A Conversation with Amy Hollingsworth, author of Letters from the Closet
1. This novel, like your bestseller The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, details a mentorship cultivated through letter writing. Do you find written correspondence to be a form of platonic intimacy? How did the letters exchanged between you and John deepen your friendship? How did they differ from your letters with Fred Rogers?
I think the reason intimacy is possible in letters is because they’re so different from instant communication—from emails and text messages. There is an interval, a period of time between initiation and response, and you are able to reflect during that interval. More thought and care goes into the exchange. And that deepens your relationship.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter from prison: “One writes some things more freely and more vividly in a letter, and often I have better thoughts in a conversation by correspondence than by myself.” This was true with Fred Rogers and John, both mentors, both relationships cultivated through nearly a decade of letter writing. We could be more free and more vivid in letters, even when what we wrote about was painful or hurtful.
There is one big difference between the two relationships, though. Fred Rogers used to say, “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.” And truly, “deep and simple” is exactly what our relationship was. But my relationship with John was much more complicated. Not deep and simple, not shallow and complex—but deep and complex.
2. On page 9 you write: “That was it, really: what connected us, from the very beginning, were words.” Would you name the innate need of the writer to express herself through written word and the simultaneous need for basic human connection the major themes in the novel? Do you perceive this need to have been true for John as well as for you?
The thread that runs through Letters from the Closet is really a question: What is the cost of knowing and being known? And there is definitely a cost. The need to be connected to another person, to be accepted, to be known by another is arguably the strongest and most basic human need. So what does it look like when this need is fully realized, in a level of intimacy desired but rarely attained? What is the wreckage caused when it’s not? I wrote this book not only to tell my and John’s story, but for every person who desires to be fully known.
The vehicle of that connection for me and John was words, the written word. When I first started thinking about telling our story, I mainly wanted to give John a medium of expression, since he had so much to offer and didn’t live long enough to offer it. Not one of his novels was published. But resuscitating his letters wasn’t enough; I had to lay bare the relationship that evoked them.
3. Why did you decide to tell this story now? What made you decide to finally remove the letters from the closet, so to speak? Was there an event or reason that led you to finally share the story of your relationship with John?
I think years and years had to pass before I was ready to take an honest look at our relationship. Telling our story also meant bringing a huge chunk of my adolescence out of hiding. Once I could take an honest look at our relationship and my life at that time, then I could tell our story.
There was also no way to appreciate John’s impact on my life—both for good and for ill—when I was 18. I needed to live a few years first. I didn’t pull his letters from the closet until 20 years after he died. Much of what he had written seemed new to me, as if I were peering into someone else’s life. And for the first time I could appreciate both the richness and the tumult of the relationship.
When I was reading through all of John’s letters, once I emancipated them from my closet, I remember calling my mother to read to her an excerpt from one of them. She said, “I wish it was me.” I thought she meant that she wished she had received that particular letter. “No,” she said, “I wish it was me who had that kind of relationship with someone in my lifetime.” And she is 78. That’s when I realized how rare it was to have that level of intimacy, of knowing, painful as it was at times.
4. While discussing your secret—that you suffered from anorexia nervosa as a young woman—you say that your “actions were destructive….but they were also socially acceptable, even socially enviable” (34). Can you elaborate on the notion that this disease is socially enviable? Do you think that the social acceptance of wanting to be thin is what makes the disease so prevalent?
A lot of teenage girls want to be thin, and a lot of teenage girls go on diets, but only a certain percentage of those girls go on to develop anorexia. There’s definitely a profile. That’s because underlying issues fuel the disorder. But certainly the culture’s obsession with thin didn’t help, because I was rewarded for changing my appearance so drastically.
5. “That’s how I’m getting to know my eighteen-year-old-self, and even my present-day self. Through John’s eyes, through John’s letters” (64). Describe the experience of “getting to know” yourself as an eighteen-year-old. Did any discovery about yourself surprise you?
There were many surprises about myself, which is what made writing this book both exhilarating and terrifying. I was telling the story as it unfolded and learning things as I went along, and so the reader learns these new things—about both myself and John— at the exact same moment I do.
6. How did you come to be a writer? Do you credit John for encouraging you to develop your talent?
I absolutely credit John. I had two teachers who were responsible for my becoming a writer. I have been able to thank my sixth-grade English teacher, but I was never able to thank John. I went to graduate school to study psychology, so John never knew I became a writer. He couldn’t have imagined in a million years that I would one day use the skill he so carefully honed to write a book about him.
I wanted to be a writer since a fateful day in second grade when I heard poetry read aloud for the first time. But I got sidetracked. After grad school, when I was unable to find a job in the field of psychology, I took an “in between” job as a writer for television. That job lasted for eight years. After that, I never stopped writing, although I taught college psychology for several years. A writer and a teacher, just like John.
7. In Letters from the Closet, you mention several famous writers from the canon, including Anne Sexton, Hermann Hesse, and J.D. Salinger. Who would you name as your favorite author? How do you think John would have answered this question?
John’s favorite author is an easy one. I’ll quote an excerpt from one of his letters, which isn’t included in the book: “I will admit that while I don’t ‘fall in love’ with authors, I have nominated Anne Morrow Lindbergh for God. I just finished the last of her journals. If you ever do want to write, read her first.”
I don’t have a favorite author, but I do have a favorite book: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë—which also happens to be about a deep and complex relationship.
8. Reading the letters from John, it is clear that your relationship was both healthy and harrowing. John was both supportive of you, and also somewhat destructive. Ultimately, how would you characterize your relationship with John?
I don’t think I could fully answer that question until I completed writing Letters from the Closet. In fact, I would say the answer to that question is the climactic moment in the book, so I’ll leave that for the reader to uncover.
9. Dreams are an important part of Letters from the Closet. In fact, many of your dreams seem to reveal aspects of your relationship with John that you had not consciously realized. What role do dreams play in your life?
I’ve always had very vivid dreams, but didn’t pay much attention to them. Then ten or so years ago I read Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul and realized that dreams may have more meaning than I had imagined. I started keeping a record of those dreams that seemed particularly intriguing—but without trying to understand or interpret them right away. I let them unfold on their own. As it turns out, dreams have played a significant role in all four of my books, and one book was even inspired by a dream.
10. Do you hope to break any stereotypes with this novel?
I was honestly just trying to tell my and John’s story, how two broken people connected and found something meaningful in each other. But if a byproduct of telling our story is that others become more sensitive to those who consider themselves outcasts, whatever the reason, then I would be very grateful.
11. What is the significance of the motif of the closet that is weaved throughout Letters from the Closet?
The closet is meant figuratively in John’s case and literally in mine: from the confines (and protection) of his closet he wrote letters, letters that were read, cherished, and then locked away for decades in my closet. Letters from the closet—written from his, rescued from mine.
There is also a third meaning: the oldest usage of the word closet includes the idea of having a close encounter with someone. Two people in intimate conversation are said to be “closeted.” It points to an unusual intimacy, an unusual closeness, something that is rare between two people, rarer still between teacher and student. For whatever purpose, the universe threw us together in that high school classroom, bound us to one another until John’s unexpected death at 40, and then continued to closet us in my dreams.
12. Who are you reading now? What is next for you as a writer?
I love to reread books, so I’ve returned to The Pilgrim’s Progress after many years, and I’m reading Tullian Tchividjian’s Glorious Ruin for the second time, even though I just completed it for the first time last week. I devoured Stephen King’s On Writing over a recent weekend, but took my time reading Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution. I also try to reread Jane Eyre as often as possible.
In addition to reading (and rereading) books, I am writing and working out an idea for a new book.