fan-mail solution

George sez, "Kevin Kelly describes how Robert Heinlein dealt with fan mail before PCs."

Heinlein engineered his own nerdy solution to a problem common to famous authors: how to deal with fan mail. In the days before the internet, Heinlein's solution was fabulous. He created a one page FAQ answer sheet -- minus the questions. Then he, or rather his wife Ginny, checked off the appropriate answer and mailed it back. While getting a form letter back might be thought rude, it was much better than being ignored, and besides, the other questions you did not ask were also answered! Indeed, it is both remarkable and heartwarming that Heinlein replied at all to most mail. Can you imagine other great authors doing the same -- even with a form letter? Heinlein's form is very entertaining to read because you are forced to reconstruct the missing requests.
I love these, especially the slightly grumpy ones about whether authors can be reasonably expected to answer essay questions as part of a student's homework assignment! Oh, and the answer to "I love your work, but your latest story stank," is spot-on perfect. Heinlein's Fan Mail Solution (Thanks, George!)


  1. Did he at least sign the letters? That would have doubled the awesomeness of his amusing form letter.

  2. …Today, RAH would have been on a moderated usenet newsgroup – run by the same twits who shielded JMS on b5.moderated and kept out everyone but their clique who had *intelligent* questions! – and that FAQ would have been posted at least once a week. It would have probably added a couple of answers:

    ( ) Sorry, I do not write fans into my novels.

    ( ) I do not approve of fanfics showing that democracy does work.

    ( ) I am above flaming you, other than to say please don’t waste your bandwidth flaming me in the future. I still won’t kill you in my next novel.

  3. When I was a freshly minted grup in college, I sent a fan letter to Isaac Asimov and got a typed postcard back. I was living away from him and lonely and discouraged. Two sentences, compassionate and concise and a personal signature. I treasured it for years till I misplaced it in a move.

  4. I can see something like this still working today, with the fan not being able to notice–ah, the wonders of “copy + paste.”

  5. when i was in college, i wrote a gushing fan letter to roger zelazny, and he sent me a wonderful handwritten postcard in return, thanking me. he was very nice, answered my big question, and wished me well in life. i treasure it. i was so sad when he died.

  6. (x) Thanks for your post. You have made my day brighter.

    #3: “I was living away from him” – Freudian slip? ;)

  7. I wrote a fan email to Tamora Pierce once (is it sad that I wrote a fan email to a YA author when I was in college?) and totally forgot about it until she replied over a year later. I thought that was nice of her, clearly she gets a LOT of email if it took that long to reply.

  8. So … who’s going to report on the two articles RAH included as possible answers to (presumably) frequently asked questions?

  9. I wrote Mr. Heinlein in 1981, and got back a personal letter. The first two sentences are as listed above, but it was followed by his comment that he wrote me back because my letter was both nice and noted that I clearly didn’t expect a reply. It was and is a nice thing to have. As a senior in high school, it was a fantastic thing to receive.

    I found out in that same time frame that he did form letters, but this wasn’t one, which made it much nicer.

  10. I also received a nice reply from Roger Zelazny. I was in middle school and wrote to him for a “write to your favorite author” assignment. He sent me a fantastic note which I have to this day.

    When I looked back on it a few years later I realized that he took the time to reply to me in the last year of his life. He was truly a great author.

  11. Stephen King uses that same “has to choose between writing to fans or writing fiction” line, as I found out in middle school.

  12. Wrote a fan letter to Asimov, not good by any measure, got it published on his magazine where he gracefuly commented. Still a treasure, despite my fanboy demeanor.

  13. I wrote a fan letter to Arthur C. Clarke in the ’70s, and got back a form letter pretty much the same as Heinlein’s (different answers, but the same format). He included a couple written comments in the margins, but mostly just highlighted the relevant answers.

  14. I got a form letter like that from Harlan Ellison. It was some time ago. As I recall, he did sign it. I wish I’d kept it.

  15. Has anyone here been forced to write to a well-known writer by their teacher?

    I ask because that seemed to be one of Asimov’s pet peeves (or worst nightmares) and since he seemed to be getting enough of those to make it worth complaining about, some of you here might have had to do this.

    I’ve personally never had to do it; I guess my own teachers had more sense than that.

  16. Another one:

    ( ) Yes, as a matter of fact I have had sex with both my mother and my sister — write only of that which you know.

  17. I also got a form letter from Arthur C Clarke, signed and with some handwritten comments scrawled on it; this was in 1998, after I’d sent him my first published sf story (in Interzone) and to thank him for introducing me to sf (in 1965, with Islands in the Sky). He said he already got Interzone monthly (as I guessed) but thanked me anyway. Unfortunately, I’m not sure where the letter is now.

