The Last Pen Pal

November 24, 2010 | 13 books mentioned 5 9 min read

When my first novel was published in the pre-snark summer of 1992, the reviews knocked me out. In a good way. Not only did they come from all over—from Germany and England, from Albuquerque and Atlanta, from Oakland and Milwaukee and Detroit—but they were uniformly thoughtful, generally positive and occasionally over the moon. Even impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times said nice things, favorably comparing my tale about 1950s Detroit to John Updike‘s “Rabbit” novels.

cover But one reviewer flat got the book better than all the others. His review in the Washington Post Book World ended with this summation of the novel’s intentions: “It’s a vivid and entertaining expedition in the literary quest for the exact moment when the Streets of Gold began to transmute into base metal.”

Precisely. I have always been fascinated by the moment when things pivot. The moment when something happens—sometimes something cataclysmic, but just as often something negligible or even imperceptible—something that forever changes the course of an individual life, a love affair, a game, a war, the fate of a corporation or government, a way of life. In my novel, I posited that the technicolor boom year of 1954 was the moment when General Motors, the biggest, richest and most powerful industrial enterprise in human history, began to be eaten alive by its own prosperity, provincialism, myopia, and hubris. The Book World’s reviewer wrote that the novel “paints a disturbingly accurate picture of an industrial leviathan rolling fat on the profits of its biggest year, oblivious to the faint rumble from the factories of the Far East and the cancerous cells feeding on its own vitals.” Of course in the summer of 1992 neither the reviewer nor I dreamed that General Motors had begun its long slide into bankruptcy.

The reviewer’s name was Loren D. Estleman, and he was identified as the author of the Detroit Trilogy: Whiskey River, Motown, and King of the Corner. I had never heard of Estleman or his books, but I typed him a thank you letter and mailed it to the Washington Post Book World. To my surprise a typewritten letter came back from Estleman with a Michigan postmark. I replied. He replied again. And just like that, a correspondence was born.

Loren Estleman and I are still pen pals today. There’s no other word for it. We’re a couple of writers whose bond is built on two things: an admiration for each other’s work; and the letters we’ve been exchanging, with surprising, almost stubborn regularity, for nearly twenty years. We’re pals, in the loftiest sense of that humble word.

cover As I learned early on, Estleman is not only a colorful and faithful correspondent, he’s also an almost scarily prolific writer of novels, short stories and reviews. Combining the street smarts of Elmore Leonard with the work ethic of Joyce Carol Oates, Estleman has published more than 60 novels, most notably Westerns and crime novels featuring an engagingly gruff Detroit private eye named Amos Walker. Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection, a handsome 637-page hardcover, has just been published by Tyrus Books. In the introduction, Estleman describes Walker as “a postmodern knight errant slaying his ogres one at a time armed with nothing but a revolver and a laminated license.” I would add that Walker’s arsenal also includes an amused and amusing appreciation for the eternal venality of the human soul. It would not be unfair to call Estleman a genre writer and I doubt that he would bristle at the label, but I prefer to think of him, with no small amount of admiration, as a working pro. The son of a truck driver, he regards writing as his job, and he approaches it with care, respect, iron determination, a sharp eye for what will sell (and what will not), and something I recognize as love.

As you might expect, our letters have frequently touched on the joys and vexations of the writing life—news of sales and rejections; frustrations with editors and proofreaders and agents; what makes a good book title; tips on other writers we like (and dislike); what we’re reading at the moment. But there has also been much back-and-forth about topics large and small that have nothing to do with writing—family news, including the deaths of our fathers; our shared love of baseball, especially the Detroit Tigers; Estleman’s need to replace the leaky roof on the house he shares with his wife, the writer Deborah Morgan; news of our travels; musings on terrorism, politics, our shared distrust of technology, and the decline of the American auto industry along with so many other facets of our national life, including the middle class, day baseball, civility and, of course, the art of letter writing. In essence, we’ve been having an evolving, open-ended conversation on paper for the past two decades.

Like his books, Estleman’s letters are written in a street vernacular that is all at once tough and tender, pissed-off and amused, world-weary and full of wonder – and very funny. Here he is, for example, on a family medical problem:

My mother had a heart attack a month ago, is staying with us while she recuperates, which she’s doing at an alarming pace, the way David McCallum‘s intellect kept increasing in that old “Outer Limits” episode. She’s a wonderful guest, but she’s faunching at the bit to get back to the old farmhouse and her daily routine, and it will be good to get our lives back. She’d be there by now if my brother weren’t proceeding at a crippled snail’s pace swamping out and remodeling her place so she won’t run her walker over lethal dust bunnies or the odd Lincoln log.

And here’s Estleman’s reaction after I interviewed Robert B. Parker for a newspaper article and reported that I found Spenser’s creator to be a colossal gas bag:

I got a nice quote out of Parker once, so I don’t like to bad-mouth him, but it’s been clear to me for some time that he lost interest in Spenser early on and has been essentially writing ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY since A Savage Place. I never agreed with Spenser’s philosophy that he could keep his own hands clean by letting Hawk do his dirty work, and join with the legions of readers who have been begging Parker for years to kill off Susan Silverman. He’s too good a writer to squander his talents on this worn-out series.

