The Singular Power of the Well-Placed Love Letter

January 22, 2022

I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.

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Not too long ago I got a message from Terry McMillian asking me why I wasn’t publishing. I was touched that she asked, but I didn’t have an answer. I had written a novel that I thought was very good, but my agent showed little interest and I had lost interest in doing what I did when I was starting out, hustling like my life depended on me selling my second book, Living for The City, a collection of stories about growing up in Black Los Angeles. I literally chased a small press publisher (he looked remarkably like Barney Rubble) down a hallway at Beyond Baroque to get him to read my manuscript and to my surprise he published Living for the City.

Later I talked to his literary editor who selected the book, a Latina from East LA who said it was the only book they ever published that she liked. Living for the City got good reviews and it sold reasonably well, or so I believed, but the publisher wouldn’t send me a royalty statement. My friend Jimmy Jazz, who knew him well, said, “He’ll never pay you. He just doesn’t pay.”

I lost it then. I felt the kind of blubbing rage you feel when you discover your wife having an affair with a guy with a Jerry curl.

I called him repeatedly, but he calmly explained he didn’t owe me any money and that was that. I wanted to fly to New York and nut up on him, but it wasn’t a reasonable thing to do. 

I stewed about for weeks about how to respond to this guy who seemed to take pleasure in screwing defenseless writers over, who were always getting screwed over. Then one of my former students contacted me about writing him a letter of recommendation and he mentioned that he was living in New York City. Marco was a tall chill Latino kid who could really write and who I liked a lot. Marco could have been an actor playing the tough bad guys if he was so inclined. I explained the situation to him and asked if he would go to Gary’s office and leave a love letter for him.

Marco asked, “A love letter?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t think you can get charged with threatening someone if you send them a love letter.”

“What kind of love letter is that?” 

I hung up and wrote a love letter. It read, “Gary, I’m coming out to New York to share my love with you. I need to share my love with you. You can expect me soon.”

Gary called me within minutes.

”Jervey, I like you too, but you know I’m…”

I hung up.

Marco looked up the address of Gary’s office and burst in and flung the door open and before the receptionist could respond he tossed the love letter onto the desk of the shocked receptionist and left. Within a few days I received a check for 500 dollars and three boxes of Living for the City, and I never heard from Gary again, though I heard he went on to become a documentary filmmaker, a field where he probably got fewer love letters.

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Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.