    Alan Bennett is the only other author I’ve ever written to; he sent a handwritten picture postcard back. With this 100% success rate and having recently read JG Ballard’s autobiog I’m gearing up to write to him too.

  18. I’ve found some authors with blogs that are willing to really engage some of the fans. C.D. does, and that’s one of the really great things about BoingBoing. I don’t think Heinlein would have done so.

  19. A high school friend’s mother sent a fan letter to Heinlein and ended up in a multi-year pen-pal friendship with Virginia Heinlein.

  20. In his posthumous work ‘Grumbles From The Grave’, there’s an entire chapter devoted to dealing with fan mail (others deal with housing and property maintenance, sci-fi conventions, various gatherings, essays, etc.). His wife Ginny helped compile everything for publication.

    The book itself mainly contained business correspondence to/from his agent Lurton Blasingame, correspondence with other writers and publishers, all gleaned from his voluminous stacks of documents, lovingly compiled by his wife after his death.

    Some of the correspondence can seem a bit ‘standoffish’, even mean-spirited to a degree – but it gives an otherwise unobtainable glimpse of the man himself – and can help explain his various passions. I highly recommend getting a copy, if you are at all interested in his writing. (and no, you can’t have mine).

  21. Gary61, wasn’t interesting how he had to change things to meet his editor’s desires? Like cutting stuff out of Stranger in a Strange Land. And now, we have writers like Stephenson with 900 page books.

  22. Yeah Jeff, Heinlein was NOT happy having to cut 60,000 words from ‘Stranger’ …. and I’m glad that (years later) they republished it with those words back in their proper place ……

  23. When I was in the 6th grade our teacher read us all the Narnia stories. Someone in the class thought they’d discovered a discrepancy, and two of us were assigned to write a letter to C.S. Lewis asking him about it. A couple of weeks later we got a very nice hand written note from the man himself explaining the discrepancy and suggesting that we try writing the story of how the Lone Islands came to be Narnian, something we’d asked about as well. Tragically the other student involved was killed in a car accident about 10 years later, so I was bequeathed the letter, which is framed and displayed in my living room.

  24. Ongaku, sad but interesting story. What a prise to have a bit from C.S. Lewis! Did you write the story that he suggested?

  25. Just finished reading Heinlein’s ‘Stranger’. It hadn’t occurred to me to write authors before. It is nice to hear that others have personalized replies — I wouldn’t expect to get anything back!

  26. I, like Thewillow in #9, wrote to a YA/children’s lit author…but I’d already graduated from college! I guess I win a prize.

    At any rate, it was Lloyd Alexander, and he wrote back — handtyped on personalized Puss-in-Boots stationery — and signed it himself. It is a lovely letter (now framed and displayed, natch). I am so glad I swallowed my self-conscious feelings and wrote to him before he passed on.

  27. A college friend and I decided to each write a fan letter to our favorite living writer; he wrote to Raymond Chandler, and I wrote to James Branch Cabell. Damned if we didn’t both get short, personal replies. Both writers died within a year!

    If you get famous, don’t answer fan mail.

  28. George Bernard Shaw had preprinted postcards with stock answers. He’d grab the relevant card and initial it, then his secretary would address it and drop it in the post.

  29. Steve Martin had a great form-answer-letter back in his heyday, that started out with:

    “I smelled your letter to make sure it was from where you said it was.”

    My wife got a personal, HANDWRITTEN reply from D. Sedaris.

  30. #3 – I got one of Asimov’s postcard responses to a fan letter more than 20 years ago when I was in high school. I thought I’d lost it in a move myself, but found it again recently. Priceless.

  31. When I was about 9, my teacher assigned us the task of getting a famous person’s autograph. By chance, Jim Lovell was scheduled to give a speech at one the local colleges. This was almost more than my spaceflight-addicted brain could take.

    After the speech, Commander Lovell signed my copy of the May 1969 issue of National Geographic (Apollo 8) on a large fold-out photo of the Moon. I still have it. A color reproduction of the signed image hangs on my wall.

  32. this is one of those boingboing posts that i really enjoy:

    the unexpected in a post, and then similar experiences that brought a smile to my face.

    thanks to boingboing and the commenters on this one.

  33. “Any thoughts on which questions he was asked frequently enough to cite Renshaw and Twain?”

    Renshaw was referenced in several Heinlein works, including Stranger in a Strange Land and Citizen of the Galaxy, as a teacher of total recall.