Estleman and I were born less than six weeks apart. Since I’ve struggled to publish two novels while he has seen dozens into print, his pace of production naturally came up:

Now, I don’t write fast, just steady… Writing pace is a metabolic thing. It took Margaret Mitchell ten years to write Gone With the Wind, while Joyce Carol Oates is entirely capable of writing ten books in one year. Whether GWTW is ten times better than any of those just because its author worked at a slower pace is one of those questions critics waste far too much time trying to answer. I’m comfortable writing two books a year (and) I try to take time off between books, but after a few days I’m scaling the walls. I still work on manual typewriters.

This last sentence is significant. Estleman’s letters are always typewritten, single-spaced, remarkably free of typos. He refuses to buy a computer, though his wife has created a website to help sell his books. I still write on a manual typewriter too, a Royal. Our typewriters are not a pose. We learned to use them when we were young, and we find that they are still the best tools for building sentences – the feel of fingertips on the keyboard, the gunshot reports of keys smacking the platen, the ding! at the end of each line. In his most recent letter Estleman wrote:

I own fifty typewriters, including some museum pieces well over a century old. The 1967 Olympia is for manuscripts, this 1923 Underwood for correspondence and the occasional short story. They never break down, I can fix the very few things that do go wrong (an extremely rare occurrence), and I work through power failures, thunderstorms, and viruses. Best of all, I’m self-contained. I’ve never had a telephone conversation with anyone in India. I have little use for the Net and no confidence in it…(and) don’t ask me about blogs. That time and energy should be spent on one’s work.

This doesn’t mean Estleman and I are Luddites or cheesy romantics. It’s both simpler and more complicated than that. It means we don’t believe that faster is necessarily better, and we’re distrustful of a bill of goods that our gadget-drunk culture has swallowed whole, the illusion that technology has some magical power to improve our lives. Estleman and I are essentially conservative animals who distrust the notion, so prevalent today, that all things can be improved with the right technology, the right information, the right management, the right laws. While mankind strives to improve itself to death, some of us want no part of it. In a 1992 interview in the New York Times, Cormac McCarthy said, “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone can live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion can be the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.” It did not surprise me to learn that McCarthy writes on an Olivetti manual. Sometimes a typewriter is more than just a typewriter.

McCarthy’s words reminded me of Marshall Frady‘s description of the novelist Jesse Hill Ford: “Like most who are authentically taken up into the obsession of writing, Ford…worked out of an older understanding of man – that primitive, profoundly reactionary, pagan vision in which virtually all true story-tellers have probably been working since Homer, which has evolved not an inch since Ecclesiastes: that the race is basically unimprovable…”

I saved the letters I’ve received from Loren Estleman and a few other correspondents over the years. As I re-read them recently, I realized, with dismay, that I’m no longer the letter-writing machine I used to be. I know why. Some of my more faithful correspondents have died—most notably my father and godfather, former newspapermen who wrote elegant typewritten letters—while others switched to e-mail and some simply quit responding to my letters. In time, I stopped writing to people who didn’t write back, and I started replying to e-mails with e-mails for the simple reason that they deserve no better. As I re-read Estleman’s letters, I was surprised to realize he’s not only my oldest and most faithful pen pal—he’s my last pen pal.

cover 3.
One could argue that writing is writing—it’s all communication—whether it’s scratches on a cave wall, glyphs in stone, ink on papyrus, pencil on paper, typed characters on bond stationery, or digits in the ether. I disagree. In writing and reading, no less than in art, the medium of creation and consumption is critical to a work’s effect. That’s not to say that writing longhand is better than writing on a typewriter, or that writing on a typewriter is better than writing on a laptop; rather, it’s to say that each of these acts is different from the others and will yield different types of prose. All writers and even the most casual readers sense this. At every reading I’ve attended, an audience member invariably asks the author: “How do you write? Longhand? On a computer?” And every author has a different answer. Many are downright fetishistic about their mode of composition. A recent New York Times article about Cynthia Ozick‘s new novel, Foreign Bodies, noted that she writes “in longhand on a Sears Roebuck desk once owned by her brother.” I’m sure her books would be very different if she wrote them on a computer – maybe better, maybe worse, but definitely different.

Similarly, tapping out an e-mail and hitting the Send key (or texting with your opposable thumbs) produces a different effect from composing a letter, revising it, putting it in an envelope and mailing it to someone. And opening that envelope and reading that letter is a different experience from reading an e-mail or a text message. It simply is. It’s more tactile, more suspenseful, more personal – and more likely leave a lasting impression. When writing an e-mail, I find I write much faster and with less thought and feeling than when I write a letter.  I even know people who intentionally leave typos and mangled grammar in their e-mails, a shorthand way of saying they’re much too busy – and important – to waste time with proofreading or a spell-check.

