By Lamar Giles
Three weeks ago I got an email from a 15-year-old girl in Ohio. I’ve been waiting on her email for 20 years. That math is weird, but not a typo. More on that in a bit…
I remember when email became a thing (yes, I’m THAT old).
In 1995, America Online was the most popular way to access the Internet, and you paid by the hour (unless, of course, you had those FREE TRIAL disks that came in the mail…10 hours at no cost to you). When someone contacted you through your AOL Account, a perfectly chipper synthesized voice announced, “You Have Mail.” If you’re not ancient, like me, this probably sounds like nonsense. Hang on, this rabbit hole gets wider and brighter. I promise.
With increased web presences, a bunch of writers opened up a new corridor of accessibility by adding a simple “contact” link. Not the super famous writers mind you. You weren’t going to send Stephen King a .jpg of you and your cat in your Pet Sematary Halloween costumes. Though, many of the mid-listers, including some of my very favorite writers, were suddenly a click away. I wasn’t shy about sending a note to a writer I liked, particularly after reading their latest. I complimented them, asked questions, and told them about my aspirations because I knew, even then, what I wanted to do. Most were extremely cool, and gracious, and encouraging.
However, none were like me.
I didn’t know of any black males who liked horror and fantasy stories, let alone wrote them. When I asked for recommendations at my local library, I got pointed towards Alex Haley and Malcolm X…great men and writers, but not quite what I was looking for. As much as the Internet and email opened up the world of pro-writers to me, I felt as lonely and isolated as ever. Perhaps moreso. In all the World Wide Web, I felt like an anomaly. Until, I wrote to a man named Brandon Massey.
Brandon was me. An older, wiser, published version of me. A black male who liked and wrote fantastic horror stories. I enjoyed his first novel, Thunderland, a great deal and I told him so, via email.
I expected the sort of responses I’d been getting. Polite, encouraging, but essentially an upgrade on the form Thank You letters from the pre-email days. Not so this time. Brandon answered all of my questions in detail, asked about the sort of things I wrote, and what I was working on currently. For the first time in all of my letter writing campaigns, I sensed I wouldn’t be overstepping my bounds by writing him again. And again. And again.
I’d moved on from America Online by that point, but I was more excited than ever to know that I had mail. I won’t bore you with extensive details of what happened next, because it’s a retread of my publishing history, from my first major short story sale to the Dark Dreams anthology to Endangered, on shelves now. I just want to stress the importance of connecting with Brandon.
I saw what I COULD be.
It only took a total overhaul of the way the world communicated to make it possible. Imagine that.
What Diversity in YA, and We Need Diverse Books, and The Brown Bookshelf, and everyone else raising diversity awareness in the industry does isn’t just about showing the books. It’s showing the possibilities. All of these groups are the AOL of modern publishing. A new way of doing things, with no hourly charges. Yay!
For those aspiring kids who, for far too long, were unable to find the books and writers that represent them, there are resources. They can tweet the writers, and follow all those awesome Instagram photos from conferences. The modes of connecting are changing daily (I’m still trying to figure out SnapChat). By comparison, simple emails seem way obsolete. That’s okay. Change is good (despite what the haters say).
While email might be doing a slow fade, I’m so happy it hasn’t gone away completely. Remember that 15-year-old girl I told you about? Right.
She read Endangered, and likely clicked the contact link on my website. She loved the book, specifically the character Panda, who reminded her of herself, and wasn’t a stereotypical sidekick to a more important dominant character, and she hopes to be a writer someday.
That. Last. Part.
I was in a time loop. Back to ’95, writing to writers, waiting for responses. But, wait, I was on the other side now. In the present, connected to the past, or something…didn’t I just see this in INTERSTELLAR?
It’s amazing to be doing what I’m doing, and to be in the position to respond to her email. I gave her her first editorial note. Cut “hopes to” and “someday”. Just be a writer.
I shared a bit of my personal story, passed on some advice that Brandon Massey once gave me, and invited her to ask more questions as needed. Then, I gave her my expectation…that she do the same for the young writer who contacts her through whatever means are available (Mind-Mail?) in 20 years.
Maybe, by then, the massive gap in publishing representation will be as outdated as screaming modems, those AOL trial disks, and all that other stuff that seems so ridiculous now.
Though I wouldn’t mind more notes like the one I told you about. It’s still quite nice to know when you’ve got mail.
Lamar Giles writes novels and short stories for teens and adults. He is the author of the 2015 Edgar® Award Nominee FAKE ID, a second YA thriller ENDANGERED, a third, currently untitled YA novel from HarperCollins, as well as the forthcoming YA novel OVERTURNED from Scholastic Press. Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. He resides in Virginia with his wife. Check him out online at www.lamargiles.com or follow @LRGiles on Twitter.
ENDANGERED is available for purchase here.