    The Twain question comes from the short story Lost Legacy, in my opinion Heinlein’s best work. It describes a society of superman telepaths, of whom Twain was one. The key passage is this:

    Mark Twain. . . was given permission to tell all that he had learned. He did so, writing so that anyone ready for the knowledge could understand. No one did. In desperation, he set forth specifically how to become telepathic. Still no one took him seriously. The more seriously he spoke, the more his readers laughed. He died embittered.

  34. I love Heinlein’s definition of Science Fiction: “Stories that would cease to exist if elements involving science or technology were omitted.”

    It’s very straight-forward and hard to argue with, but it does make necessary the explicit distinction between SciFi and SF (speculative fiction). I loved “Children of Men”, but I don’t think it fits Heinlein’s criterion for SciFi.

    It’s funny to see that people have apparently been engaged in this sort of semantic (and pedantic) category wrangling for as long as there’ve been categories around to wrangle.

  35. I wrote a very thoughtful letter to Piers Anthony and he wrote back one line that didn’t address anything I said. He has issues, I think.

  36. Hmm. Kabur, I have a different interpretation of Heinlein’s definition of science fiction, and “Children of Men” fits squarely within it. In “Children of Men,” a plague has eliminated humanity’s ability to reproduce. That condition is both counter to the current state of affairs (thank ghu), and completely plausible in scientific terms.

    That kind of story, in my view, is the very essence of science fiction.

  37. IN apropo of nothing (really) …. years and years ago, I started a subscription to Omni magazine (dead tree version).
    Anyways, the hook to get new subscribers was supposed to be a really cool freebie (which I didn’t get, and was pissed).
    However, in place of what I didn’t get was something I DID get:
    A signed photograph of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon (in a spacesuit, duh) – it’s an actual blue ink signature too – but of course I bet it was some drone at Omni that signed it ….
    Still cool, though … still got it, too!

  38. In fourth grade, we were given one of those odious “write your favorite author” assignments. (I say it was odious now, having heard the authors’ side; at the time, I thought it rocked.)

    Many of my classmates picked Judy Blume or Beverly Clearly types and got polite form responses. Having just read The Grey King, I picked Susan Cooper and got a personal reply that (a) referred to my letter, and (b) had a TYPO! That she CORRECTED!! Absolutely made my freaking month.

    And yes, I still have it.

    (This, btw, is not my favorite contacting-an-author story. My favorite contacting-an-author story is when I was on a college-hunting trip to New York, perusing the phone book while waiting for a plane, and ended up talking on the phone to Janet Asimov for about 15 minutes about Norby and Laughing Space. Sometimes it pays to be ballsy.)

  39. @#40, I’m pretty sure that the cause of the global-wide infertility crisis in “Children of Men” is never explicitly identified, so it could be some sort of divine retribution for all we know. Perhaps it was identified as a plague in the novel (I doubt it), but it really doesn’t matter, does it? The point of the story is to explore how a world—otherwise largely unchanged from ours—might respond if it were faced with such a situation.

    I’m really looking forward to Don McKellar’s “Blindness”. It looks to be potentially as good a piece of SF as Children of Men was. (Certainly both movies appear to cover very similar themes, and both with earnest film artistry.)

    I’ve only read two Heinlein novels, but both of them squarely adhered to his definition of science fiction. I don’t think, however, that his definition could stand today, because it means that techno-thrillers by Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton would also be deemed SciFi, whereas a story about the interconnectedness of the political system and the mating habits of the slime mould descendants on the planet Bloog would not. Heck even Cory’s “Little Brother” would be a science fiction novel, because the kids’ use of (current) technology is central to the storyline.

    And let’s not forget Angelina Jolie’s third movie. On second thought… yes, let’s do forget that one.

  40. Many years ago I sent Robert Heinlein a very long rambling letter. In reply I received an individual missive that covered both sides of a 3×5 card in single-spaced 12pt Courier. I thought it an elegant solution to the issue of fan mail, permitting a personal reply while enforcing brevity.

  41. #39 Regis, I am sorry to hear about your experience with Piers Anthony. I had a very different experience. Several years ago I wrote an email to Piers Anthony through HiPiers.com and received back a very nice, typed letter which he had signed. He had addressed several of the comments I had made including one concerning my collecting of Piers Anthony and Robert Heinlein hardback books. He generally seemed like a very personable fellow.

  42. A year or two ago I wrote to CJ Cherryh, enclosing a couple of small pieces of art inspired by her Foreigner and Chanur books. In reply I got back a handwritten note wishing me best regards in the highest style, and a group mention (others of my online associates had written as well) on her blog. I should really dig that letter out again. <3

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