I have a German friend who thinks I’m dead wrong to argue that traditional letters are superior to e-mail. She has lived in New York City since the 1980s and has a daughter, and now a five-year-old granddaughter, living in Germany. “It depends on why you write,” she argues. “If you just want to be in contact, an e-mail brings you closer because it’s more immediate and you don’t hesitate to write unimportant thoughts. It’s not filtered by literary pretensions, and therefore I think you’re much closer to that person. My daughter and I have had the Atlantic Ocean between us for 25 years. Phone calls used to cost a couple of dollars a minute and letters take a week to arrive. My daughter and I have become much, much closer since the advent of e-mail and Skype.”

cover Fair enough. But maybe the world of written communication could use a bit more literary pretension, or at least more attention to such trifles as grammar, syntax and spelling. Writing in The Guardian, Martin Amis opened his review of Philip Larkin‘s new book of letters with this acid obituary: “The age of the literary correspondence is dying, slowly but surely electrocuted by the superconductors of high modernity. This expiration was locked into certainty about 20 years ago; and although William Trevor and V.S. Naipaul, say, may yet reward us, it already sounds fogeyish to reiterate that, no, we won’t be seeing, and we won’t be wanting to see, the selected faxes and e-mails, the selected texts and tweets of their successors.”

While I was writing this essay, my second-to-last pen pal, a former newspaper colleague in North Carolina, wrote me an e-mail to let me know he will soon be visiting New York City and wants to get together. We’ve been corresponding, off and on, for 30 years. He used to write letters on a typewriter but eventually shifted to a computer, printing out each letter and then putting it in an envelope and mailing it to me. It was a debased form of the art, but I learned to live with it. Lately, though, it’s been all e-mail all the time. His latest was a dry list of his plans for the impending New York trip – visits to museums, galleries, a concert, a book awards dinner. He closed the e-mail sheepishly: “Apologies for this degenerate and uncivilized mode of communication. My printer remains unattended to as I continue to contemplate a major computer overhaul. I think I’ll decline. Man, you’re right. This e-mail shit drains the life out of letter writing.”

While I’m dismayed that I’m down to my last pen pal, I’m also grateful that every time I write Loren Estleman a letter, he writes one back. Saul Bellow understood my gratitude. In 1989 he wrote to an old friend: “I send you a mere booklet, and you answer with a personal letter, a really valuable communication in the old style. I sometimes think I write books in lieu of letters and that real letters have more kindness in them, addressed as they are to one friend.”

Yes, I’m lucky to still have one such friend.

Image Credit: Pexels/Ali Bakhtiari.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. Appreciated you explaining the importance of personal letters for you — it reminded me of how Hemingway, a constant letter writer, was always disappointed when he didn’t receive more correspondence from people. (His letters are full of complaints that others weren’t writing him enough.) In qualified defense of the electronic approach, I’ve found that email makes it much easier for me to stay in touch with people now that I live abroad. For any American outside the US, regular mail is so slow, expensive and uncertain (especially since 9/11) that I’m pretty sure my regular correspondence would be greatly reduced if I had to return to paper letters. At the same time, I agree that there is a strength and commitment in a paper letter that is being lost now with the ease of emails, which are too disposable and encourage lazy, distracted thinking, the written equivalent of talking out of the corner or your mouth while part of you is paying attention to something else. It would be good if more people would make an effort to keep up at least some of their paper correspondence, and I’m now going to try to do that. Thanks for the excellent piece.

  2. I would like to point out: The Epistolary novel is very much alive with E-mails: There are tons of them: “Virtual Love”, “Life as We Know It”, “Keep Pushing”, “ChaseR: A Novel In E-mails” etc. and pp….

  3. I am an one of your erstwhile pen pal who has been the recipient of many of your eloquent letters, tapped out caringly and bursting with news. My responses could never measure up, but I do miss the give-and-take and the feel of receiving something truly cherished in the mail. InterestIngly, my oldest daughter recently showed me a four page, single-spaced handwritten letter her boyfriend had written to her on the train homebound for Thanskgiving, and we discussed how touching it is to receive and unfold such a gem, save it and re-read it until it almost turns to dust. Finally, I am also a lapsed Catholic, so the guilt lingers. Look for a letter from me soon.

    Lisa Fecke

  4. I couldn’t agree more, particularly when discussing the differences between writing an e-mail and sending a letter. I thought of this recently when I came across something called “The Things Unsaid Project” ( I loved that the creators of this project settled on handwritten notes and not e-mails or, worse, text messages. A handwritten letter tends to hold a thoughtfulness and sincerity that e-mails and text messaging just cannot match. Kudoos to you for exploring the difference in such a fluid, intelligent way.

  5. I have been very blessed to have received numuors letters from Bill over the years I have saved and cherished each and every one, there like a small diary into Bill’s life. I feel fortunate to be a friend, Iam guilty of not coresponding more to Bill,I hope to be more profuse in my letter writing.Thank’s Bill for another wonderfull piece.look forward to seeing you on the shore

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